The fine art of parody, beloved of writers from Aristotle to E.B. White, has fallen on hard times. The latest evidence is an astonishingly inept production, now being hawked on the sidewalks of Washington, called The Washington Boast. It is intended as a parody of this newspaper, but that is scarcely the objection; no doubt those who would most gleefully welcome a witty and pointed parody of The Washington Post are those who work for it. The problem, rather, is that The Washington Boast is not parody at all, but -- like most of what passes for parody these days -- sophomoric humor that does not manage to be funny even at its own puerile level.
Perhaps we need a refresher course in parody, since we seem to have forgotten what it is. Strictly speaking, it is a literary form -- though it has been employed to great effect on nonliterary targets -- and one of considerable subtlety. It is succinctly defined by J.A. Cuddon, in his excellent "Dictionary of Literary Terms," as follows: "The imitative use of the words, style, attitude, tone and ideas of an author in such a way as to make them ridiculous. This is usually achieved by exaggerating certain traits, using more or less the same technique as the cartoon caricaturist. In fact, a kind of satirical mimicry. As a branch of satire its purpose may be corrective as well as derisive."
Effective parody, in other words, requires intimate knowledge of its subject's stylistic traits and quirks -- what it is that makes the person being parodied distinct and identifiable. Parody is actually hard work, because the parodist must sound enough like his subject so that the reader recognizes the style, yet must exaggerate and distort that style enough to ridicule its eccentricities. Further complicating matters, the parodist must avoid collapsing into mere burlesque or, worse, slapstick, in which the attempted humor has nothing to do with the subject under parody.
That is precisely what happens in The Washington Boast. Its idea of parody is suggested by a "Correction" that reads: "Several weeks ago, the Boast advised that a 'tomato warning' was in effect for parts of Maryland, Virginia and the District. What we meant was that a tornado warning was in effect." This isn't parody, it's sophomoric funny-ha-ha: Just like the two stories on the first page, "Reagan Leads Invasion of Nicaragua!" and "Bush Arrested for Spying." Similarly witless are the bylines the authors of The Washington Boast have invented: David S. Brooder, Ellen Goodwoman, George Won't, William F. Buckwheat Jr., St. Thomas Aboswell, Jack Slanderson, Art Izbald.
Not to mention Jonathan Wordley. Oh, come on: Is that really the best you people can do? Even Jonathan Wordy would be better; at least it would score a satirical point. As for the book review under the aforementioned byline, it doesn't parody anybody, least of all me. Were I to parody myself -- okay, I know, I do unintentional self-parody all the time -- I'd certainly use "certainly" a lot, not to mention "indeed" and "exceedingly" and "ambiguous" and "William Faulkner"; for old times' sake I'd toss in "in point of fact" once or twice, even though a reader talked me out of that one a couple of years ago. I'd rattle on at soporific length about the Baltimore Orioles, I'd canonize Peter Taylor and I'd blame everything from the federal deficit to acid rain on the creative-writing departments.
Parody has to come close to the bone in order to amuse and bite, and to do that its author has to know his subject almost as well as the subject does. As, for example, Peter De Vries knew Faulkner: "I took up the thread of the book again or tried to: the weft of legitimate kinship that was intricate enough without the obbligato of that dark other: the sixteenths and thirty-seconds and even sixty-fourths of dishonoring cousinships brewed out of the violable blood by the ineffaceable errant lusts." As Wolcott Gibbs knew Henry Luce: "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind . . . Where it all will end, knows God!" As Oliver Jenson, composing "The Gettysburg Address in Eisenhowerese," knew the late president:
"I haven't checked these figures but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country, I believe it covered certain Eastern areas, with this idea they were following up based on a sort of national independence arrangement and the program that every individual is just as good as every other individual . . . We have to make up our minds right here and now, as I see it, that they didn't put out all that blood, perspiration and -- well -- that they didn't just make a dry run here, and that all of us here, under God, that is, the God of our choice, shall beef up this idea about freedom and liberty and those kind of arrangements, and that government of all individuals, by all individuals and for the individuals, shall not pass out of the world-picture."
That parody, a contemporary classic if ever there was one, required an intimate knowledge not merely of Eisenhowerese but of the Gettysburg Address; sabotaging Lincoln's stately rhythms with Eisenhower's strangled syntax was a remarkable feat in itself, quite apart from the devastating -- and affectionate -- parody of Ike. Ditto for H.L. Mencken's "Declaration of Independence in American": "When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody."
All of these quotations are from "Parodies: An Anthology From Chaucer to Beerbohm -- and After," edited by the late Dwight Macdonald and first published a quarter-century ago; it was, and still is, the definitive collection of parody at its best. In putting this wonderful book together, Macdonald followed three rules: "(1) The authors parodied must have some currency today. (2) The broader the worser. (3) No parody involving fleas or seasickness." In other words, parody is parody only when it is literate, witty, clever and to the point, none of which The Washington Boast manages to be.
In that it is scarcely alone; parody -- true parody, as opposed to satire or burlesque -- seems to be a dying art. From time to time an effort at it crops up in The New Yorker, but invariably it pales by comparison with the work of the magazine's memorable parodists of the past; otherwise, we must content ourselves with the crudities of "Saturday Night Live" and National Lampoon. Blame it on the creative-writing departments.