Humor, it seems, can be tricky—just ask the Christian satire/parody site The Babylon Bee. In a recent article, Fox News describes the outrage over The Babylon Bee’s latest article, which lampoons the career of TBN co-founder Jan Crouch, mere hours after her death. The comments ranged from delighted glee over the empty implications of prosperity gospel to outright shock that any Christian periodical would make fun of another Christian’s life work so soon after her death. This is just the latest example of what The Babylon Bee publishes—comedy that comes at a cost.
Let’s face it, though: there are things in our Christian culture worthy of mockery. But we don’t have to be so harsh when we do it. Like its more famous counterpart, The Onion, The Babylon Bee produces both satire and parody—The Bee, though, lampoons American and, more specifically, Christian culture. The difference between the two approaches to comedy is important. Satire operates as a corrective—the jokes are there in order to produce a change in culture. Parody, on the other hand, doesn’t need any kind of corrective function. According to The Oxford Book of Parodies, “A parody is an imitation which exaggerates the characteristics of a work or a style for comic effect” (xi). In the briefest sense, satire must work in some way to effect change, but parody simply has to mock something else.
This technical definition notwithstanding, the question that seems to come up quite often for The Babylon Bee: should Christians parody anything? Should we as believers make fun of something or someone just for the laugh?
In the site’s defense, just about everybody has been parodied, from Shakespeare to J. K. Rowling. If you’re a good artist (or even just a popular one), you’re going to get made fun of, and if you’re lucky, the person doing the joking is a good artist, too. In addition, I gotta say, I love what The Babylon Bee is trying to do, and the level of excellence in such a short time period has been impressive.
But there’s always room for improvement, especially if they want to last for years or even decades. While The Babylon Bee may not need any advice from me, I believe there’s a clear picture of what a long-term, successful parodist looks like—without the heavy negativity.
It was the early 1980s, and I still remember the brown box that sat on the top of our television—it delivered more channels than I’d ever seen before. My parents, though, were concerned about what we were going to watch, so they set boundaries.
Their restriction was Edenic—I could watch everything else, but MTV I was not to watch. In the day that I was to watch MTV, I would surely get punished.
Like in the Garden of Eden, though, I was tempted beyond my best intentions. I got caught watching MTV—which happened so often, I now understand that it wasn’t that big a deal after all.
I look back on what came on MTV, and I can understand what my parents were trying to protect me from seeing. Yet something happened when Weird Al Yankovic came on. He was there on MTV, making fun of the song and the style of the music that I loved. And I wasn’t offended. And according to the original artists, they weren’t offended, either. In fact, Weird Al makes it a point to get permission to parody, an effort at good-guy-ness that some in the comedy business might find hokey or downright provincial.
From that, I figured out that my parents liked Weird Al, too. Since they hated the music I liked, if that guy was, in some way, making fun of it, then they figured that should be celebrated at the very least.
Unlike many musical acts from the 1980s (and novelty musical acts in general), Weird Al has enjoyed an incredibly long musical career, no matter the approach. We’re talking about a man whose career has spanned over three decades, who has hits in multiple genres, and whose face is recognizable to most people in the United States. We’re talking about a man who can’t sing very well, but who has made music that mimics some of the most popular musicians in my lifetime. Even Rolling Stone has dubbed his band a great cover band.
The advent of MTV and the visualization of music really helped launch him into greatness. Weird Al’s ride as the great American Parodist of the Twentieth Century may be unprecedented, beginning over 35 years ago and outlasting most of the artists he’s parodied. In nearly every popular genre—and some not-so-popular (read: polka)—Weird Al’s has influence has become secondary in terms of order, but primary in terms of power.
Even the lack of music videos didn’t stop his musical output—just when it looked like music video channels quit playing music videos forever, YouTube became popular, and YouTube has Weird Al Yankovic copycats crawling all over it. Think about it: every Youtube video that makes fun of someone else owes a clear debt to Weird Al. That’s everyone from the cruelty of a gaggle of middle school girls to the admiring efforts of an adoring fan.
Though his parody progeny may not be as gifted as he, Weird Al’s brand of comedy should be celebrated, encouraged even. In an age when the whisper of the word “bully” can send everyone from parents to the president into a tizzy, Weird Al Yankovic has basically made a career of poking fun of some of the most popular music acts of my lifetime. Everyone from Michael Jackson to Lady Gaga has gotten the Weird treatment, and few have raised more than a tittle at his parodies. (Ok, all except for Coolio, but it’s all good now.)
Even with all that, however, I’m arguing not just for his musical genius and comedic timing. I am arguing that Weird Al Yankovic should be recognized by the general populace, but also by Christians. You may ask why Christians should celebrate an art form that, at its base, seeks to poke fun at someone.
As a short guideline, here are a few ways that Christians could emulate Weird Al in their parody attempts:
- A good parodist may come from a stance of admiration, using the original artists’ style to bring humor. (This isn’t always the case, of course, but the Weird Al standard demands it). At its best, a parody highlights the unique aspects of the art.
- A good parodist is a good artist. Remember, Weird Al’s backup band has been recognized for its creative musicianship. If you’re creating a parody, you can’t be a hack. Sometimes, the first creative impulse isn’t the best. The originator gets superseded by a mimic, and the one who came to tease and make fun ends up being gifted.
- A good parodist isn’t a parody of a parodist. The Babylon Bee needs to move beyond the “Christian Onion” if it’s going to really be good. Believe it or not, there were novelty musical acts as well as musical parodists before Weird Al—and nobody can remember their names.
I know that there are those who are still squeamish at the thought of a Christian flat-out mocking something, and I understand their concerns. Let’s face it, though: there are things in our Christian culture worthy of mockery. But we don’t have to be so harsh when we do it. That’s the danger of parody. Anyone can do it, but few do it well.
When we have an artiste par excellence in our midst, we’d be remiss to ignore his talent and impact. We have a man in Weird Al who can show us all how poking fun doesn’t have to be so harmful, and not every joke about another human being creates an enemy. Parody with kindness doesn’t happen often, but when it does, we tend to live in a better place.
Photo by Casey Curry/Invision/AP