The comedians Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig are promoting an amusing new project: a comic parody of a melodramatic film, the kind of implausible domestic-issue-movie one might see on the Lifetime network. Lifetime is a U.S. cable network whose mandate is to target a female audience, and they have attempted to do this by becoming specialists in the maudlin. Almost, one might say, a parody of themselves. And the new film, A Deadly Adoption, has been made specifically for Lifetime and will be broadcast there this weekend – Saturday at 8 p.m. ET – a self-deprecating gesture meant to honour that network's 25th year making TV movies.
The clever thing about the publicity for this film so far is that it does not admit to being a parody or even a comedy at all: The just-released trailer has not a single laugh; it's a totally deadpan recreation of a typically earnest Lifetime drama. The plot line is apparently simple: A middle-aged couple hires an attractive young woman as a surrogate to bear a baby for them; she turns out to be creepy – she is shown tearing a photo of the couple in two, behaving seductively in front of the hapless dad – and the music is ominous. Violent disaster is to come. The sexy young home wrecker is obviously your garden-variety bunny-boiler, in your textbook moral-panic movie about the dangers of Messing With Nature. A lighthearted jab at Lifetime that will probably involve some slapstick gags with Ferrell and Wiig.
Funny idea, yes, and so carefully done a regular viewer of Lifetime might not even know they are being lured into a farce. But do you really need to see this movie now that you know its high concept? Is anyone seriously troubled enough by Lifetime that they would enjoy chewing on an amusing put-down of it? Ask yourself: are memes parodying lolcats any funnier than lolcats themselves?
The question applies to a lot of American comedy these days, which has come to rely on parody for instant recycling and mild mockery of popular genres. One of the culture's most delicious and delightful attributes is its tendency to instantly consume itself, to issue not just a single artistic product but multiple simultaneous iterations – mashups, reinterpretations, memes. It's the simultaneity of this that is so contemporary and so dizzying. It's very knowing and self-aware and seems very sophisticated.
The Scary Movie series made a full five films parodying the conventions and idiocies of teen horror movies; if you have seen one of these you may have had a chuckle or two but the joke may be wearing a bit thin by now, for the faults of schlock horror are pretty obvious to begin with. If you are not in love with the lampooning of the banal, then you probably didn't rush out to see Date Movie, Epic Movie or Disaster Movie, either – all parodies that didn't register well with critics.
There are more serious parodies out there – the fake news show of Stephen Colbert gains its humour from its adherence to the protocols of real television news. But shows like that combine parody with satire.
What's the difference? Brief Lit 101 lesson here. A parody is an imitation of a work of art. It adopts the styles and thematic preoccupations of the work or genre. It does not necessarily have a political bite to it. It is a game of styles.
The political bite – that would be satire. Satire is a critical portrayal of a reality – a social group, an institution. It can be in any style, not necessarily a parodic one. Evelyn Waugh's exaggerated portraits of London in the 1920s, for example, are satirical but do not parody any literary texts.
The two devices are obviously linked and frequently co-exist. Swift's A Modest Proposal is both satire and parody (satire of his countrymen's bigotry and callousness; parody of a public-policy analysis). The Onion is both satire and parody. The Simpsons is satire that contains within it frequent mini-parodies (such as The Itchy And Scratchy Show). The point of combining both is social criticism. Parody on its own – like the Deadly Adoption movie – doesn't have to have any teeth. It can be mimicry for the sake of mimicry. When a comedian does an excellent Michael Caine impression, he is not out to lambaste Michael Caine.
The upshot of our endless mediatized conversations about the value of irony in the 1990s was that we all agreed it was hard to tell if something was ironic or not any more. And in the 21st century we have not yet decided how to establish ownership of an artistic artifact. (Vide the Richard Prince Instagram controversy and subsequent re-re-reappropriations of his photos. See also a curious footnote to the Rachel Dolezal black-identity controversy: On her art blog she posted an image of a painting she did that is obviously a copy of J.M.W. Turner's 1840 painting The Slave Ship. This is not plagiarism – art students copy canonical works all the time for practice – nor is it parody, nor is it homage, nor is it pastiche. It's just a copy.) The bewildering complexity of all these discussions is perhaps what is most exciting about the contemporary cultural moment. The Lifetime network's self-parody is a wonderful microcosm of this moment.
Wonderful – only as an idea, though, as something to point to as an example, not as something really compelling to sit down and watch. In a culture utterly saturated in parody, the parody is no longer subversive; it becomes just another iteration of a cultural product that is for sale. Another thread of a blanketing sameness.