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Friday, November 22, 2013

How to Write a Parody the "Mad" Magazine Way

copyright 2014 by Gary L. Pullman

The way that Mad magazine develops a parody is to use a set of conventions that is common to all their satires of motion pictures, television series, and programs associated with similar audiovisual media. Each of these conventions include the absurd, so that object of the parody is ridiculed at every opportunity and in a variety of ways. In the process, through text and imagery, the parody makes frequent allusions to other television shows or artifacts of popular culture, which, ironically, has the paradoxical effect of grounding the parodied program in reality while, at the same time, emphasizing its fictional nature. Finally, the parody also often purposely confuses the lives of the fictional characters with those of the actors who portray them, further maintaining, while simultaneously differentiating, fact and fiction.

The parody begins with an introduction to the program that is being parodied. This introduction typically identifies the program's basic theme, or concept, and relates it to an ostensible purpose that is implied by the effect that the program has had on its medium, audience, or some other objective element. Often, the program's basic storyline is ridiculed, and the main actor—or the character whom he or she plays—is misrepresented in some manner—for example, his or her intentions may be misstated. These conventions are discernible in the following introduction to the magazine's parody of Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series:

Every generation there is a Chosen One [concept]. A girl with three names whose destiny it is to revive a notorious box-office flop as a successful TV series [ostensible purpose]. Fort seven years she has rescued her supporting cast from melodramatic perils and lame plot twists [basic storyline]. But, now, in their time of greatest need, she will abandon them to pursue a feature film career of nauseating romantic comedies and abhorrent big-budget sequels [misrepresentation of main character's intent]. This girl is. . .

Using absurd surrogate names, the characters, lined up vertically, one after another, as if standing in a police line-up, then introduce themselves, speaking directly to the reader, as if each were soliloquizing before a camera; typically, their address identifies ironies or absurdities in their characters, their roles, or the series' conventions.

I'm Busty Bummers, and even though I'm 35, I'm still in my first year of college. I suffer from a rare aging disorder called “90210 syndrome!” [Buffy Summer's introduction pokes fun at the incongruity of a woman playing a character who is over twenty years younger than she, a convention common to television shows that feature supposedly teenage or young adult characters, such as 90210.]

I'm Pillow. I used to be a mousy computer nerd, but now I'm a mousy witch. [This quip ridicules the stereotypical nature of Willow Rosenberg as “mousy” and suggests that the show's assignment of a new persona to her, that of witch, has not made the character any less stereotypical: she remains as “mousy” as ever.]

I'm Busty's little sister YAWN. I get blamed for this show jumping the shark. But it's not my FAULT! Give me my own SPIN-OFF and I'll prove I'm a GREAT character! [This introduction includes fan criticism of the Dawn Summers character's ruination of the series—many fans considered her character not only unnecessary and unrealistic, even in a fantasy series, but supremely annoying as well; the introduction also alludes to the Buffy spinoff Angel, starring David Boreanaz.]

I'm Xanadu and I used to be the comic relief. Now I just sit around and get fatter every episode. [The character, Xander Harris, did provide much of the show's “comic relief” before writers sidelined him much of the time, as the show took on a darker tone, and the actor, Nicholas Brendon, who played him did gain some weight, a fact that the parody also addresses, suggesting that the character's relative idleness and the actor's weight gain are related o one another, the former causing the latter.]

I'm Spoke—I'm an edgy vampire [again, a cliché is savaged] who has a love/hate relationship with BUSTY [a melodramatic situation, involving a May-December, Romeo-and-Juliet relationship, is ridiculed]. After this show ends, at least I have a future in Vegas as a BILLY IDOL impersonator! [The character of Spike was consciously modeled, in physical appearance, on the singer whom “Spoke” references. Las Vegas has been called the place where performers go to earn a living after their careers have died—an implicit allusion that is particularly apt for one of the living dead.]

I'm Busty's Watcher, Gello. In the time I've been WATCHING her, Busty has shrunk from a size 4 to buying all her clothes at Kids “R” Us! Now she makes ALLY MCBEAL look fat! [This statement alludes to Sarah Michelle Gellar's noticeable weight loss during the series' seven-year tenure—and to another televisions series that stars an all-but-anorexic actress, Calista Flockhart.]

Usually, amusing images are included in this panel, as if they were props or the actions of character actors who were included among the regular cast to provide comic relief. For example, both Busty and Yawn hold wooden stakes, and Pillow, who becomes a lesbian as well as a witch, has her hand around Buffy's waist. In the background, a cemetery headstone, complete with cross, is visible between Busty's legs. Xanadu, as much a nerd as Pillow, wears a Star Trek T-shirt. As he speaks of his love affair with Busty, Spoke makes the sign for “I love you.” Gello holds the thick volume that the actual series has associated with vampire lore, as a vampire, holding a Martha Stewart Cooking book, sprinkles salt on his shoulder, seasoning him to taste.

Following the opening panel, which runs across the top of both pages of the two-page spread, a series of smaller panels continues to poke fun at the program that is being parodied, often by capitalizing upon the conventions that the parody has made explicit.

For example, Busty, with wooden stakes strapped along the side of the suitcase she grips, is pursued by Gello, as, in the background, a terrified young woman flees from a bat that chases her. “Busty,” Gello calls, “where are you going? We need you!” [Obviously, to survive, a television series needs its protagonist.] “Forget it, Gello,” Busty replied. “I've been poking VAMPIRES with STAKES for seven years, and I'm SICK of it. I'm ready to stretch as an actress.” [the “poking” of “VAMPIRES with STAKES” alludes to Buffy's rather promiscuous sexual liaisons with the undead, including both Angel and Spike, or “Spoke.” Allegedly, the show's creator, Joss Whedon, and the other actors wanted to produce the series for one more season, but Gellar insisted upon leaving, saying she was tired of the series and wanted to try other roles in motion pictures, so her explanation, although appropriate to the fictional situation that the parody has created, once again, echoes reality, a characteristic of any parody.] Gello asks, “So, where are you going?” His question, a transition, sets up her ironic response, “I'm going to do SCOOBY DOO 2, so I can hurt MONSTERS with TORCHES.” [The change of roles, the parody, suggests will not “stretch” Gellar's acting ability in any way, because it is essentially the same sort of role as that which she has played, as Buffy, or “Busty,” for the past seven years.]

Gello's plea to Busty, in the next panel, uses absurdity to exemplify what he calls “reason,” an ironic parallel that is possible only in the fantastic (and absurd) world of the series that the Mad strip parodies: “Please listen to reason! This town is a gateway to HELL known as the SMELLMOUTH! Whatever shall we do if you LEAVE us?” Busty's reply, while not particularly amusing, reinforces the absurdity of the series' concept: “Oh, Gello, if you want to shut that stinking SMELLMOUTH, just call a PLUMBER! Or a good DENTIST!”

In the next panel, a vampire rides piggyback aboard a victim while Xanadu, having unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a flabby, hairy chest and belly, seeks a romantic encounter with his one-time fiancee, Anya Jenkins (“Anyawn,” in the parody. Like Buffy and Willow, Xander also availed himself of several sexual partners during the show's seven seasons, a plot device that was itself both stereotypical of youth and melodramatic in terms of drama. “Hey, Anyawn, I know we broke up last season and all, but whenever things look grim, I like to sneak off and make out. Whadda ya say?” Anyawn, aghast, exclaims, “Ugh! Sorry, Xanadu, but it looks like you put on FIVE POUNDS for every ONE that Busty's lost! Now, for God's sake, button your shirt!” Again, the parody addresses (and reinforces) an element—Brendon's weight gain—in the introductory panel; in the process, it alludes to the melodramatic episode in which Xander abandons Anya at the altar on the day of their intended marriage.
Busty addresses Yawn, advising her that, “As my long-lost little SISTER, you may be required to carry out my LEGACY!” One of the points of frustration among the show's viewers was the abrupt appearance, after three seasons, of Dawn, as Buffy's sister, a “lame plot twist” that was too much for them, even in a series as melodramatic as Buffy. Alluding not to the television show itself, but to Gellar's actual personal life, Yawn asks, “Does that mean I'll have to marry a bad actor [Freddie Prinze, Jr.], drop down to 80 pounds [a reference to Gellar's dramatic weight loss, to which Gello has already alluded], and such movies as Scooby Doobie Doo 2, Simply Irresistible, and The Grudge, Grudge 2, The Return, and Southland Tales, to name but a few such stinkers. “All that,” Busty agrees, “and SHAMPOO COMMERCIALS, too!” [Gellar “starred” in commercials not for shampoo, but for Mabelline cosmetics.] Obviously, Yawn fears fulfilling such a prophecy; she does not want to follow in her “sister's” career footsteps.

Next, a histrionic Busty, holding her hand above her head and waving it in a circle as she addresses Pillow and Gello, states, “And I suppose Pillow is off somewhere performing a spell to keep me from leaving the show.”

The last panel identifies another complaint, among both the series' viewers and critics (the addition of the lesbian subplot involving Willow, or “Pillow”) and pokes fun at another series, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and at a role that the actor Alyson Hannigan, who plays Willow, undertakes, as “band geek,” Michelle Flaherty, in the film American Pie 2, which includes faux lesbian activity similar to the gratuitous lesbianism in Buffy. Busty, a silhouette standing in the open doorway to Pillow's bedroom, where the witch lies with her girlfriend, declares, “You know, that whole plot” (or “lame plot twist,” of which the parody's introduction warns readers is typical of the Buffy series) “about you turning gay is a desperate bid for ratings!” As she cuddles with her lover, Pillow replies, “And it worked! Now I'll cast a new spell to get SABRINA THE TEEN-AGE WITCH to make out with me!” Pillow then begins to cast her spell, the wording of the incantation suggesting the absurdity of the spells that Willow frequently casts on Buffy while alluding to Hannigan's role in American Pie 2: “Incartus Fake-latinus Make-outus One Time At Band Camp.”

By definition, a parody is an imitation of a work, the purpose of which is to mock the original by trivializing its content, tone, style, and other attributes. Therefore, a parody identifies the elements of a work that seem to be absurd, and, often by exaggeration, underscore the absurdity of these elements. The first task, then, that a parodist has is to identify the absurd elements in the work that is to be parodied. In the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Mad parody focuses upon the series' fantastic concept, its “lame plot twists,” its melodramatic situations, its stereotypical characters, the ironic parallels between the fictional lives of the characters and the actual lives of the actors who portray them, the affinities between Buffy and other teen or young adult television series, and the reliance of sexual subplots, both covert and overt, heterosexual and homosexual alike, of the show to maintain its appeal among teen and young adult viewers. The appearance of the characters, as drawn by the Mad artists, are, as caricatures of the actors who portray these characters, itself parodic and complements, at times underscores, the text's verbal assaults upon the spoofed show's absurd excesses. The comic strip is, as Mad demonstrates, repeatedly in this and other parodies of movies and television series, particularly well-suited, as a linguistic-visual medium, for lampooning popular art forms.

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