Most parody writers freely admit that they do them because it’s simply too difficult to write good original songs. And yes, while parodies are far easier to write than originals, a great parody still takes thought and care.
Below I offer you 6 song-writing tips to help you specifically with polishing your parodies.
Tip #1 Pick your subject
Choosing your material is done in one of two ways:
a) find a song that invites parody. For example, if you find yourself singing, “Slow walking Walter – the fire-engine guy” to the tune of Smoke on the water – the fire in the sky, then this could be the nucleus of your next parody (thanks to writer Anne Fleming for that happy little nugget.)
b) decide on a subject and then search for a song that fits with it. For example, I was once asked to write a 50th birthday song for someone called Janine. My friend Jane suggested using the song Jolene by Dolly Parton. Perfect! And, with that song in my head, I was then able to craft suitable lyrics from information given to me about Janine by her family.
Tip #2 Only use songs that people will recognise
It probably seems obvious that only well-known songs are suitable for parody, but, proving once again that rules are made to be broken, I ignored this myself when I reworked the 1933 song My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii (which by the way was itself a parody of 1924 song, Back in Hackensack, New Jersey).
Although my parody of this not-so-well-known piece proved successful in live performance I generally wouldn’t recommend parodying unknown songs (more about this in Tip #5.)
Tip #3 Stay as close to the original as possible
Only yesterday I heard a woman parodying Paul Simon (who recently made himself yet more millions by selling off his song rights to Sony Music Publishing.) The most important line of the parody went: “There must be fifty ways to monetize your catalogue”.
This bodgy line doesn’t work for me at all, because, not only does “monetize your catalogue” have three too many syllables, only one of those seven syllables (the word your) resembles any part of “leave your lover”.
To my mind a good parody needs to sound much closer to the original than that. Maybe try: Here’s to You Mr Sony-man, or, how about: Feelin’ Wealthy, or, the unmistakable: I am a Schlock.
Choose phrases that are funny, singable, fit the music, and sound as much like the original as possible. And remember, the goal is not to write a whole new lyric. In fact, the more minimal your changes the greater the punch:
For example, Madonna’s song goes: Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.
Al Yankovic parodies this by singing: Like a surgeon, cutting for the very first time.
In this line he only changes two words: virgin to surgeon and touched to cutting (unusually for Yankovic the parody was not his idea: it was Madonna herself who suggested it.) Yankovic knows how to be economical, and to make every word count, as he showed when he changed just a single letter in the Michael Jackson title, Beat It to Eat It.
(It’s also worth noting that, in those early days of MTV, Weird Al Yankovic also parodied the videos that went with the songs. Notice the lion walking around the hospital during Like a Surgeon as a reference to the lion walking through Venice in Madonna’s video.)
Tip #4 When you think you’ve finished writing – keep going
Once you’ve made that first hilarious alteration in a lyric, that proves you have a workable concept, it is entirely possible that ideas will flow from you as the rest of the song “writes itself” (as parody writers are wont to say.) But it’s more likely that you’ll write far more lyrics than you can possibly use. This is a good thing because it gives you options. The rest of your song-writing is then about sorting, winnowing and simplifying in order to find the most effective phrases.
Tip #5 Make jokes that people understand
Here’s an example of what can happen if your jokes aren’t clear as day. Let’s look at my parody of the song My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii. (You can find a recording of the original song online to hear how my parody differs from, and more importantly, is close to, the original.)
My parody refers to the early 1970s when draft dodgers and hippies came from the USA, and other parts of Canada, to settle in Kitsilano, Vancouver to live a counter-culture lifestyle while smoking plants that were not necessarily tobacco. Here it is:
I want to smoke grass in my tacky little shack in Kit-sil-ano
I want to be with all the weirdos and the hippies that I knew long ago
I can hear Tubular Bells a-playing from a basement suite near Fourth
I can hear the Kits’ girls a-saying:
Give me a mochaccino hold the cream and heavy on the froth
It won’t be long ‘til my Volkswagen bus has got a new engine
It’s a grand old van I bought in ‘63
I’m just a little hippy and I want to have a toke
but I’m stuck in Maple Ridge since my Volkswagen broke
I want to sit on my ass and smoke grass in Kit-sil-ano
And watch the iridescent multi-coloured blobs go floating by
And watch the iridescent multi-coloured blobs go floating by
This parody not only pokes fun at hippy culture but is also quite specific to Vancouver, British Columbia. Some of the perhaps, less familiar references are:
Kitsilano = the area of BC where hippies tended to hang out
Tubular Bells = famous Mike Oldfield LP that made groovy listening while high
Near Fourth = Fourth Avenue: specific area for locating hippies
Kits’ girls…mochaccino = in recent decades Kitsilano (or Kits) has become gentrified to include many fancy coffee-shops
Volkswagen bus = transportation of choice for hippies
Maple Ridge = suburban rural town way out on the edge of Vancouver
If you don’t happen to know those things then the parody won’t make sense. Surprisingly, however, it actually works well outside of Vancouver because, during my introductory spiel, I familiarize the listeners with both song and subject matter before playing the parody. I wouldn’t normally recommend this tactic however, because unless your spiel is entertaining in its own right, too much explanation will kill the comedy vibe. It’s far better if the song speaks for itself.
Tip #6 Keep polishing until free of niggles
In some sense this point is a reiteration of Tip #4 but it’s so important that it bears repeating. Successful parody writing is all about honing and refining until the result is as near perfect as you can possibly make it.
It’s a tough call because a finished parody should come across as pure fun and with a sense that the lyrics could not be any other way. But this belies the truth of the matter which is that great comedy song-writing takes mental persistence to hit the mark.
The inexperienced writer puts a song on paper and pronounces it finished. The skilled writer sees the first draft as a starting point from which the real work can now begin. The song is then worked ad nauseum until it is completely “niggle-free”. Meaning there is nothing left in the music or lyric to cause you to squirm internally with the knowledge that a word or phrase is not quite right.
While some songs drop straight onto the page, others take years. And I mean that literally. When I wrote my George Formby pastiche: The Handyman at the Mustang Ranch the first draft was done in about an hour. It then took me over two years of returning to the song before I was satisfied with it (some of the jokes just weren’t funny.) But I kept mulling ideas over and returning again and again, replacing old verses with new ones that actually were funny instead of being space-fillers that rhymed.
Eventually, when every “niggle” in the song is eliminated, that’s when you may hear the familiar ring of the crystal bell inside your head announcing that the song is ready to perform.