When helping your audience to invest in an absurd story, a little world building is often in order to help settle the audience into their surroundings – even if they are extreme parodies of everyday life. Fake TV and movies mixed into other culture plays on our awareness of the ridiculousness in our real lives – and by drawing on these elements of our ‘normality’ and turning them up to 11, the audience is vaccinated against the other absurdities of the plot. We can believe Dalmatians can talk, or that Homer Simpson can work in a nuclear power plant.
Here are seven examples of TV shows and films which really nailed that assignment – sometimes to the extent I might have wished I was watching the fake product over the real thing!
Lenny’s YouTube Channel (The Last Temptation of Lenny)
It is only right to begin this list with films we actually covered for Indy Film Library. Special mention goes to Autumn Never Dies – which included a ridiculous buddy-cop blockbuster featuring a confused Nazi-Al Qaeda and Communist-Bandito terrorist duo – but it’s another absurd film built around a puppet which is going to get most attention here.
Director Timothy Rafferty imbues his knowingly silly parable The Last Temptation with a great deal of unlikely credibility via the use of his in-universe web-films. The content mill of YouTube has seen us all become our own reality TV producers, and as seen via protagonist Lenny, many of us have succumbed to pumping out ludicrous drivel in the hope of riding the site’s algorithm to success. A Christian comedian, Lenny’s failed attempts to go viral include hot takes such as Can VEGANS be Christian? and ‘skits’ like Jesus Drivethru Footwash – each accompanied by hideous MS Paint thumbnails, and each commendably skewering the mindless depths YouTubers are willing to plumb for their 15 seconds of fame.
Ello Gov’nor (The Regular Show)
Picked up from a video rental store (remember those?) by Rigby – an erratic talking raccoon looking for some so-bad-it’s-good fare – Ello Gov’nor is a stupendously silly Cockney rip-off of Christine. The black and white British horror features a London cab, possessed by the soul of its murdered driver, seeking revenge.
The premise is peak lazy horror, seemingly born out of the mind of a lazy executive throwing darts at a board populated with inanimate objects to ‘bring to life’ – but what makes it even more amusing is that Rigby is utterly terrified of it. As the car approaches its victims, it greets them in a fantastically bad Cockney-drawl, “Ello, Gov’nor”, before presumably running them over. It is the role which Ray Winstone may have been born to play, if anyone ever fancies making a feature-length version.
Planet of the Apes: The Musical (The Simpsons)
Frankly, this entire list could be made up of references to The Simpsons. In the show’s glory days, its writers seemingly couldn’t miss when it came to targeting the lazy mediocrity of mainstream cinema. From two-scene comedies like the excessively brutal Dirty Harry spoof McGarnagle, or the hybridised meathead action of McBain, to the one-shot throwaway gags like Deathwish IX (a withered Charles Bronson simply moans “I… wish I was dead”), everything was pitch perfect. The show even delivered several episodes made up almost entirely of these, seeing Springfield host a film festival where candidates included a sycophantic biopic about Mr Burns (apparently foreseeing the later deification of psychopathic billionaires that would later give us blockbusters about Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg), and a short film of an old man getting battered in his nether regions.
It takes a lot to stand out among that, but my favourite imagined popular culture from The Simpsons is not a film at all – just based off one. Featuring brilliantly inane songs including Doctor Zaius – to the tune of Falco’s Amadeus – and a show-stopping finale in which the actors do a kick line in front of the destroyed Statue of Liberty, Planet of the Apes: The Musical speaks of an industry which had increasingly resorted to playing it safe to deliver profits. It might have come at a time when franchises were already being done to death, but it also feels kind of prophetic, in the way that it suggests executives sought to avoid any kind of financial risk by abandoning new ideas entirely, and simply finding new ways of repurposing established IPs to cash in on worn out properties.
What’s My Crime? (101 Dalmatians)
Three decades before the likes of The Simpsons were churning out hilarious mock trailers on a weekly basis, 101 Dalmatians arguably set the gold standard for fake culture. Early in the film, the Dalmatian puppies are obsessed with a Rin Tin Tin spoof called Thunderbolt, and are glued to the TV while a German Shephard beats up villains.
As cute as that was, however, What’s My Crime is the one which has always stuck with me. The prime-time show sees sneering aristocrats and public-school broadcasters guess the desperate measures members of the working class have had to turn to in order to make ends meet. The show is a pastiche of TV panel game What’s My Line, but it is also a surprisingly good skewering of class culture in the British media. I’m not sure whether I wish it was real, but arguably the relentless poverty-shaming of shows like Mock the Week have long maintained it as a reality.
As cartoons became more pop-culture literate in the 1990s, partially in response to The Simpsons, Freakazoid is possibly the purest distillation of that cultural moment. Centring on a manic, insane superhero who battles with an array of super villains, he is often inundated with useless information that makes that primary mission infinitely more difficult. It is a tricky premise to pull off, though, and looking back, Freakazoid was extremely hit and miss.
Managing to straddle both sides of that Babeheart is a brilliant idea, executed in the slowest and least satisfying way possible – with characters discussing its carnage seemingly pausing for laughs all the way through. With that being said, people rightly love the throwaway joke closing out an episode – with the show’s characters heading to the cinema to see a movie about “a cute little pig that slaughters the English.” Off-screen, we hear a young pig warning English “dumbheads” to get out of Scotland, before charging into battle with a series of guttural screeches. It is 100% the kind of thing which I would have loved to see – as a child, or indeed now, even if only in a spoof trailer – had Freakazoid bothered to make one.
Pineapple Express 2: Blood Red (This Is the End)
Listen, there are all things we regret from our younger days. For me, one of them is ever seeing This Is the End, which – from its casualisation of sexual harassment as a punchline, to its dance choreography finale – remains one of the most chronically unfunny ‘comedies’ I have ever seen. It is hard to complain, having seen the previous outings Seth Rogan, Danny McBride and James Franco had featured in, I should have known what I was in for.
There is one moment which I hold in exception to all this, though. Trapped in their LA mansion as the world collapses around them, our cast of stoner comedy stalwarts momentarily staves off madness by trying to film a sequel to their previous hit Pineapple Express. Featuring a bizarre Woody Harrelson impersonation from Jonah Hill, and some endearing DIY filmmaking, it evidently had a lot more thought put into it than the bloated film it is hidden within, and ends up being more entertaining than it almost by default. It is the film I wish I had watched instead.
Hobo with a Shotgun (Grindhouse)
Proving that sometimes you should be careful what you wish for, Hobo with a Shotgun started out as a brilliant joke trailer, shown as part of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s double-feature, Grindhouse. The imagined classploitation film was a spectacularly gruesome blend of black humour and explosive practical effects – while making some entertainingly violent attempts at economic and political commentary.
It was, I would argue, more entertaining than either of the tedious and indulgent films it was attached to. It seems for better or worse, someone agreed – and four years later, the project (from the creators of my favourite Christmas movie Treevenge) had been stretched out into a feature film, starring legendary actor Rutger Hauer. It retained some of its charm, thanks largely to Hauer’s magnetic presence. But in taking up a longer run-time, it lost the dynamic pacing that made its trailer easy to engage with, while it struggled to build on any of the characters in a way that made you want to actually spend more time in their nightmarish world.
Gentlemen Broncos is an underrated off-beat comedy, in which an aspiring young writer has his idea stolen by a washed-up fantasy author. The changes which the latter makes to the work – all for the worse – are illustrated by cut-away renditions of what the imagined book would look like as a film. Those segments are the film’s weirdest and funniest, but they aren’t really a film/tv show, so are not quite applicable here.
Meanwhile, I’m sure many people will be complaining that I haven’t included the deliberately bad Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, from The Producers. I have often said that making comedically bad works on purpose is extremely difficult, so the towering achievement of this hilariously awful idea is not to be underestimated. But that production is lavishly realised at length, within both the original film, its remake, actually on stage – and even at UKIP’s annual conference. So, we have had every opportunity to enjoy it as a ‘real’ production.