July 23, 2020
One of the most antic ways to write humor is the spoof. A spoof is a story that pokes fun of a specific form or genre. It's written as a caricature of the form. Spoofs are not disrespectful. In fact, they are a kind of homage, showing your deep understanding of the genre. It is nearly impossible to spoof a form with which you are not familiar.
Does Spoof = Parody?
Though Spoof and Parody may be considered synonyms, that doesn't mean they are exactly the same. Parodies are aimed at institutions or people or created works that seem to take themselves too seriously. A parody may be charming or it can be mean-spirited, but a spoof is never mean. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith is an example of a parody that isn’t mean-spirited but does focus on a specific work of literature.
With a spoof, it's as if all the fans of the original genre are in on the gags and happy for them. While a parody may make fun of a very specific bit of created work and often implies the choice was made because the original was somehow ridiculous, a spoof simply drives the conventions of the story to new and silly places. An example of a film spoof would be Spaceballs which pokes fun at the genre of movie science fiction. It doesn't aim to show that science fiction is stupid or bring the genre down. Instead, it asks the question: what if you push all the clichés and conventions of the genre as far as possible? The end result is a spoof.
Children's books can also indulge in spoofing. Bruce Hale's Chet Gecko Private Eye series spoofs noir mysteries and the author pushes the boundaries of what makes a noir detective. He comes up with the finest lizard detective at Emerson Hicky Elementary. Another classic spoof takes a poke at fairy tales in Robert Munsch's The Paper Bag Princess. Here the story begins with the trappings of a fairy tale but mixes it with a very nontraditional princess to spoof the whole fairy tale form. My own story, The Dragon of Woolie, is a bit of a spoof of traditional dragon stories since the characters in the story are often falling back on fairy tale wisdom about dragons only to find that they aren't exactly infallible.
How to Spoof
So if you'd like to spoof, how do you begin? Since the best spoofs are as much homage as comedy, the best place to begin is to think about the genres that you love. Which ones did you read insatiably as a child (or as an adult, since Noir isn't exactly a children's genre but worked great for the Chet Gecko spoofs)? You’ll want to pick a spoof genre from those you know best.
Once you've identified the genre you want to spoof, list all the things you associate with the genre. For instance, if you were spoofing romance, you might list the tendency for the story leads to be extremely good looking and the genre convention of always having a happy ending. If you were spoofing ghost stories, you might list old, creepy houses and odd-looking neighbors, residents, or caretakers. Sometimes it might take some thought to come up with all the genre clichés and conventions. Many have become so much a part of the story type that we don't even notice them, but to make a spoof work, you must notice everything. To help get you started, you might want to check out this list of genre characteristics from Scholastic.
Don't stop at the more general, accepted characteristic. Think also of clichés. Action-adventure heroes tend to be brave and physically strong. Romance characters can be almost comically prone to jumping to conclusions and poor communication. Mystery detectives often have an absurdly sharp eye for detail. These kinds of things may not be true of every story in the genre (as they are more clichés than conventions) but they happen often enough that no one is surprised when they pop up one more time
Stretch and Stretch and Stretch
Spoofs often take genre clichés and stretch them to ridiculous extremes. The main character in an action-adventure spoof will be not only good-looking but able to come through the most extreme conditions without a speck of dirt or a hair out of place. The main character in a romance spoof will fail to share even the most obvious information or will make wildly illogical mental leaps to give him or her reason to be angry with the other romantic lead.
The flip side of this would be the character who goes wildly opposite of the cliché. The romantic story between two extremely plain people who always say exactly what they mean and announce their feelings constantly. The action hero who falls over his own feet but somehow manages to survive the adventure anyway. This flip-side spoofing can be extremely funny exactly because we recognize that the convention is being turned on its head.
Spoofs often offer opportunities for types of humor you might not get to employ in a straight-forward story. You will often find puns in spoofs. You will almost always find a good bit of physical humor/slapstick. They can be silly. This freedom can be very appealing to a writer. (In spoofs, there is even a place for dad jokes!) So as you're stretching or flipping conventions and clichés, don't be afraid to go for the silly joke, the one-liner, etc. Readers are much more open to that kind of humor in a spoof.
Don't Lose Sight
As you pick and choose which things to distort to spoof your genre, keep in mind that it is perfectly okay if certain items stay exactly true to the norm. Let’s think about our extremely forth-right Romance characters who never misunderstand and always say what they mean. This would be a spoof of how characters are, but the story still might show how much trouble can be caused to a relationship even between these characters. Thus you would be holding to the Romance genre convention of "true love never did run smooth." By keeping some conventions in place, you'll help the story to be more satisfying for the reader, most of whom will be fans of the genre, just as you are.
Spoofs can be a great way to stretch your humor muscles and an enjoyable romp for the reader. So if you have a genre you love, and you want to engage in a bit of silly play, the spoof may be exactly right for you. If you do, good luck and may the spoof be with you.
Scholastic's Genre Characteristics List
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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