‘Thrones’ parodies are folk art for the digital age
Yeah, yeah, “Game of Thrones” is back, using cold medieval castles as a stage for bloody political theater, deconstructing J.R.R. Tolkien’s world order into a morally rudderless, D.C.-like mess. Once a week, we get our dose of the outrageously good HBO fantasy, taking in the education of Khaleesi and the perils of Sansa and about a hundred more subplots and sub-subplots spanning the continent of Westeros and beyond.
But some of the best pleasures of “Game of Thrones” season are the “Game of Thrones” parody videos that spring up around it. Every week, it seems, a new miniature classic goes viral, making over the show based on George R.R. Martin’s books into a music video for “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen,” or a trailer for a romantic comedy, or an “It Gets Better” video, or a Disney cartoon. The countless mash-ups rise to the surface of the Internet like champagne bubbles. “Game of Thrones” is currently breaking ratings records for HBO, as some 8 million watch every Sunday night; meanwhile, the video of “Game of Thrones” meets “The Hobbit” has pulled in over 9 million views.
Certainly other shows inspire parody videos, notably “Breaking Bad,” and more notably the Taylor Swift sendup music video “We Are Never Ever Gonna Cook Together.” And “Downton Abbey” parodies are a pence a dozen. But the “Game of Thrones” shorts, they’re particularly funny right now, with clumpy black Jon Snow wigs aplenty. They’re reminders that the parody video has become a comic art form in its own right, a folk art in which clips and images are sewn into a funny digital quilt. Sometimes the production values are rough; more often, they’re surprisingly professional and slick. Either way, the imagination on display in these pieces is rich, as scenes from “Game of Thrones” are remixed into, say, “Seinfeld,” complete with overdone laugh track.
Pop culture parody isn’t new, of course. Many of the musical “Game of Thrones” videos, where twisted lyrics are inserted into hit songs, have roots in the work of Weird Al Yankovic, who broke through in the 1980s when he turned Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” into “Eat It.” Sketch shows such as “Saturday Night Live” subsist on a steady diet of parodies of TV series and movies. And so do many movie comedies — “Austin Powers,” for instance, which mocks James Bond, or many Mel Brooks movies, which mock genres such as monster movies (“Young Frankenstein”), sci-fi (“Spaceballs”), and westerns (“Blazing Saddles”). Both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are parodies of TV news shows.
But online parody videos are distinctive for a number of reasons. They’re products of our current Modular Era, in which entertainment is often made with built-in detachable pieces, a few self-standing segments that can be disconnected and set loose. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, but especially Fallon, have ushered the form into late-night TV, and invigorated the genre, keeping the former home of Johnny Carson relevant at a time when ratings have fallen. Parody videos cater to our need for quick online fixes, complementing the long-form works from which they spring.
Yes, these modules are promotional, to some extent. So are music videos, which have sometime risen to the level of art. But unless they’ve been produced by the networks or studios, they’re generally just expressions of love and not primarily profit-motivated. As mean as the parodies can be — just look at the absurdly fake wig for Khaleesi in the John Hughes goof “Prom Night Is Coming” — they are products of reverence. They walk that line where ridicule and flattery overlap, where just the fact that you’ve spent time mocking something or pointing out its shortcomings means you’re celebrating its existence.
Often they’re a kind of fan fiction, the genre in which writers take over another writer’s characters to tell their own story. E.L. James began writing her “Fifty Shades of Grey” series as “Twilight” fan fiction, and perhaps at some point we’ll see a parody video evolve into its own commercial venture. As people are invited more and more frequently to interact with entertainment — from video games to Twitter lobbying for plot twists — it makes sense that fans are inclined to direct their own creative impulses at someone else’s creation.
And parody videos are also distinctive, like fan fiction, in their democratic origins. While Yankovic had a record company and MTV behind him, many of the new parodists have no corporate infrastructure. Anyone with the right software and a YouTube account can put together his or her own comic creation, expressing love with a bit of digital manipulation and a sense of humor.