The Funny Thing about the Funny Thing

Parody, a calculated form of play, has been around for a long time. Follow the word to its Greek roots and you dig up the meaning “against song.” Sometimes parodists really do have something against the song itself—think of Weird Al Yankovic’s send up of Cindy Lauper’s tuneful, but trivializing, anthem “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Weird Al called his spoof “Girls Just Want to Have Lunch.” The ancients possessed the same cheeky impulse. In his play, The Frogs, Aristophanes, the Greek satirist, awarded the hero Hercules one principal superpower—gluttony. Parody can beget parody even after couple millennia have passed by: try it yourself, muse over this title, “Herc Just Wants to Have Lunch.”

RedBikeLane, From Arne Huckelheim, Courtesy of Creative Commons DistributionParody sometimes takes up a cause, seeks to right a wrong, or merely gives vent to a complaint. This last winter, for example, proved a hard one. When I finally nosed my bicycle out for its ritual first ride in March, I found that the pitted pavements made a joke of pedaling a “road bike.” Distracted drivers comprised another hazard. Then a couple of mean muts piled on.

With the first rays of sun peaking out in months, I should have felt as perky as Julie Andrews’ exuberant novitiate who loved the “silver white winters that melt into springs.” But in my head the sound of music had turned toward parody and a list of grievances. And so this:

My Least Favorite Things

Sharp glass on surfaces, pavement that’s feudal,
Rottweilers, pit-bulls, and ill-mannered poodles,
Massive four-wheelers with hubcaps that bling,
Top of the list of my least-favorite things.

Skewed manhole covers, loose gravel on highways,
Motorized trail bikes trespassing on byways,
Pothole repair crews away on a fling,
Join the long list of my least-favorite things.

Drivers distracted by mush in their noodles;
Rummaging inside their kit and caboodles;
Gesturing talkers on cell phones that ring,
All fit on my list of least-favorite things.

When the tube pops,
When the horns blare,
When hungry muts gather to glare,
Compute a bikes’ relative mass to a bus,
Looks like “I don’t have a prayer!”

Rodgers, Berlin, Hammerstien, and Tamiris, St. James Theatre, From Al Aumuller, World Telegram  Staff Photography, Courtesy of Library of CongressThe Greeks knew the funny thing about the funny thing—that the act of turning complaint to humor itself offers a catharsis, a release in the expression. Spoofing Oscar Hammerstein’s somewhat tricky rhyming scheme proved challenging and funny. It supplied just the antidote-game I needed.

But there’s something else about parody. Sometimes it’s not “against” the song at all. In this case, in fact, I discovered how much there was to admire in both lyrics and music. And as imitation became more flattery than mischief, I discovered how the major/minor/major progression that Richard Rodgers devised showed how perfectly well the lyricist and composer worked (that is to say played) together.