Saturday, November 21, 2009

Do parodies ever outsell originals?

Q: Have any parody songs or movies ever outsold the original works they were based on?

A: Yes, actually, although it seems like every example of this needs some sort of disclaimer. Assuming it's fair to describe Shrek as a parody of Disney fairy-tale movies, the Shrek series looks like the biggest winner in this category. The first Shrek movie outdid every Disney princess movie (and every other Disney cartoon except The Lion King) in U.S. ticket sales, and the second movie, which made over $900 million worldwide, outsold every Disney movie, period, until the worldwide sales of the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie (over $1 billion) surpassed it.

Scary Movie, with a box office gross of nearly $157 million, clearly qualifies, having earned more than Scream ($103 million), The Blair Witch Project ($140.5 million), or any of the other movies it spoofed (with the exception of The Matrix, at $171 million, since there was an obligatory bullet time gag). The Austin Powers series works, too, as long as you look at U.S. ticket sales: the two sequels took in over $200 million each, better than any Bond film. However, the Bond films of the '90s and 2000s absolutely clobbered those figures when worldwide ticket sales are taken into account: Tomorrow Never Dies made over $330 million; Goldeneye and The World is Not Enough each made over $350 million; and Die Another Day earned almost $432 million worldwide. Isn't that long series of numbers terribly interesting?

Austin Powers and Shrek, two highly successful parody franchises. Who knows what Mike Myers's infallible comedic talent will bring us next?

Another couple of winners would be Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. Young Frankenstein earned $86.4 million, waaaay more than any of the actual Frankenstein films, and Blazing Saddles earned $119.5 million - much more than the old Westerns it spoofed.  Here's the thing, though: it's kind of unfair to compare Shrek to Snow White, or Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me to The Spy who Loved Me, or, especially, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles to the 1930s Frankenstein movies and '40s and '50s cowboy movies they parodied. Those earlier movies were shown on fewer screens and at cheaper ticket prices. Clearly, it's necessary to make some adjustments, otherwise even High Anxiety would count, since it outsold Vertigo. If you adjust for inflation, then Snow White, for example, outsold Shrek 2 in the U.S. by over $270 million. So even a movie that made more than $900 billion worldwide isn't necessarily a clear example of a parody outselling an original.

One movie that doesn't have this problem is Airplane!, which directly copied much of the campy 1957 movie Zero Hour!, but is principally targeted at the Airport series of disaster movies. Airplane!, which was released in 1980, was mostly a spoof of the sequel Airport 1975, but grossed $83.4 million to Airport 1975's $25 million. It also outdid Airport '77 and The Concorde ... Airport '79. Still, it didn't catch up to the massively successful original Airport, which grossed over $100 million, nor did it generate as much rental revenue.

"What's Airplane's box office gross?"
"It's the total revenue from Airplane's ticket sales.
But that's not important right now."

Two other possible contenders were clear winners at the box office, but have the bizarre distinction of being released before the originals they spoofed. First, there's Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Being, as it is, a Kubrick war movie, this is probably the most critically acclaimed spoof you will ever see. It grossed over $9 million, more than 5 times its budget. Now, while Dr. Strangelove, which was a comedy adaptation of the serious novel Red Alert (also known as Two Hours to Doom - what a great name)  was in production, Sidney Lumet was making a drama based on the book Fail-Safe, a novel so similar to Red Alert that its authors had to settle a plagiarism suit out of court - a suit instigated in part by Kubrick (read about it in an old LIFE magazine article entitled "Everybody Blows Up!"). Because of this lawsuit, Columbia Pictures, which was producing Dr. Strangelove, won the rights to Fail-Safe - and pushed it back to a much later release. As a result, the stern drama was released ten months after the zany comedy, and it flopped. Now, Kubrick never meant Dr. Strangelove to be a parody of Fail-Safe, but the aforementioned similarities would make it a de facto spoof . . . except that spoofs, like nuclear strikes, aren't meant to be preemptive.

The other parody-that-is-not-a-parody (parodox?) is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Before the 1990 movie of the same name, TMNT began as an indie comic parodying (among other things) the superhero Daredevil and his grim, gritty, Frank Miller-created battles with the evil ninja clan The Hand - hence the Foot ninjas in TMNT.

 Foot. Soldiers. Foot soldiers.

Soon after, it became the cartoon/action figure/toy/merchandise/movie juggernaut we all knew in the '90s - and that's when the first Turtles movie raked in $135 million at the box office. Thirteen years later, after the success of Spider-Man and X-Men, Marvel cashed in on another of its properties by making a Daredevil movie with Fox. It did pretty respectably, earning $102.5 million, but it was nowhere near as successful as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which had collected more revenue, even without inflation adjustment, with about one sixth the budget. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, being a movie adaptation of a comic book parodying another comic book that later also came out with a movie, doesn't really count as a movie parody. Unless Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird saw Daredevil, went back in time to prevent Ben Affleck's parents from ever meeting, and then decided it would be easier to make a successful movie franchise instead.

But what about songs? Did Weird Al, for example, ever write a hit bigger than the songs he copied? Well, no - Weird Al did get a platinum record with "White & Nerdy," but Chamillionaire's "Ridin'" went quadruple platinum. Nor can I find an example for any of the successful parodists of the past. Spike Jones fans make a big deal of "Cocktails for Two" being principally remembered as a novelty song, but Jones's 1944 version charted at #4, whereas Duke Ellington's 1934 version reached #1 and stayed there for five weeks.

No, the biggest parody successes were by already-huge artists stooping to parody others' hits. In 1996, Tupac Shakur parodied the chorus of Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s single "Get Money" in his diss song "Hit 'Em Up," aimed at Junior M.A.F.I.A. founder Biggie Smalls. As the B-side to 2Pac's "How Do U Want It," which hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it outsold "Get Money," which peaked at #17. In 2000, Eminem parodied Tom Green's "Lonely Swedish (The Bum Bum Song)" in the middle of "The Real Slim Shady," which reached #4 on the Hot 100.

Tom Green: envied for his mad flow;
dissed for his moose-humping

So there you have it. Parodies can outsell originals, as long as you ignore how they don't fit the definitions of "parody" or "outsell."

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