For the last 24 hours, my facebook feed has been abuzz with news of the incendiary verbal smackdown laid by Bill Nye The Science Guy on U.S. Congressman Todd Akin. According to this widely circulated story, Akin had suggested that Nye’s attack on Creationism prompted God to punish America with Hurricane Isaac, and Nye came back on Akin with a profanity-laced retort on the Smithsonian Channel.
However, almost none of this actually happened.
The Daily Currant is a parody site.
The only part of the story that’s actually true is that eight days ago Nye posted a heartfelt defence of evolution and a plea that parents not teach their children creationism.
Now, Nye’s delicate understated pitch is nowhere to be heard quoted: its tasteful whisper is drowned by the shouts of faux-Nye and his threatened ass-whipping. Our collective ability to appraise the relative arguments of the two actual guys folds under a wave of partisan thinking. My facebook friends list includes more than one card-carrying atheist science geek; I’ve seen more than one post saying, in effect “I love Bill Nye, who is loveable and sensible, and I hate these creationist assclowns.” I’m sure there’s a counter-argument that runs “I love Todd Akin, whose statements reflect my own deeply held beliefs, and I hate these anti-Christian douchebags.” Both of these arguments, which short-circuit any path to reasoned argreement, are strengthened by the muddying of public record that occurs when readers have to work extra hard to find out who actually said what.
So, here’s an open message to the staff of the Daily Currant. It looks to me like you’re hitting the target that you’re aiming at, dead centre. Your stories are well crafted and they skilfully mix real stories with fictitious detail, linking to both outside stories and to parody stories within your site. But pitching your fictitious stories so close to the tone and content of the news is wandering across the line that separates parody from forgery. And while you can’t be responsible per se for how readers interpret your work, you can certainly recalibrate your editorial tone to create different impressions on your readership.
When the stories ring so true that they’re repeated as fact, what you have achieved is not “to satirize issues of social relevance in order to influence the global discourse.”
What you have achieved is a prank.
If that’s all you wanted to do, great. No one’s stopping you. Certainly not this guy. But if I were in your shoes, I’d reach for your “parody/forgery” dial and turn it three good solid clicks in the parody direction. Blurring the line so casually isn’t helping public debate, and it’s hindering those who work within parody as a legitimate form of commentary.
For any of the rest of you out there who are working with parody and would like to avoid the confusion and the muddying of public discourse that follow from a too-successful mimicry job, here are some suggestions.
1. Be More Outrageous.
The easiest way to show denote parody is through outrageousness – making the content so absurd that it couldn’t possibly be true. The Onion excels at this approach, keeping their tone deadpan level while cranking up the ridiculousness.
2. Adopt a Consistent Form.
Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” and Jon Stewart’s opening monologues use the same clear, clean structure for their gags. They introduce a bona fide news item as a setup, then do a parody twist for the payoff. It’s an easy form to understand, and the viewer is never, ever in doubt of the moment where the switch trips from fact to joke – or, more subtly, from news to commentary.
3. Tip Your Hand.
Parody artist Weird Al Yankovic is an extremely skilled and versatile singer… and he has been successfully hiding the fact for years. His nasal delivery is so distinctive that it’s almost impossible to listen to any line in his discography and mistake it for the original, despite his near-total replication of vocal rhythm and musical arrangement.