Origins of Western Parody

A parody is a comical imitation of a genre that uses its existing codes to examine the subject in a humorous way. Parody often exists simultaneously with satire, but it can be distinguished from satire, which is designed more specifically to point out vices, follies, or problems with conventional beliefs, whereas parody is generally more lighthearted. Despite the tendency of Western parodies to

undermine or spoof the codes of the more traditional Western, they are still situated within the genre. John Cawelti supports this idea with his argument that parodies are an inevitable part of the life cycle of any genre: "One can almost make out a life cycle characteristic of genres as they move from an initial period of articulation and discovery, through a phase of conscious self-awareness on the part of both creators and audiences, to a time when the generic patterns have become so well-known that people become tired of their predictability. It is at this point that parodic and satiric treatments proliferate and new genres gradually arise" (244). Here Cawelti suggests that as genres eventually become stale, new ones arise to take their places. Dan Harries, in a slightly different take on the subject, believes that parodies renew the genre "by breathing new life into worn-out canons without specifically burying that tradition" (123). The continued popularity ofboth the Western and the Western parody seems to confirm these evaluations.

To understand why parody works as comedy, it is useful to look at the incongruity theory, one of the major philosophical theories of comedy. Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the most useful proponents of the incongruity theory, describes the comedy of a situation as the tension between the conceived and the perceived, or the expected and the actual (98). When expectations differ from experience, the situation becomes humorous. This explains why the Western needed to have established generic conventions before those conventions could be parodied. For this change in the Western to have occurred, something like the life cycle that Cawelti describes must have taken place. For the Western, this progression through the cycle happened quite quickly. The first Western parodies occurred early in the history of film. Mack Sennett and Douglas Fairbanks made such parodies as early as the second decade of the twentieth century. Buster Keaton appeared in comedies with Western settings, specifically The Paleface (1922) and Go West (1925). Laurel and Hardy also got into the Western parody movement in 1937 with their film Way Out West. Numerous others contributed their own Western parodies, including Abbott and Costello in Ride 'em Cowboy (1942); Bob Hope in Paleface (1948), Fancy Pants (1950), and Son of Paleface (1952); and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Pardners (1956). Most of these films focused more on the comedian(s) than on making a parody of the genre; as such, they are better described as comedies set in the West than as Western parodies, but they do point to the trend of treating the Western as a comedic subject.

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