What is Parody? Maybe The Simpsons know.

I thought this question would be easy—as a literature addict, parody seems pretty obvious and I could name countless examples, from The Onion to The Simpsons to Jonathan Swift.  Turns out, I’ve had the wrong definition of parody this whole time.  Well, according to literary theorist Linda Hutcheon, I did.

I’ve always treated parody as having ironic bite, a ridiculing purpose.  And, many sources would back me up on this.  According to Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, a parody is:

1: a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule

2: a feeble or ridiculous imitation

If you look up parody in most dictionaries and literary textbooks, that phrase “comic effect” will keep popping up.  However, Hutcheon’s definition of parody is more inclusive: “repetition with critical [ironic] distance, which marks difference rather than similarity” (6).

According to Hutcheon, parody is a genre (rather than technique) which is not necessarily comic, but:

1. Always employs repetition.

2. Always is used to emphasize difference (rather than similarity) through “ironic inversion”

3. Always implies attribution.

Now, number one is easy to explain—the repetition can be in the form of repeated lines, style, character…the exact amount of repetition required isn’t defined, except that it must be enough to do number three (give attribution to a text), and not too much that number two (having enough difference that it’s ironic) is occluded.

Number two is trickier, but, to Hutcheon, critical.  Employing difference in its method, rather than similarity, means that the difference results in the ironic effect.  In all irony, there is contrast in play—you expect something and get something different, sometimes completely opposite.  So, the defamiliarizing differences between, to take a classic example, the expectations set up by the nice and neat language of Swift’s A Modest Proposal, and the actual grotesque proposal to eat children, results in irony that gets our attention.  But irony can be complex, as in The Simpsons’ episode, “Tales from the Public Domain.”  In one vignette in this episode, The Simpsons parodies The Odyssey by replacing the “clever” Odysseus, with a somewhat less clever Homer Simpson.

For all its ham, I call this a complex example because parody is often treated as if the target of ridicule is the object parodied, but is The Odyssey always the target of parody here, or is Homer Simpson himself?

Hutcheon makes the point that parody can be “double-edged,” and the target of its ironic effect is not necessarily what is being parodied.

In fact, the effect doesn’t even have to be humorous, or ridiculing, but can often parody in order to pay homage to the original or have other ironic effects.  As Hutcheon notes, the “mock epic” does not literally mock the epic form.  In these cases there can be ridicule, but the target is not the text nor the text replicated.  So, what’s going on?

Satire.  Satire is always, in some way ridiculous; that doesn’t mean that it’s always light-hearted, or playful—its subject can be deadly serious.  Satire is often confused with parody, but it has several differences: the critical/pejorative/making ridiculous of something, and the fact that the thing is repeats is not necessarily its target.  What confuses these concepts even more is that satire is used in conjunction with parody.  According to Hutcheon, then, Joyce’s Ulysses parodies The Odyssey, but it actually satirizes Dublin common life.

To further complicate Hutcheon’s definition, what if the work emphasizes similarity rather than difference?  Hutcheon says that, emphasizing similarity, the function of the repetition, the genre isn’t parody but pastiche.  Pastiche is repetition with implied attribution, but, unlike parody, foregrounds similarity.

But what marks similarity rather than difference in a text?  It does not seem to be the amount of word-for-word similarity in a text that determines this, but a more ephemeral line between the two, and even Hutcheon admits that “the distinction proves difficult” (38), and gives tendencies, but not hard answers to this: “pastiche will often be in the same genre as its model” (38), and “pastiche will often be an imitation not of a single text but indefinite possibilities of texts” (38).  But, Hutcheon does not give so many examples.  Some other theorists have streamlined her theory by saying that pastiche lacks irony or satire, while parody must at least have irony.  Paul K. Saint-Amour notes Fredric Jameson’s definition of pastiche is “like parody….but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter….pastiche is thus blank parody” (191).  I like that description: “blank parody.”   But here we open up another issue; if pastiche is non-ironic repetition with implied attribution, what is allusion?

Hutcheon’s general widening of parody is interesting, but this division between pastiche and parody, between the foregrounding of similarity and difference, is problematic.  Any pastiche or parody is both similar and different to the original; the problem is in determining which has more weight.  For instance, I was (again) watching The Simpsons the other day after reading Hutcheon and when the family enacted their couch gag, they ran instead onto a set of Cheers, the Brady Bunch, and a few others before making their way to their usual destination.  Each reenactment was pretty faithful to the original, and, done in the space of maybe 5 seconds, didn’t have time to develop a clear commentary on anything in particular.  The couch gag in general, often reenacts scenes with quick reference or repetition.  But if we employ Hutcheon’s definition, is this parody or pastiche?  Emphasizing similarity or difference?  I couldn’t say—it follows some of the trends of pastiche Hutcheon points out: many references, and (somewhat) the same genre of FOX family primetime TV shows, so I would lean this way, but then again, she calls “Oxen of the Sun,” the Ulysses chapter which employs a variety of distinct writerly styles (from Anglo-Saxon poetry to Dickens and more) a parody.  I think Jameson’s definition is somewhat more clear—is this “couch gag” satiric or having a disposition of humourless neutrality?  And as much as I think The Simpsons is funny in general, and the episodes are often satiric, some of the “couch gags” are more like cameos, a pop references without comment, and so, are some of the best examples of pastiche in popular literature I can think of.

But, maybe you can convince me otherwise: Are the couch gags (the ones with obvious reference such as the Gumby reference, or Rocky and Bullwinkle)—pastiche or parody?  For reference, you can watch an incomplete compilation  on Youtube here.


2 thoughts on “What is Parody? Maybe The Simpsons know.

  1. super like! thanks for introducing the ‘real’ meaning of parody…the more one thinks about it…the more one wonders how obvious it should have been. love the post…cheers!

  2. Pingback: Reading Digest: Fuck the Huffington Post Edition « Dead Homer Society

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