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Objects of the class “Foghorn Leghorn”

The other day I saw some kids trying to tell knock-knock jokes, The only one they really knew was the one that goes: Knock knock. Who’s there? Banana? Banana who? Knock knock. Who’s there? Banana? Banana who? Knock knock. Who’s there? Orange. Orange who? Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?

Now that’s a fine knock-knock joke, among the best of its kind, but what interests me here is that it’s clearly not a basic k-k; rather, it’s an inspired parody of the form. For this to be the most famous knock-knock joke—in some circles, the only knock-knock joke—seems somehow wrong to me. It would be as if everybody were familiar with Duchamp’s Mona-Lisa-with-a-moustache while never having heard of Leonardo’s original.

Here’s another example: Spinal Tap, which lots of people have heard of without being familiar with the hair-metal acts that inspired it.

The poems in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are far far more famous now than the objects of their parody.

I call this the Foghorn Leghorn category, after the Warner Brothers cartoon rooster (“I say, son . . . that’s a joke, son”) who apparently was based on a famous radio character named Senator Claghorn. Claghorn has long been forgotten, but, thanks to reruns, we all know about that silly rooster.

And I think “Back in the USSR” is much better known than the original “Back in the USA.”

Here’s my definition: a parody that is more famous than the original.

Some previous cultural concepts

Objects of the class “Whoopi Goldberg”

Objects of the class “Weekend at Bernie’s”

23 Comments

  1. Ubs says:

    A classic member of the class would be Cervantes' Don Quixote.

    I wonder if the entire younger generation isn't fast becoming the Foghorn Leghorn generation. I hate to be all snobbish and curmudgeonly about it, but in an era where satire is idolized while cultural literacy is denigrated, the natural result would be that the newcomers can appreciate the current while remaining unaware of its antecedents, just like your kids with the knock-knock joke.

    I'm sure the young folk who laugh at the Onion and the Daily Show are aware that something is being ridiculed, but do they really perceive it as parody in the same way that we do? I'm not so sure. I don't think it would have remained popular as long as it does only as parody. It is a phenomenon unto itself now.

  2. Andrew Gelman says:

    Ubs: I have to admit, not only am I not familiar with whatever Don Quixote was parodying, I've never read Don Quixote either. Not even in English translation. I've been assured that it's an excellent book in Spanish, though. The Onion, though, yes, I've definitely read lots of the sorts of stuff that it parodies.

  3. zbicyclist says:

    I will defer to others more familiar with their work, but could one put Gilbert and Sullivan in this class?

    Gulliver's Travels is a good general parody, but in its day was it referring to something specific?

    Farther afield — given Arthur Conan Doyle's fascination with spiritualism, I'm tempted to treat my beloved Sherlock Holmes stories as parodies. I'm referring particularly to the introductory part, in which Sherlock makes uncannily accurate predictions about the person based on thin visual evidence right after he meets them. Was this not so much a nod to the powers of science (which is what I thought when I read them in high school) as a parody of scientific over-reaching — which he had to keep repeating because that's the portion of his writing that people liked best?

  4. Bill Jefferys says:

    For Gulliver's Travels, Laputa was partially a satire of the Royal Society:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulliver%27s_Travels

  5. Rachel Mary says:

    Nice post. This is a little off topic, but may be of interest.

    One winter, I was an instructor at an all day ski school for 4 to 6 year-olds. I'd have a new group of kids every few days.

    The banana/orange joke was their favorite knock knock joke, and I'm pretty sure the only one I heard a student tell correctly.

    Here's my theory. Most knock knock jokes rely on puns, which might be a little tricky for small kids. Whereas, the banana/orange joke is all about repetition, which they just can't get enough of.

    I noticed that while they loved knock knock jokes, they had a lot of trouble telling them correctly. They recited lines from cartoons and sang song lyrics with no trouble, but knock knock jokes were tough.

    I assume it's because of the back-and-forth. For example, they'd often skipped telling me who was there, and went straight to the punch line. Here again, the banana/orange joke stands out. "Banana" always gets a groan from audience, the usual set ups do not.

  6. Christopher says:

    The invaluable TV Tropes wiki list these kinds of things under the Werid Al Effect entry.

  7. Mike Kenny says:

    I read the novel "The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov, which I liked, and then I was told it was a satire of the Soviet Union, but since I didn't know much about the culture of the Soviet Union, the satire went over my head, but I liked the book anyway.

  8. Dr. John R. Vokey says:

    Sheesh: so literary and erudite! How about the Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd Point/Counterpoint SNL spoofs of the then attempts at “balance'' that whelped FOX “News''? “Jane, you ignorant slut'' is still one of my all time favourite comebacks. Their parody became reality.

  9. Andrew Gelman says:

    Mike:

    The TV tropes website is indeed wonderful, but the Weird Al thing didn't work for me. I'm (somewhat) familiar with Weird Al–he was on Dr. Dememto, right?–but I didn't know he did parodies. I really think "Foghorn Leghorn" is a better title than "Weird Al" for this category.

    I've heard of some of the originals referred to on that page, but very few of the parodies.

    And some of the examples don't quite work. For example, the music from the Bridge on the River Kwai isn't a parody, is it? It's just the original tune, performed by whistling, no?

    And I don't agree with the discussion of Airplane! I think it was a parody of 70's disaster films. The fact that it lifted plot and dialogue ("Don't call me Shirley"?) from a movie from the 1950's doesn't mean it was a parody of that 1950's movie.

    But, yes, many of the examples are excellent.

  10. Andrew Gelman says:

    Rachel: Interesting story. But there's more to it than that. Kids who like knock-knock jokes are always asking adults to tell them new ones, and I've noticed that, typically, the first–and often the only–knock-knock jokes an adult can come up with are Banana and, of course, the timeless Boo Who?

    This is as good a time as any to mention Paul Dickson's classic book on formula jokes, which includes a chapter of Fly in My Soup jokes, a chapter of Chicken Crossed the Road jokes, and something like five chapters of Knock-Knocks, which he considers the ultimate formula joke.

  11. Ubs says:

    Don Quixote parodies the chivalric epic romances that were popular at the time.

    G&S lampooned all sorts of things about British society in the Victorian era. Certainly some characters qualify as direct parodies of the Leghorn type. Joseph Porter KCB as WH Smith, for instance.

    I wonder if some of the examples here are stretching the idea of "parody" though. If Swift is satirizing the culture he lives in, is that a "parody" of "society" in the Leghorn sense?

    Or maybe I'm just interpreting it too narrowly, in which case the Foghorn Leghorn class is large indeed.

    A related class I'm interested in is people (or groups, or works) who were named after some famous person, and then proceeded to become more well-known than the original. I suppose you could call it the Engelbert Humperdinck class. Or perhaps even the Martin Luther King class.

  12. Andrew Gelman says:

    Ubs: Would you include the Beatles (sometimes known as The Beatles) in the Humperdinck/MLK class, as they are more famous than the Crickets?

  13. jhe says:

    I believe that "Back in the USSR" is really a parody of "California Girls" which seems to be a little known though obvious fact and is probably a different case than the one described here. In this case the parody has become disconnected from the object of parody, but the former is not better known than the latter.

    I'm not entirely surprised that often the parody is better know than its object. The parody illuminates some aspect of culture which did not necessarily stand out until the parody came along. The parody takes the class of objects being parodied and makes them obvious and memorable.

  14. zbicyclist says:

    For those who can't place it, here's Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcI8AiCO9cU

    Listening to this, it seem like "Back in the USSR" is a parody of this song, with a parody of "California Girls" in the middle. per Wikipedia, "The song also contains a pun on Hoagy Carmichael's and Stuart Gorrell's "Georgia on My Mind"."

    Remember: Borrow from one source and its plagarism. Borrow from three sources and its research. ;)

  15. Ubs says:

    Beats me. I know nothing about the Beatles.

    (I also know the original Engelbert Humperdinck better than I know the modern one.)

  16. You've been on a streak of great posts, including this one.

  17. Zubon says:

    Andrew,
    I submit that your experiences with popular culture are atypical. Wikipedia lists Weird Al as a parody musician from the second sentence. He has sold millions of records, primarily on the strength of his parody songs. I might suggest that Weird Al is better know that Dr. Demento, but that might be my own atypical experience. I am surprised to hear that people do not realize some are parodies, even if they do not know the originals.

    And yes, every page on TV Tropes has some examples that are stretching. On naming: Stigler's Law of Eponymy applies. I would not have gone with "Weird Al Effect" myself, but it does have the useful feature of being a less perfect example than Foghorn Leghorn. That is, more people know that Weird Al does parody and therefore recognize the effect where his songs have out-lasted the original, whereas Foghorn has so out-lasted his original that it requires more explanation to get the point across. Being a stronger example could make it a weaker title.

  18. tgrass says:

    Among my son's friends (kindergarteners) their favorite, and mine, is the knock-knock with no pun or word play at all:
    Man 1: Knock Knock.
    Man 2: Who's There?
    Man 1: The Great Interrupting Cow.
    Man 2: The Great Interrupting …
    Man 1: Mooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

    In my opinion the best joke circulating in our time.

  19. Cody Custis says:

    That might be in a double 'Foghorn Leghorn' class, as I am aware of "The Master and Margarita" mainly as the inspiration for the Rolling Stones' 'Sympathy For The Devil.'

  20. Keith O'Rourke says:

    zbicyclist – some just thought Doyle was referring to abduction in science.

    Sebeok, T.A. (1981) The Play of Musement, “You Know My Method”: A Juxtaposition of Charles S. Peirce and Sherlock Holmes”, Indiana Univ Press, Bloomington.

    Keith

  21. CraigM says:

    tgrass – that's maybe the second best k-k joke for kindergartners. My favorite, which also contains no puns or complicated wordplay, but does teach them a bit about strategy, order-dependence, etc goes as follows:

    Me: I just heard a great new knock-knock joke!!
    Kindergartner: Tell me! Tell Me!
    Me: Okay. You start.
    Kindergartner: Knock Knock.
    Me: Who's there?
    (awkward silence)
    Kindergartner: Hey, no fair….

    Craig

  22. Steve Roth says:

    Hamlet is another classic member of the class–ridiculing and riffing off of the bombastic tear-a-cat tragedies of the 1580s and '90s.

    Which segues beautifully into one of the best lines I've heard for a long time, from the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows:

    "What's Hamlet's opening line?"

    "Who's there?"

    "Right: it's the world's longest knock-knock joke!"

  23. gzuckier says:

    Well if you're going to bring up knock knock jokes, parodies of them, and SNL, who can forget the classic (Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin, I think?):
    Chevy: Knock knock,
    Jane: Who's there?
    Chevy: I don't know, Jane. But I do know this… etc.