Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Notes on "spoof"

Posted By on Tue, Aug 10, 2010 at 9:36 PM

When Sunday night rolls around, I always have the option of watching Mad Men, the critically-acclaimed exploration of identity, malaise, and societal confinement of the 1960s. That's what TV critics are supposed to do.

Or I could watch Childrens Hospital, a medical drama spoof that refers to scalpels as "nut-cutters."

Unsurprisingly, Dionysian beats Apollonian. Childrens Hospital wins.

Childrens Hospital is a quality show that cheerfully exaggerates the absurd excesses of medical TV shows and films. The brazen supply-closet hookups. The absurd choose-one-to-live surgical dilemmas. The surgeon who believes in treating illness with only the healing power of laughter. The doctor who fakes a brain tumor to break up with a guy. The female doctor having a torrid affair with a six-year-old with advanced aging disease.

Other times the parody is more direct. From Meredith Grey's voiceover on Grey's Anatomy: —-

"The dictionary defines grief as keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret. As surgeons, as scientists, we're taught to learn from and rely on books, on definitions, on definitives. But in life, strict definitions rarely apply. In life, grief can look like a lot of things that bear little resemblance to sharp sorrow.

From a voiceover on Childrens Hospital:

Webster's dictionary defines "Love" as a roof lantern or turret, often with slatted apertures for escape of smoke or admission of light in a medieval building.

And, with a sort of confused look from the Meredith stand-in, the voiceover ends there. 

But most encouragingly, it's a triumphant return to the genre of "Spoof" on television. The Naked Gun series of films, after all, began as the failed Police Squad television series. But as Scary Movie led to Date Movie led to Epic Movie led to Disaster Movie, "spoof" morphed into something aggressively in-your-face bad, a cruel perversion of earlier work.

It's time our nation learned what, exactly, spoof is, and isn't. We're glad to help.

Notes on Spoof

1.Spoof is more than mere parody. It's a critique and celebration of the tropes and cliches of any given genre. It highlights them, subverts them, exaggerates them. It is, at its core, criticism.

2. Spoof benefits from brevity. That's part of the genius of Childrens Hospital. That type of "wackiness" would lose its novelty in only twenty minutes. Good thing Childrens Hospital is only 11 minutes long.

3.The spoofer should actually sort of love the genre or film they're spoofing. Malice and bitterness tend to weigh the comedy down. Though Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are more homages to the zombie and action genres than outright spoofs, they both excel because they're celebrations of those films. Not just critiques. 

4. Spoof keeps its scope narrow enough. As spoof, the Scary Movie movies sort of work. At times, Not Another Teen Movie approaches an almost respectable sort of lowbrow brilliance. That's partly because they stick to their advertised mission statement: Mock horror films, or mock teen movies. Naked Gun works, in part, because it sticks to the detective genre. (Sorry, Epic Movie. Lawrence of Arabia is an epic movie. Superbad is not.)

5. Great spoof hinges mostly on jokes that still hit for someone who's never seen the specific work being parodied. 

6. Spoof shouldn't laugh. At least, not at itself. The most absurd moments are always played best with utter conviction from the actors,oblivious to the world's absurdity. (See: Nielsen, Leslie.) Genres most given to self-seriousness then, are more spoof-worthy.

7. Spoof doesn't parody comedy. Well, it shouldn't parody the comedic elements to that comedy. Childrens Hospital can parody the saccharine moments of Scrubs, and the Funny People ad campaign can spoof the corny I-learned-something-today moments of Adam Sandler flicks.

8. Spoof rewards nerds. Spoofs should be just as obsessed with the minutia of the work or genre being parodied. The subtle aspects of set design and background gags reward eagle-eyed, obsessive, or DVR-ready viewers. No need for the film to zoom in and pause on visual gags, just to make sure the viewer "gets it."

9. At no point should a joke of a spoof be purely that Iron Man shows up, and Iron Man is a movie that many people have heard of, and that one of the protagonists says, "It's Iron Man!" And that's the end of the joke. The jokes, in other words, should have jokes.

10. Slapstick is always the weakest part of spoof, but seems tragically, irrevocably, tied to the genre. Still, let's hope that slapstick is beyond the cow-landing/crotch kicking variety. There is no need to add slide-whistles, whoopee cushions, or exaggerated "Bonk!" sound effects to drive home the subtle point of a guy getting hit by a school bus sign.

11. Spoof will never win awards. It will never garner much critical respect, or be the subject of lengthy water-cooler discussion. But it doesn't have to be lazy. It can even, on rare occasion, make an insightful observation or two.

Read more TV criticism on Twitter by following @danieltwalters.

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Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...