Poor Yorick

Tickling the Monster

The Parody and Comedy of Young Frankenstein

Chet Haase
10 min readNov 12, 2023

Young Frankenstein is one of my favorite films. It is one of the few comedies that survived the leap from my childhood into my adulthood, as I continued to watch and enjoy it over the many years since I first saw it. One of the reasons it works as a comedy is its use of the device of parody, drawing from older black & white monster films.

I looked into the film’s use of parody recently. My assumption going in was that it mimicked the overall style and feel of monster films—and of Frankenstein films in particular—but that the various comic scenes of the film were created from scratch. But I was surprised to find that it actually drew not just inspiration, but also entire premises and scenes, directly from these earlier films. This helped me drive the following formula, which I call the Young Frankenstein Parody Formula:

The official and totally complex Young Frankenstein Parody Formula

I’ll get to how this works in practice in the film, but first, let’s talk about parody. Oxford languages defines it thusly:

parody (noun): an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.

I think the definition should be broadened a tad, to include specific works (such as books or films), not just genres, which gives us:

parody (noun): an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, genre, or work with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.

This definition gives us two elements that are important for a film to be considered a parody: “an imitation of the style” and “deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.” I’ll treat these separately, first showing how Young Frankenstein imitates the overall style of earlier films, and second showing how it exaggerates elements in these films. That’s where it gets really interesting, so read on.

“… imitation of the style…”

The makers of the film (Mel Brooks (director and co-writer) and Gene Wilder (co-writer) clearly wanted it to look and feel just like the old monster films. They went to great lengths to do that with various elements which are not comedic in and of themselves, but which are rather simply a true and honest replication of those earlier efforts.

Which begs the question: which earlier efforts? My initial assumption was that the film drew directly from the original Frankenstein (1931) which spawned the ensuing series of movies with that monster (reliance on sequels is not just a modern habit of Hollywood). And while Frankenstein certainly set the overall tone, themes, and stories upon which the others are based, Young Frankenstein also draws from the other sequels directly, including (at least) Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). There is even an element in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) (a parody itself) which finds its way into Young Frankenstein (specifically, the mind “transference” scene), but that earlier comedy is otherwise quite different, so I’ll limit my discussion to the, er, more serious films.

It’s worth noting that Young Frankenstein is a parody of the Frankenstein films, not the original Frankenstein book by Mary Shelley. All of these works share the common theme of the creation of the monster (and ensuing consequences), but the movies deviate sharply from the narrative of the book, and Young Frankenstein adheres to those deviations. So we’ll confine this parody discussion to the movies, where it belongs.

Imitation of these earlier films can clearly be seen in story, character, and visual elements.

Story Imitation

This one is kind of obvious: if you’re going to do a Frankenstein story, the story is going to resemble other Frankenstein tales to some extent. On the other hand, that’s not what Abbot and Costello did, so it’s worth noting that Young Frankenstein sticks pretty close to the traditional story as told by Frankenstein: a scientist gets obsessed with the idea of creating life and eventually builds a creature from dead body parts and animates it with the help of massive amounts of electricity. (I don’t quite follow the logic there, but major electricity zaps were very important in the process for all of these films. I don’t know my Book of Genesis well enough, but I assume the same was true there. Or maybe it’s just that electricity bolts created exciting special effects in pre-CGI films).

Character Imitation

There are minor variations in characters between the classic Frankenstein films (whether the scientist was married or affianced, whether he was the original creator or a descendant, the name of his assistant, and so on). But for the most part, all of the characters in Young Frankenstein are taken directly from one or more of the earlier films except for Frederick’s assistant Ynga.

As far as I should note that Young Frankenstein was released in post Hays Code times, when having the doctor dump his fiancée and take up with his assistant was all fine. That plot element surely would have been disallowed in the previous films, which were all (except the original Frankenstein) released under the Hays Code and had to work within stricter moral constrains.

Visual Imitation

First of all, it’s worth stating the obvious: Young Frankenstein was filmed in black & white. This might not seem interesting if you think of the film as quite old (nearly 50 years so at this point, since it was released in 1974). Maybe that was common at that time, right?

But Hollywood had mostly standardized on color films by 1966. Eight years later, a film recorded in black & white was clearly an artistic choice, rather than a default or budget-minded limitation. The film was shot in black & white because they wanted it to look like the films it was parodying (which had no choice of color-vs-black & white when they were shot).

But beyond the simple grayscale color palette of the film, there are various other elements of the original films that found their way into Young Frankenstein. For example:

The Castle

In most of these films, there is the visual of the Frankenstein castle on the hill.

Home sweet home: Frankenstein (left), Bride of Frankenstein (middle), and Young Frankenstein (right)
Dr. Frankenstein’s castle in Frankenstein (left) and Bride of Frankenstein (right)

The Young Frankenstein castle is very similar in feel and tone:

Young Frankenstein’s cozy little weekend getaway castle

The Bride

The visuals of the bride, in Bride of Frankenstein, also provided ample opportunity for imitation, as we see here in the original and Young Frankenstein version with the inimitable Madeline Kahn:

Hair dews and don’ts: Bride of Frankenstein (left) and Young Frankenstein (right)

Go Fly a Kite

One of the many scenes in Young Frankenstein that I always assumed came completely from the fertile imagination of Brooks and Wilder shows Igor flying a pair of kites in an effort to attract a bolt of lightning to get the show started. Ridiculous. Nonsensical. Parodical. But actually taken straight from the earlier films. The scene in Young Frankenstein is much like one in Bride of Frankenstein, made just slightly comedic by the playful kite tails and happy, bright colors of Igor’s kites and rain slicker.

Go fly a kite in Bride of Frankenstein (left) and Young Frankenstein (right)

Blow that Horn

Finally, to round out the examples of pure imitation (as opposed to actual parody), it’s interesting to see the Bela Lugosi Ygor character in Son of Frankenstein playing his horn, when compared to a similar scene at the very end of Young Frankenstein, as Igor toots his horn.

Horn-blowing in Son of Frankenstein (left) and Young Frankenstein (right)

“… exaggeration for comic effect”

Now we get to the really fascinating part of the comparisons: those scenes (and there were many) where Young Frankenstein took an existing scene or premise wholesale, but then exaggerated it until it was funny.

The Blind Hermit

There is a scene in Young Frankenstein where we are introduced to a religious man, played by Gene Hackman, who is a lonely, blind hermit, praying to God for a visitor to relieve his loneliness. The monster then knocks on the door, and a scene of companionship and comedy ensues.

This entire scene is taken straight from Bride of Frankenstein, down to the look and situation of the hermit, and continuing into the beats covered in the scene. First, compare the hermits:

The blind hermit in Bride of Frankenstein (left) and Young Frankenstein (right)

After the monster enters, the hermit offers him a meal of soup. We see how that works out in the serious and comedy versions:

Soup’s on: Bride of Frankenstein (left) and Young Frankenstein (right)

Food is followed by wine in both versions, which works out better for the monster in Bride of Frankenstein:

Toasted: Wine enjoyed (and not) in Bride of Frankenstein (left) and Young Frankenstein (right)

And finally, they enjoy a smoke together. Once again, the monster in Bride of Frankenstein has an easier time of it:

Enjoying a cigar (Bride of Frankenstein, left) and not (Young Frankenstein, right)

The Inspector

The inspector in Young Frankenstein is an extreme character in both appearance and behavior, which made me wrongly assume that he was invented wholesale from the minds of Brooks and Wilder. Not so: Son of Frankenstein has an inspector character that is eerily similar in almost all respects.

Inspectors from Son of Frankenstein (left) and Young Frankenstein (right)

In particular, the inspector in Son of Frankenstein, like the inspector in Young Frankenstein, has a wooden right arm and a monocle. But Young Frankenstein exaggerates these elements into comedy. For example, the monocle in Young Frankenstein is ridiculous since it is positioned over his opaque eye patch:

The monocle in Son of Frankenstein (left) is somewhat more functional than the one covering the inspector’s eye patch in Young Frankenstein (right)

The wooden arm of both inspectors is manipulated to perform some actions. In the case of Son of Frankenstein, these actions are relatively simple, such as this gesture of salute:

The inspector in Son of Frankenstein, manipulating his wooden arm to salute.

The Young Frankenstein inspector, meanwhile, takes his wooden arm manipulations and actions to a whole different level:

The darts game was another surprise for me. I always regarded that scene as pure ridiculousness in Young Frankenstein; there’s a monster loose in the town, the terrified villagers are forming an angry mob to literally storm the castle, and these two decide to play a friendly game of darts. Then I watched Son of Frankenstein and realized that this ridiculous event came straight from that earlier film:

In Son of Frankenstein, there’s a murderous monster loose, but surely there’s enough time for a drink and a game of darts.

The scene in Young Frankenstein is similar, but… sillier:

The Little Girl

The scene in Young Frankenstein of the monster playing games with a little girl is another scene lifted straight from one of the earlier films: Frankenstein. In the original, quite tragic scene, the monster’s misunderstanding leads to the first casualty when it turns out that not all things float:

Young Frankenstein uses the same concept almost exactly, down to the girl and the monster playing a game with flowers and water. But instead of resulting in death (there is no death in Young Frankenstein, just comedy), we get a sly look from the monster as he breaks the fourth wall to look at the viewer, in a clear callback to the scene above:

Knock Knock Joke

One memorable scene in Young Frankenstein is a deadpan-delivered innuendo from the doctor based on the size and sound of the castle’s ridiculously huge door knockers. This scene, too, comes from the earlier movies. Large knockers feature in at least two of those films, but Son of Frankenstein also includes commentary on the door hardware. When a large booming is heard due to a new visitor knocking on the door, Wolf’s wife exclaims, “That awful knocker!”

From Son of Frankenstein, “That awful knocker!”

All that Young Frankenstein changed for its version of this element was to come up with a, er, different way of saying that same thing.

Finally (not for parody scenes, of which there are many more, but in a belated attempt to end this increasingly long comparison article), there are scenes from the earlier monster films when the monster is out of control and needs to be sedated. Young Frankenstein plays that same scene out… with a game of charades:

Parody Aside, It’s Just Funny

It’s worth pointing out that if a film is a very clever parody of some source material, but which requires knowledge of that material to appreciate, then it’s not much of a comedy (or at least it is not very funny to people without that context). Where Young Frankenstein succeeds above and beyond is in making not only the parody scenes themselves stand on their own, but in providing enough other material that is simply funny by its own merit. I’m thinking specifically of scenes like “Put the candle back!” with the spinning bookshelf hiding the secret passage, or the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” dance number with the doctor and his creature, or any scene with Madeline Kahn (like my favorite “Not the hair! Not the hair!” scene at the train), or many, many other scenes which are clever, silly, or just fun.

So yes, it’s a great parody. But it’s also a great comedy… which happens to use parody to inform and drive much of its humor.

The End (from the credits of of Young Frankenstein)



Chet Haase

Past: Android development Present: Student, comedy writer Future: ???