What happens when popular parodies stop being parodies? Do parodies more popular than their subject cease to funny, or are they just funny in a different way? If you didn't know about the movie Downfall, for example, would all of those Downfall Hitler memes still be funny?
It's a tricky question. It doesn't happen very often, but there are a few examples of this weird phenomenon. Most parodies "punch up," so-to-speak, poking fun at politicians, films, songs, companies, and so on, that a lot of people are familiar with. Long after everyone has forgotten, for example, a Saturday Night Live sketch mocking a presidential candidate, that candidate is remembered by the public for their life and deeds beyond the sketch.
But sometimes, the parody becomes way more popular than the source material, creating a new, rare class of parody: "Things You Didn't Realize Were Parodies." Do these parodies suffer for being so anchorless? Is David Bowie's "Magic Dance" a weaker, less-clever song? Is the Energizer Bunny any less iconic? Let's explore some examples of parodies that occupy this odd space in popular culture.
The Austin Powers trilogy is obviously a James Bond parody in part, with its references to Goldfinger (Goldmember), Oddjob (Random Task), and Pussy Galore (Alotta Fagina), among many, many others. But the Austin Powers character himself was actually inspired by an obscure womanizing detective/spy character named Jason King (Peter Wyngarde), from a short-lived 1970s British spy show of the same name. King shares with Powers a love for bleeding-edge trendy clothing, bouffants, untamed body hair, and shameless flamboyance. The character's legacy reached far beyond Powers: King also inspired the 1990s Invisibles comic book character Mr. Six and the X-Men villain Jason Wyngarde, also known as Mastermind.
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Most kids and cartoon fans probably assume the loudmouthed southern rooster Foghorn Leghorn is a Looney Tunes original, but he's actually a parody of/homage to two 1940s radio characters: Senator Beauregard Claghorn, an uber-Southern politician character played by Kenny Delmar on The Fred Allen Show, and The Sheriff, a hard-of-hearing Southern lawman played by Jack Clifford on a show called Blue Monday Jamboree. When Leghorn debuted in 1945, he was unnamed and based only on The Sheriff, since the Claghorn character had yet to debut. By the early 1950s, however, only the influence of the Claghorn character remained and he took on the Foghorn Leghorn name, a direct reference to Claghorn. The popular Claghorn character even appeared on the silver screen in 1946's It's a Joke, Son, the title of which went on to become one of Foghorn Leghorn's catchphrases.
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Airplane! was the 1980 hit and cult classic starring Leslie Nielsen, and is considered one of the best comedies of all time. It was a direct satire on a lesser-known (though well-recieved) disaster drama called Zero Hour! which premiered in 1957.
Filmmakers David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams wanted to poke fun at the disaster film genre by turning tragedy into slapstick comedy. They drew from Zero Hour! and other films like it, sometimes creating almost identical scenes from the originals.
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Jokes about having some variation of LOVE/HATE tattooed on your knuckles are incredibly common, but their origin is somewhat obscure. When the three-fingered Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons sported "LUV" and "HĀT," for example, or when a dog at the pound in Shaun the Sheep: The Movie had "BARK" and BITE" on its forepaws, it isn't just a reference to a common prison tattoo. Robert Mitchum's serial killer preacher character Harry Powell first wore the distinctive LOVE/HATE tattoos in 1955's The Night of the Hunter, where Powell would use them in unsettling impromptu "sermons" about "the story of good and evil." In 1996, Roger Ebert called the movie "one of the greatest of all American films" but lamented how it "has never received the attention it deserves."
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Child's Play director Tom Holland says the 1988 film's homicidal Chucky character is largely inspired by My Buddy, a then-popular doll first manufactured by Hasbro in 1985. While Chucky became a pop-culture icon with five Child's Play sequels and counting, the My Buddy doll was discontinued in the 1990s and is now virtually forgotten, outside of conversations about Chucky. If you do remember My Buddy, it's probably because of the earworm of a jingle used in the ubiquitous commercial spot.see more on Chucky
Casual gamers may be unaware, but Dan Hibiki from Capcom's Street Fighter series is actually a parody of three characters from rival SNK's knock-off Art of Fighting. Capcom took Ryo's outfit, Dan's face and ponytail, and Yuri's personality and color scheme and created Dan, one of the silliest, weakest and pinkest characters in the Street Fighter series. Unlike Ryu and Ken's famous screen-crossing Hadouken fireballs, for example, Dan's Gadouken fireball basically dissipates before it leaves his hand. Dan is also hopelessly vain: one of his special moves in Marvel Super Heroes vs Street Fighter is to chuck signed photographs at his opponents, causing minimal damage.
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The call-and-response playfulness in David Bowie's "Magic Dance" from Labyrinth ("You remind me of the babe/What babe?" etc.) is actually a parody of a scene in a 1947 Cary Grant film called The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer featuring an 18-year-old Shirley Temple. It isn't just a random reference: the film involves a teenager's crush on a much older man, so the lyrics nod at the Goblin King's assumption about the 15-year-old Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly). It isn't a coincidence, either: the lines are almost identical, except for Bowie swapping "man" with "babe" and "hoodoo" with "voodoo."
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The Energizer Bunny became an unlikely pop-culture icon in the 1990s, completely overshadowing the rival Duracell Bunny, which the perpetually drumming Energizer mascot was invented to parody. Popular commercials featuring the intrusive Energizer Bunny first appeared in 1989, parodying Duracell as well as a string of fake products. In 1992, the two companies drew up a peace treaty, agreeing to keep the Energizer Bunny in the U.S. and the Duracell Bunny in Europe, making Duracell's character even more obscure in the states. American singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, for example, once admitted in an interview he accidentally put the line "march down the street like the Duracell Bunny" in his 1997 song "Rose Parade," mixing up the brands, seemingly unaware that the Duracell Bunny did, in fact, exist.
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