Parody: A Lesson
Don and Alleen Nilsen
An essay based on a lesson, the Powerpoint of which can be found (along with many others) here.
In the New Yorker, Wolcott Gibbs wrote that parody is the hardest form of creative writing because the style of the subject must be reproduced in slightly enlarged form, while at the same time holding the interest of people who haven’t read the original. Further complications are posed since it must entertain at the same time that it criticizes and must be written in a style that is not the writer’s own. He concluded that the only thing that would make it more difficult would be to write it in Cantonese.
Obviously, it is easier for people to enjoy a parody if they know what the original was. In our increasingly diverse culture, memories of “classic” children’s books may be one of the few things we have in common. Advertisers, broadcasters, cartoonists, journalists, politicians, bloggers, and everyone else who wants to communicate with large numbers of people, therefore turn to the array of exaggerated characters that we remember from childhood books. Chicken Little represented alarmists; Pinocchio stood for liars;The Big Bad Wolf warned us of danger; Humpty Dumpty demonstrated how easy it is to fall from grace; The Frog Prince gave hope to women of all ages; and Judith Viorst’s The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day lets us know that we all have really bad days.
Some of Lewis Carroll’s parodies were just for fun. When Lewis Carroll wrote a parody of the poem “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star. How I wonder where you are,” it became, “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Bat. How I wonder where you’re at.” This is merely fun word play. But some of Carroll’s parodies had a deeper significance. Lewis Carroll lived in a time when the Victorian poetry tended to be filled with sentimentality and didacticism, so many of Carroll’s poems parodied that sentimentality and didacticism. G. W. Langford wrote a poem that not only preached to parents, but also reminded them of the high mortality rate for young children: “Speak gently to the little child! / It’s love be sure to gain; / Teach it in accents soft and mild; It may not long remain.” Carroll’s parody turned this poem into a song for the Duchess to sing to a piglet wrapped in baby clothes: “Speak roughly to your little boy. And beat him when he sneezes. / He only does it to annoy / Because he knows it teases.” The poem “Against Idleness and Mischief” by Isaac Watts read as follows: “How doth the little busy bee / Improve each shining hour / and gather honey all the day / From every opening flower!” Lewis Carroll’s parody is much more fun, and much less didactic: “How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tail / And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale?”
Each of the adventures in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a satirical parody of exploration and expansion, but each is also a parody of British society and politics, especially the British society and politics that were in effect during Swift’s life time. Swift’s “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Ireland from being a Burden to their Parents or Country” was carefully structured to read like a proposal that would be seriously placed before the British House of Commons, and the various aspects of his proposal were in fact very similar to proposals that were at the time being placed before Parliament. Similarly, Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” had not only the form of a real prayer, but contained many of the expressions and clichés that could be found in prayers of the day. The “War Prayer” begins “Oh Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells…. Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, and make heavy their steps,” and ends “We ask it in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek his aid. Amen.”
The reason that Edgar Alan Poe is so often parodied is that his poetic style is so distinct. Poe wrote a poem entitled “Bells” which reads as follows: “Hear the sledges with the bells— / Silver bells! / What a world of merriment their melody foretells! / How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle, / In the Icy air of night! / While the stars that oversprinkle / All the heavens, seem to twinkle / With a crystalline delight….” An anonymous writer wrote the following parody of Poe’s “Bells”: “Hear the fluter with his flute, / Silver flute! / Oh, what a world of wailing is awakened by its toot! / How it demi-semi quavers / On the maddened air of night! / And defieth all endeavors / To escape the sound or sight / Of the flute, flute, flute, With its tootle, tootle, toot… / Of the flute, flewt, fluit, floot, Phlute, Phlewt, Phlewght, / And the tootle, tootle, tooting of its toot.” Poe’s “The Raven” is also often parodied, as is his “Annabel Lee.”
Some authors like Mel Brooks specialize in writing movie-script parodies. Brooks wrote “Blazing Saddles,” “Robin Hood, Men in Tights,” “Young Frankenstein,” and “The Producers.” The plot line of “The Producers” is that the producers heavily insure a play that they are sure will be a flop—but it is so bad that it is a great hit. One of the funniest scenes is when all of the various “Hitlers” are auditioning for the part with their stiff-legged marches, their Hitler mustaches, and their “Heil Hitler” salutes. Who says that there is a subject that is so horrific that it can’t be parodied and satirized?
The Monty Python parodies are equally edgy. That group wrote and starred in “The Holy Grail,” “Meaning of Life,” and “The Life of Brian.” The final scene of this last movie shows Brian being crucified, and all of the people being crucified on all of their crosses are singing “Always think of the bright…side…of life. / Ta da, Ta da da da da da.”
Today we are surrounded by parodies, like Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction, and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Shrek, not to mention the “Scary” the “Airplane” movies, and all the rest. And then, there are fake news sources like Mad Magazine, National Lampoon, Harvard Lampoon, The Onion, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Colbert Report, and Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” One humorist quipped “I get my news from “The Daily Show” and my humor from “Fox News.”
Now it’s your turn to write a parody. In order to write a parody of a particular text, author, or genre, you need to carefully examine the style and figure out which stylistic patterns are associated with that style. In your parody you should exaggerate just these stylistic patterns. Don’t be afraid to overdo it. Please do two of the following five things, keeping in mind that it’s possible to write a parody of a parody:
1. Write a parody of a poem (e.g. “The Raven,” “Bells,” “Annabelle Lee,” etc.)
2. Write a parody of a scene in your favorite novel (e.g. The Catcher in the Rye, Catch 22, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.)
3. Write a parody of a scene in your favorite TV show (e.g. “Friends,” “The Simpsons,” “South Park,” “Sex and the City,” “The Big Bang,” “Star Trek,” etc.)
4. Write a parody of a scene in your favorite movie (e.g. “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Sound of Music,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games,” “Twilight,” etc.)
5. Write a parody of an over-the-top advertisement (e.g. “Viagra”)
6. Write a parody of an over-the-top teacher.
(c) 2012, Don and Alleen Nilsen
Don and Alleen Nilsen became emeritus professors at Arizona State University on May 15th, 2011. Their opus magnum is the Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor which in 2000 was selected as an “Outstanding Academic Book” by Choice, and which in 2001 won an “Outstanding Reference Source” award from the American Library Association’s. Don has also written three books about humor in British literature, one about humor in American literature, and one about humor in Irish literature. In 2004, Don and Alleen published two books about teaching metaphor in public schools, and in 2007, they published their Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature. Don and Alleen’s most recent book is their revisedPronunciation Contrasts in English, about half of which is about English spelling as a rule-governed system. Don and Alleen are presently working on the 9th edition ofLiterature for Today’s Young Adults, which will appear in 2012.