The Lost Spoof: Top Secret! Endures 30 Years as a Misunderstood Classic

Much like Mad Magazine or "Weird Al" Yankovic songs, the exclamatorily titled films of the directing team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker were a comedy primer for my generation. We often knew the spoof by heart long before we ever saw the original; that was the case with ZAZ's first and most beloved film, 1980's Airplane!, and to a lesser extent their 1982 Police Squad! series and the eventual Naked Gun films. And it certainly holds true for me with 1984's Top Secret!, in which American rocker Nick Rivers (pitch-perfect newcomer Val Kilmer) battles Nazis in East Germany. Where Airplane! was a plot-driven spoof of the recent disaster movie genre and so familiar to its audience, Top Secret! veers all over the map, primarily spoofing World War II films and Elvis movies, which were ridiculously outdated in the 1980s.

Also having the misfortune to open opposite Ghostbusters, Top Secret! only grossed twice its $9 million budget. Airplane!, by comparison, grossed 28 times its $3 milion budget, so Top Secret! didn't come close to meeting financial expectations. But as an 11-year-old who saw it in the theater, it exceeded my personal expectations. Top Secret! easily ups Airplane!'s jokes-per-minute pace, and to this day when I hear early Beach Boys, I feel like they're parodying Nick Rivers' "Skeet Surfin'," not the other way around.

In their DVD commentary, the jocular ZAZ don't hide the fact that the picture was a painful experience they'd just as soon forget. It should be interesting to see if, faced with the always-ebullient moderator Paul Scheer and a Castro full of Top Secret! fans (expect at least one "This is more people than saw it combined in 1984!" joke), Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker are willing to concede that their towheaded stepchild is worthy of the love the rest of us feel for it.

SF Sketchfest presents the Top Secret! 30th Anniversary Screening & Q&A with Directors on Saturday, Feb. 8, at 1 p.m. at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F. Tickets are $20. sfsketchfest.com.

 
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