The Oxford Book of Parodies
Edited by John Gross
Oxford, 416 pages
For decades, comedy writers have puzzled over a mystery: Why is Mickey Mouse more famous than Bugs Bunny? Mickey isn’t funny or interesting. He cannot produce an anvil or a Carmen Miranda hat out of the air. All in all, his “good mouse” act is a toothless, nice-guy bore.
But Bugs, on the other hand, can do accents, knows how to use basic weaponry, and looks terrific in drag. He’s a gender-bending gun nut who makes gleeful and hurtful fun of people with disabilities (Elmer Fudd—speech impediment). About the only respectable thing about him, from the perspective of the academic and cultural policemen, is that he appears to be a vegan.
And yet Mickey is the superstar, while Bugs is the comic character actor. Mickey is nice. Bugs is funny. You cannot, obviously, be both.
That truism is reflected, brilliantly, in John Gross’s spectacular compendium, The Oxford Book of Parodies. Gross, a longtime contributor to COMMENTARY who died in January at the age of 75, organized the book both chronologically and by target. He knows you don’t necessarily care who wrote the hit piece. You just want to read T.S. Eliot get taken down, as he is here, by Wendy Cope, in “A Nursery Rhyme (as it might have been written by T.S. Eliot)”:
Because time will not run backwards
Because time will not run
In the last minute of the first hour
I saw the mouse ascend the ancient timepiece,
Claws whispering like wind in dry hyacinths.
The street lamp said,
“Remark the mouse that races towards the carpet.”
And the unstilled wheel still turning
That is high-cult Bugs: funny with a touch of meanness, too. Despite what we all learned in nursery school, laughing at someone is a lot more fun than laughing with someone, and the book is filled with those kinds of wonderful jabs and take-downs. There’s a genuine laugh on every one of its 400-some pages, and as a bedside or beachside companion, it’s almost unparalleled. It should be kept alongside the Norton Anthology of English Literature as a kind of dissenting opinion. You can read the original, then read the parody, then decide for yourself which makes more sense.
It helps, though, in the early pages, to be able to summon up the dusty memories of the required reading for freshman English. The book’s targets unspool in chronological order—olde Englishe stuffe in fronte, J.K. Rowling later on—so if your Milton and Johnson are a little rusty, some of the pleasure may be lost on you.
For instance, Catharine Maria Fanshawe’s roughly contemporaneous parody of Wordsworth doesn’t draw much blood or laughter, and even at gunpoint I’d be hard-pressed to distinguish between actual Wordsworth and an imitation written by one of his contemporaries. Though, to be fair, it’s awfully hard to parody Wordsworth. All those “daffodils tossing their heads in sprightly dance” seem to come pre-parodied.
And yet, on the very next page, the late poet Gavin Ewart manages to do it, winningly, in “A Wordsworthian Sonnet for Arnold Feinstein, Who Mended My Spectacles in Yugoslavia.”
Feinstein, artificer of proven worth!
O Savior of my spectacles! Thou didst know
Exactly where that tiny screw should go
And how to place it there! Of all on earth
I honour thee! Of such men there is a dearth—
Great Scientists that yet will stoop so low,
To rude Mechanics! Our Life cannot show
A truer Nobleness, or of such pure birth!
Yet thou, by Struga, in that moving coach,
Spinoza-like didst work upon the lens
With aptitude more great than other men’s,
Reintroducing it! O dread approach
Of bookish blindness! From which I was set free
When fate ordained that thou sat’st next to me!
It’s the “sat’st” that makes me laugh out loud.
The book is divided into two unequal parts. Part 1, about two-thirds of the whole, is devoted to parodies of specific authors. Here’s Keith Waterhouse neatly filleting both Charles Dickens and modern business practice in an entry entitled “The Cratchit Factor”:
“Tiny” Tim was legless, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. It was the fifth time in the space of half an hour that the Group Public Relations Advisor had lurched to his feet to propose a toast.
“God bleh, sev one,” slurred the popular “Tiny,” and slid under the top table.
Robert (“Bob”) Cratchit, chairman and managing director, rose to reply.
“Viable product. . . . ” droned Cratchit. “Cost-effective . . . marketing operation . . . retail outlets . . . growth rate potential . . . export thrust. . . . ”
The applause was thunderous.
What a sales conference it had been! What concepts, what projections, what plastic name-tags, what folders stuffed full of background briefings, what working breakfasts! . . . Such agoings-on, such Rib Room dinings and Fisherman’s Platter buffet luncheonings, such speechifying, such a-picking-up of Iberian Air hostesses in Ye Post-horn Coffee Shoppe, had never taken place since the Cratchit Group had gone public.
Only Scrooge looked melancholy. Scrooge had been heard to say that the Psychology Seminar, wherein the reps had learned how to improve their sales by copying “Tiny” Tim’s limp, was humbug.
And here’s Cyril Connolly’s version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, who has just been assigned by M to seduce a Russian military attaché. A male Russian military attaché:
“007, I want you to do this thing. I want you to let our people rig you up as a moppet and send you to a special sort of club and I want you to allow yourself to be approached by General Apraxin and sit at his table and if he asks you back to his hotel I want you to accompany him and any suggestion he makes I request you to fall in with to the limit your conscience permits. And may your patriotism be your conscience, as it is mine.”
It was a very odd speech for M. Bond studied his fingernails. “And if the place gets too hot?”
“Then you must pull out—but remember. T.E. Lawrence put up with the final indignity. I knew him well, but knowing even that, I never dared call him by his Christian name.”
What Connelly understood is that, after all, there is something a little prissy about Fleming’s James Bond—and Roger Moore’s, too, but that’s for another day—and what makes Connolly’s Bond-in-Bondage parody so funny is that, well, it’s awfully plausible when you consider how persnickety James Bond is about his clothes and his cocktails, and the exact sexual nature of the troubles within British intelligence around 1955.
The second part of the book is more generally organized around topics—Nursery Rhymes, Young Jane Austens, Stage and Screen—and is a little less poet-heavy. The titles alone—like Mark Crick’s “Applying Sealant Round a Bath with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe”—set up the punch lines so well, it’s almost enough just to scan the table of contents. It’s the most browse-able book I’ve seen in years.
A truly great parody—in the grand Bugs Bunny tradition—is an arrow aimed straight at the puffed-up and smug, gently but firmly mean-spirited. Craig Brown’s parody of a Tony Blair speech, which begins, “Look, I’m listening. And listen: I’m looking,” captures the oleaginous quality of the former prime minister more quickly—and in deadlier fashion—than anyone else has. And the inclusion in the volume of the great, evil Sokal Hoax—the jargon-packed essay of meaningless phrases and academic cant that NYU professor Alan Sokal managed to have published in a journal of culture studies, Social Text, without any of the editors noticing that it was, by design, utterly incomprehensible—is another reason to treasure The Oxford Book of Parodies. It has a point of view. And that point of view is: everybody is full of it.
But not too full of it. In his introduction, Gross suggests there’s more Mickey at work here than one would think. Many parodies, he says, are “undoubtedly motivated by exasperation or contempt. They are designed to annihilate.” But there’s a Mickey side, too: “Killer parodies,” he says, “are in a small minority. Most parodies are relatively benign, especially the ones with staying power.”
I’m not sure Elmer Fudd saw it that way. He knew when he was being made fun of, and it made him (literally, animatedly) turn crimson. I suspect that many of the authors and poets parodied between the covers of this indispensable, hilarious volume might turn a little red themselves, stick on a fake, tight smile, and try lamely to swing with the joke. We’ve all had our turn in that particular hot seat. We’ve all spent some time as Mickey, or Bugs, or Elmer. Bugs is better. And for four hundred or more splendid, well-chosen pages, you get to be just that.