Firsts: Sci-Fi parodies and how genre became self-aware

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Jan 4, 2018

For as long as there has been genre storytelling, there have been creators who have taken that storytelling, twisted it a little, and maybe sorta kinda made fun of it.

It's called "parody," and just like anything else, science fiction and fantasy have had their share.

What was the first-ever genre parody? Hard to say. It might have started with the ancient Greeks? Maybe Aristophanes kicked it off with The Frogs? Was a sendup of Heracles and Dionysus considered science fiction or fantasy to a Greek person in 405 BC? Is that the ancient equivalent of James Woods playing a sarcastic Hades in Disney's Hercules?

It's hard to define definite Firsts when human storytelling is longer-lived than human writing. Or even the modern convention of human language.

For all we know, there's sci-fi fantasy parody cave drawings. One cromag draws a flying bison in space, and the next draws a flying bison in space farting. Hey. It might've happened. Lots of things are lost to the sands of time, folks. Some of them are probably fart jokes about space bison.

So I do hope you will forgive this, but we're going to look at some more modern Firsts when it comes to parody, examples that definitely paved the way but maybe weren't the actual genesis point for all of parody in genre.

HG OH, WELLS

Mary Shelley may have been the first science fiction author, and there's no shortage of Frankenstein parodies (which we'll come to later), but probably the first genre writer whose work was most often used as the inspiration for parody was H.G. Wells.

It is not with his first, best-known work, The Time Machine, but the equally famous The War of the Worlds where we begin.

The War of the Worlds began being serialized in 1895, and the terrifying tale of inhuman, crippling, and monstrous invaders from Mars had readers rapt.

By 1898, however, E.V. Lucas and C.L. Graves, sensing a flagging interest in Wells' particular brand of storytelling, released another, very similar story, The War of the Wenuses, which, instead of being about Martians, was about deadly women from the planet Wenus. Yes, the titular Wenuses, beautiful alien women from another world who could mash men to death with a glance and poison Earth women with tea.

Lucas and Graves, in addition to mocking the current cultural climate of the UK, also went to great pains to mock the writing style of Wells himself, one of the most famous science fiction writers of all time. The War of the Wenuses took Wells to task for his constant asides to "the sober reader," as well as his tendency to place faith in the uneducated-yet-common-sensical man. Much like Dan Brown, Wells has a tendency to spend an inordinate amount of time on unnecessarily specific details regarding specific locations and objects, but is often strangely silent on more important plot aspects.

Mocking text, author, and cultural moors, Lucas and Graves' The War of the Wenuses is arguably the first, or at least the earliest, well-known modern work of genre parody.

BORED OF THE RINGS

J.R.R. Tolkien's 1954 classic, The Lord of the Rings, is probably, at least to a small extent, an influence on every modern fantasy writer. His obsession with history and language made Middle-earth and The Lord of the Rings the first fantasy story anyone thought about until George R.R. Martin came around. And even George knows where he owes his influences.

So, naturally, The Lord of the Rings is ripe for parody. And the most famous first parody of Tolkien's most famous work is 1969's Bored of the Rings, which was written by the folks behind the then Harvard Lampoon. Those same writers found such success through parody, in fact, that they went on to found the National Lampoon magazine.

But Bored of the Rings itself is a true masterstroke, a perfect blending of Tolkien's excessive and obsessive attention to detail and the humor of the kinds of people in the 1960s who were most into Tolkien: hippies.

You know how the one ring to rule them all has an ancient inscription on it? Well, the ring in Bored of the Rings has one, too, and it typifies the humor you find throughout:

"This ring, no other, is made by the Elves
Who'd pawn their own mother to get it themselves.
Ruler of creeper, mortal and scallop,
This is a sleeper that packs quite a wallop.
If broken or busted it cannot be remade.
If found, send to Sorhed. (The postage is prepaid.)"

Hey! You know Bilbo Baggins, from The Hobbit? Yeah, in Bored of the Rings his name is "Dildo Bugger."

And yet, despite the heavy lean on the sophomoric, there was, as with The War of the Wenuses before it, a studious attention to the source material. For example, upon Bored's release, its paperback clung very similarly to Tolkien's original LOTR release, even going so far as to mimic the warning on the back of the paperback of unauthorized editions.

Bored of the Rings, in addition to lampooning Tolkien with double-paged maps of locations the cast would never visit, long lists of additional tomes (which the Harvard Lampoon never bothered to write), and a series of made-up and ridiculously laudatory reviews, also cemented another modern parody standard, introducing modern elements to an otherwise-thoroughly-unmodern story.

Yes, not only did Bored of the Rings lean on the sex jokes (that itself a mirror to the 1960s counterculture), but it also would make jokes about someone not being killed, not out of mercy, but because our heroes had "run out of bullets."

In addition to being a first to truly and completely parody Tolkien's work, the Harvard Lampoon also continued to define what genre parody (and parody in general) would be like for decades to come.

MAD MAGAZINE BLECCHS WHERE NO ONE HAS BLECCHED BEFORE

Speaking of seminal series and the lampooning writers who took them on, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek has been fan-fictioned from the moon and back so many times, it would be impossible to keep count. And it's seen its fair share of parody, too.

Mad Magazine, which is one of the longest (if not THE longest-running) parody publication of all time, found great success with Star Trek. And while I'm sure there's a lot of synchronicity and arguing over who made the first Trek parody, there's a strong argument to be made that the most well-known of those early sendups is Mad's own Star Blecch.

Star Blecch, unlike the previous works of parody we've discussed so far, is more transformative, both in that it is not rendered in the same medium as the source material (that would be television) and that the medium it was rendered in primarily is comic books.

Comics avail their creator the ability to parody not only the writing style of something, but the visual style on every level. Star Blecch took great liberty in how they interpreted the likes of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and the rest of the cast of Star Trek.

And Mad was intensely self-aware. Mad artist Don Martin was frequently mentioned in Mad's work. Mad also, like our previous parody writers, had a tendency to incorporate modern elements, sometimes even other established comic characters like Charlie Brown.

But in addition to comics as a medium for roasting popular genre storytelling, Mad Magazine and Star Blecch also had a tendency to amp up the insanity to a level never before seen. The ship is called the Booby Prize, there are sex jokes galore, jokes about people being dirty, political jokes, and most of all, just plain random sentences strung together in a way that were funny by virtue of said randomness.

And if you're wondering, it worked pretty well since not only is Mad Magazine still in business, but when Star Trek returned to the silver screen in 2009, so did Star Blecch.

 

MARY SHELLEY's FRANKENSTEIN AND THE UNIVERSAL PARODY

Remember when we briefly mentioned Mary Shelley and how she, more than anyone else, kicked off the science fiction revolution? Well, Frankenstein in particular also kicked off the modern convention of parody in genre filmmaking.

Consider that Mary Shelley along with a host of other famous authors wound up all combined under the banner of Universal Monsters. The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and, of course, Frankenstein.

Universal found huge success telling serious stories, and the likes of Hammer Horror and others would go on to do similar in the decades to come, but beginning in the 1940s, Universal saw an opportunity to parody themselves — with a little help from Abbott and Costello.

Abbott and Costello's licensed first genre parody wound up also being one of the best-known parodies of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein's monster. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein came out in 1948 and was the true originator of the monster mash. Dracula was there, too, as were a host of other monsters, including the Wolf Man and a first-minute uncredited cameo from Vincent Price as the Invisible Man.

In true Abbott and Costello fashion, the story is mostly about two rubes getting themselves into trouble, but it also offers the opportunity to take the scare out of the air surrounding some of the most famous of monsters.

Bela Lugosi returned to play Dracula, as did Lon Chaney Jr. for the Wolf Man (although he hated these parodies). Universal took the idea of parody and embraced it in a way that allowed the people adapting these sci-fi and horror staples to continue to control the narrative, even in parody.

Frankenstein also, sidebar, wound up being the first genre story that Mel Brooks ever tackled with Young Frankenstein. And Mel Brooks is, in many ways, the king of parody filmmaking.

 

A LONG TIME AGO, IN A PARODY, FAR, FAR AWAY

The original Star Wars celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2017. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2018 is the first major parody (and coincidentally George Lucas' favorite sendup of his material), Hardware Wars.

About a year after A New Hope was released, Hardware Wars, written and directed by Ernie Fosselius, is a kind of extended trailer for an alternate, ultra-low-budget version of Star Wars. And if you couldn't guess based on the name, there's a lot of home appliances in place of actual special effects and models. Irons, toasters, cassettes, flashlights, garbage cans -- oh, and don't forget the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.

It's not hard to see why George Lucas loves Hardware Wars. It's mostly a parody by way of a love song. Hardware Wars is as much homage as it is parody. But who can say no to a puppet Wookiee Monster? No one.

And Hardware Wars also set the stage for Mel Brooks to do Spaceballs. It opened the door for Thumb Wars, all of the Seth MacFarlane Star Wars comedy specials, Robot Chicken, and a million other parodies.

It even opened the door musically. Despite how known he is for parody, "Weird Al" Yankovic didn't release a song that was genre-specific until his third album -- it was "Yoda," which was a parody of both Star Wars and the Kinks' gender bender, "Lola." That wouldn't be the last time Al would skewer Star Wars, either. Hardware Wars is a big reason that could happen. Lucas is a real stickler for his property, but because Hardware Wars made him laugh, it feels like all the many parodies and homages that followed had a foot the door.

The War of the Worlds. Frankenstein. Lord of the Rings. Star Trek. Star Wars. There have been a lot of great firsts in the realm of genre parody, and it's fascinating to see how some of them helped shape the future of parody both in and outside of genre.

These were some of our favorites. What are yours? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading!