Genrely Speaking: Parody

So last time around I talked about deconstruction and how it’s all about taking a genre back to basics. This month let’s take a look at another genre that’s very meta in it’s approaches to tropes, characters and story – parody.

Parody is a genre (metagenre?), like deconstruction, that is best when the creator behind it has a deep and abiding love of the foundational genre. While it can be done without that love, parodies that are just done to create a parody have a tendency to feel flat and lifeless at best or downright mean-spirited and petty at worst, frequently lapsing into the third metagenre, satire. Parody is closest to a characteristic genre, because most of it’s scenarios are drawn straight from the aesthetic genre being parodied while the characters toss around more lampshades than a discount furniture store.

The goal of all this nonsense is, of course, to illustrate the nonsense of the genre being parodied. Fun is the name of the game, fun had by pushing tropes to the limit and beyond to see how absurd they are then cleverly tying it all together to give the viewers the resolution they expect but not in the way they expected.

When you see the following, it’s probably safe to assume you’re dealing with parody:

  1. Lampshades. Big lampshades. Everywhere. Part of the humor in a parody is showing how the conventions of the parodied genre don’t actually make a whole lot of sense. And then, of course, allowing your characters to accept that absurdity as a part of their world and move on. In addition to being very funny it offers a valuable life lesson – much of real life doesn’t make sense to us but we still need to accept it to be able to function. Doing it with a bit of humor just makes it that much easier to do.
  2. Characters who are dangerously genre savvy. Since parodies tend to stack up tropes faster than Scrooge McDuck stacks money there’s a real need for the main characters to recognize and deal with the situations as fast as possible, otherwise the story either bogs down horribly or reaches the point where any believable resolution is impossible. Most of the time genre savvy is restricted to just one or two characters in a standard genre story – if more are demonstrating it odds are good you’re in a parody.
  3. As much flair and embellishment as possible. While most genres are trying to keep focus on their own central elements parody expects the audience to bring a functional knowledge of the central elements of its parent genre to the table so it can focus on making the tropes as big and over the top as possible rather than digging in to the depths of potential meaning the parent genre has.

What are the weaknesses of a parody? Probably the biggest is the basic investment parody expects its audience to have in the parent genre. A high fantasy parody expects us to understand the idea of rings of power or halflings and be ready to be entertained by them, it’s not going to delve too deeply into those concepts it’s going to be contorting them into new and weird shapes in an attempt to make us laugh.

On top of that, parody is a very loud and bombastic genre, very easily coming off as without reverence for the parent genre it is based on. And in some cases that’s true. A genre can suddenly skyrocket to popularity and detractors of the genre will try and show what’s wrong with it by using a parody – an attempt that pretty much always fails. Other times a creator’s idea of what would make a good parody doesn’t resonate with large chunks of a genre’s audience and the parody’s creator winds up loosing a lot of the audience he should be catering most too.

What are the strengths of a parody? As I said in the above point about lampshading, a good-natured attitude towards apparent absurdity is by no means a bad thing and parodies are very good at showing us how to maintain that. Also, the freakish gambit pileups that are often at the heart of parodies can be incredible showcases for creativity and fresh ideas, something genres can come up short on over time.

Most of all, parodies remind creators not to take themselves too seriously. Yes, being a creator is serious business. It’s very hard work most all of the time. It can be very easy to loose sight of the obligations creators have to their audiences, to loose touch with a spirit of fun that can make even the hardest messages more palatable. By bringing everyone, audience and creator, back in contact with that spirit the parody can do it’s parent genre a great service.

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2 responses to “Genrely Speaking: Parody

  1. I always enjoy your Genrely Speaking posts, Nate. But I am also a person who likes examples, lots of examples. I would love to know some of your favorite parodies, along with some which didn’t work, and some which are actually satire.

    • Hm… truth to tell I’m not a huge fan of parodies but I can think of a few that I’ve enjoyed. Spaceballs and Galaxy Quest come to mind as very funny movies and the webcomic Sluggy Freelance, while not parody in it’s entirety, does have several stories that are clearly intended as parody. Some of the best parodies I’ve seen in recent time were episodes of the TV series Gravity Falls by (of all people) Disney.

      Some pointing out parodies that don’t quite work for me is a little harder. I don’t seek them out so there’s not many for me to choose from. But the biggest I can think of is Problem Sleuth, another webcomic that is supposed to be a parody of noir and choose your own adventure stories but mostly comes off as just absurdest humor. It’s funny at times but just doesn’t hold together.

      A film that walks the line between satire and parody, and suffers for it in my opinion, is Inglorious Bastards. I can’t tell if Tarantino wanted to spoof war movies, satirize them or just continue making bizarre movies that try to blend philosophy and violence in disturbing ways. If it is a satire it would work best, as plenty of great satires are disturbing. (See, Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies.) But I think it was meant more as a parody of war movies and that just makes it kind of weird…

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