6 Parodies That Succeeded Because Nobody Got the Joke
As we have previously complained, it's getting harder and harder to tell the difference between parody and real life. Is that Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots movie starring Hugh Jackman intentionally silly? Or was somebody behind that really trying their best?
So maybe it's no surprise that through history, lots of things that were created to be intentionally bad mockeries were loved unironically by audiences. For instance ...
Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner Were Parodies of Tom and Jerry
The "chase" cartoon is a classic trope in the animation genre. The Tom and Jerry cartoons are some of the most famous pioneers, but there are endless variations: Sylvester wanted to catch Tweety so he could eat him, Elmer wanted to shoot Bugs or Daffy because he was a hunter and Pepe Le Pew wanted to rape Penelope because he was French. And a rapist.
In 1949, writer and animator Chuck Jones decided he wanted to take a gentle jab at the genre by writing a chase cartoon, but take it to absurd extremes. While earlier Tom and Jerry shorts had featured a battle of wits:
... Jones' vision, about a hungry coyote chasing after a cocky roadrunner with several extra IQ digits, featured ridiculous gadgets and a universe with ludicrously inconsistent rules:
It was ridiculous, nonsensical and incredibly violent. And audiences loved it. The debut Coyote/Road Runner short, "Fast and Furry-ous," ended up changing the chase-cartoon game forever. Later, even Tom and Jerry cartoons followed suit by easing up on pranks and focusing more on absurd gadgets and outrageous schemes.
All because he made a "See how stupid these are?" parody. It'd be like if Itchy and Scratchy, the absurdly violent chase cartoon parody on The Simpsons, had become a huge hit on its own.
Jones claimed to be "disappointed" by people misinterpreting his cartoon, which is ironic considering he was later hired to direct Tom and Jerry, the cartoon he was criticizing in the first place, and held that position for four years at the height of its popularity.
Besides, we all know the real mistake Jones made -- overestimating his audience. He aimed for a subtle critique (rocket-powered roller skates count as subtle, in certain universes), when really he needed to take the over-the-top even over-the-top-er.
The Schrodinger's Cat Riddle Is Intentionally Nonsensical
You take a cat and a decaying radioactive isotope releasing deadly amounts of radiation and you lock them together in a windowless, completely soundproof steel box. Is the cat alive or dead?
If you answered, "Holy crap, what?" then congratulations, you're a compassionate human being. However, if you answered "Neither," then you are familiar with Schrodinger's cat, maybe the most famous thought experiment of all time. The idea is that, according to the laws of quantum physics, the cat is both alive and dead because until it is perceived, both scenarios are simultaneously "true."
It's a tangible representation of something that's been observed at a quantum level, and it's famous because it gets endlessly repeated by smart kids at parties who then will pat themselves on the back for having blown your mind. In fact, most of the people reading this who know that quantum theory is a thing know about it because of the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment.
But when Erwin Schrodinger came up with the idea, he wasn't trying to explain something to some stupid undergrad -- he was trying to mock the idea. It's pretty obvious once you realize that the original writing of the example started with, "One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber ..." Also because it's not even true: The situation Schrodinger describes only occurs at the atomic level -- if you actually lock a cat in a box like that, nothing magic happens. The cat just dies, and you're just an asshole.
And wouldn't you know it, the world took him seriously. Knowledge of his famous "thought experiment" spread far and wide. It's still actively discussed, and it drives modern experiments and some really complicated science. Oh, and it's about the only reason anyone still knows Shrodinger's name.
The Polish Beer Lovers' Party Starts as a Joke, Gets Elected
The 1980s were not a great decade for Poland. They started with three years of brutal martial law, which then transitioned seamlessly into human rights violations and total economic breakdown. When the first semi-free elections rolled around near the beginning of the '90s, citizens were understandably less than optimistic about the possibility of new government.
In comes Janusz Rewinski, a Polish satirist who decided that the illusion of revolution should be taken just about as seriously as his drinking problem. He established the Polish Beer Lovers' Party to reflect that. The party's original platform was to promote drinking beer instead of vodka (you know ... to fight alcoholism).
Polish voters, perhaps a bit peeved after getting screwed over for a decade straight, were actually pretty impressed with Rewinski's balls. Nobody had stood up to the oppressive communist regime in their cultural memory, so they rallied around the idea of beer-drinking for freedom. According to some, the idea of political discussion in an establishment that served quality beer became "a symbol of freedom of association and expression, intellectual tolerance and a higher standard of living."
Other people just thought it was funny.
But regardless of the reason, the joke party gained momentum, and more people joined and ran under the banner. Then, in 1991, in the first free election in Poland, the Polish Beer Lovers' Party won 16 seats. Eventually, they split into the Big Beer and Little Beer party, and then one of those factions became the Polish Economic Program. As in, a real political party.
A Best-Selling Romance Novel Was Intended to Trash Romance Novels
Jaded with vulgarity in literature, in June of 1966 Newsday reporter Mike McGrady sent a memo to a few of his writer friends that stated: "As one of Newsday's truly outstanding literary talents you are hereby officially invited to become the co-author of a best-selling novel. There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex. Also, true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion."
His aim: To create a parody of the poor writing that lined modern bookstore shelves, and hopefully point a mirror at the culture that would inspire it to reach a little higher. Twenty-four people responded, and they all collaborated on the most exploitative, obnoxious, sex-filled romance novel ever written: Naked Came the Stranger.
And, of course, by "collaborated" we mean they wrote each chapter on their own, having no idea what the others were doing. There was a basic synopsis that they all agreed on (a woman named Gillian Blake wants to get back at her cheating husband by boning a lot), but each writer got to make up the rest as he went along. So while one guy was talking about Gillian having wacky fun with crushed ice and an abortion doctor, another was writing a later chapter where she uses her hypnotic super-boobs to cure a gay man of his sinful lust for cock.
The book doesn't make a lot of sense, is our point.
Still, its release saw some initial success, so McGrady hired (or coerced, it's not clear) his sister-in-law to do the talk show circuit as the book's fictitious author, Penelope Ashe. By all accounts she had a blast with the role, slutting it up, wearing low-cut shirts and spouting nonsensical pieces of writing advice like "A writer's got to impale his guts on the typewriter."
You know where this is going: The book eventually wound up on the New York Times bestseller list.
Eventually, the authors outed themselves after they began feeling guilty about the piles of money they were making. It didn't matter -- it kept selling (publicity over the "hoax" actually helped). The book inspired an entire series of spinoffs and established the "collaborative novel" as a new genre. It would even be made into a 1975 X-rated movie. Nearly 50 years after its release, romance novels are in no danger of extinction; in fact, smutty romance novels are the most popular form of erotica for women.
Frank Zappa Accidentally Invents the Valley Girl
Slang is one of the great mysteries of human history. It can be tracked and recorded, but no one ever really knows how it's going to spread or what exactly is going to catch on. No one can predict what nonsensical terms kids are going to be saying to each other in the future -- and once we know what they're saying, no one can really say why, or how it got started.
Except in one case: valley girl slang. That is, the manner of speech in the '80s and most of the '90s when girls liked to say "Like, no way!" and "As if!" and "Grody to the max!" Apparently, that was substantially Frank Zappa's fault.
In 1982, Frank Zappa recorded a new song with his teenage daughter, Moon Unit, who improvised dialogue over the top of it while making fun of people at her school she didn't like. When the slang subsequently exploded across the country, Good Morning America hit an all-time high in investigative journalism and managed to trace the movement back to its source.
The interview is clearly an exercise in impatience. Moon is embarrassed and kind of awkward, and Frank himself absolutely couldn't care less about participating. All he has to say about the song specifically is that its success was an "accident" and that the slang itself is "cultural pollution."
Still, the cultural impact was so huge that film producers approached Zappa to make a film based entirely on the slang terms, called Valley Girl. Zappa refused, because he was a legitimate artist thank you very much, no matter what he names his children. Of course, said producers went on to make that movie anyway.
The movie ended up being a huge success, making a ton of money, and holding a respectable 83 percent at Rotten Tomatoes. That's higher than Dances With Wolves, which beat Goodfellas for the Oscar, in case you're looking for something else to be pretentious and angry about.
Critics Can't Identify Intentionally Bad Poetry and Art
Not everyone realizes that before the turn of the 20th century, most poetry and art was pretty much created with the intent of being, you know, understood. It wasn't until the advent of modernism that these things became more about the personal journey and identity of its creator.
Enter James McAuley and Harold Stewart, two poets in the Australian Army during World War II who decided to play a prank on the whole medium. They created a fictional poet named Ern Malley, who they decided had recently died at a tragically young age. They assembled 17 poems that they credited to the completely fake Malley, intentionally nonsensical bullshit created by pulling quotes from whatever they had, like a report on mosquito breeding grounds. They then mailed the work to a modernist poetry journal called Angry Penguins that they particularly detested.
The editor of Angry Penguins, a 22-year-old named Max Harris, was totally blown away. He published an entire issue devoted to Ern Malley -- even though the poems contained some less-than-subtle hints as to their true nature, like:
It is necessary to understand
That a poet may not exist, that his writing
Are the incomplete circle and straight drop
Of a question mark.
Then everything went to hell. The hoax was quickly exposed, and the already hurting Angry Penguins was driven out of business by the bad publicity. For a while, it looked like the hoaxers had dealt a terrible blow to an artistic movement.
Well, no, not really. Angry Penguins did fold, but for mostly unrelated reasons, and Max Harris never actually recanted his opinion that, regardless of what McAuley and Stewart had tried to do, they had accidentally written some badass poetry. Today, "Ern Malley" poetry remains substantially respected. And in a twist of fate that must particularly sting, none of the "real" poems the hoaxers went on to write have ever exceeded their hoaxes in popularity.
Harold and James, respectively, shortly after dick-slapping poetry in its face.
If the world of pretentious poetry was ripe for satire, though, then pretentious art was overripe. In 1924, a struggling novelist named Paul Jordan Smith, like the poets we were just talking about, was getting a little sick of the bullshit in contemporary art. He was convinced that "the modern critic in literature and art was a coward, so afraid of being out of step with his generation that he hesitated at giving honest opinion concerning art values."
To prove his point, he decided to play a prank. He created a series of paintings, called "The Seven Deadly Sins," with old brushes that he had borrowed and canvas he pulled out of the trash. Concocting an alter ego named "Pavel Jerdanowitch" and giving him a crazy back story filled with international travel and disease, he unleashed the paintings on the art world. But, again, because stupidity is just too damn hard to fake, Smith's paintings were widely heralded and sold for substantial amounts (for the 1920s). Even today, the dumb things are remembered as brilliant pieces of modern painting. Enjoy:
J. F. Sargent is the managing editor of PCulpa.com. He also teaches poetry to youth who have been charged as adults in Washington, D.C. jails, and you can read their work here.
For more awesome parodies, check out 9 Foreign Rip-Offs Cooler Than The Hollywood Originals. Or check out an article by the parody master, Weird Al: The 9 Most Underrated Funny Songs (According to Weird Al).