Originally appeared on marshable.com
Star Wars is a space fantasy, a galactic fairy tale, a Skywalker family soap opera and a classic good vs. evil adventure story with mythological heft.
But should we also be classifying it as a comedy?
Before you dismiss that heretical notion, consider the evidence from Luke Skywalker himself. "I laughed all through Star Wars,” Mark Hamill once told an interviewer. “I thought they were comedies. It was absurd having a big giant dog flying your spaceship, and this kid from the farm is wacko for this princess he’s never met, that he’s seen in a hologram, the robots are arguing over whose fault it is ... They hook up with a magic wizard and they borrow a ship from a pirate ... It was goofier than hell!"
Further evidence can be found in the vast quantity of spoofs that have arisen since the franchise began — enough to make you think that George Lucas made the movie just so we could send it up. (He's certainly been active in giving awards to the fan films that make him chuckle.)
Look closer at the ten videos that follow, our picks for the finest Star Wars spoofs of all time. What do they all have in common? They're so lovingly made that they're not actually skewering the movies themselves; the directors really want to replicate Lucas' work, not tear it down. Perhaps Star Wars is enough of a comedy that it's impervious to criticism from the outside?
The writer-director of Hardware Wars, Ernie Fosselius, saw Star Wars the week it came out in 1977 and says he was already plotting a parody while he was in the theater. Hardware Wars was shot in four days by a bunch of broke twentysomethings in less-than-glamorous locations around San Francisco: the backs of bars, garages, and an abandoned French laundry. The costume designer provided the $8,000 budget. Fosselius and filmmaker Michael Wiese came up with its famous tagline: “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss three bucks goodbye.”
Hardware Wars was a twelve-minute version of Star Wars in the form of a trailer. The characters have names like Fluke Starbucker, Darph Nader, Augie Ben Doggie of the Red Eye Knights, Princess Anne-Droid (with her cinnamon buns strapped on), Ham Salad, and Chewchilla the Wookiee Monster, a brown furry Cookie Monster puppet.
But there’s a distinct sense of affection about the whole venture. The filmmakers are really trying to make a steam iron stand in for a Star Destroyer as it chases after a Rebel toaster, and to replicate the destruction of Alderaan with an exploding basketball. Fossellius and Weise hired veteran voice actor Paul Frees to narrate the whole trailer (and by “hired,” we mean “agreed to do maintenance work for”).
Hardware Wars grossed $500,000 in a year. That marked a 6,250% return on investment, making it one of the most successful short films of all time. Lucas wasn’t about to launch a lawsuit. He called Hardware Wars “a cute little film” and later declared it to be his favorite fan tribute.
Like Star Wars itself, the parodies seemed to pretty much die out after the original trilogy ended in 1983. The one notable exception — Mel Brooks’s feature-length Spaceballs in 1987 — seemed outdated on arrival. “It should have been made several years ago, before our appetite for Star Wars satires had been completely exhausted,” wrote Roger Ebert. A handful of the jokes, such as the princess’s hair buns turning out to be ear warmers, arrived direct from Hardware Wars.
And again, like Star Wars, the spoofs came roaring back in 1997. That was the year a character designer at the Fox Kids Network named Kevin Rubio unveiled a film at San Diego Comic-Con called Troops. It was Star Wars meets Cops, the ride-along reality show known for its theme tune “Bad Boys,” which Rubio also used.
Cops, not Star Wars, was the parody target of Troops: witness the Stormtrooper with the Minnesota accent who likes the “small town feel” of Tatooine and resolves domestic disputes with the world-weary diplomacy of local lawmen everywhere. Instead of being a send-up of Star Wars, Troops affectionately imitates the films as closely as possible. The CGI era had dawned; far more was possible on a tight budget than it was in the Hardware Wars days.
If anything, Troops gets more immersive as it moves along. The ten-minute short turns out to be an elaborate alternate explanation for what happened to Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Without the Cops layer, it would be an earnest fan film — which, in some sense, it still is.
George Lucas in Love
George Lucas in Love was a 1999 short by Joe Nussbaum, a recent USC graduate, and his fellow grads. Once again, the comedic target was something other than Star Wars: the recent Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love, and the way it imagined the playwright’s inspirations to be constantly in front of his face.
Set at USC in 1967 and filmed on the campus, the short showed Lucas struggling to write an agricultural fantasy called Space Oats as a stream of influences surround him unheeded: a dorm-room rival breathing like Darth Vader with an asthma inhaler; a large, hairy, car-fixing friend; a Yoda-like professor. Finally there’s his muse, Marion, who leads the “student rebellion,” wears her hair in buns, and — in a twist ending — turns out to be Lucas’s sister.
The short launched Nussbaum’s directorial career after Steven Spielberg got hold of a copy and sent it to Lucas, who sent Nussbaum an approving letter commending him for doing his research (he’d spotted a line from American Graffiti).
Surprisingly enough, it wasn't until the mid-2000s that parodists started to explore the possibilities of putting Darth Vader in mundane situations. Perhaps they were taking the lead of Lucas, who had by then fleshed out all of Vader’s backstory; perhaps they were simply waiting for the rise of YouTube.
In 2007, users of the nascent online video service were treated to Chad Vader, Day Shift Manager, in which a Vader-like character (said to be the Dark Lord’s brother) has to manage recalcitrant employees at a very Earth-bound supermarket. The pilot episode was seen twelve million times; the show went on for 38 episodes split into four seasons.
The Death Star Canteen
Clearly, there is comedy gold in treating Vader — a Jedi-killing, child-murdering, daughter-torturing, son-amputating man-machine — as a fragile, everyday kind of guy. British comedy legend Eddie Izzard imagined Darth Vader attempting to navigate the Death Star canteen. A stop-motion version of the Izzard skit starring Lego Star Wars figures now has 23 million views on YouTube.
The Vader sessions
YouTube also turned up some wonderfully surreal cutups of the source material itself. The Vader Sessions (which has more than five million views) took every one of Vader’s scenes in the original Star Wars — which amounted to a mere ten minutes — and dubbed in James Earl Jones quotes from other movies, modulated Vader-style.
“I know you have been inconvenienced, and I am prepared to compensate you,” Vader now says to the dead rebel troops in the corridor of the Tantive IV, borrowing a line from Coming to America. “Shall we say one million American dollars? Very well then, two million!”
Star Wars Retold
Poor Amanda. The friend of director Joe Nicolosi hadn't seen a complete Star Wars movie, but gamely felt she could describe the entire original trilogy on tape. The result, appropriately illustrated, made even George Lucas guffaw; it won Lucas' personal award at the 2009 Star Wars Fan Film Contest.
Seth MacFarlane's “Blue Harvest” got the greatest audience share of any Family Guy episode to date. It does have a few moments of true satire, such as the laser operators on the Star Destroyer who let R2-D2 and 3-CPO’s escape pod go because it had no life forms on board: “Hold your fire? What, are we paying by the laser now?”
But McFarlane seems to lose interest in attacking the franchise at that point, instead falling back on his usual winning blend of toilet humor and pop culture callbacks. For most of the feature-length episode, his Star Wars references consist of lovingly recreated, animated homages to iconic special effects scenes from the movie, such as the Millennium Falcon taking off from Mos Eisley. One of the most irreverent popular satirists of our age, it turned out, could little more attack the franchise than throw a chair through a stained-glass window.
Robot Chicken: The Emperor's Phone Call
Seth Green’s stop-motion puppet show Robot Chicken kept its satirical knives out for the franchise itself far longer than McFarlane did, even though its spoof was supposed to be a one-off sketch. In “The Emperor’s Phone Call,” Palpatine is informed of the destruction of the Death Star via collect call from Darth Vader, still the most tragically funny guy in the universe.
To Lucasfilm’s great surprise, Lucas — encouraged by his son Jett to watch the show— adored the Robot Chicken parody, and brought Green and cowriter Matthew Senreich to Skywalker Ranch. The pair got Lucas not only to agree to two full-length Robot Chicken Star Wars episodes, but to participate as voice talent — in his first professional acting role. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” said Lucas as his doll reclined on a couch in a therapist’s office, regarding his decision to let Robot Chicken do a special.
We do. You'll want to seek out all of the Robot Chicken Star Wars videos online after watching this one; they're hilarious enough for a top ten list of their own.
Star Wars Uncut
When everyone wants in on the joke — and the source material is this widely recognized — what you get is endless iterations of everything the franchise could possibly be. The first Star Wars spoof to win a Primetime Emmy could not have been more collaborative.
The brainchild of web developer Casey Pugh, Star Wars Uncut chopped the original movie into 473 segments lasting fifteen seconds each, then let fans sign up online to reshoot each segment in their own way— each with the no-budget earnestness of Hardware Wars, and each given roughly the same amount of time to shoot it (thirty days). It was so oversubscribed that Pugh added an extra step, letting fans vote on the best versions of each segment.
Stitch them together, and you get two hours of nonstop gut-busting hilarity— humor born of the shock of recognition (it’s basically the same movie) as well as the gleefully earnest recreations by delightful amateurs. There's no better, more joyful example of this franchise's Force of laughter.