This is installment one in “The Friedberg-Seltzer Massacre: How Two Men Single-handedly Destroyed the Parody Genre.” The series, a career retrospective on the works of parody film writer-directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, aims to put their heavily maligned work into perspective. Why were their films equally successful and hated? And why did the pair disappear from Hollywood? Moreover, can anything good be said for the directors, whose films are widely considered to be some of the worst of all time.
Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer achieved their first credit as a writing team on Spy Hard, the 1996 Leslie Nielsen espionage spoof. Their names appeared in the credits for the hit horror parody Scary Movie. Then, they went on to write and direct some of the worst comedy movies of the 21st century. Date Movie. Epic Movie. Disaster Movie. Meet the Spartans. Vampires Suck. The Starving Games.
Let’s not dwell on these parody clunkers, though. Not yet, at least. Let’s begin with Scary Movie, a very successful film that had a hand in reinvigorating the parody genre for a new generation. It launched a franchise. It launched the career of Anna Faris. It was truly influential in steering the broad comedy into the 21st century, at least in the short term.
Scary Movie was an ambitious pitch. Not because it was a parody of the entire slasher genre with the audacity of having a name as blunt as Scary Movie. But because it is a beat-for-beat broad comedy re-enactment of Scream, which had already done the job of deconstructing the slasher genre (to perfection, in this writer’s humble opinion) in 1996. As a result, I don’t find Scary Movie particularly effective in terms of narrative or character. With that out of the equation, what remains is the discrete comedy bits scattered throughout. And I suppose the majority of parody films can only hope to deliver on that front.
I was surprised to find that a fair number of the jokes in the film hold up. Having first seen this as a pre-teen, I was certain that it would have aged like milk in sunlight. However, there are clever uses of juvenile gags and pop culture references. The Dawson’s Creek bit. Carmen Electra riffing on her public celebrity image. Cindy’s wholesome relationship with her cartel affiliated father. The misdirect in the I Know What You Did Last Summer sequence. The killer hiding behind the couch. Shannon Elizabeth’s beauty pageant sequence. Shannon Elizabeth’s death scene.
Of course, it doesn’t all hold up. And the gags that don’t pass muster are rough at times, both off-color and unfunny. An off-hand joke about roofies and date rape. An off-hand joke about prison rape. A character whose every line is a hack riff on a reductive gay stereotype (literally every single line until the climax, where Shawn Wayans does a legitimately fantastic Matthew Lillard impression). Doofy. Everything with Doofy. Miss Man. Everything with Miss Man.
Still, Scary Movie deserves mention. Not just in a Friedberg-Seltzer retrospective, but in the history of comedy cinema. Few comedy films are truly successful at the box office anymore. Scary Movie was, with $278 million at the worldwide box office (plus another $47 million in 2001 video rental sales). Moreover, the Scary Movie franchise is one of the few R-rated blockbuster comedy series of the 21st century. It’s only true rival in that department is The Hangover franchise.
But Friedberg-Seltzer are merely a footnote in this success. Moreover, some believe the footnote is not even warranted.
Marlon and Shawn Wayans, speaking on the The Champs podcast in 2012, claimed that the writing credit given to Friedberg and Seltzer was invalid. On the podcast, they say that Friedberg and Seltzer argued that content in their original script appeared in the finished film, and the WGA apparently agreed during the arbitration process.
It was reported at the time that two separate script treatments were written with the similar premise of a slasher movie parody. Miramax, according to the Wayans, purchased the Friedberg-Seltzer script in order to take it off the market, leaving the Wayans with the freedom to make their movie with their own script.
It is clear that WGA arbitration ended up giving both scripts “Written By” credits, which usually means that enough original content from both scripts can be identified in the finished product as to justify each credited writer’s contribution to the material. However, arbitration is a fickle process. And it is very difficult to know for sure just how much Friedberg-Seltzer material made it into the final draft of Scary Movie. Judging from both writing pairs’ other projects, I personally see a lot more of the Wayans’ comedic voices in this film.
During the podcast interview, there is also an anecdote relayed about a manager at talent agency Gold-Miller who got word of the Wayans’ script and took the premise to Friedberg and Seltzer. I haven’t found any other source that fully corroborates the Wayans’ accusation of IP theft, so I can’t speak to the anecdote’s veracity.
The closest I found to this story is from a Variety article. A producer, Bo Zenga, was approached by a “manager” with the title for a slasher parody. Zenga went on to tap Friedberg and Seltzer to “punch up the script,” which was then sold to Miramax, the eventual distributor of Scary Movie. The original Variety review of the film said that the “freewheeling script” was combined from two “independently conceived and completed scenarios.”
The Wayans assert that none of the jokes from the Friedberg-Seltzer script made it into the finished film. According to Eric Gold, the Wayans’ manager at the time, “some structural things” from the Friedberg-Seltzer script “were helpful.” Friedberg and Seltzer themselves have taken credit for at least one of the jokes in the film, with the implication being that other jokes also made the final cut and that their script was the original script on which the Wayans expanded.
Competing narratives aside, the fact remains that Friedberg-Seltzer were not the dominant creative voices on this film. This movie feels closer creatively to Don’t Be A Menace and A Haunted House than Disaster Movie and Date Movie. Moreover, Friedberg and Seltzer parted ways with the project after the script was sold. This means the direction of the film during production was influenced much more heavily by Shawn and Marlon and director Keenan Ivory Wayans than by any “punch up” writers.
The extent to which we can credit Friedberg-Seltzer in the development of Scary Movie is debatable. What appears more clear-cut is that the success of Scary Movie gave the writing team a stronger foothold within the industry, allowing them to make their future parody films. Films which would sully the reputation of the spoof movie, undoing the work Scary Movie had done to re-establish parody as a viable commercial vehicle.
In the next installment, we begin our journey into the parody genre’s demise by examining Friedberg and Seltzer’s directorial debut, Date Movie.
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)