Mel Brooks’ recently published memoir, All About Me!, is a virtual time machine for anyone interested in the history of comedy or show business. Brooks’ career has spanned from working with Sid Caeser and Carl Reiner on the variety show Your Show of Shows in the 1950s to recently signing a deal with Hulu for comedy series based on History of the World, Part 1. There isn’t a comedian alive who hasn’t benefited from Brooks in some way.
LitHub has published an except from All About Me which details how Brooks created a science-fiction masterpiece: Spaceballs. Released in 1987, Spaceballs arrived a full decade after the first movie it was parodying, Star Wars IV: A New Hope, and four years after Return of the Jedi. While critics saw as the movie as an upgrade from his other efforts from the decade (including the infamous “Hitler Rap” from To Be or Not to Be), Janet Maslin from the New York Times felt that it’s “underlying silliness cannot help but wear thin.”
But unlike rapping Hitler (“ My name is Adolf / I’m on the mic / I’m gonna hip you to the story of the New Third Reich”), Spaceballs has staying power. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly on its 25th anniversary, Brooks said that “I’ve made a dozen films — some of them really big hits — and all of them have been left in the dust by Spaceballs.”
Why? As Brooks explains in All About Me!, even a parody of sci-fi starts with finding the right story. Rather than looking to Star Wars, Alien, 2001 or any of the other famous science fiction plot, Brooks writes that Spaceballs was “inspired by Frank Capra’s 1934 classic It Happened One Night.”
“It is the story of a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) who escapes her marriage by fleeing on her wedding day from a very, very rich but very, very dull groom and then she subsequently falls in love with an attractive wise-guy commoner (Clark Gable). We took that same basic plot and shoved it into space!”
What also makes Spaceballs work is casting. Brooks found an actor working Off-Broadway who only had one screen credit to his name. He had “charm, presence, and I knew he was the right guy for the part.” That actor was Bill Pullman, who in 1996 would become a household name as President Thomas Whitmore in a very different sci-fi movie, Independence Day.
Pullman, as Han Solo stand-in Lone Starr, played against Daphne Zuniga as Princess Vespa, the Leia stand-in who gets a lot of Borscht Belt jokes (on being told she is a Druish princess: “Funny, she doesn’t look Druish.”), John Candy, the Chewbacca stand-in as a Barf, half-man and half-dog, and Rick Moranis, who plays Vader stand-in Dark Helmet.
Brooks’ explanation of Dark Helmet gets to the heart of Spaceballs: “Because Rick was short, we decided to literally encase him in a huge black helmet. The giant helmet is a sight gag that works every time. It was a big, dumb, funny idea. It was the kind of cartoonish joke that worked for adults as well as kids.” Seeing a guy in comically large headgear is just a gag that hits, be it Dark Helmet or Turd Ferguson.
Brooks sent the script of Spaceballs to George Lucas as a courtesy measure, “if not to get his blessing, then certainly to give him a heads-up.” Lucas, a Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein fan, gave Brooks one demand: no toys. “He explained that if I made toys of my Spaceballs characters they would look a lot like Star Wars action figures. And that would be a no-no for his lawyers and his studio’s business affairs department.”
Merchandising, and the penchant of sci-fi movies to cash in, is a recurring gag in Spaceballs. Dark Helmet is seen playing with action figures, and Brooks’ Yoga stand-in Yogurt, gives a speech proclaiming “Merchandising! Merchandising is where the real money from the movie is made. Spaceballs the t-shirt! Spaceballs the coloring book! Spaceballs the lunchbox! Spaceballs the breakfast cereal! Spaceballs the flame- thrower!”
But Brooks agreed with Lucas that the situation might prove confusing, so he held off on creating actual, meta-merchandise for Spaceballs.
Spaceballs is not a sci-fi parody that’s very cognizant or worshipful of the nitty-gritty of the genre. Rather it finds some big, general ideas, makes them as goofy as possible, and throws in a little heart in to boot. As Brooks told Entertainment Weekly in 2012, Spaceballs is not “a better movie than Young Frankenstein and it isn’t as dangerous as Blazing Saddles. But I think the secret is, it gets sweet and emotional. It’s kind of a beautiful fairy tale.”