Viva ‘Top Secret!’ Why 1984’s Bomb Should Be A Blueprint For Today’s Spoofs

After 1980’s Airplane!, Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker were on the verge of being able to do just about anything they wanted. The three directors actually worried that people weren’t going to like their spoof comedy that told the story of an ex-pilot named Ted Striker overcoming his adversities to save a plane filled with hilariously sick passengers, but it ended up being one of the highest grossing movies of the year, raking in a remarkable $80.5 million at the box office. Naturally, the question with these brand new comedic geniuses was “What’s next?” but they didn’t have a clue what the answer was.

In 1982, they dabbled in television with the Police Squad! series, which lasted a whopping six episodes and proved that TV execs and many viewers wouldn’t know comedy if it sucked their eyeballs out of their skulls with a Dustbuster. Fortunately, America would get its collective sh*t together six years later when The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! hit theaters and became one of the greatest and most successful comedy franchises of all-time. But lost in that six-year void was another classic that was considered one of the worst movies of 1984 and an all-out box office bomb – Top Secret!, which starred a kid named Val Kilmer in his first film role ever.

I won’t pretend that people haven’t heard of Top Secret!, because in the 30 years since it was released (on June 8, 1984, to be specific), it has become a huge cult classic and so many comedy fans regard it as one of their all-time favorites. Hell, to give you an idea of how good Top Secret! is, Vince and I actually agree that it’s great. The only other movie he and I agree on is Troop Beverly Hills, which he calls “Philadelphia before Philadelphia existed.” And yet, as the 30th anniversary passed, there was barely a word written about this film’s legacy, especially since some idiot – *points to self* – wrote down the wrong date on his calendar.

Last week, Screen Crush’s Mike Ryan published an interview that he conducted with Abrahams and both Zucker brothers, as well as Kilmer, and even 22 Jump Street directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord, who served as examples of how Top Secret! influenced so many people. Among the things that they revealed in this must-read interview, was that Top Secret! only came together because Michael Eisner hated their other idea that they didn’t even bother describing. So instead of writing and directing Airplane II: The Sequel, the three men put their heads together and decided to make a World War II spoof, only unlike Airplane!, they didn’t really have a story.

Jerry Zucker: The thing with ‘Naked Gun,’ it fell into the category that all good sequel movies fall into, that it was based on a single strong character — or two in the case of ’22 Jump Street’ – that you can throw into a bunch of different situations and stories. With ‘Airplane!,’ it’s a group of people and the story itself was a specific story of how Ted and Elaine were breaking up and he found his courage. You couldn’t really have done a sequel to ‘Zero Hour!.’ So, for us, ‘Airplane 2’ was just going back on an airplane and trying to come up with 500 more jokes about things on an airplane.

Jim Abrahams: Then we figured the best thing to do was to put together a bunch of our favorite jokes – really good jokes — and string it together with what seemed like a story and that’s what wound up being ‘Top Secret!.’ (Via Screen Crush)

I found these remarks fascinating, because they basically describe every horrible attempt at spoofs and parodies that Hollywood still wrongly pumps out today. Last year, Nathan Rabin wrote a scathing takedown (is there any other kind?) of Hollywood’s default parody “experts” Aaron Seltzer and Jason Freidberg, in which he accurately pointed out that while Mel Brooks and the Zuckers made spoof movies that showed affection to the source material, Seltzer and Friedberg were just being a-holes with sledgehammers, taking huge dumps on popular films because they thought it was “clever.” As we almost all know, those two wouldn’t know clever if it climbed inside their pee holes, pulling a string attached to 10 pineapples along with them.

So what Abrahams and Co. did that sets their work apart from today’s pathetic drivel and makes a film like Airplane!, The Naked Gun or Top Secret! relevant today is they gave them stories that could be followed in between jokes, and created characters that we like. We wanted Ted and Elaine to save the passengers and crew, and we wanted them to get back together, just as we wanted Nick Rivers to escape the Germans and rescue Hillary’s father. What the hell did we care about the characters in Meet the Spartans, other than why did some of those actors stoop so low?

But again, Nick Rivers and Hillary Flammond didn’t really connect with American moviegoers in 1984, and that’s why the film only grossed $20 million. It wasn’t technically a bomb – it doubled its original budget – but anything that Abrahams and the Zuckers did at that time was being measured against Airplane!. Fortunately, they know what an amazing comedy that many people consider Top Secret! to be today, and I watched it three times this week out of fondness alone. Sure, it helped that I wanted to write this long-winded tribute, but knowing that it’s available for streaming on Netflix means that I might start watching it daily anyway. After all, this movie speaks to me…