There is a quote from Mel Brooks that I’ve always adored: “If you want to take power away from something, laugh at it.” A stunning statement coming from a Jewish-raised man who served in World War II, and his humor often reflected that background. Many of his movies portray Hilter and The Third Reich as comical, foppish, and foolish. There is an entire musical in The Producers dedicated to mocking Nazis, which goes on to be a smash hit with the audience in movie (much to the chagrin of the main characters). “Springtime for Hitler” doesn’t ignore the darkness inside World War II (“Winter for Poland and France”, so the lyrics go), but undercuts real evil with a heaping of ridiculousness.
Brooks has made it his life’s mission to make light, whether it be pop culture, overused tropes, and more touchy subjects like racism and war. His movies have shown that he’s not the only one who enjoys the laugh, given their importance in American cinema and comedy. Not all parody need be like the Scary Movie franchises; the art of parody goes well beyond Brooks, reaching into novels, plays, and every weekly sketch show in existence.
And then, well beyond the absurd: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was written as a satire of late 18th century Gothic fiction, many of Shakespeare’s plays poked fun at romance tropes and popular characters from his era’s England. But surely, says the general public, we aren’t supposed to make fun of Austen and Shakespeare. They were serious writers and respectable in the world of literature. How dare someone write a modern text version of Romeo and Juliet, or Pride & Prejudice with zombies!
And I will tell you, general public, that you should probably read a few of those Shakespeare plays one more time. You’ve overlooked all the raunchy jokes and clever cultural references. And after all, who said humor can’t be literary? Who ever said that comedy can’t be part of intelligence? It’s easy to throw satire into the ring of low brow, but being funny requires a little more than a good punchline.
I grew up with Monty Python’s Flying Circus reruns, a series more well-attuned to British humor than American. And while it has its share of silliness, their comedy always came with a wink and a tongue firmly placed in cheek. The movie Monty Python & The Holy Grail is a brilliant example of this, an Arthurian legend parody on its surface with a ton of political and historical comedy peppered along the way. While there are plenty of quotable parts from the film, my favorite scene is still the witch trial.
Not only is this still really funny and well-paced, this joke actually has historical context! Tried witches in Europe used to be tossed in ponds and rivers to see if they floated- which is dark and absurd to consider now. There are layers of humor here, from the silly and down into something more cultural and well-researched. The movie just takes life’s true absurdity a step further, revealing it for its ridiculousness and paranoia.
And maybe that’s the core of satire and parody: a means to honesty through the abstract and comical. The world we inhabit is harsh sometimes, just as it is strange and nonsensical.
We use comedy as a reflection from which the world feels a little lighter. Political climates can feel smothering, people grossly negative, and the daily grind crushing. Is it any wonder people turn to The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live at the end of the day? We want comedy to undercut the world’s seriousness. Sometimes, we need to laugh, to take the power back.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.