You want the secret to what makes a great spoof comedy? Here it is: the best spoofs work when you take out all the comedy. If you took out all the gags and jokes from Airplane! (1980) it would still be a fun thriller with believable characters. Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) would still be a compelling drama boasting stunning cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld, and genuinely moving performances by Gene Wilder as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein and Peter Boyle as the Monster. Finally, Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974)—arguably the greatest spoof ever made—would remain a powerful Western with one of the best anti-racism storylines this side of In the Heat of the Night (1967). This is something missed by Jason Friedberg & Aaron Seltzer and their ilk. Spoofs can’t just be a series of random jokes tangentially related to a central theme or parodied property.
Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele’s The Spoils Before Dying, a six episode miniseries produced by IFC, begins with promise. The series purports to be an authentic banned movie from 1960 based on the novel of the same name by Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell); a portly, blustery cross between Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles. Described by Jonrosh—who also directed the adaptation and bookends each episode with host segments—as “Post-post-Modern French Neo-Fakism,” The Spoils Before Dying begins an occasionally genius parody of film noir.
Jazz pianist Rock Banyon (Michael Kenneth Williams) gets accused of killing local crooner, Fresno Foxglove (Maya Rudolph), and a prominent homosexual. Given three days to clear his name by the police, Rock dives into the back streets of 1950s California seeking their true killer. The first three episodes are the strongest because they take the story relatively seriously. The cinematography steals whole chapters from John A. Alonzo and Gregg Toland’s playbook, creating a hazy, dreamlike California both immediately arresting and aesthetically seductive. The jazz music is top-notch, the performances intense, the central mystery intriguing. Most of the comedy comes from the fact that Jonrosh was a first-time director both incapable of successfully wrangling his talented cast and crew and unwilling to curb his preposterous artistic indulgences. The editing is deliberately slapdash and schizophrenic, the actors stumble through nonexistent scene direction, and the script collapses under the weight of its own absurdity (“We slid outta Mexico like a greased up poker chip on an air hockey table”).
But by the last three episodes everybody is in on the joke; everyone knows that they’re in a spoof of a film noir instead of an actual film noir. The acting becomes more hammy, the special effects more aggressively cheap, the plot twists more ludicrous. All this comes to a head in the fifth episode, dominated by an extended hallucination sequence after Rock gets an injection from a group of clandestine Nazis (yes…really). From there on out it practically becomes a cartoon. By the sixth episode one begins to wonder why the series needed to be six episodes in the first place. If Piedmont and Steele had settled on a tight four episodes instead of a meandering six, and tried to keep the more ridiculous aspects of the humor under control (Ferrell’s late cameo as a femmy J. Edgar Hoover is particularly grating), then The Spoils Before Dying may have been that great film noir spoof that the world has always wanted and needed.