Parodies can contain a multitude of differences across a multitude of genres. So how do you even approach writing a tricky and difficult-to-define subgenre? In short, you must try to understand the nuances of parody and the nuances of what you’re parodying before trying to write parody in your screenplay.
So in this article, we’ll break down some of the ways that parody can form in film and TV in order to better understand how you can realize it in your own screenplay. We will identify some of the factors that make a successful parody by analyzing some great parody films and TV, as well as outlining what some parody flops did wrong.
Table of Contents
- What is Parody?
- Parody vs Pastiche vs Homage
- A Brief History of Parody in Film
- How to Write Parody Using Mockumentary
- Superhero Parody
- Pop Culture and Blockbuster Parodies
- The Lonely Island and How They Write Parody
- In Conclusion
What is Parody?
In layman’s terms, a parody is an over-the-top imitation of something.
a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridiculeMerriam-Webster
You could write parody, for example, of a film, song, style or even a brand.
But what makes a parody successful?
The one condition for a successful parody is that the audience must recognize what is being spoofed. Without that knowledge, the audience is blind to the purpose of the piece.
Another common question when it comes to parody is: how did they get permission to do this? Legally, how is it possible to take, for example, a brand and write parody attacking it? The legality of how parody is possible is covered perfectly in this clip from Nathan For You. Here, the episode uses parody to help a struggling business gain notoriety.
As long as the parody is obviously imitating copyrighted work and not trying to be perceived as the real article, it’s considered fair use. Nathan for You is here itself parodying the existence and use of parody law by pushing the boundaries of logical parody.
There are some distinctions between parody and other commonly mistaken terms such as:
The differences between these names are small but significant. Let’s take a closer look…
Parody vs Pastiche vs Homage
The film franchise Scary Movie is a good example of parody.
- It’s obvious to the audience that they’re watching a spoof of a slasher film, and of the horror genre.
- It primarily parodies the iconic Ghostface from Wes Cravens’ Scream, which itself is a satire of popular tropes from the slashers of the 1970s and 80s.
- Though Scream does criticise its predecessors, it’s more of a pastiche than an outright parody.
Pastiches are much more respectful of their source material than parodies. The Cabin in the Woods is an example of a pastiche.
- It imitates the conventions and typical structure of classic horror films to subvert audience expectations.
- All while still being a frightening and hilarious film in its own right.
Homages, meanwhile, are the most unique of the three. Unlike a parody or pastiche, a homage pays the utmost respect to its inspiration. Homages don’t look to imitate a film, style, or filmmaker for comedic effect or to satirize. Rather, they emphasize how highly regarded the original work is to the filmmakers.
A good example of a homage is La La Land.
- The film is one big throwback to the golden age of Hollywood and its silver-screen musicals.
- There is also a scene that specifically homages Rebel Without a Cause.
- The protagonists drive towards the iconic Griffith Observatory in a shot-for-shot remake of the coming-of-age classic.
Homages don’t frequently come in the form of entire films. Usually, for instance, a homage is a single scene or smaller portion of a film.
A Brief History of Parody in Film
- The Great Train Robbery itself is often the subject of homage. Its close-up of a gun barrel pointing at the camera can be seen in many films to this day, for example.
- However, the director Edwin S. Porter even parodied his own film just two years later in 1905.
- The sequel is a remake of the original but boasts a cast entirely made up of children. Naturally, the tone shifts from being a serious western to a more tongue-in-cheek parody. And it shows how a slight subversion can achieve parody.
In 1940, Charlie Chaplin’s first foray into the talkies with The Great Dictator was one of the first majorly successful parodies. Loved by audiences at the time, it is still revered by modern critics.
And The Great Dictator was a trailblazer for parody being used as satire and social commentary. It picks up on and exaggerates the quirks of Hitler, all whilst eventually delivering a powerful and important message about the dangers of fascism.
The parody sub genre has steadily grown from its early beginnings here to the present day. And it remains an effective manner of providing critique.
Furthermore, despite most parodies being comedic, the nature of parodying anything means there is much crossover with other genres. To further understand how to write parody, let’s explore some popular parody subgenres.
How to Write Parody Using Mockumentary
Some of the best parodies come in the form of mockumentaries. A mockumentary is a type of parody that uses the documentary genre to spoof various topics. This is achieved by scripting a fake documentary and being satirical and hyperbolic about the subject matter for comedic effect.
The film satirizes the pretentious attitudes of rock bands and the idolatry documentaries made about them. It also mocks many of the behaviors associated with rock stars of that era.
It proves how identifying the quirks of a particular world is the ground from which a good parody springs. Once you have identified those key, recognizable aspects, you can begin to exaggerate them for comic effect. And this exaggeration often takes a surreal or bizarre form. Familiar traits are, for instance, given a twist or taken to their extreme, with the characters typically unaware of such exaggeration.
The characters’ lack of awareness is also a key part of the parody’s success. The characters must be existing in this world as if everything is normal for them, even if they’re struggling to do so. Then, the juxtaposition between their perception of the reality in front of them and our perception of it as bizarre and/or over the top is what creates the comedy.
Mockumentaries aren’t confined to spoof rock documentaries, however, and can parody a variety of subjects, as proved by the following examples…
Examples of Mockumentary
- Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
- Sacha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary blurs the line between documentary and mockumentary with his fictional documentarian, Borat. The Kazakhstani character brilliantly satirizes American views towards foreign culture and customs by placing an exaggerated character in front of real American participants and seeing how they react to him.
- What We Do in the Shadows
- A mockumentary that follows the lives of vampires living in modern society. This film keeps to the typical documentary format. But the film parodies the documentary format as the seriousness juxtaposes hilariously with the hijinks of the vampires it focuses on.
- Documentary Now
- An anthology mockumentary series created by Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, and Rhys Thomas. Each episode gives an iconic documentary the parody treatment. Documentary Now is a must-see for fans of comedy and documentaries as it takes just about any documentary format you can imagine and parodies it. It’s a series that is deeply familiar with the language and tropes of documentary and uses this knowledge to acutely satirize the form.
The parody genre owes its success and its popularity largely to its source material. The keen-eyed would probably notice that parody films often piggyback on filmmaking trends and box office successes.
Since Iron Man kicked off the MCU in 2008, filmmakers have increasingly been parodying the superhero genre. And it’s, once again, a familiarity with the genre that many audiences have that allows for this parody to work easily. However, films had parodied the genre before Marvel dominated the scene. Notably, Pixar parodied superheroes with The Incredibles.
The story juxtaposes having superpowers with the mundanity of life outside of the costume. The characters battle not only with arch-enemies but also the realities of life and growing old. It acts as a parody as it uses the language of the superhero movie that we understand but subverts expectations by using elements of another genre, drama.
The characters wrestle with many of the issues that a traditional family drama would deal with (mid-life crisis/straining relationships/teenage angst), with the twist being that they all have superpowers. Not only does this kind of parody achieve a comic effect, but it also manages to nestle the film into another, more family-orientated, genre.
Examples of Superhero Parodies
Just like the mockumentary subgenre of parody, superhero parodies can be very different. And each example may write parody to achieve a different effect and intention. To understand more, let’s look at some examples and what they do to uniquely parody the genre.
- A parody of the pure ridiculousness of many superhero movies, Kick-Ass shows the audience time and again how unrealistic these movies are. The first scene, for instance, depicts a man falling to his death after thinking he can fly.
- The Boys
- A TV series that uses parody to satirize and make social commentary and is perhaps more serious than most parodies. The Vought 7 is an almost one-for-one rip-off of DC’s Justice League. The Boys points out the social and political issues that having super-powered people in normal society could cause.
- The Deadpool character is a fourth-wall-breaking, foul-mouthed, walking parody. Here, Marvel parodies its own genre by obliterating the conventions that made it so popular. Deadpool is a decidedly violent, crude, and not kid-friendly superhero film. Again it grossly subverts the expectations of the genre, using the language of that very genre to openly mock it.
All these films wouldn’t work without the audience’s familiarity with the genres they’re parodying. And this is what ultimately makes a parody work. If the audience didn’t know what was being made fun of or subverted then the shorthand the films use wouldn’t hit as effectively.
However, each of the above examples also demonstrates that to write parody, you need to work in conjunction with a story that is compelling in its own right. Parody is one part of these films. But ultimately the parody is carried within the body of a story that can hold its own weight.
Pop Culture and Blockbuster Parodies
The above examples demonstrate parodies that work in large part due to the strength of the story carrying the parody. But there are also examples that illustrate the inconsistent and more precarious success of parodies that lack a strong story.
Scary Movie, for example, really popularized the blockbuster parody subgenre. These parody films simply took aim at whichever huge title came along next.
Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have directed, written, and produced eight blockbuster parodies alone. Each one is a crude parody of a popular blockbuster movie or popular genre as a whole.
- Scary Movie – Scream and the horror genre
- Date Movie – The romantic comedy genre
- Epic Movie – The epic film genre
- Meet the Spartans – A parody of Zack Snyder’s 300
- Disaster Movie – The disaster film genre
- Vampires Suck – The Twilight franchise
- The Starving Games – The Hunger Games
- Superfast! – The Fast and the Furious
These films were widely panned by critics and audiences alike and the box office numbers for these films dwindled drastically with each new release. Many critics refute the claim that these films are even parodies. They criticise them for essentially being plagiarism as the films piggyback on the success of their source material, adding no real value to the story.
There are also valid complaints about the abundance of disgusting jokes, offensive stereotypes, gratuitous violence and nudity in all the films.
It’s safe to say these parodies serve as cautionary tales rather than blueprints. Parody can seem like an easy way of capitalizing on a genre’s popularity. But a good parody needs more than that, it needs originality too. More importantly, parody should ideally be rooted in good storytelling and characters in order to be absorbing.
The Lonely Island and How They Write Parody
What Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer’s films prove is that parody needs to be anchored to something more concrete than just gags and stereotypes in order to succeed. However, this is particularly true in feature film format. Where parody perhaps can afford to be rawer and more freeform is within sketch comedy.
Since the early 2000s, for example, comedy trio Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer, known collectively as The Lonely Island, have been making parodic content.
Whilst working for Saturday Night Live the trio started making music video sketches that were parodies of pop culture and popular music. Through SNL they’d collaborate with many world-famous artists like Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Adam Levine and T-Pain. Their parody music videos, such as I Threw it on the Ground, I’m on a Boat, and YOLO, would go viral and garner millions of views.
In 2006 they’d make their first feature Hot Rod, an Evil Knievel spoof about an amateur stuntman. And ten years later they would make another feature, 2016’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, a mockumentary parodying Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.
Their films also often coincide with the release of music albums of the parody tracks featured in the films, which, in turn, serve as a key part of how the parody is effective.
Why Does the Lonely Island Work?
So why does The Lonely Island’s parody work? Well, first of all, the tropes they observe and make fun of are acutely observed and brilliantly executed. These aren’t lazy stereotypes and piggybacks off of other genres, they’re observations that come from a knowledge and affection for the subjects they’re satirizing.
Furthermore, the songs themselves are a crucial part of the parody’s success. The songs on their own prove catchy, likeable and funny twists on familiar styles.
Essentially, the parody works because, as with our superhero examples, it’s an element of the work but not the sole element. It’s carried by other successful parts of execution such as acting, comedy, character, music and visuals. Every element is well thought through and well-executed in order to lubricate the parody and its effect.
From the short and snappy skits that parody specific songs, to the longer work that parodies aspects of the culture at large, The Lonely Island’s work shows as much as any other example that to write parody that connects with an audience, you must be finely attuned to the specifics of what you’re parodying but also have the skills to pull it off.
There are no set conventions a writer needs to follow to write parody. The nature of parody is malleable in that sense. But all great parodies will take aim at a subject and make fun of it using various comedic techniques. Look at the way Borat toys with ignorance or Deadpool openly mocks superhero cliches.
The distinction between parody and plagiarism can be a thin line. So to avoid writing a cheap knock-off, it’s important to challenge your source material. The Boys, for example, could have been a poor clone of DC’s Justice League. But instead, it finds its own purpose. And through elements of character, themes and narrative, the parody becomes more successful and compelling.
This is the lesson of how to write parody. Without good characters, story and execution (particularly in a feature) the parody will likely seem hollow. But having substantial elements to help carry the parody will make it much more likely that your parody will land effectively.
At the heart of all great parody is a wider aim than to just make audiences laugh at tropes they recognize. Whether it’s humanizing stock characters or highlighting negative aspects of society, parody can be a route to connecting with the audience by first serving up something they recognize and then subverting those expectations.
This article was written by Ben Handscomb and edited by IS Staff.
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