Earlier this week, Michael J. Martinez shared his thoughts on humor in SF/F. I figured I would follow up on his post with something I wrote last year about a specific kind of humor, parody, and the genre of the fantastic.
The piece was inspired by the Tim Burton movie Dark Shadows and talks quite a bit about it. In fact, on one level, it’s kind of a stealth review of the flick. Now, I realize that at this late date, it’s unlikely that you, Gentle Reader, are jonesing to read anyone’s opinion on this particular subject. But I hope the essay says some things of general significance with the Burton movie simply providing helpful examples of what I’m getting at. Anyway, onward!
HOW TO SPOOF (AND HOW NOT TO)
The first SF-related parody I recall experiencing was “Superduperman” by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood in the fourth issue of Mad. I’ve read or watched many others over the years, including Quark, the Adam West Batman series, Love at First Bite, Young Frankenstein, Galaxy Quest, and Seth Rogen’s The Green Hornet. Evidently I belong to the target audience for this type of material, and I proved it again last weekend by catching Tim Burton’s send-up of Dark Shadows. Parts of Burton’s movie are hilarious and parts fall flat, and that got me thinking about what works in this kind of story and what doesn’t.
As usual, this is a topic I can’t discuss without tossing in some spoilers. If you haven’t caught Burton’s movie yet and want to do so uncontaminated by any revelations or opinions from me, I recommend you do that and then check out the rest of this little essay at a later date.
If you’re contemplating spoofing virtually anything, the first thing to know is that some fans of the original material are apt to despise your project and clamor to see you horsewhipped no matter how clever it may be. There are Batman fans who still can’t forgive the Adam West show for making fun of the Caped Crusader, and months ago, I heard from a Dark Shadows devotee who regarded the idea of a send-up as inherently deplorable and disrespectful. He didn’t need to see the movie to get an early start on hating it.
But some fans are willing to give a parody a chance, especially if the treatment, however barbed, bawdy, or outrageous, communicates affection for the original. Young Frankenstein, perhaps the best SF-related parody ever, accomplishes this in every scene, in part with its black-and-white cinematography and faithful recreation of Colin Clive’s lab. The new Dark Shadows manages it too with such details as the madly overblown Gothic magnificence of Collinwood, a Widow’s Hill perfectly formed for long, long, suicidal plunges into rocks and crashing waves, Johnny Depp’s spit curls, and, cameos by Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, David Selby, and Lara Parker.
Love of the original, however, is not enough. A spoof must also be funny, and the humor is likely to derive from two sources.
One is exaggerating elements manifest in the original. Clark Kent acts “mild-mannered” to keep others from suspecting he’s Superman. Clark Bent, Superduperman’s alter ego, is an absolute crawling worm of a human being. The Batman of Silver Age comics is a paragon of every virtue, and TV tweaks this characterization into Adam West’s homily-spouting model citizen. And in the original Dark Shadows, Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins is in theory a tragic antihero forever pining for his lost love Josette and wracked with guilt over his vampiric misdeeds, but over the course of the series, he gets busy with lots of babes and runs up quite a body count. Johnny Depp’s Barnabas is the same breed of bat only more so, flipping suddenly from melancholy gentleman to horny cad or bloodthirsty monster as best suits the moment. Allegedly, this is the dark, uncontrollable side of his nature getting the better of him, but by the end of the film, we’re entitled to wonder how much he really minds.
A spoof can also generate humor simply by directing attention to aspects of the original that are inherently absurd. Galaxy Quest addresses the alarming truth that red shirts are mere cannon fodder, and Burton’s Dark Shadows mines comic gold from an idea that seems obvious but which the original show ignored: supernatural powers or no, a man from two hundred years in the past has some catching up to do.
Burton makes this element of the movie even funnier by popping Barnabas out of his coffin not in 2012 but in 1971 when the original series aired. Forty years later, aspects of the 70’s seem quaint and amusing in their own right, and the movie combines them with its befuddled 18th Century aristocrat to good effect. I may never again hear the Carpenters without thinking of Dark Shadows.
Unfortunately, as I indicated earlier, the movie also demonstrates ways parody can go wrong.
One is stuffing in too many elements of the original without doing them all justice and without melding them all into one cohesive plot. The spine of Burton’s film is the love triangle defined by Barnabas, Angelique, and Josette/Victoria. But we also get David’s ghostly mother, a little random lycanthropy, and Dr. Julia Hoffman’s effort to cure Barnabas’s vampirism with modern medical science. Admittedly, we can take this hodgepodge as a satirical acknowledgment of the fact that in the show, there were always several demented things going on in Collinwood at any given time. But a movie is different from a daytime soap, and generally speaking, this scattershot approach doesn’t satisfy.
It’s even more of a misstep when a story changes elements of the original without a perceptible reason or payoff. In Dark Shadows, the victim of such a change is Roger Collins. In the soap, he’s a stiff, pompous, self-important man, but decent withal and devoted to his family. Burton’s film turns him into a sleaze who only cares about himself without making him either funny or necessary to the resolution of the plot.
Worst of all, perhaps, is when the parody leaves beloved characters in a place unworthy of them. On the Green Hornet TV show, Cato, as portrayed by Bruce Lee, is a more compelling hero than the title character. This disparity provides the comedic engine for Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet movie. In the film, Cato is spectacularly competent and at first, the only reason any actual crime fighting gets done. Brit Reid starts out as a dolt. By the end, though, the Hornet is growing into a genuine hero in his own right, and the movie wouldn’t work if this were not the case.
Sadly, Dark Shadows falls down in this regard, too. If you liked the original, it won’t please you to see Elizabeth, Carolyn, David, and the Great House itself left as Burton leaves them.
It’s still worth checking out, though. At those moments when it does parody right, you may even feel like “you’re on the top of the world, looking down on creation.”