The Problem with Parody

Last week, I mentioned my less-than-enthusiastic attitude toward parody, in the context of how I’d just written several for a radio show. Incongruent, eh?

In last week’s specific instance, I wrote parodies because that was the assignment, and time was way too short for debating to be a viable option. In the context of the show, I think the choice of parody works; the show is something of a political take on War of the Worlds; now that the liberals have quote-unquote taken over, they are free to impose their quote-unquote true agenda. The songs are parodies of Christmas carols rewritten to support this true agenda. (I haven’t seen the script of the full show, so I can’t judge if it’s a true parody or more of an allusion. It’s a lot less cut-and-dry with a show than it is with music.)

Under this premise, I think the choice to have music based on parody fills its purpose. In many cases, though, the choice is made for a far weaker purpose. Musical parodies in sketch comedy, in particular, often seem to have no connection between the original song and the parody, and the reason for writing a parody rather than an original song seems to be just that it’s easier or that it gives a shortcut to a laugh. (Even a hardened soul like me will usually give a familiarity chuckle at the start of a parody, even if it’s no good!)

It’s a shame that artists (and yes, sketch comedy should aspire to arthood just like any other theatrical endeavor) take that shortcut. It’s also a little strange that it’s taken by people who genuinely care deeply about their work and it shows in other aspects of their production. Admittedly, writing the music to a song is a different skill set. But if you don’t have it, and you can’t acquire it, well, there are musicians out there who can. Use their services.

The Parody King

I feel like there’s an elephant in the room here: “Weird Al” Yankovic. Let me declare first off that I am a fan. So how do I reconcile that with what I said above?

First off, the dude is skilled and he works hard. That gets you a long way.

Second, he really doesn’t have a lot of output, at least not that makes an album. He’s only released about an album every three years since the early ’90s. They’ve had about 12 songs each, about half of which are parodies. So that’s two releasable parodies a year.

And third, about half of those parodies suck. (Sacrilege!)

His best parodies seem to be the ones where the true subject is the absurdity (and yet, the goodness) of popular music. “White & Nerdy,” “I Think I’m a Clone Now,” “Fat,” and “Like a Surgeon” all spring to mind as examples where the original song is—if you were to read the lyrics as a poem—pretty silly, but the alchemy of words and music and performance makes it work. The parodies work on the same level. Meanwhile, the parodies that have a more specific and tangible purpose (“Achy Breaky Song” for example, with its unsubtle message that “Achy Breaky Heart” was everywhere and it sucked, or the list-of-bad-TV-shows songs “I Can’t Watch This” and “Couch Potato”) are a lot more likely to fail.

Parody with Style

Weird Al does a lot of what he calls style parodies—songs that don’t directly parody a specific song but which sound a lot like some artist or genre. I think this is a much better way to go; he’s certainly had some inspired songs that fall into this category. (“Pancreas”, anyone?)

To draw the discussion back to theater, and not just musical theater or sketch comedy: I’ve been involved in a fair number of “improvised parodies of.” Probably will be again, frankly. But they often occupy a really low-rent section of the improv world.

The counter-example: I stage managed for several months Cast on a Hot Tin Roof, which was an improvised Tennessee Williams parody. But this was very much a style parody; it didn’t parody any particular play, but it got a number of audience suggestions that were common elements in his plays but also provided meaty fodder for improvisation. (Specifically, one character had a dream, that would inevitably be dashed, while another had a deep dark secret that ultimately would be revealed.) The show worked because there was genuine affection for the work it was inspired by; it used elements from Williams’ plays without being constrained by them, and the purpose was to put on an engaging show rather than to get cheap laughs by parodying something. (It also had tremendously good performers.)

Probably the worst parody show I’ve been involved in was an improvised Oscars show. While it had plenty of structural problems (most notably, a rigid structure that constrained any improvisation without even having the benefit of providing a useful framework for the story or characters to be built off of) that made it much worse, this show was rotten to the concept. What is the purpose in parodying the Oscars? To tell the world that they’re vapid? That fruit hangs lower than Joan Rivers’s un-surgeried breasts.

In theory, the show was easy. It’s certainly easy to explain. But in practice, it wasn’t any less work to develop that show than it was any of the other shows that that group did. It was, however, by far the worst. And even if everything had gone right with that show—if the structure had worked perfectly—the quality would have never risen above disposably amusing.

So that’s my real problem with parody. If the technique is chosen out of fear or laziness, it becomes a limitation rather than a tool.

*****

And after that diatribe… catch the Democracy Burlesque show, The War on XMas, this Sunday December 20 at 7 AM on WCPT 820-AM.

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