Laughing in the face of the Original: [Academic Paper]

Does the intertextual nature of the parody genre effect how we see an original text?


This essay explore the nature of Intertextuality and its use in the parody genre. Exploring subjects such as Semiotics, Genre Subversion, Ghost Texts and Postmodernism. While drawing on a large pool of artefacts, this essay focuses primarily on the works of Mel Brooks, specifically the films Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1987], Blazing Saddles [Brooks. 1974] and Spaceballs [Brooks. 1974].


In the study of semiotics, the practice of deriving meaning from signs and signifiers [Chandler. 2014], there exists the study of intertextuality. While the study of semiotics has been defined by Umberto Eco as being “concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign” [Eco. 1976:7], and hence, deriving meaning from those signs based on cultural significance and context, then intertextuality is the practice of such signs and signifiers, drawing on specific cultural materials, such as films, books, television and other media. While intertextuality can be seen in multiple examples, the practice of recognising such references can vary depending on the readers own frame of reference. Bazerman notes that intertextual references are “most easily recognizable when the textual borrowings involve some distance in time, space, culture, or institution. Phrases that are common and unremarkable in sports such are ‘stepping up to the plate’ – just part of the ordinary way of talking that everyone shares – become a bit remarkable when they start appearing in political contexts, such as when congressperson talks about courage to take a stand on an issue by talking about ‘stepping up to the plate’.” [Bazerman. 2004:89] Bazerman uses this as an example to how a common baseball metaphor can become part of the public lexicon, even outside of the realm of sports.
The term intertextuality, was introduced by Julia Kristeva, in her 1966 essay, Words, Dialogue and Novel [Kristeva. 1980], and later expounded upon in her 1966-67 essay, The Bounded Text [Kristeva. 1980]. The original definition Kristeva proposed, described it as the “initiated [proposal of a] text as a dynamic site in which relational processes and practices are [focuses] of analysis instead of static structures and products” [Friedman. 1991:147]. Since introducing this concept, the idea and the notion of intertextuality has been expounded upon by theorists such as, Harold Bloom [Bloom. 1973], Susan Friedman [Friedman. 1991], and Henry Jenkins. In 1977, Roland Barthes introduced the idea of ‘The Death of the Author’ [Barthes. 1977], a notion that is often paired, and discussed alongside intertextuality. Barthes discusses whether or not the authors opinion and intention in regards to their own work should be taken into account, once the work is published. In regards to intertextuality, this provides an interesting notion. When reconstituting an author’s work, for example, into the guise of a comedy, would the initial author agree with the new outcome?

The use of intertextuality, can be defined by three key categories, obligatory, optional, and accidental [Miola. 2004]. Obligatory intertextuality involves the use of deliberate referencing, the writer will invoke texts of consciously, and the reader will usually require some form of knowledge towards the original texts, in order to appreciate the new material created [Fitzsimmons. 2013]. Examples of this can frequently be seen in The Simpsons Halloween Specials [Groening, Brooks & Simon. 1989 – Present]. Unlike standard episodes of The Simpsons which may incorporate intertextuality into their stories, most stories told in the annual ‘Treehouse of Horror’ [Archer, Moore, & Silverman. 1990] episodes are parodies or retellings of existing horror properties. For example, the first story of Treehouse of Horror V [Reardon. 1994], entitled The Shinning, is a recreation of the Stanley Kubrick 1980 horror film, The Shining [Kubrick. 1980]. Replacing Jack Nicholson’s character, Jack Torrance, with Homer Simpson, Shelley Duvall, with Marge, and Danny with Bart. Optional Intertextuality, most notably refers to intertextual references that are none-essential to the story being told, but are used “to pay homage to the ‘original’ writers, or to reward those who have read the [text]. However, the reading of this [text] is not necessary to the understanding of the [new text]” [Ivanic. 1998]. Finally, Accidental Intertextuality, involves the unconscious referencing of texts in an author’s work [Fitzsimmons. 2013].This usually occurs when the writer makes no clear intention of making a specific intertextual reference, though connections could still be made by readers who may recognise subtle references [Wohrle. 2012].
A Genre that relies implicitly on intertextuality, is that of the Parody genre. The genre is defined by its use of Obligatory intertextuality, using specific subjects, genres, themes, or tropes, and using them as a source of comedy. When discussing parody in there book Film Art: An Introduction [Bordwell & Thompson. 2003], Bordwell and Thompson use the genre of horror to explore the purpose and popularity of parody. “Horror classics have been remade (Cat People [Tourneur. 1942], Dracula [Browning. 1931]), and the genre conventions have been parodied (Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1974], Beetlejuice [Burton. 1988]).” “By the late 1990s, horror-film conventions had become so familiar that parodies also became popular: Men in Black [Sonnenfeld. 1997], Men in Black II [Sonnenfeld. 2002], and the Scary Movie [Wayans. 2000] and Scream [Craven. 1996] series. Whatever the causes, filmmakers working in horror films have maintained that dynamic of conventions and innovation that is basic to every film genre” [Bordwell & Thompson. 2003:123]. The genre of parody is nothing new, elements can be found dating “back to Aristophanes (448 – 380? B.C.) spoofing the writing styles of Aeschylus Euripides in the Frogs, or Cervantes’ undercutting of the medieval romance genre in his early seventeenth-century novel Don Quixote, whose title character argumentatively is Western culture’s greatest comic figure” [Gehring. 1999:01]. The parody genre, as it appears in film, is of no surprise, the evolution of multiple other genres on screen, for example the horror or action genre, has allowed the parody genre to evolve alongside it. Notably, the works of Mel Brooks can be seen as prime examples. Including Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1974], playing on the themes and events of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein [Shelley. 1818], Spaceballs [Brooks. 1987], parodying the Star Wars [Lucas. 1977] franchise, and Blazing Saddles [Brooks. 1974], subverting tropes and expectations of the Western genre.

Young Frankenstein and ‘The Death of the Author’:

With parody, and the use of intertextuality, it is worth wondering of the ‘original’ author’s reaction to their work being parodied. In the case of Frankenstein [Shelley. 1818], famously parodied in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1974], a property intended to terrify its readers. Originally created by Shelley as part of a friendly writing competition between herself, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori, in an attempt to create the best horror story they could [Whitebloom. 2011] [Baldalamenti. 2006], Brooks transforms the work of horror, in to a dark comedy starring famed comedian Gene Wilder. Brooks takes the notion of man becoming god, and realising the sheer horror of his mistake, and takes it apart piece by piece, for the comedic entertainment of the masses. It is far to say that Shelley herself is not guilty of intertextuality herself, the evidence to which is in the full title to her novel, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus [Shelley. 1818]. Shelley story evokes the myth of Prometheus, and the poem Paradise Lost [Milton. 1667], “Shelley uses the myth of Prometheus and Paradise Lost in an ambivalent mode; they maintain their original meaning, but, at the same time, they acquire a specific feature that suits the novel better. For instance, the archetypical figure of Prometheus is represented by a mortal man, which changes significantly the outcome of the story. Besides, the figure of a divine creator, Prometheus in the Greek mythology or God in Milton’s epic, is transformed into a fallible mortal man in the novel” [Alves. 2014:132].

Barthes theory of ‘The Death of the Author’, applies, in this case, not only to Shelley’s work, but the myth of Prometheus and Milton’s epic poem. As Friedman states, in here essay Weaving: Intertextuality and the (Re)Birth of the Author [Friedman. 1991], “The ‘author’ dies in Barthes’s text in more ways than one. Like Kristeva, he sees the ‘author’ or ‘writer’ vanishing into the play of signifiers on the page” [Friedman. 1991:148]. She goes on to add, “the ‘death of the author’ – and with ‘him’, the death of origin, meaning, and referentiality – make possible the transformation of ‘the work’ into the ‘Text’ and the ‘Text’ as a performative state of engagement with other texts: in short, intertextuality” [Friedman. 1991:149]. With this in mind, it is useful to think of each of the texts being parodied, or referenced, as being similar to the multiple parts used to create Frankenstein’s monster. Each text dead, having been freed from their original authors control at publication, and now free to be stitched and rearranged by new authors, or literary Dr. Frankenstein’s. As Barthes states “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the author” [Barthes. 1977: 06], in regards to intertextuality, this plays a large part when arguing authorial intent, as the author’s work could be quoted or referenced in a manner in which the original author finds offensive, or against their wishes. In regards to parody, this may put the new text in binary opposition with the original, creating a juxtaposition within itself. With Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1974], a horror story is being transferred to a comedy, and while the question may be asked as to whether or not Shelley would want her creation being seen that way, the same could be asked if Milton would have been pleased with his epic poem being used as fuel for one of literatures most enduring monsters.

The key principle in Barthes’ theory, is that once a text has been published, and people outside of the author are able to read, view and absorb the text, then the authors role is finished, the author is essentially dead in the eyes of the text, and this allows for the birth of the readers. With the death of the author, it is reasonable to assume, that the intent of the author is no longer valid, that it is now in the hands of the reader, and possible new authors, to breathe new life into the text, and interpret it in the manner they see fit. In this case, intertextuality is the practice of readers becoming surrogate authors to those text, re-birthing them into the world, dying as authors themselves, and giving birth to new readers in the process. As Friedman puts it, “We have come full circle, back to the fabric of a text, this time an intertextual web of critical discourses that are endlessly woven and re-woven. Central to this (intertextual) re-weaving of the critical discourses of intertextuality is the reinsertion of the author, along with some of the biographical and historical methodologies of influence studies, back into the pattern of the fabric” [Friedman. 1991:173].

Obligatory, Optional, Ghost Texts and Spaceballs:

Much like Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1974], Spaceballs [Brooks. 1987] is known, simply, as a parody of the Star Wars franchise, as it stood then. Namely the original trilogy, Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope [Lucas. 1977], Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back [Kershner. 1980], and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi [Marquand. 1983]. Spaceballs was far from the first Star Wars parody, as chronicled in Chris Taylor’s How Star Wars Conquered the Universe [Taylor. 2014]. “Like Star Wars itself, the parodies seemed to pretty much die out after the original trilogy ended in 1983. The one notable exception – Mel Brooks’s feature-length Spaceballs in 1987 – seemed outdated on arrival” [Taylor. 2014: 135]. Taylor goes on to quote noted film critic, Roger Ebert’s original 1987 review, “The strangest thing about ‘Spaceballs’ is that it should have been made several years ago, before our appetite for ‘Star Wars’ satires had been completely exhausted. [….] With ‘Spaceballs’, he has made the kind of movie that didn’t really need a Mel Brooks. In bits and pieces, one way or another, this movie already has been made over the last 10 years by countless other satirists” [Ebert. 1987]. Both Taylor and Ebert point out that a number of jokes and gags are recycled from previous parody attempts, “A handful of the jokes, such as the princess’s hair buns turned out to be ear warmers, arrived directly from Hardware Wars” [Taylor. 2014:136]. Given Spaceballs late addition to the selection of Star Wars parodies, it is possible that Brooks gained a lot of his inspiration not only from his own observation of the original trilogy, but a subconscious, or accidental, use of intertextuality from the previous catalogue of Star Wars parody, such as Hardware Wars [Fosselious. 1978], appearances in Mad Magazine [Kurtzman. 1952 – Present], and The Muppet Show [Henson. 1976 – 81]. These unintentional intertextual references “can be caused by similar cultural, historical, and social circumstances. They can be traced back to common formulations, common motifs, or to quotations of a common source text” [Wohrle, et al. 2012:007].

However, what stands it apart from its contemporaries, is Brooks’s use of ‘Optional Intertextuality’. While the film focuses primarily on the Star Wars franchise as it stood then, the film contains noticeable references to other properties, including Ridley Scott’s 1979, science fiction, horror classic, Alien [Scott. 1979], and the Looney Tunes [Avery, Jones, et al. 1930 – 69] short, One Froggy Evening [Jones. 1955]. While these references are fun and interesting for those aware of the original texts, they provide no additional meaning in regards to parodying the Star Wars franchise. The primary audience, or demographic for Star Wars, at the time of its release, may well be aware of the One Froggy Evening [Jones. 1955] cartoon, but the image of the ‘Chestburster’ breaking through John Hurts’ ribs and lungs, as depicted in Alien [Scott. 1979], is far from a desired companion in the Lucas’s Star Wars Universe. In Brooks’s parody of Star Wars, he allows for the material to be skewed to a slightly more adult audience. In this case, Brooks is implementing his own authority over the texts his is intertextualising into his own work. Brooks choice of including these optional intertextual references, may provide evidence for what some practitioners, namely Gray [Gray. 2006], and Kundu [Kundu. 2008] refer to as ‘Ghost Texts’. The concept of introducing outside references, may give new readers an opportunity to recognise and identify other texts, for Brooks to expand the reach of his new text, by applying references to texts outside of the desired subject, to appeal to a broader demographic. The concept of a ‘ghost text’ as described by Gray in Watching with The Simpsons [Gray. 2006], ghost texts “come from the reader, and from other texts the reader has encountered. Resilient in refusing death, any text that we read can potentially live on forever – ageless as Bond and Batman have proven to be – to ‘haunt’ future texts. Ultimately texts stay with us, alive in our memories” [Gray. 2006:26 – 27]. In an artefact, such as a parody film, what would happen if the film itself was the reference, and someone did not understand or are aware of the reference? By allowing texts such as One Froggy Evening [Jones. 1955], Alien [Scott. 1979], The Wizard of OZ [Fleming. 1939], Chinatown [Polanski. 1974], and even some of Brooks previous work, Brooks is allowing these previous texts to ‘haunt’ Spaceballs alongside Star Wars, to hopefully create a better relationship with the readers, and a broader appeal. Each reader viewing Spaceballs, may have a somewhat different relationship to each of the secondary ghosts, refusing to let these secondary ghosts to die.

Genre Subversion and Blazing Saddles:

In contrast to Brooks other films discussed here, Blazing Saddles [Brooks .1974] does not focus on one singular film as it’s subject, but rather Brooks turns his attention to the entire genre of the Western. The origins and definition of Intertextuality come in to play, as instead of relying on parodies of characters or specific plot point, the signs and signifiers of a Western must be examined. The semiotics of a genre. In the case of Blazing Saddles, multiple tropes and clichés of the Western genre are addressed, as well as signifying character traits. The likes of a quick draw, cool and collective gunslinger, often portrayed in the vain of Clint Eastwood in The Man with No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars [Leone. 1964], A Few Dollars More [Leone. 1965], and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly [Leone. 1966]) or Robert Redford’s Sundance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [Hill. 1969], replaced with Gene Wilder’s drunk and comedic ‘Waco Kid’ or simply, Jim. The high ranking member of society, eager to get his hands on land, as seen in A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die (originally titled Un Minuto Per Pregare, Un Istante Per Morire) [Giraldi. 1968], now portrayed as the somewhat inept, sex crazed Governor William J. Le Petomane, played by Brooks himself. By using the signs, signifiers and iconography associated with the Western genre, Brooks can draw upon that wealth, to indicate to the audience what should be expected, to then subvert it in front of them, on screen. As Nick Lacey describes in their book, Narrative and Genre: Key Concepts in Media Studies [Lacey. 2000], “Westerns are very particular in their space (the American frontier) and time (1865 – 90). The Western deals with the conflict between the wilderness and civilisation (a binary opposition), a conflict that occurred on the frontier between the end of the Civil War until both sides of North America were ‘unified’ by the trans-continental railway.” […] “We associate guns and decrepit city streets with the crime genre; iconography in the Western is very exact, possibly because of its very focused time period: the ten-gallon hat, the six-gun, horses, tumbleweed and so on. Iconographic sounds refer both to diegetic and non-diegetic signs. In crime texts, the sound of a police car’s siren (diegetic) is usually endemic just as a Western’s theme music (non-diegetic) is likely to have lush strings, staccato brass and a fast rhythm emphasised by the brass drum” [Lacey. 2000:138].

One convention that Brooks noticeably brings to the forefront, is how the Western genre approaches racism. Given the time period the Western genre places itself into, at the end of the Civil War, “the Indians represent black people who were not considered to be truly American by the racist, southern whites who were opposing the ‘Brown verdict’” [Lacey. 2000:119]. In an example, we can take John Ford’s The Searchers [Ford. 1956], “John Wayne plays an anti-heroic ex-Confederate searching for his teenage niece who has been kidnapped by Indians. When he realizes she has been taken as an Indian wife, he continues searching for her not to rescue her, but to kill her, because she is now racially polluted” [Jacobs. 2015]. “Edwards [Wayne] is a racist and cannot bear the thought of his kin having sex with an Indian who has adopted her as one of his own race” [Lacey. 2000:119]. Brooks plays on this, by not only placing the racist tones to the forefront, but making a black man the sheriff. Something acknowledged at great lengths within the film, by the townspeople, and especially by Bart himself (the newly assigned sheriff, and former slave) when he takes himself hostage, acting as both the town sheriff as authority figure, and black savage in the eyes of the townsfolk. By the films end, the townsfolk welcome him as sheriff, despite his race, subverting the genre expectations in this regard. The films frequent use of derogatory terms can also be seen as a way in which the director draws explicit attention to the nature of racism. It is interesting to note, that the Native American’s portrayed in the film, often used as the stand-ins in Westerns for African American, are seen as wise and sage like, with Mel Brooks himself playing their chief.


Through the films Spaceballs [Brooks. 1974], Blazing Saddles [Brooks. 1974], and Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1987], Brooks uses a variety of intertextual techniques in order to implement the parody genre. Through exploring the techniques used and given the nature of the genre, it becomes more than apparent that intertextuality is a key component when constructing a work in the parody mould. In order to construct a narrative that brings to mind specific connotations of an original source, intertextuality is essential. “Because a realist text cannot formally be verified by reference to the ‘real world’, realism must be derived from the interaction between the text’s own internal logic and its reference to other texts, its intertextuality” [Lacey. 2000: 72]. The reliance on these earlier texts, could be seen as a form of postmodernism, the original texts, the modern entertainment, being reformed and shaped into a new artefact, a postmodern work. “Because postmodernism does not deal with the way texts, or any artefacts, refer to reality, postmodern texts can only deal in surfaces. So because we are, for example, strongly influenced by branding when making buying choices, the label becomes more important than the product and the packaging more important than the contents. In media texts this can manifest itself as intertextuality, where texts make meaning through reference to other texts. Take the Cape Feare [Moore. 1993] episode of The Simpsons [Groaning. 1989- Present]: in one short extract, students studying the programme picked out references to: Quentin Tarantino (surf music on Bart’s radio); Edward Scissorhands [Burton. 1990] and Nightmare on Elm Street [Craven. 1984] (Flanders’ trimming and his ‘gloves’); prison movies (Sideshow Bob and his Cellmate); Taxi Driver [Scorsese. 1976] (Sideshow Bob talking to himself in the mirror); Night of the Hunter [Laughton. 1955] (Bob has ‘hate’ written on his knuckles). When students were asked what all this meant, the response was (rightly) one of silence. Postmodernism is not about content, it is only concerned with its own eclecticism” [Lacey. 2000:94]. By parodying an original source, through the use of intertextuality, the original is transformed. It becomes separated from its original authorial intent, and is reborn to another, repeated at infinitum, as each author dies, giving birth to new readers, the original notions and inspirations of a text, become the intertextual ingredients of new, postmodern works.


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Film Bibliography:

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  • The Shining. (1980) Film. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. [Blu-Ray] Warner Bros. Productions: UK.
  • The Simpsons. (1989 – Present) TV. Created by Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, & Sam Simon. [DVD] 20th Century Fox Television: US.
  • The Simpsons: Cape Feare. (1993) TV. Directed by Rich Moore. October 10th. [DVD] 20th Century Fox Television.
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  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V. (1994) TV. Directed by Jim Reardon. October 30th. [DVD] 20th Century Fox Television: US.
  • The Wizard of Oz. (1939) Film. Directed by Victor Fleming. [Blu-Ray] Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: USA
  • Young Frankenstein. (1974) Film. Directed by Mel Brooks. [Blu-Ray] Gruskoff/Venture Films: USA.

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