Hey, I'm Walken here!

Self-parody as a service

I stumbled across a parody video of a YouTuber I like, today. The guy being parodied is Tom Scott, whose videos on time zones, internationalisation, and language are among those I often return to. But because Tom has a look and a sound that spans his videos, because he is recognisably Tom Scott off of YouTube, he is ripe for pastiche, or as I remember it from my media studies days, “blank parody”.

The parody I watched wasn’t funny. I don’t mean that in an arms-crossed, “how dare you make fun of my nice Internet boy” kind of way. I mean it didn’t have any good jokes in it. But what it did have — which is doubly impressive given that the person in front of the camera is North American, and Tom Scott has a hard-to-place English accent — was attention to detail, and that’s what I think is interesting.

(If you know Scott’s work and you’ve watched the video I’ve linked to, I’m not talking about the bad wig and the ill-fitting red t-shirt; I’m talking about the effort he puts in to mimicking Scott’s presentational style.)

In order to parody something well, not just to take the piss or impersonate, but to properly parody, you have to really know what you’re sending up (a weird phrase I’ve never liked, but I can’t keep using the P word). A great example of this can be found among those who do really good Christopher Walken impressions. Almost any of us can do a passable Walken caricature, by wildly overemphasising the wrong WORD in a sentence or what HAVE you, but few can actually capture the stuff you get from Walken that is more subtle and interesting. That takes study, that takes effort, and again as my media studies degree has taught me, it’s difficult to study something you love, because you’ll inevitably find its weak spots.

The chap who made the Tom Scott parody video put a sort of disclaimer at the bottom of the screen saying he loves Tom’s work. I don’t think he did that because he thinks Scott is going to sue him or his flying monkeys will descend upon this poor Canadian’s channel — I think he’s Canadian, I might be wrong — but because it’s true.

I don’t love Tom Scott, but I appreciate his work, and with that appreciation comes an understanding of the quirks that make him him.

I thought it would be interesting to try and look at one’s own work, to see what might be picked up and parodied. And again, I don’t mean look at yourself and think about things people might take the piss over. I think it’s worth looking at the things that make your work your own, and maybe stretch them out a little bit to see how far they go before they become ridiculous.

If I were to parody my writing I’d probably — not (particularly) unrealistically — pick up on my (albeit well-intended) tendency to rely, more than occasionally, on sub-clauses. If I were to parody my speech, I’d probably go off into some story that I was reminded of because I’d just said the word “plum” and that made me think of that time I ate a plum, and also by the way while I have you, do you know a plumber, and also I always thought that bird was called plumber but it’s a plubber. Obviously if I just wanted to take the piss, I’d make a ten-minute supercut of all the times I said “umm”.

Even my business communications can be parodied.

Hi, we’re Podiant, and we believe in things, yeah? Things like, we think people should be nice to each-other and that. And people should be free to do whatever they like with their audio, but also we’re going to compress your MP3 to 96kbps and charge you for each new podcast you create, but it’s because we care.

Because Mark knows what’s best for you.

What I parody about my business might be different from what someone else would, but my ability to do so comes from the fact that, while my choices aren’t going to be universally loved, I can defend them. I can make fun of them because I’m not ashamed of them, even if others might have rightful objections.

I’d love you to try this as a thought exercise. If you make a podcast or a video series, what would happen if you tried to make a parody of it? What are the unique bits of your approach to your work, that you can tease out? Knowing what these are, and being able to mock them even as you stand by them, is to me a sign of security in your work. If you think you’re veering into just mocking yourself for a cheap laugh, then stop, as that’s not going to be helpful, but can you take a friendly dig at yourself, and see what shakes out? Because what might shake out could just be the stuff that makes your work valuable.

Thanks for reading, and if you’re podcasting or thinking of starting one up next year, come and join me on Wednesday for a free event where we’ll all start making a plan to up our game in the new year.