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14 Things You Might Not Know About Spaceballs

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Mel Brooks hadn’t directed a movie in six years when he committed to 1987’s Spaceballs, a joke-saturated spoof of Star Wars and other popular genre films of the era. Critics speculated he was a little too late (Return of the Jedi had been released four years prior) and box office at the time was modest, but Spaceballs—which was released in theaters 30 years ago today—has since earned its reputation as a cult hit. Force yourself to check out these 14 facts about the Schwartz, robotic ears, and the search for Spaceballs II.

1. IT WASN'T THE FIRST STAR WARS PARODY FILM.

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Amateur filmmaker Ernie Fosselius was so enamored with Star Wars in 1977 that he cobbled together a 12-minute short, Hardware Wars, which he shot for just $8000 in an abandoned laundromat. The film embraced its piddling budget by featuring toasters, flashlights, and bits of tin foil to substitute for space debris. Charmingly hokey, Hardware Wars became immensely profitable, earning roughly $500,000 in 1978, and was even declared a “cute little film” by George Lucas. Fosselius had offers to extend it to feature length, but passed; he would later seem slightly perturbed by Spaceballs, saying it "quoted" his efforts.

2. MEL BROOKS WANTED TO CALL IT PLANET MORON.

In the commissary at the 20th Century Fox lot in 1984, Brooks was sitting down to eat when a studio executive abruptly asked what his next project was going to be. “Planet Moron!” Brooks yelled back, possibly referring to his unsolicited interrogator. The title spurred Brooks and his collaborators to develop what would become Spaceballs. Planet Moron was abandoned when a film titled Morons from Outer Space was released; Spaceballs, despite the assumed innuendo, was a result of needing “space” in the title and Brooks considering it one of his trademark “screwball” comedies.

3. GEORGE LUCAS GAVE HIS (CONDITIONAL) BLESSING.

Satire is generally exempt from litigation, but Brooks was an admirer of Lucas’s work and wanted to get his permission before starting on the movie. Working on a “funny” film of his own with Howard the Duck, Lucas agreed—but only on the condition that no Spaceballs merchandising be made available. “The Lucas people were just upset about one aspect of Spaceballs,” Brooks told Starlog in 1987. “They didn’t think it was fair for us to do a take-off and then merchandise the characters.”  

4. IT WAS SHOT OVER A GIANT SWIMMING POOL.

Michael Winslow, best known as the “sound effects guy” from the Police Academy series, said in 2012 that Spaceballs was shot on the MGM lot in Culver City, California. In the heyday of movies focused on swimmers like Esther Williams, the studio had constructed a giant pool that could be covered with retractable flooring. Spaceballs also used the same sound stage as 1939’s The Wizard of Oz; the crew would occasionally see stray pieces of the Yellow Brick Road when milling around.

5. BILL PULLMAN WAS BROOKS'S THIRD CHOICE.

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According to Bill Pullman, the actor—who had not yet had a starring role—was approached by Brooks only after Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks turned down the role of Lone Starr, the Han Solo-esque lead of the film. Pullman said that hiring Rick Moranis and John Candy freed Brooks up to cast a relative unknown.  

6. THE CREW THOUGHT WORKING WITH GREEN SCREEN MIGHT DAMAGE THEIR EYES.

Spaceballs took its effects seriously, and the cast and crew needed to spend a lot of time in front of a green screen. At the time, the process was still relatively new, and the production had a suspicion that the environment might be damaging to a person’s eyesight. With this (unfounded) concern in mind, Pullman and the cast wore sunglasses in between shots.

7. BROOKS HAD A BAD REACTION TO HIS YOGURT MAKEUP.

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In addition to directing and co-writing, Brooks had two roles in the film: one as President Skroob and another as Yogurt, a diminutive Yoda equivalent. In 2012, Brooks told The A.V. Club that he had an allergic reaction to the latex, which created a rash that spread to his eyes. Brooks also only gave the team one hour to apply his make-up; if it took any longer, he insisted he'd get out of the chair and leave.    

8. DOT MATRIX WAS A FAMOUS MIME.

Voiced by Joan Rivers, the service robot Dot Matrix was actually inhabited by Lorene Yarnell, one part of the largely-forgotten mime duo of Shields and Yarnell. The two had a variety show in the 1970s that featured a recurring skit called the Clinkers, a robot couple that allowed the performers to show off some impressively stilted moves. (In real life, Shields and Yarnell were married for a time; their ceremony was performed in pantomime.)

9. THE GUY PLAYING PIZZA THE HUTT REFUSED TO COME BACK.

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Though Dom DeLuise voiced Jabba stand-in Pizza the Hutt for the film, he was not required—nor was he likely willing—to be covered in pounds of fake molten cheese. That honor went to actor/effects man Richard Karen. When additional shooting was required, however, Karen simply refused to climb back into the suit. Effects artist Rick Lazzarini took his place.

10. BARF'S EARS UPSTAGED THE ACTORS.

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John Candy, who played half-dog/half-man Barf, was usually trailed on-set by Lazzarini and the effects crew, who had to control both his tail and his ears. At one point, Lazzarini was told by Brooks that he didn’t “have to move the ears so much!” They were too active in scenes focused on other characters. (Candy, incidentally, performed with a 40-pound battery backpack strapped to him to control the animatronics.)

11. LUCAS LOVED IT, PERHAPS BECAUSE BROOKS PAID HIM OFF.

One of Brooks’s strategies to ensure continued cooperation from Lucasfilm was to book their services for post-production work worth nearly $5 million. “You know what I did not to have any real trouble?” Brooks said. “I called Lucas and I said, ‘I want you guys up in San Francisco—at the ranch or whatever—to do all the post-production of the movie.’ And he said, ‘Oh, great, great.’” Lucas later wrote Brooks a note saying how much he loved the movie.

12. R.L. STINE WROTE A NOVELIZATION.

Film comedies—particularly those relying on broad, visual gags—are rarely fodder for tie-in novelizations, but perhaps that was the joke. To accompany the release of the film, a pre-Goosebumps R.L. Stine wrote Spaceballs: The Book, a young adult version of the story that substituted some of the stronger language and bits for child-friendly content. It remains the only exclusion to Lucasfilm’s “no tie-in” mandate.

13. THE ANIMATED SERIES SPOOFED THE PREQUEL TRILOGY.

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While Spaceballs performed modestly during its initial release, it was “rediscovered” by audiences by following in the wake of persistent interest in all things Star Wars. When Lucasfilm’s prequel trilogy was wrapping up in 2005, Brooks produced and directed a 13-episode season of Spaceballs: The Animated Series; Daphne Zuniga (Princess Vespa) and Joan Rivers (Dot Matrix) were, along with Brooks, the only returning cast members.  

14. RICK MORANIS WAS OFFERED A SEQUEL.

Rick Moranis, who played Dark Helmet, retired from acting in the 1990s to focus on his family and his musical career. In 2013, he told Heeb magazine that Brooks was interested in a sequel, which Moranis suggested could be titled Spaceballs III: The Search for Spaceballs II. (The film had, by this point, done very well on home video.) Brooks was only lukewarm on the idea, and Moranis found the financial offer underwhelming.

Brooks, who has never done a sequel, joked during the film’s production that a follow-up would be titled Spaceballs II: The Search for More Money.

Additional Sources:
Starlog #119; Starlog #121.

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Pop Culture
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
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At its best, Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’ Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY

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Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of this year and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In June, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE

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In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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