What is a parody? Is it a joke? Is it a mock of a famous work? We’re going to get to the bottom of those questions by breaking down the history of parodies – as well as by looking at some famous parody examples in film and literature. By the end, you’ll know what makes a parody unique – and how to parody something yourself.
What does parody mean?
If one thing is certain, it’s that nothing is safe from ridicule. Over the years, just about every famous work has been parodied. And for good measure — it keeps even the greatest artists humble.
So, without further ado, let’s define parody.
What is a parody?
A parody is a lampoon or imitation with intentional exaggeration of a specific target or subject for comedic effect. Parodies employ irony, humor, and satire to mock and or criticize their subjects. Over the years, famous works of literature and film have been widely parodied. Filmmakers like Mel Brooks and musicians like "Weird Al" Yankovic have based their careers in the world of parody.
We can trace the history of parodies back to ancient Greece via the parodia, a poetic style meant to mock the style and structure of epics. The Greeks set the stage for “anything goes” parody-law, which is to say that even the Gods weren’t beyond being parodied.
Aristophanes’s play The Frogs (~405 BCE) was one of the first recorded examples of a produced parody. The play follows the God of theater, Dionysus, as he travels to the underworld to meet the great deceased playwrights of Greece. Here’s a breakdown of The Frogs by Course Hero.
The Frogs is widely lauded not just for its historical importance but its comedic story as well; its parodic qualities lie in how it lampoons various deities.
Some other famous examples of parody in literature include Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney’s Bored of the Rings (which parodies J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which parodies Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), and Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (which parodies Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind). These works are just the tip of the iceberg for the parody literary definition.
Whats a Movie Parody?
Parody movie examples
Movie parodies have been around for just about as long as cinema. Over the years, they’ve grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and mocked countless iconic films.
Here are a few of the most famous movie parodies:
THE AUSTIN POWERS FRANCHISE
The spy movie genre is no stranger to movie parodies; take Get Smart, Agent Cody Banks, and Spy for example. But perhaps the best spy movie parodies are the Austin Powers movies; which star Mike Myers as the eponymous mockery of James Bond.
Check out Austin Powers director Jay Roach break down the opening scene of Goldmember below.
It’s one thing to parody an entire genre, it’s another to take on a specific work, so let's take a look at a film that parodies a specific work.
I could’ve gone with either Spaceballs or Galaxy Quest here, but I went with the latter because it’s a better film.
Galaxy Quest parodies the Star Trek franchise by exposing the ludicrous while celebrating the irreverent. To this day, it remains one of the best examples of how to send up a beloved intellectual property.
MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL AND MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIANMonty Python was known to spoof more than a few iconic works in their day, but perhaps none were more iconic than their riffs on the Bible and Arthurian legend. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was the culmination of years of amateur parodies. It was good, but it wasn’t their magnum opus – Monty Python’s Life of Brian was.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian is an exaggerated take on the Bible and religious dogma, but it’s not an indictment of Christianity. Quite the contrary actually, one could argue that their parodic interpretations, the Pythons affirm the idealistic optimism of Jesus’s teachings. “Blessed are the cheesemakers” and blessed are the Pythons.
In the Music World
Parody music examples
There are a lot of music parodies; especially on YouTube. Some aren’t great – truth be told a vast majority of them aren’t great. But there are some diamonds in the rough.
WHITE & NERDY
We can’t talk about music parodies without bringing up Weird Al Yankovic. And we can’t talk about Weird Al Yankovic without bringing up “White & Nerdy.” Weird Al’s spoof of “Ridin” by Chamillionare and Krayzie Bone is certified platinum – and was given the stamp of approval by Chamillionare.
Weird Al has made more than 100 spoof songs over his illustrious career, many of which are just as popular, if not more than their originals.
SNL catches a lot of flack these days but they’ve actually made some great music parodies in their tenure. Perhaps none better than that of Eminem and Dido’s classic “Stan.”
By structuring the song around Christmas, the SNL staff was able to riff on “Stan” with a special kind of psychotic yuletide cheer.
What is a Parody Used For?
Politics, skits, and copyright law
People love to send up politicians and iconic brands alike. Want to see how they do it successfully? Check out the SNL clip below.
“Bill Clinton at McDonald’s” is a rather coy lampoon of the former President at the world’s most famous fast-food restaurant. It’s simple, but effective nonetheless.
Here’s a different example of a political satire from The Onion:
In this example, The Onion parodies U.S. politics without any specific targets, thus begging us to question: is it parody or satire? And that’s a tricky question to answer. Many scholars on the subject argue that there’s too little difference between the two to make a difference in court.
We typically regard parody as something that mocks a specific target and satire as something that mocks something else. But is “politics” a “specific target” or something else? Films are allowed to send up entire genres for example – shouldn’t sketches be allowed to do the same? Something to consider for anybody interested in parodies.
There’s a perception in the entertainment industry that “parody law” – which the appellate courts of the United States’s Second, Ninth, and Eleventh circuits ruled was admissible under Title 17 of the United States Code fair use clause – can permit anybody to use comedic exaggeration on all intellectual properties.
That’s a bit misleading. The truth is that parody law often only goes as far as its lawyers take it. Take this example from Nathan For You for example.
Nathan Fielder argued that by putting “dumb” in front Starbucks, he was parodying the Starbucks brand. Starbucks’s lawyers didn’t have a chance to agree or disagree before the Health Department stepped in – but it would’ve been curious to see how they felt.
What is Satire?
Parody and satire are two sides of the same coin. Want to learn more about satire? Check out our next article where we break down three types of satire: horatian, juvenalian, and menippean, with examples from Dr. Strangelove, South Park, and more. By the end, you’ll know how to recognize satire in creative works.