A sideways compliment

This morning as I drove into Thessalon the local radio station was playing “White Christmas” and I found myself singing along, but not with Irving Berlin’s immortal words, no. I was singing the Mad Magazine parody, to wit:

“I’m screaming at a white sheepdog,
each time he sits upon my chair.
It’s a thing I’m dreading, the way he’s shedding;
he coats everything with hair…”

My own sheepdog, Sky, who is pale grey, was in the passenger seat. She gave me A Look. It made not a bit of difference. Neither did Bing’s crooning. I was caught up in parody.

Parody is a sideways compliment to the original; like imitation, it is a sincere form of flattery. It’s as witty and elusive a form of humour as punning, and, like punning, invites groans as often as laughter, groans which hide an “I wish I’d thought of that!”

Some songs seem to invite parody: “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” is one, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” another, and many Christmas carols have acquired parodies as well. I’m sure we all remember “Jingle bells, Santa smells, a million miles away!” from the schoolyard. I wrote “The Monsters’ Trick-or-Treat” as a parody of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic”, and the Twa Sisters have an excellent parody called “The Titty Bars’ Picnic”, about the afternoon-off frolics of strippers.

Weird Al Yankovic launched his career with “Another One Rides the Bus” and made his parodies of pop songs as popular as the originals. One of my favourite parodies is Ezra Pound’s Winter is icumen in. “Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cuckoo,” goes the original. Pound amends that to “Winter is icumen in, lhude sing Goddamm! Raineth drop and staineth slop and how the wind doth ramm!” and so on.

Another of my favourites is, again, from the irreverent Mad Magazine. “I wandered lonely as a clod/Just picking up old rags and bottles/When homeward on my way I trod/I saw a host of axolotls.” For years all I could remember was the last two lines – “I find my solace then in bottles, and I forget them axolotls”. Now ask me if I recall the last two lines of the original, “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. Of course not!

William Blake’s “The Tyger” also invites parody, but it is a perilous poem to mess with. I started to write a parody of it – “Spyder! Spyder! Causing fright/ In the bathtubs of the night” and damn if it didn’t turn into a real poem, one I’m quite fond of.

Writing parody is a good exercise. When you parody a song, you need to fit your words into the rhyme and rhythm of the original. A well-written parody falls effortlessly into the song it’s mocking. It’s generally light and humourous, intended to make the listener laugh, or at the very least groan in reluctant tribute. Pick out one of the targets – there are dozens – and try your hand. It sharpens your sense of rhyme and meter, and if you’re lucky, at the end of it you’ll have something that makes people laugh – or groan and think “I wish I’d written that!”

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2 Responses to A sideways compliment

  1. Lucinda Kempe says:

    There’s a crooner from New Orleans, named Sam Adams. He took the song On the Road to Mandalay and inserted the word Mandeville for Mandalay. Mandeville, La is the home to an infamous state psychiatric hospital, a place many nutty [ha!]New Orleanians got shipped to if they weren’t funded.

    There is something delicious about parody and satire – they let you say what you can’t say straight. Particularly with some subject matter.

    As Pogo said:”We have met the enemy and he is us.”

  2. widdershins says:

    nobody does ‘the look’ like a dawg… ‘cept maybe a cat… yep… I think the cat ‘look’ is the most daunting

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