If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then parodies must be the highest form of literary imitation.
Or not. Who cares? While a subject has to be fairly important to be spoofed, the essence of parody writing is having fun at the expense of people or institutions that take themselves too seriously. For me, this has meant subjects like Martha Stewart, Newt Gingrich, Wired magazine, the Smith & Hawken gardening catalogs and Zagat restaurant guides.
My big break came years ago, when I was living in Westport, Conn., home to Martha Stewart. After catching a drift of the resentment brewing against her among local homemakers—plus seeing an issue of her then-new monthly magazine, Martha Stewart Living—Jim Downey and I decided that it might be fun, and maybe even profitable, to parody her publication.
The result was Is Martha Stuart Living? (the spelling of her last name was changed to protect ... us)—a paper-back bestseller with sales of more than 600,000 copies. Since then, I've written or co-written and produced seven parodies, including four on Martha (I refer to these collectively as "The Martha Trilogy"). Their success has led to other books and to assignments for national publications, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times magazine, House & Garden and Town & Country.
CHOOSING A TARGET
To some writers, parodies may look like a lot of work. With ideas and experiences of our own, why would a writer bother copycatting someone else's work? Well, for one thing, parodies—or spoofs, satires, send-ups, lampoons—can be easier than inventing humorous characters, subjects and styles from whole cloth. The subject is already fully there; you just have to push it slightly over the top. And if the timing's right and the writing's funny, parodies can be highly successful and open doors to other writing opportunities.
It's possible to pick a parody target by scanning newspapers and magazines, watching TV or surfing the Net. In my experience, however, the best parody subjects pick you. You still have to read, watch and listen to the culture spinning around you. But if you naturally respond to the things that make you laugh, make you angry, or both—you'll probably have the inspiration and the energy to produce a parody.
While not all of my projects have turned to gold, the ones that have been the most successful are those I've had the keenest feeling for and have gotten the most pleasure out of writing.
Good parodies nail the essence of a subject—its style, tone and voice—to within an inch of being mistaken for the real thing. Parody writing, in other words, isn't about finding your voice, but about finding the voice or style of the subject you're parodying.
Every humor writer's style is different, but all successful parody writing shares these characteristics:
• It mimics the language, style and tone of the subject.
• It covers similar ground as the parody subject, but pushes that material over the top.
• It's edgy, sacrilegious, even rude, without being crude, vulgar or mean-spirited.
• It makes you, the writer, laugh when you read it a second or third time.
When I was preparing the first parody of Martha Stewart, I read her magazine from cover to cover. I adopted her pet words and phrases while infusing my writing with that special Martha combination of absolute authority and tireless perfectionism. Martha's own publisher at TimeLife ordered 20 copies of the parody for the staff while she was out of the office. "Somebody at your place really knows her!" he said.
To find this essential voice, you must read and reread the source material until you become an expert on the subject.
PRODUCING A COVER PROPOSAL
When it comes to illustrated parodies, such as magazines, production is at least half the product. The first, and most important, part of production is a sample cover, which can serve as the centerpiece of your proposal to agents or editors. In a matter of seconds, a cover shows them that you've nailed the essence of the subject you're spoofing and that you can write funny.
Protection Against Lawsuits
Parodists are protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. But to qualify for "freedom of speech" protection, you have to make it known, in no uncertain terms, that what you're doing is a parody. Fortunately, this is the easy part: Just run a banner across the top right corner of the book or magazine with the word "PARODY" in large print. You also have to change the name of the subject-whether it's a person, institution or object.
This sample isn't produced in stone, however. I've often found that the final cover comes well after the parody is underway. But the initial proposal had better "kill." If it doesn't, you probably don't have a parody that will sell. It took my writing partner and me three comps—mocked-up versions of the cover—of Is Martha Stuart Living? to get a winner. How did we know? Word got back to us that secretaries at Random House were faxing it to one another throughout the building.
KEEPING COSTS DOWN
Scouting locations, recruiting models and finding or making props is one of the most enjoyable parts of parody projects and a welcome break from the writing. However, it's wise to learn how to economize to save production costs.
For my first parody, I made deals with everyone involved: model, photographer, baker, designer and layout artist. "I can't pay you what you're worth for this," I told them, "but I can't do it without you." I then offered them minimum flat fees for their services when I was still at the proposal stage, with the promise that if the project went forward, they'd be hired and paid a full, prearranged fee.
If the subject of your project revolves around a personality, it's best to pay a professional model so you'll get all the shots you need in the time you've scheduled. For scenes involving bystanders, you'll want to round up family members, neighbors, friends, etc.
Aside from nailing the subject and voice, you've got to be funny. Not all of my copy is funny, but apparently enough of it is for people to read it and tell their friends.
Readers have told me that they've found the following example, from the parody of the Smith & Hawken gardening catalog, particularly funny. In the section on Royal British flowers, I wrote this about a variety of hibiscus bearing an uncanny (computer-enhanced) resemblance to Prince Charles:
Although cultivated to take over the garden one day, this is perhaps the least successful of the royal hybrids. Bulbs, which are stored in the basement of Windsor Castle until called to service, remain dim much of their lives. Once in bloom, the variety tends to be dwarfed by royal mums, in whose shadows it is usually found. And with its rather large, protuberant side petals and an abnormally small stamen, the male flower frequently has difficulty pollinating female plants.
What works for me is the law of opposites: Approach silly topics with sincerity and serious subjects with jest. As such, the British Royals make for great parody material.
The trick is to make it fun for readers—and for yourself. That's what parody writing's all about.
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