If you dig down deep for the Greek root of the word “parody,” you dig up the meaning “against song.” Sometimes the song itself becomes the target of parody — think of Weird Al Yankovic’s send up of Cindy Lauper’s trivializing hymn “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” He called his spoof, “Girls Just Want to Have Lunch.” Ancient parodists could be cheeky in the same way. In his play, The Frogs, the Greek satirist Aristophanes awarded the hero Hercules one principal superpower — gluttony. Hum a parody yourself: “Gods Just Want to Have Lunch.”
Sometimes parody aims merely for irreverence. At the height of the Tolkein craze in 1969, millions mastered an alternative cosmology. The Harvard Lampoon released Bored of the Rings, renaming the hobbits Merry and Pippin, “Moxie” and “Pepsi.” The woodland elf Legolas re-emerged as “Legolam,” and Gimley, the dwarf, became a fusty “Gimlet.”
But parodies sometimes closely exploit the voice and style of the memorable original to give vent to complaint at no cost to the real thing. In this year’s cold March, I finally nosed my bicycle out for its ritual first ride and I found the pavements potholed and the drivers distracted. Then a couple of mean mutts piled on.
I should have been feeling as perky as Julie Andrews’ exuberant postulant 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!”
The 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. Writing parody helps you blow off steam, so does reading it or singing it. 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.