We were watching Spaceballs last night and explaining some of the jokes to my son when something hit me. While the movie is pretty damned funny, it’s got some jokes that are forever stuck in the late 1980s. For example:
Not only did I have to explain what VHS tapes were, we had to explain the significance of the scene in terms of movie making. Back in 1987, being able to watch a movie at home was a novel idea – and something that the movie studios were wary of. Remember, this was the time when replacing a video tape could cost you upwards of $100 and the cantankerous players could fetch nearly a grand. But all that price paled in comparison to what movie studios thought they were losing. If you could pay for a movie once and watch it over and over, that was a bad thing.
The movie theaters were less than enthralled at the idea as well. Why would someone come to a theater to watch a movie when they could watch it from the comfort of their own home?
Flash forward thirty years and not only are DVDs (and their ilk) cheaper, but you can pick up a player for next to nothing. Amazingly, movie theaters are still in business and Hollywood is still cranking out movies. They’ve just embraced the model of releasing a movie, waiting a bit, and then selling it to you.
But, at the time, plenty of people were nervous about the idea of video cassettes and that lead to a classic scene that bears explanation to younger viewers who are used to pushing a few buttons on Netflix and watching whatever they feel like. So the whole idea of video tapes and the associated commentary in the movie were a little lost on my kiddo.
The jokes about Dark Helmet using the Schwartz to crush people’s balls were right up his alley, though. To be fair, dick jokes never go out of style.
Anyway, the whole thing got me thinking about the idea of timelessness in a story. I’ve never really tried to set a story in a particular era. It would be fun to write something set in the 80s, but unless you lived through that time it would be difficult to explain things like “gag me with a Fraggle”, why anyone thought 7-Up Gold was a good idea, or the general appeal of The Cure. And, as the brief discussion of the Mr. Rental joke in Spaceballs shows up, if you have to explain a joke, it’s already not funny. Or, at least, not funny anymore because the world has changed.
The funny thing about Spaceballs, though, is just how timeless a lot of it has become. For what amounted to a throwaway send-up of Star Wars, it’s held up remarkably well and has spawned its own line of jokes. For instance, did you know the Tesla Model S has a Ludicrous Speed setting that will push that beast from 0-60 in 2.8 seconds? Ludicrous Speed, itself a joke about speed overkill in sci-fi movies, is straight out of Spaceballs.
The second part of that joke, “They’ve gone to plaid”, has become a regular phrase to describe something that’s going way too fast. That one even has an Urban Dictionary entry.
In that way, Spaceballs created its own jokes and parlance. I regularly use the line “Oh, sure, I could carry two or three of these”.
That, I guess, is the genius of Mel Brooks. For a movie that only holds a 57% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Spaceballs has become its own timeless thing. Which just goes to show, when people are still talking about your work 30 years after it was released, it doesn’t matter what the critics say, that’s a piece of timeless art.
How do you go about telling that timeless story? Will people 30 years from now remember what you’ve written? That’s the rub. I seriously doubt back when he was writing Spaceballs Mel Brooks ever thought the joke about Ludicrous Speed would ever be resurrected in an electric car or “they’ve gone to plaid” would be a thing. At the time, it’s likely that he was just as concerned about the VHS revolution as everyone else who depended on movie goers to put food on their tables.
The things that become timeless – “I’ll be back”, for instance – are inherently unpredictable. You can’t set out to make that kind of thing happen. All you can do is make the best of whatever it is you’re making and keep your fingers crossed.
And have some really kick-ass marketing.