Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Satire Is What Closes on a Saturday Night

As part of my research for The Aliens Are Here (which McFarland has settled on as the title for what I’ve been calling Alien Visitors), I rewatched the cheerfully deranged 1991 mockumentary Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America.

Creator Craig Baldwin made his film from a collage of clips from SF films (I recognized a film), other low-budget movies and some news footage, all with voice-over narration and occasional bizarre screen crawls (“SOMETIMES THEY SHRINK THE WHOLE HEAD”). It turns out that when Quetzal, the planet on the far side of the sun, destroyed itself in a nuclear war, the survivors fled here. Badly mutated, they hid underground (their irradiated bodies could no longer endure sunlight) and bred with reptiles to sustain their population. When U.S. nuclear testing exposed them to more radiation, they couldn’t tolerate it and declared war.

The war and our counter-attacks explains most of our country’s post-WW II Latin American policy. Why did we overthrow Guatemala’s President Arbenz and install a dictator? To root out the aliens’ human sacrifice cult!

Why did Ronald Reagan send the military into Grenada? To stop alien psi-vampires from stealing the minds of American medical students there!

Why did Bush I invade Panama when dictator General Noriega had been our ally? Because the Quetzals had replaced Noriega with his evil zombie clone!

How did Castro survive so many CIA attacks? “After 33 assassination attempts against Castro and 50 million dollars spent they realized with horror you cannot kill something which was never alive.”

Baldwin says on the commentary track that he was satirizing U.S. foreign policy but also pseudo-scientific documentaries such as 1970’s Chariots of the Gods. Sure, he says, that film was bullshit, but it was very well-made bullshit (side note: watching Chariots with my wife and seeing her shriek at some of the film’s absurd claims was most amusing). Tribulation 99 is a deft parody and certainly timely when it came out. Rewatching it, though, I began wondering whether it would work for millennials. I lived through some of the events Baldwin works with and I know enough history to be aware of the others. If I was 20 or 25, would I find the satire incomprehensible?

Then again, as my friend Ross pointed out, it’s not as if U.S. imperialism backed up by tortured moral justifications has gone out of style since 1991. Perhaps younger viewers, even not knowing the players, would grasp the rules of the game?

This is, of course, the perennial problem of satire and parody — as time passes, a successful parody may outlast the source material. Agatha Christie cast her characters Tommie and Tuppence in a whole string of parodies spoofing then-popular mystery characters (memorably adapted by James Warwick and Francesca Annis in Partners in Crime); a few decades later even Dame Agatha couldn’t remember some of the characters she’d been sending up. I enjoyed the 1980s series Boris the Bear in which the protagonist slaughters the countless Ninja Turtles knockoffs and mocked Marvel’s New Universe. When I reread Boris a decade ago, the B&W exploitation boom and the New Universe were 30 years gone, and I didn’t care.

On the other hand, sometimes specific parodies tap into something universal, as I think Tribulation 99 might. Nobody born in this century will get how funny the opening of Scrooged (1988) is. A Christmas special involving the Solid Gold Dancers and gymnast Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim was hysterical when watching in the movie theater but those names barely qualify as bar trivia now. Then again, the kind of guest star they represent is probably still familiar.

Or consider Monty Python Flying Circus‘s sitcom parody The Attila the Hun Show. I have friends my age who didn’t realize it’s a spot-on takeoff on The Debbie Reynolds Show (1969 – 70). It doesn’t matter, as the skit works fine as a generic sitcom parody.

Consider, too, a couple of the parody shorts in the Sherlock Holmes collection I got for Christmas. Lost in Limehouse or Lady Esmeralda’s Predicament (1931) is a takeoff on a kind of melodrama that would have been instantly recognizable to anyone back then but I only know through other parodies. It still mostly worked for me, but for younger viewers? The Strange Case of Hennessy (1933) is a short Philo Vance parody with detective “Silo Vance”; even though I’ve never read any Philo Vance stories or seen the movies, it works as a generic PI takeoff (which may mean it’s a really bad Philo Vance takeoff, of course).

Another factor is when the parody targets stuff that isn’t known to the wider audience. I just started watching Apple TV’s Schmigadoon and the opening episode mocks not only Brigadoon but Finian’s Rainbow and Carousel. Would it work if I wasn’t into old musicals? Conversely, genre parodies aimed at non-fans frequently annoy me because they’re riffing on the mass-audience concept of SF or comics or whatever and that’s often different from a fan’s take.

Even if a parody ages or doesn’t work for everyone (what does?), that doesn’t make it a bad thing. Satirizing current trends, politics and bullshit is often worth doing — the Ninja Turtles B&W knockoffs really did deserve mockery — even if it becomes meaningless a decade or two later. After all, nothing we write is guaranteed to last. Countless characters who were successful and popular in 1920s and 1930s mystery fiction are now known only to nerds who are fans of the era, or from googling about the Partners in Crime stories.

So if the idea is funny and the satire is pointed, why not?

#SFWApro. Boris cover by James Dean Smith.


  1. Le Messor

    The whole concept of a story getting dated has never bothered me as much as it bothers others. I get the issue, but so what? If it works now, let it happen now.

    Conversely, genre parodies aimed at non-fans frequently annoy me because they’re riffing on the mass-audience concept of SF or comics or whatever and that’s often different from a fan’s take.

    I, too, have noticed the difference between an ‘outsider’s parody’ and an ‘insider’s parody’ (as I call them). I like the latter better.
    It’s highly noticeable with superhero parodies; the first parodies what people think superheroes are (usually a stupid Superman), and the second parodies what superheroes actually are.

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