Parody is a genre of comedy that, as of late, hasn’t exactly had the best reputation. It is my firm belief that the main rule of comedy is to remember that nothing is inherently funny in and of itself. In order to tell a joke, it needs more structure than “just look at this funny thing and laugh”. While people fall into this trap in every form of comedy, parody I feel has been hit the hardest.
Nowadays, in both movies and tv alike, so many people are under the assumption that pop culture references are automatic comedy gold. As a result, so many people who attempt to write parody decide not to put too much effort into their jokes, but rather just pander to those who’ll appreciate the fact that they brought up some kind of media they recognised.
References alone are not what makes a good parody. Parody is all about mockery; the mockery of cliches and tropes of genres or specific movies. And there needs to be more to that mockery that simply “haha, this movie sucks”.
Poking fun at a movie or its tropes can be done in several different ways. Applying realism to a movie or its tropes is a good example for this, through showing how they simply wouldn’t work in the real world, like, say, by having your plucky underdog hero go up against the bigger, stronger bad guy, and getting their ass handed to them within 2.7 seconds. Comedy is often gained through surprise and subverted expectations, so completely going against the cliches we’re used to can generate laughs.
Another good example is taking tropes from one genre and putting them into a genre setting that is either comedic or simply inappropriate. Whether it’s taking characters from a serious setting and sticking them somewhere comedic, or taking comedic characters and putting them in a serious setting, the contrast between serious and silly can also generate a good deal of laughs.
Of course, there are many ways to make a parody work, but for now, let’s take a look at one that works, and one that really, really doesn’t.
Hot Fuzz (contains spoilers for those who may not have seen it)
In spite of the parody genre going downhill, there are still gems in the modern era. Hot Fuzz is one such gem (assuming the noughties still count as the modern era). Part two of the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy, and, in my opinion, the best of the three.
Hot Fuzz goes with the parody formula of “taking a serious character and putting them in a comedic setting/situation”. Our protagonist is Nicholas Angel, an ace cop who takes his job very seriously. Angel is, however, transferred to the police department of a small countryside village called Sanford. There, rather than dealing with serious crimelords like he would have in a serious action movie, the villains of this piece are over the top evil villagers willing to commit murder simply for the sake of winning the village of the year award.
The contrast between Angel as a character, and the location he’s stuck in, is the second main reason why the movie is comedic genius (The first being actually good writing). Seeing a clearly capable action cop protagonist like Angel being stuck doing tasks like having to chase a swan is pretty hilarious. As is the way he often treats the minor crimes as serious as you would expect in an actual police action movie, such as the scene where he arrests underage drinkers, which includes fast past shots and edgy music.
Hot Fuzz is a good example of a parody that makes fun of a genre, but also seems to have a loving respect for said genre. While Angel repeatedly makes it clear to his partner Danny that the real world is not like what you see in the movies, and that people do not in fact shoot their guns while leaping through the air or shooting wildly into the air yelling “aaaaahhh”, all of these tropes are used during the ending sequence. While the movie is poking fun at the genre, it doesn’t feel as though it’s shaming the genre.
While Hot Fuzz may have been a loving parody, that’s not to say that being a cruel parody is the worst example of parody; because the worst example of parody out there is shallow parody.
Shallow parodies are parodies that make fun of things without understanding them at all. They are parodies that pander, rather than make jokes. They take the absolute lowest hanging fruits to make fun of, and make fun of them in the most predictable ways possible. And one of the absolute worst of the bunch is Disaster Movie.
Up until watching the abomination that was Movie 43, Disaster Movie was the worst comedy I’d ever seen in my life. A godawful excuse for a parody from the infamous director duo Seltzer and Friedberg. Now, with a title like that, one would assume it would be primarily making fun of, you know, disaster movies. While the film’s, ahem, “plot” centres around an apocalypse, movies parodied include Juno, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Enchanted, literally none of which could be considered being of the “disaster” genre.
You see, shallow parodies only have one goal in mind, and that is to parody what’s popular. Because popular movies are going to be in the spotlight, so rather than poke fun at them, shallow parodies attempt to leech off of their success. That’s not to say you can’t parody a movie in the spotlight, but when your jokes amount to “look, reference!” then what you’re doing is shallow, and it will reek of pandering to the lowest common denominator.
Disaster movie does not have anything clever or witty to say. The jokes consist either of “take character/movie, make it a little exaggerated or just point out something it does wrong with no witticism at all”, or “take reference 1, combine with reference 2”. What is funny about seeing Giselle from Enchanted in a “Head on, apply directly to the forehead” commercial? Insert Capatin America’s above quote here. What’s funny about pointing out that Amy Winehouse was an alcoholic? Insert Captain America’s above quote here. What’s funny about watching the Juno parody being eaten alive by rabid Alvin and the Chipmunks? Er, literally nothing. That is just fucking disgusting.
While Disaster Movie is not quite the worst comedy I’ve ever seen, it is the most soulless. It is so determined to pander in the most lazy fashion possible, that there’s almost nothing else to say about it.
Comparisons and conclusions
Regardless of whether or not you like or hate the thing you’re parodying, the important thing is that you thoroughly understand it.
You need to understand the tropes and cliches that make it work, or make it seem ridiculous, and you need to know exactly how to present them to your audience in all their ridiculous glory.
Hot Fuzz understands its genre. A good chunk of the comedy comes from the silly situations being presented exactly how they would be in a real police action movie. Disaster movie does not understand any of the movies it’s parodying, to the point where it’s likely the directors only saw the trailers for the movies and nothing else.
Above all else, Hot Fuzz is far more than just its references. Hot Fuzz has an interesting plot, with a likeable protagonist. Nicolas Angel is a perfect parody of the ace cop. He’s and expert at his job and takes things very seriously, to the point where he’s disliked by all the other less competent police officers bar Danny, and clearly has no scoial life due to being married to his job. The mystery of Sanford is a fascinating plot that really does make you wonder what’s going on, with a most hilarious pay off when you learn the truth behind it all.
Disaster movie does not feature characters. It features one dimensional exaggerations of characters we already know. The plot is a paper thin excuse for jokes and references to be thrown up on screen. It’s strung together so loosely that there’s just nothing to it at all.
And, to top it off, Hot Fuzz works as a movie even if you haven’t seen what it’s parodying. Anyone, regardless of whether they’ve seen Point Break or Bad Boys 2, can appreciate the comedy contrast of Nicolas Angel and the village of Sanford. The notion that an evil cult is keeping Sanford perfect and pure just for the sake of winning the village of the year award is funny purely on its own. Disaster Movie, while not funny to begin with, has absolutely nothing to offer if you haven’t seen what its parodying.
And this, overall, is the problem with pure reference humour. When you haven’t seen a movie being parodied, there needs to be a joke beyond “do you understand this reference”. Because that Captain America quote should not be taken as advice on what to expect from your audience.