A parody (PAIR-uh-dee) deliberately exaggerates a specific literary genre or writer’s work for humorous effect. This overstated approach allows parodies to mimic their source material in a way that highlights the themes or styles of the original. Depending on the goals of the writer, a parody may lightly critique the original text, celebrate it, or challenge readers to think of it in a new light. However, the primary objective of the parodist is to make the reader laugh.
Parodies, in their written form, are usually a work of fiction or poetry, but they’re also prevalent in other media, like movies, television shows, and music. This underscores the entertainment value and broad appeal these works possess.
The word parody comes from the Greek parōidia, meaning a “burlesque song or poem.” English playwright and poet Ben Jonson first used the term in the 1590s to describe literary works that mimicked “dignified writing…but are made ridiculous by the ludicrously inappropriate subject or methods.”
The History of Parody
Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed that Hegemon of Thasos invented parody as it is known today. Hegemon would slightly change the wording of famous poems to exaggerate their meaning and make them silly and entertaining.
A few other parodist from history include Assyrian satirist Lucian of Samosata, who parodied The Odyssey and Indica with a mock travelogue that lampooned Homer and other classical authors; Medieval English writer Geoffrey Chaucer, who parodied chivalric romances in The Canterbury Tales; Eighteenth-century English poet John Phillips, who parodied the superficially epic style of Paradise Lost in his poem “The Splendid Shilling,” and American writer Bayard Taylor parodied his 19th-century contemporaries like Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman in Diversions of the Echo Club.
During the 20th century, parodies only increased in popularity, especially with the advent of film and television. Because parodies tend to attract large readerships, it’s not surprising writers have continued to create them throughout history or that they’ve maintained their appeal.
The Elements of Parody
Writers utilize different literary and rhetorical devices when creating parodies. The most common include hyperbole, inversion, and trivialization.
Hyperbole is the literary version of exaggeration, and it forms the bedrock of virtually every parody. One could argue that without hyperbole, there could be no parody. Hyperbole takes all or a portion of the original text and reimagines it in extreme terms. For example, the novel Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, written by Andrew Shaffer, is a parody of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Shaffer’s novel spoofs the original by having a young business tycoon seduce a naïve coed. In Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, the coed discovers that the titular Earl has some shameful interests, like the rock band Nickelback or shopping at Walmart. These are, of course, hilariously different than the interests of Christian Grey.
Inversion is a literary device in which a writer reverses the normal or accepted order of things. They might reverse a particular way of writing, spelling, or, in the case of poetry, meter; they might also reverse a set of values, ideas, beliefs, or expectations. William Shakespeare’s poem “Sonnet 130” makes abundant use of inversion. Shakespeare writes in the style of the love poems of his day, but this is more of a contrarian’s love poem:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lip’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks…
Trivialization takes a large or serious subject and treats it as ridiculous or irrelevant. Craig Brown’s parody The Lost Diaries reimagines the diary entries of numerous historical and cultural figures, including U2 singer Bono. The fictional Bono writes, almost in passing, that “We did some mad s**t together, the Dalai Lama and I.” One would think, of course, that this would be a significant story to tell, but it’s presented as virtually irrelevant. Brown’s approach parodies the excesses of the celebrity lifestyle and perhaps even religious or spiritual hypocrisy.
Parody and Other Related Concepts
Parody vs. Satire
Parodies are closely related to a number of other literary concepts, the most obvious being satire. Both lampoon a specific subject through exaggeration; satire, however, usually has a loftier goal in mind. Satirists critique someone or something—often a public figure, social norm, or government policy—to highlight the subject’s corruption, hypocrisy, or ineptitude. The humor in a satire, then, serves as a commentary on a larger, more serious issue. A parody, by contrast, doesn’t set out to make a value judgement about its subject, though it can certainly contain satiric elements and vice versa. Also, a parodist always bases their work on another existing work or genre; while the satirist can employ this kind of imitation, they can also create wholly original works that exaggerate people or ideas.
Parody vs. Sarcasm
Parodies and sarcasm go hand in hand, but they aren’t identical concepts. Both rely heavily on exaggeration to expose the flaws, injustices, or the plain old humor of a situation. Tone is where they differ. Sarcasm is intentionally deceptive and stinging in its rebuke of its subject. Parody is markedly gentler, with a focus on what is funny and entertaining about the subject.
Parody vs. Caricature
Form distinguishes parody from caricature. Both imitate another work, style, or person, but parodies are written works, while caricatures are pictorial representations. The parodist utilizes words to show exaggeration, and the caricaturist draws exaggerated features or qualities about the subject as hyperbole.
Parody vs. Allusion
Allusions are written references to an object or subject that appears outside the text. They are an integral component of parodies, as they refer the reader to specific source material. An allusion can appear in any type of literary work, but parodies must have them to shed light on the original inspiration for the piece.
Parody vs. Pastiche
Parodies and pastiches share some important qualities—like a dependence on mimicry—but they are separate literary ideas. A pastiche mimics a certain artistic period, era, or style, while a parody mimics specific works and writers. Parodies are generally more lighthearted and comedic than pastiches, and they’re more apt to contain satiric elements than pastiches. For example, Alexandra Ripley’s novel Scarlett and Donald McCaig’s Rhett Butler’s People are pastiches of Gone with the Wind, both serving as sequels written in the style of original author Margaret Mitchell. Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, on the other hand, is a satire and parody of Mitchell’s novel, told from the viewpoint of a slave on Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation to critique Mitchell’s portrayal of black people.
Parody vs. Burlesque
A burlesque is even more direct than a parody in its ridicule. Burlesques employ exaggeration to make an often-serious subject more lowbrow and humorous. They aren’t as tightly bound to the structural styles of the original work in the way parodies are. Parodies emphasize the voice of the original text, while burlesques are freer and even more open with their mockery, frequently bordering on the lewd.
The Function of Parodies
The point of this literary genre is to make the reader laugh. Most writers base their parodies on works or genres that are well known and well understood so readers can enjoy the comical skewering of the subject. A parody can also point out features of an original work that a reader may not be aware of, allowing for a new appreciation. A satirist who includes parodic elements in their work, or a parodist who includes satiric elements, can make a commentary on social themes more pointed and successful.
Potential Legal Issues with Parody
The American justice system protects most kinds of parodies under the doctrine of Fair Use, which states that writers can use copyrighted material in certain circumstances without the express permission of the copyright holder. Fair use considers parodies as a social commentary or literary criticism of the original text, which is legal in most cases. What this essentially means is that a parodist can mock a copyrighted work so long as it’s obviously a parody of the original.
Parody Outside of Literature
Plays, movies, television shows, and music routinely parody other works. Bertolt Brecht’s play Saint Joan of the Stockyards riffs on George Bernard Shaw’s Saint John, though its tone and message are much more serious than most parodies. Gerard Alessandrini’s Forbidden Broadway is a parody of beloved—and not-so-beloved—Broadway musicals. Popular television shows are frequent sources of stage parodies, including The Real Live Brady Bunch, Friends! The Musical Parody, and The Office! A Musical Parody.
The Carol Burnett Show often parodied classic movies; in one of the most famous, they mocked Gone with the Wind in a skit called “Went with the Wind!”. The animated TV series Family Guy is a parody of nuclear family television shows. 30 Rock is a sendup of both the entertainment industry and behind-the-scenes-style exposés. Both The Office and Parks and Recreation parody modern office culture through the lens of mockumentary filmmakers.
The big screen has plenty of parodies as well. Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein hilariously mocks Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Scary Movie roasts the horror film genre, and Airplane! takes aim at the disaster epics that were so popular during the 1970s.
Perhaps the most famous parodist in popular culture is “Weird Al” Yankovic. He has built a successful career around his unique twist on popular songs. His repertoire includes “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”; “Smells Like Nirvana,” a parody of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; and “Amish Paradise,” a parody of “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio.
- Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
- Ann Droyd, Goodnight iPad, Siri & Me
- Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
- Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
- The humorous publication The Harvard Lampoon, which published books like Bored of the Rings, Nightlight, The Hunger Pains
- Adam Mansbach, Go the F**k to Sleep
- Alexander Pope, “The Rape of the Lock”
- John Reed, Snowball’s Chance, All the World’s a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare
- Reductress is a website that parodies women’s magazines
- Andrew Shaffer, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey
- Ben H. Winters, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina
Examples of Parody in Literature
1. Alexander Pope, “The Rape of the Lock”
Pope’s 1712 poem is a parody of what, at the time, was a serious scandal. A man from a well-to-do family cuts a lock of hair from a woman of another well-to-do family, and this brought great dishonor to both:
Say what strange motive, Goddess! could compel
A well-bred lord t’ assault a gentle belle?
say what stranger cause, yet unexplor’d,
Could make a gentle belle reject a lord?
In tasks so bold, can little men engage,
And in soft bosoms dwells such mighty rage?
Pope trivializes the event through inversion, wittily interpreting the travails of the two central figures as a mock epic. Doing so allows Pope to question the seriousness of the scandalous act—and encourages others to do the same.
2. Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
Gibbons’s 1932 novel is a parody of melodramatic romance novels set in the English countryside, which were exceedingly trendy at the time. It follows a suddenly poor but plucky young Londoner named Flora Poste who visits relatives on the remote Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex. Flora takes it upon herself to introduce her family and the other farm inhabitants to modern life and freedoms and singlehandedly usher them into the 20th century:
Flora inherited, however, from her father a strong will and from her mother a slender ankle. The one had not been impaired by always having her own way nor the other by the violent athletic sports in which she had been compelled to take part, but she realized that neither was adequate as an equipment for earning her keep.
3. Kenneth Koch, “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams”
Koch’s 2005 poem parodies the spare style and stark language of William Carlos Williams. The poem contains four stanzas, and, in each one, the poet apologizes for a different wrong he has committed, presumably to a lover. This stanza is a play on Williams’s poem “This Is Just to Say”:
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.
Further Resources on Parody
The Artifice does a deep-drive into parodies in literature, television, movies, and art.
Copyright Alliance looks at how fair use copyright laws apply to parody and satire.
Goodreads has a comprehensive list of popular parodies.
Flavorwire breaks down 10 Literary Parodies That Work.
Alternet offers a list of Feminist Parodies That Blur the Lines Between Laughter and Politics.