Surely You Can’t Be Serious: On the Necessity of Parody

What’s it called when you read a diagnosis and its symptoms, and immediately determine that you have the disease in question? Whatever the technical name, I’ve got an ailment to add to my hypochondriac’s litany of likely diseases: witzelsucht.  Witzelsucht is a neurological condition in which the sufferer is essentially a nonstop fountain of jokes and puns. Yep, this is a real thing. Regrettably, it can show up in the early onset of those with dementia, but is nonetheless a fantastic trick of the mind.

I learned about witzelsucht in the same week I embarked on a binge watch of TBS’ Angie Tribeca, a parody of police shows like so many Law and Orders (Laws and Order?) or CSIs before it. Created and executive produced by Steve Carell and Nancy Walls Carell, it has a comedic sensibility that you would expect from such a brain trust. As I watched, and compared its characteristics to other types of comedy, I agreed with the source that taught me about witzelsucht: in a world that’s gotten accustomed to binge-watching and repeated viewings of our favorite shows, parody is the form of comedy that benefits most from the barrage of jokes it generates.

One of the signs of a good joke, for me, is that it gets more funny with subsequent views (rather than less). And I found new things to love with repeat viewings of episodes, sight gags that I missed before or jokes that didn’t land the first time but I noticed on a second go. Parody is ripe for this, because of just how many jokes it needs to work successfully. These jokes have to strike a balance of universality and specificity, one delicate enough to let Airplane be continually funny to those who didn’t live through the epidemic of disaster movies of the 1970s (which it does), lest you end up with the later Scary Movie installments (lots of problems there, but for now…at times too specific to be relatable). Tribeca recognizes its need to honor its predecessors so fully, it debuted on TBS with a 25-hour marathon, not unlike the manner in which many consume its serious counterpart on its sister channel, TNT.

Where stand-up is carefully crafted to provide the maximum number of laughs in a finite period, sketch comedy is tied into a structure that dictates how many jokes make sense, and improv relies less on going for humor and more for authentic reactions that feel funny in their own right, parody relies on volume to create a layered experience that is funny for different reasons each time it’s viewed. Take this exchange, from early in the second episode, as Angie tries to explain to her partner Jay Geils (another layer!) why she’s so closed off in their interactions; I love it because it plays on exactly what you’d expect from a situation like this on its actual counterpart, but takes a sharp turn toward the end.

GEILS: Man, you don’t let anyone in, do you?
TRIBECA: Let’s just say, I was engaged to my partner and he died under unusual circumstances.
[beat]
GEILS AND TRIBECA, IN UNISON: I was engaged to my partner and he died under unusual circumstances.

Parody is popping up with greater frequency in other media too- think The Onion or Reductress (which if you’re not reading, I give you permission to take a break and check out the amazing stuff they’re doing), the phenomenal run of The Colbert Report, or books like Megan Amram’s Science! For Her or The Daily Show’s America: The Book. In higher education (where I normally live), it’s been attempted with Tumblrs like What Should We Call Student Affairs, but refined through the currently popular Humans of Higher Ed (more on that later). I have a theory as to why, and we’ll get to that later too.

Where other forms of comedy balance the silliness that you find in parody with a “straight man” (or person) to demonstrate the absurdity, parody leaves that role to the viewer/reader/consumer, something that IndieWire noted shortly after Angie Tribeca’s debut:

One of the keys to the series’ success is its total commitment to the type of world being depicted.Everyone is in on the many jokes. No one questions that a dog is driving a cop car or rolls their eyes when someone makes an obvious pun (sometimes repeatedly). Each character embraces the premise, and that allows the audience to do the same. We all feel connected to this strange world, and the jokes land because of it.

But the most important ingredient for solid parody – an art form that is designed to provide entertainment through poking fun at a genre or concept – is to demonstrate some semblance of respect for the “source material.” Even when the format is used to make a commentary on or criticism of its original, at which point parody moves into the territory of satire, it lands best when it takes painstaking care to work within the confines of the medium it seeks to lampoon. Tribeca does that admirably, as noted by The Wrap, much in the spirit of the original masters of the form:

With Airplane and Police Squad!, creative partners Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker created a perfectly straight-faced brand of comedy that aped its targets by replicating them almost exactly, only with slight variations that called attention to the source material’s self-seriousness.

Here, parody and satire distinguish themselves from its close cousin snark by caring enough about the source material to mimic it artfully. In a climate that supports headline-based pontification and hate-watching, the commitment that good parody and satire writers make to understand a form of expression before speaking on it, is admirable. We need parody to exist as an antidote to other less thoughtful forms of commentary, ones borne from an incomplete or ill-informed understanding of a topic. Parody and satire do the heavy lifting of understanding how a concept works before deciding where the funny is. It’s hard work, but the payoff is worth it. And while a case of witzelsucht might be helpful to deploy it, it may not be necessary.

We’ll talk more about this next week with the creators of the parody/satire site Humans of Higher Ed, a Humans of New York parody site designed to lampoon the many frustrations hidden in higher education.

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