What Happened to Then? or, Spaceballs: The Essay

illustration of the main characters from the movie Spaceballs
illustration by Rachel Merrill

A hypercube only exists in the fourth dimension. We can depict it visually in the physical world but merely as an abstract concept. A hypercube has no volume. It is space and time, but it transcends time and space. When I first learned about this notion of theoretical physics, my immediate frame of reference was not Stephen Hawking or Einstein, but Mel Brooks. 

I imagined Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in Spaceballs (1987) breaking the fourth wall, gazing into the camera and then at a screen, and staring at an image of himself staring at an image of himself staring at an image of himself in infinite regression. “What the hell am I looking at?” he screams. “When does this happen in the movie?” Spaceballs defies the laws of physics. It tears a hole in the fabric of reality, pokes its vaudevillian head out, and warps spacetime. To some, it’s a man slipping on a banana peel; to others, an existentialist dilemma.

I missed the boat on the Star Wars phenomenon. I was too young for the original trilogy and too old for the prequels. The Force was just Joseph Campbell consumerism: mysticism as a means to merchandise. Star Wars was bed sheets, Star Wars was action figures, Star Wars was IP before IP was known as IP. I only knew those space wizard movies from their branding, their self-congratulatory loudmouth fandom, their omnipresent toys, collectibles, reruns on UHF television, and breakfast cereals. By the grace of God, though, I was the perfect age for Spaceballs, that sloppy wet kiss of a spoof.

The movies of Mel Brooks appealed to me so much as a kid because of their total disregard for the fundamental rules of reality. Brooks’s chaotic cartoon world was not normal. Normal was humdrum, normal was boring, normal was average. Reality was a nightmare from which I was trying to awake. Brooks’s variety show hyperreality was part Russian literature, part Catskills comedy, part Looney Tunes. It was where lowbrow and highbrow fused into an alloy. It was something else, an escape hatch, a funhouse to get lost in. It was a world conjured by an adult with the wonder (and maturity level) of a child.

Spaceballs is like the helmet Rick Moranis wears in the movie: big, dumb, and funny. The movie is a derivative mess, a Star Wars simulacrum that is equal parts juvenilia and sad dad jokes (although Brooks does sneak in a sly Kafka reference). When the crusty jokes flop—and the majority land with a resounding thud—they are undeniably charming. They are god-awful by design, like a corn dog father purposely embarrassing his children in public. The movie is a wink, wink, tongue-in-cheek cash grab sci-fi farce. The creature from Alien (1979) rips out of a man’s chest only to be transformed into a Michigan J. Frog knock-off performing the song “Hello! Ma Baby.” A Star Trek rip-off beams President Scroob ass-backwards (literally). The cast of Planet of the Apes even makes a guest appearance. It’s genre deconstruction of the highest—or lowest—order.

Spaceballs is no masterpiece. It lacks the controlled artistry of Young Frankenstein (1974) or the vulgar manic anarchy of Blazing Saddles (1974), but its stupidity is infectious. It is one of the most quotable (“They’ve gone to plaid!”), rewatchable (“Use the Schwartz!”) movies of my childhood and it continues to tug at my heartstrings. Brooks is not trying to convince you of his intellectual astuteness in this one. It is lovably, groan-inducingly dumb. It’s ‘pair of Black dudes literally combing the desert with an Afro pick’ dumb. It’s ‘a half man, half dog named Barf’ dumb (“I’m my own best friend.”) Whereas Star Wars movies are overly serious advertisements for the name brand and its parent corporation, Spaceballs is a homogeneous generic product satirically advertising itself (a phony commercial for a real commercial, twice removed). It is cinematic feedback, the equivalent of a Weird Al parody: in other words, it is a totally awesome, toothless gag man mockery. 

Most jokes, in general, are just borrowed or stolen, grist for the humor mill. They can kill, but mostly they fizzle out like a sad fart, evaporate within seconds, and are forgotten. Spaceballs is so overloaded with throwaway gags, flash in the pan pop culture references, and one liners that its lack of self-editing is a marvel to behold. There are pratfalls, wisecracks, wonky sound effects, men hit in the groin, random fails, visual puns, public humiliation, man versus woman, nature versus man, some wordplay, toilet humor, someone gets injured (maybe even killed!) This is all just the tip of the proverbial comedy iceberg. We chuckle in recognition of a gag’s cleverness or roll our eyes at its hamfistedness. Some gags disappear into the ether while others  leave an indelible impression. They’re branded into your brain, you quote them from memory. They live forever through you and you through them. It’s like comedy communion.

A comedian is like a magician onstage. A good gag is like a trick, an illusion that inspires wonder, surprise, and amazement. The comedian conjures laughter out of nothing, as if some kind of sorcerer savant. How did they do that, the audience wonders, what is the secret to the trick? But what happens when a gag is so transcendent, so breathtaking in its ingenuity that it warps the time-space continuum, opens a portal into another dimension, and refashions the very nature of the universe? That right there is the art or, maybe, the artlessness of comedy. Even when Spaceballs falls flat on its ass, Brooks still lands on his feet. The tricks may be old, but the jokes make us laugh just the same. Give me a good, dependable hack over a true artist any day of the week.

Comedy can be cruel, but Brooks is never mean-spirited in his satire; the ridicule is bound up with affection. He obviously loves Broadway, westerns, monster movies, Russian literature, historical epics, and Hitchcock, but gives them a gentle ribbing in his movies by depicting them a tad bit askew. In his 2022 memoir All About Me!, Brooks has hardly an unkind word to say about anyone (although he does devote more space in the book to his beloved dog Pongo than his first wife, Florence Baum). Spaceballs could have been a ruthless go-for-the-jugular roast of George Lucas’s bloated space opera franchise, but is, instead, just a hammy sci-fi spoof. By respecting the rules of its genre from the inside out, Spaceballs is, inadvertently, the best Star Wars movie. Seriously, forget Empire, fanboy.

Although he cranked out a few straightforward narratives, Brooks is primarily a director of what I dub “spaghetti comedies.” Mad Magazine movies, essentially. Each hackneyed bit, each sight gag, each corny wisecrack like a limp noodle tossed up against the wall. If it sticks, it sticks, if it doesn’t, well then, feh. Brooks basically perfected an entire spoof subgenre with Blazing Saddles, opening the floodgates to a rush of imitators. The plot of Spaceballs is unimportant anyway, even as it borrows from Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and transplants the screwball road movie to outer space. It’s a loose framework to hang a bunch of dud jokes and lame one-liners. When a character explains the paper thin plot holding the bits together, Rick Moranis turns and directly addresses the camera, “Ya got that?” 

Sight gags are wonders of engineering. They are complex slapstick contraptions with a variety of moving parts, like an intricate timepiece. They require blueprints. Take, for example, the classic bit in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) where the house facade comes within a millimeter of crashing down upon Buster Keaton. or Charlie Chaplin being swallowed up by the gears of the machine in Modern Times (1936). Comedy isn’t an exact science but like chemistry, it has a periodic table of elements. Some jokes are older than Aristotle. Each new comedy is an experiment in chemical engineering where these disparate elements react to one another in a Petri dish. Oftentimes derivative, sometimes disastrous, occasionally innovative, perhaps even revolutionary. In the cosmic joke of Spaceballs, the universe collapses in upon itself.

Spaceballs also features the greatest sight gag in any Mel Brooks movie: the dastardly villain Dark Helmet and his number two Colonel Sandurz (I know, I know) have lost track of our heroes. Having exhausted all other options, Sandurz commands a fellow spaceball to retrieve a VHS copy of Spaceballs: The Movie. The henchman peruses a number of other titles in the library, all of Mel Brooks’s earlier movies (from The Producers up until To Be and Not To Be). They find the proper cassette, insert the tape into the VCR, and fast forward through the movie we ourselves have just watched. The characters are soon staring at an image of themselves staring at an image of themselves staring at an image of themselves ad infinitum. Dark Helmet, looking at the camera, waves his hand in disbelief, postmodern shades of the Groucho and Harpo mirror gag in Duck Soup (1933). This is a Fibonacci spiral of a sequence, the hypercube of comedy, the ouroboros eating its own tuchis. The screen looks like a moving optical illusion. 

Even when I was a kid, I knew this was not only clever, but philosophically profound. This meant something, or maybe it just ‘meant’ the essence of meaninglessness. Most importantly, it was very, very funny. It made me laugh. (In 2024, it also makes me nostalgic for the days of clunky, plastic physical media.) This bit renders the comedian as magician, the rabbit being pulled out of a wormhole. It’s not merely breaking the fourth wall—or shattering the fourth wall, as Brooks had done in Blazing Saddles or High Anxiety (1977)but breaking into the fourth dimension and leaving a dent in the universe. And it all happens with one good joke. It is the map and the territory folded in upon themselves.

Maybe when Mel and his collaborators wrote it, it felt like just a smart bit of intertextual self-referentiality, but to me it is as profound as the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Hell, it measures up against the best bits from Jacques Tati, the Marx Brothers, Zucker Abrams Zucker, or W.C. Fields in their prime. This is a classic, the best permeation of the cinematic membrane since Buster Keaton entered the frame in Sherlock, Jr. (1924) This strange loop in Spaceballs, an elaborate sight gag, then ups the ante, and evolves into rapid banter, an uncanny, metafiction spin on Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine. The characters gaze at themselves, into the void of infinite regression. “What happened to then?” “We passed then!” “When?” “Just now. We’re at now now.” “Go back to then!”

This frantic exchange made me realize from a very young age that reality is a construct, time is a variable, and media is manipulation. The scene is an absurd event horizon. It lasts all of two minutes, but it is everlasting (amen). If it’s good, a bit often transcends the movie. For example, few will remember the Adam Sandler vehicle Jack and Jill (2011), but Robert Smigel’s Dunkin Donuts bit featuring Al Pacino’s Dunkacchino faux-mercial is for the ages. Far fewer folks have likely seen Safety Last (1923), but we all know the bit where Harold Lloyd dangles from the clock tower. Or was that Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future? (1989) ‘Then’, ‘now’, and the future tend to dangle.

Meditating on Mel Brooks and his movies, I realize that he represented a masculine ideal to me at a young, impressionable age. Manliness to me was never about being tough, intimidating, or even cool. He was a man who disrupted reality, reimagining the world through comedy. That was toughness to me. In Spaceballs, as President Scroob and Yogurt, he is a blunderer, a nincompoop. He is fearless, unafraid to look the fool. Brooks represented tender depictions of male friendship in his films that do not necessarily conform to our narrow definition of macho ideals. Think of Max and Leo in The Producers, Bart and the Kid in Blazing Saddles, or our heroes Lone Starr and Barf in Spaceballs. So many of Brooks’s male characters are vulnerable, emotionally stunted clowns. I think of other comedians like Groucho Marx, Gary Shandling, Andy Kaufman, Albert Brooks, and Ernie Kovacs…or even a goy like Steve Martin. These were men who transformed the world through humor and imagination with the very will of their minds. This was not simply being some kind of badass, but rather turning the world into a ridiculous burlesque through creativity. That, to me, was ingenuity: not a threatening presence, but a cerebral manliness, an intellectual buffoonery. I always respected those magical thinkers that opened the cans of wriggling worms.

A Mel Brooks comedy is like corned beef. It contains protein. It is not just some sugary confection. There is something to digest. It stays with you. Sure, Spaceballs features a flying Winnebago and a villain named Pizza the Hut. You got a problem with that? Before I learned what an auteur was, I knew who Mel Brooks was. I still remember my own personal VHS cassette of Spaceballs, taped off television and labeled in the handwriting of a child, my handwriting. This movie is so bound up with memories and moments of myself that they are inextricable, intertwined, a mirror of infinite regression into me. All these gags are just notes in a silly symphony, beats to the music. Time travels. I follow. Just another human cartoon.