This week’s question comes from reader Gonzalo Perez-Garcia:
“What pop culture phenomenon were you introduced to through the parody/satire of it? I watched at least two of SNL’s The View skits with Cheri Oteri’s Barbara Walters before I realized that it was based on an actual show that existed on TV, not just a silly idea the SNL writers came up with on their own. Likewise, a friend of mine in college saw Mafia! before she had ever seen The Godfather. When I finally made her and two other girls watch The Godfather, she was laughing at certain scenes because now the analogous parody scenes in Mafia! suddenly made sense to her.”
When I saw Not Another Teen Movie in 2001, I recognized the band Good Charlotte, the Bring It On storyline, and little else. The next few years were filled with watching films I had seen parodied; my favorite is recognizing the brooding artistic character’s camcorder tape of the floating plastic bag in American Beauty, one of the more idiosyncratic choices the Not Another Teen Movie writers mocked in their film, complete with the spare, tinkling music. But the whole movie rests on the foundation John Hughes built, an entire pop culture phenomenon I experienced having first seen parodied. Watching those ’80s high-schoolers for the first time was punctuated with “OOOOH”s of recognition. Finally seeing teenage Molly Ringwald made Not Another Teen Movie’s final, airport scene—in which the characters and writers drop all pretenses and just parrot, verbatim, classic lines from those teen movies until Ringwald herself corrects them—all the better. Relatedly, I re-watched Not Another Teen Movie recently, and it holds up surprisingly well; it goes deeper (admittedly, not super deep) than the “remember this?” proceedings of the much-worse Scary Movie parodies. The cast (including a young Chris Evans!) is uniformly great with their decent material, there’s a legit musical number, and there are dozens more sly parodies I recognize as an adult that I didn’t when I was a teen myself.
It’s a little insane that a children’s show had a long-running, recurring parody of a wildly violent, drug-addled, postmodern crime film, but such was the case with “Goodfeathers,” Animaniacs’ take on Goodfellas. I wasn’t even 10 when that show came out, and while I’d covertly rented quite a few R-rated movies from my extremely chill local library, Goodfellas was not exactly on the docket for me at the time. The cartoon’s nostalgic tone (“As far back as I can remember …”) and manic violence didn’t feel that strange for a cartoon; at most, I considered its “Do I look like a clown to you?” riffs a jab at mobsters in general. When I finally saw the movie, sometime in high school or college, it was like a punchline arriving a decade after the setup, seemingly by design.
SpongeBob SquarePants has long had a penchant for burying adult humor in its characters’ elevated language and making frequent references to popular culture (how many 10-year-olds know who Nosferatu is?). While reading Lord Of The Flies in middle school, I realized that one episode parodied William Golding’s allegory about the darkness of human nature: In “Club SpongeBob,” SpongeBob, Patrick, and Squidward, stranded in a desert jungle, must rely on the “Magic Conch Shell” for survival. But unlike in the novel, this talking shell isn’t an instrument of democracy, but an autocratic deity that—much to Squidward’s frustration—SpongeBob and Patrick worship in earnest, obeying its orders to do nothing. As Squidward attempts to survive using his own intellect and resourcefulness, SpongeBob and Patrick’s obedience is rewarded with a feast that falls from the heavens. And just as the novel’s characters’ departure from order leads them to become savages, Squidward’s rejection of the conch gradually drives him to madness. It’s dark stuff for a kids show—though admittedly not by SpongeBob’s standards.
Sure, the “Goodfeathers” code was tough for an elementary-school kid to crack, but at least “goodfellas” and “goodfeathers” kind of sound the same. For truly indecipherable Animaniacs esoterica, try “Yes, Always,” in which megalomaniacal laboratory mouse the Brain upbraids his dimwitted sidekick Pinky over some shoddily written copy about cod, fjords, and “beef burgers.” Then do as I did, and try writing a college essay about Orson Welles, poke around Welles’ Wikipedia page as research/procrastination, stumble upon the infamous recording-booth outtake “Frozen Peas,” and experience a revelation as glorious and enlightening as that footage of a remote farm, in Lincolnshire, where Mrs. Buckley lives. Every July, peas grow there, and every time somebody brings up Pinky And The Brain now, I’m astounded that I went so long without knowing that Maurice LaMarche played the Brain by way of his peerless Welles impression, and impressed that one of Welles’ lowest professional moments was recreated, nearly word for word, by a cartoon rodent.
When it came to music growing up, I was a total dweebus. My parents didn’t listen to the radio much, and my brain automatically classified anything that rocked harder than “We Didn’t Start The Fire” as “Bad Kids Music.” Odds are pretty good, then, that if a song came out sometime between 1980 and 1995, and my musically sheltered kid brain was still somehow familiar with it, it was because it was either a) by Billy Joel or Paul Simon, or b) had been parodied at some point by “Weird Al” Yankovic. Deep into his late-career renaissance, Al is rightly held up for his talents as a comedian and a musical mimic. But it would be a mistake to overlook his talents as a curator of musical tastes, transforming top 40 hits into comic creations with each new album. The direct parodies are obvious—I heard “Fat,” “Smells Like Nirvana,” “Headline News, “Like A Surgeon,” and literally dozens more before I’d ever gotten a taste of Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Crash Test Dummies, or Madonna. But the real revelations were his “style parodies,” where Al adopts a band’s general sound rather than a specific track. More than once, I’ve heard a song on the radio and instantly gravitated it, only to realize that, say, a million plays of “Frank’s 2000-Inch TV” had prepped me to fall immediately in love with early-era R.E.M.
A significant portion of my pop culture knowledge had to be reverse-engineered from parody due to the hour-long block of old Looney Tunes cartoons I would watch every Saturday morning for approximately a dozen years. I had no idea who the hell Peter Lorre was, and it was a shock to discover he was a real, breathing person surprisingly similar to his animated counterpart. Noir, Wagnerian opera, vaudeville—these were just some of the antiquated entertainment I first became aware of filtered through the hijinks of a smartass rabbit trying not to be shot in the face. What’s amazing to me is how it still persists into adulthood. One of the shorts I saw all the time was 1947’s “A Hare Goes To Manhattan,” where a young Bugs Bunny gets bullied by a pack of dogs. At the climax, he attempts to defend himself by holding a book up to attack, only to have all the dogs excitedly run off. Because, the book, you see, was A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. I always assumed it was a gag title made up for the cartoon, and only discovered a few years ago that it’s actually an incredibly successful and influential novel. Always learning!
I’m more than happy to admit that I watched Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein a good dozen or so times before I ever saw the old classics it was parodying. Phrases like “Frau Blücher!” and “Abbie-normal” become commonplace lingo in my home years ahead of seeing Frankenstein or Bride Of Frankenstein in all their black-and-white magic. I had heard of Mary Shelley’s creation, obviously—parodied versions suffuse our cultural landscape, starting as early as seeing a box of Frankenberry cereal on the shelf of your local grocery store—but I certainly wasn’t about to subject my youthful self to some old-ass talkies that lacked the pace and zip of Saturday morning cartoons. But even several decades past its debut, Young Frankenstein spoke to me; its broad humor, absurdist sensibility, and Marty Feldman’s face-made-for-mugging appeal are tailored almost perfectly to a kid just discovering what it means to have a sense of humor. Also, numerous scenes provided an early opportunity for pretending I “got it” even when I very much did not, a valuable lesson for surviving middle school and its horrifying interrogations of my knowledge about current movies and pop music.
It’s really fun to get a little window into everyone’s childhoods with this question. Mine was spent voraciously consuming anything Muppets-related, especially episodes of my favorite cartoon, Muppet Babies. Much like the later Animaniacs, Muppet Babies’ pop culture references were wide-ranging, and presented with little regard for whether the kids watching the show had actually seen the movies and TV series being parodied. Now, the Star Wars references, I understood, having been introduced to that property at a very young age. But there was an episode called “Raiders Of The Lost Muppet” that introduced me to an ’80s cultural phenomenon my parents had kept from me: Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. In the episode, the Muppet Babies have to brave a dark basement after baby Animal goes missing, leading Kermit to dub himself “Indiana Frog” and lead the gang on an adventure in the “basement of doom”—an adventure that closely parallels the plot of Temple Of Doom, even incorporating clips from the original live-action film. As for me, I didn’t get around to seeing Temple Of Doom until I was an adult, which led to a parody-ception of sorts: There’s a rollercoaster at Kings Island, the amusement park we visited every summer growing up, that’s also based on Temple Of Doom, and the first time I rode it, it only made sense because I had seen that Muppet Babies episode.