It’s hard to come up with original art these days. Indeed, many would argue that we are just reusing, remixing, and rehashing the same seven basic story plots over and over again. Often times, out of love or laziness, creators will turn to the work of others in search of “inspiration” for all or part of their own stories; the types of themes, settings, characters, visual aesthetics, etc that they enjoy or want to replicate.
But when is it right to imitate or outright use someone else’s work, if ever? Is there any one right way to go about it? What distinguishes a parody from an homage or a rip-off of someone else’s work?
To answer these questions, let us first define each word in the way that it pertains to creation and storytelling.
Courtesy of Merriam-Webster:
Homage – 1) Respect or honor. 2) Something that is done to honor someone or something.
Parody – 1) A piece of writing, music, etc., that imitates the style of someone or something else in an amusing way. 2) A bad or unfair example of something.
Rip-Off – 1) Something that is too much like something made by someone else.
It’s easy to see how some of these can be confused for one another; they essentially look like three thirds of a greater whole, and they can often blend together. Homage and parody are more generally accepted as good things, while rip-off has an undisputedly negative connotation.
But each of these three can be mislabeled and mistaken. It can be hard to judge or look to others for judgment at times, especially when audiences and critics can’t agree with themselves or with each other. The trick, though, is recognizing the maker’s intent, and thinking critically about the effort and quality behind their product.
You see, a good homage is like a nice steak, a good parody is like a surprisingly delicious and filling deli sandwich, and a rip off is like a frozen tv dinner that looked okay…at first. They’re all meant to feed you, but some things are better for you than others.
Parodies usually involve degrees of humor or satire through mimicry, hyperbole, or subversion. Think to yourself: is this funny? Is it attempting to have a greater point than just acknowledging someone/something else exists? If yes to any of the above, then you’re probably looking at a parody at the very least.
Blazing Saddles pokes fun at the western genre of film, playing up some of the horrible stereotypes that existed in that time period in real life while downplaying the glorious and exotic (to modern folks and perhaps some older people) life of cowboys and sheriffs.
Homages involve honoring another thing or person, and usually invoke feelings of fondness or nostalgia from the audience. It can be a small aspect of the work, like a scene, theme, set piece, or style, or be rampant throughout the whole story, but it usually tries to stay true to the tone or heart of the original source.
This scene from South Park is a reference to My Neighbor Totoro. It is practically the same scene, shot for shot, which could be viewed as a rip-off in another light. But it has a different purpose in the new narrative; “taming” Cthulhu and revealing him to have a strangely cute, almost teddybear-ish soft side. It’s funny to fans of H.P. Lovecraft and Studio Ghibli alike, and to the uninitiated, it’s just a bizarre scene; utterly in character for South Park.
For another example, the Kill Bill movies are filled to the brim with homages, many from the samurai genre. Why else would the woman continue to bring a sword to what should be a gun fight?
Neither homages nor parodies are mutually exclusive, but neither are they one and the same. Indeed, some of the most widely acknowledged, successful parodies of all time (Young Frankenstein, Airplane!, Galaxy Quest, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, etc.) honored their source materials and genres well; loving, but also challenging the originals.
Differentiating the two is actually pretty simple in theory; if humor is minimal or absent entirely, it’s predominantly an homage. If the creator is really dedicated and talented, you may find yourself staring at a blurred line somewhere between the two.
By definition, one thing that an homage is not, ever, is malicious. But a parody can be.
As much as I love the movie Shrek and think that it’s hilarious, I can’t deny what a steaming pile of hate for the Disney company it is.
This is what I would call a negative parody. Negative parodies are characterized by notable to extreme irreverence and mockery. While parodies in general love to play with the flaws of their original works, negative parodies like Shrek clearly don’t come from a place of respect or admiration.
And while a good number of parodies usually have good or harmless intentions, they aren’t always well executed or utilized. How those little 2-minute MacGruber sketches on SNL turned into a full-blown movie I will never ever know.
MacGruber the movie is what I would call a failed parody – not very witty or humorous, whether it is loving or irreverent (and in this particular case, it is trying to be something it never could: a fully engaging, stand-alone film with an over 2 minute run time).
Failed parody just depresses me; how Friedberg and Seltzer churn out the same type of movie over and over again using the excuse of “it’s a parody”, while offering adolescent boy humor and too many shallow jokes from too many different movies to resemble anything near plot cohesion.
The poster says it all: this film is overcrowded, meandering, confused, and juvenile (note the strategic placement of the Gnarnia beaver and the hand on not Paris Hilton’s chest). Is it thoughtful; lovingly or bitingly funny; or quality entertainment in any way?
Here. My opinion of these clowns is so utterly low and contemptuous, you can have a double Watson meme:
Failed parody blends all too well with rip-offs, but isn’t quite what I’d call middle ground.
There are no “good” creative intentions in rip-offs. There is only the desire to ride trends and make money, typically by giving audiences a cheap imitation. As an example, I present to you: Eragon.
No, I have not read the book, so I don’t know if it or its sequels are better. They probably are, but whether this film is just a masterclass on ripping-off or how to fail at adaptation or both, that’s not what I’m talking about today.
Eragon the film is what would happen if the Disney Channel did their own YA take on Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Eragon tries way too hard to be like those films visually and in tone, while cutting corners on pretty much everything else; it comes across as laughably incompetent and lazy. Eragon as a character looks too much like a millennial model, rather than a product of his world/time.
I remember watching the film with my dad once, and we practically riffed it throughout the entire run time:
Generic fantasy villain who looks like mummified Grima Wormtongue: “Tonight we destroy the resistance!”
Me, channeling Saruman: “You will taste man flesh!”
Instead of feeling intelligent and happy because you recognized a reference or a joke, you feel bored, irritated, or, at the very worst, like your intelligence has been insulted.
Some rip-offs may try to fool unsuspecting customers, coming out either before or during a major release. These are the truly heinous coattail-riders without an ounce of integrity, let alone creativity.
To sum up, the best indication of rip-offs, parodies, and homages is usually author/creator intent, or at least how it is conveyed to the audience, followed closely by the level of quality in both the production and the finished product. Some creators can compensate for having less to work with (money, sets, props, etc) with sheer gumption and heart, while others can disguise their lack of storytelling prowess with fancy tools and big name actors.
There isn’t one right way to go about making parodies – both positive and negative ones can succeed at being funny and likable – but there are definitely wrong ways to make anything.
Homages fail by being mean-spirited. Parodies fail by not grasping the fundamentals of comedy, storytelling, and timing. Parodies and homages can both fail by being too subtle with their references or too overt (it should be so that people who have seen the original work understand the reference, but people who have not are not distracted by its presence). And rip-offs just fail all around.
Finally, it’s okay to imitate, not outright take someone else’s work. Teachers always told you to use quotations or paraphrase in your own words, and that’s honestly a good guideline. Cite your source or build off the source. As long as it’s within copyright law, poke fun or criticize or honor as much as you can.
You just have to consider how honest people truly are about their work, and compare that to what you got from them. You wouldn’t willingly pay for and eat a sandwich that you just know was assembled with sub par ingredients and unclean hands. A little candy and junk is fine in moderation, but even that needs a little bit of quality control, right?
*All pictures, video clips, and other media belong to their respective owners. None of the images or sounds belong to me.