Parody, by its commonly perceived nature, tends to mock the subject it mirrors, but the best examples also express a love for, and kinship with, the mocked. For example, even though Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles rips into violence, race relations, sexual tensions of the early ’70s and the dangerous business of bean ingestion, the story remains a western in an oddball way. The characters aren’t blasting on the form as such, but on the characters populating it.
Read Popdose's last column on Bob Mould.
There are thousands of examples of parody gone wrong. In the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, published parody experienced a glut of books, magazines and likeminded material cashing in on skewing the icons of the day. There was a Playboy magazine filled with pictorials of pugnacious and preening pups; a Martha Stewart-esque home improvement tome featuring cats; and scads of how-to books devoted to topics no one ever would want to learn. For most, these bits of pop culture detritus went by unnoticed, and I think the reason why is because, by this time, nobody cared to jab Playboy in the ribs. It was already a parody.
In order to pull it off, the trickster involved ought to have some positive engagement with what they’re essentially mocking. Author Adam Mansbach and illustrator Ricardo Cortés have done that in a most explicit way with their book, Go the F**k to Sleep. The friendly, nonthreatening typeset, the concise verses that make up the text, the lovely artwork that accompanies it all are exactly what you’d find in a quality children’s book. And then Mansbach drops the F-bomb.
This book is a rather verbally obscene vignette of when two opposing forces collide—the tired parent, at the most vulnerable position imaginable, and the child who has been wound up for hours and, frankly, isn’t even close to winding down.
You may notice that I’ve been pretty diplomatic so far about the language being used. Well then, here is an example to drive home the point.
The cats nestle close to their kittens.
The lambs have laid down with the sheep.
You're cozy and warm in your bed, my dear
Please go the f**k to sleep.
Another prime example:
The eagles who soar through the sky are at rest.
And the creatures who crawl, run, and creep.
I know you’re not thirsty. That’s bullshit, stop lying.
Lie the f**k down, my darling, and sleep.
The animus ratchets up page by page until, as we knew it would, the parent loses. It is that ever-growing exasperation that makes the reader laugh, not the profanity. If it was simply a case of adding curse words to a kids’ book, we’d have seen more dirty Dr. Seuss knockoffs long ago, had a great, big, juvenile laugh and moved on. Go the F**k to Sleep made me laugh in the same way.
But here’s the brilliant part about Go the F**k to Sleep—it comes from a place of truth and, dare I say it, love. The parental voice is not threatening violence or harm of any kind. If anything, the reality that this little seedling had totally nailed the supposedly mature, wily adult is cause for a modicum of self-loathing.
The flowers doze low in the meadows
And high on the mountains so steep.
My life is a failure, I’m a shitty-ass parent.
Stop f**king with me, please, and sleep.
And, yeah, in the middle of this gorgeously illustrated book, of course I laughed. That’s the point of any worthwhile parody, that it is the degree of subversion that gets you, not the wholesale wreckage of the form. Go the F**k to Sleep might not be a book for children, but it remains intrinsically a children’s book.