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Objects of the class “Foghorn Leghorn”

Reprinting a classic from 2010:

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”

P.S. Commenter Jhe has a theory:

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.


  1. Steen says:

    Timely repost, given Chuck Berry’s recent passing.
    I for one did not know that the lyrics to “Back in the USSR” were a parody of something specific. Class Don Quijote that inherits from Class Foghorn Leghorn: objects that are compelling because they now seem weird and original?

  2. Robert Klein says:

    I’ve run into a variant of this effect trying to share older, influential movies with friends. Instead of appreciating that they’re seeing the first instance of a joke, to them they’re seeing an older version of a hackneyed situation. It’s probably like when children see “I Love Lucy” and have that surreal familiarity with all these situations and characters because they have been rolled into cartoon plots. The greater point here is certainly valid, though, that there’s a certain quality to well-done parody that reduces, say, a person or a situation to its most essentially memorable and communicable core. P.S. There’s an API in my link I’d love to get your feedback on. It correlates themes from unstructured streams and returns them in a .JSON format. It was inspired by The butterfly effect. The idea, not the movie that parodied it. :) Hope it’s useful to you- Robert

    • Corey says:

      I’ve run into a variant of this effect trying to share older, influential movies with friends. Instead of appreciating that they’re seeing the first instance of a joke, to them they’re seeing an older version of a hackneyed situation.

      Objects of the class “Gandalf”. He’s not a stereotype, he’s the archetype.

    • Andrew says:

      Awhile ago I saw the classic 1939 movie Stagecoach. Almost every action and every scene was a cliche. I had no idea—still have no idea—how many of these were already cliches at the time, and how many were originals with that movie and only became cliches later.

      • Mark Palko says:

        Modern critics often miss the ways classics like Stagecoach and His Girl Friday borrow from, refine and play against conventions. Kael hits this point repeatedly in Raising Kane (apologies for the long quote):

        This worship of the director is cyclical—Welles or Fellini is probably adored no more than von Stroheim or von Sternberg or De Mille was in his heyday—but such worship generally doesn’t help in sorting out what went into the making of good pictures and bad pictures. The directors try to please the interviewers by telling them the anecdotes that have got a good response before. The anecdotes are sometimes charming and superficial, like the famous one—now taken for motion-picture history—about how Howard Hawks supposedly discovered that The Front Page would be better if a girl played the reporter Hildy, and thus transformed the play into His Girl Friday in 1940. (“I was going to prove to somebody that The Front Page had the finest modern dialogue that had been written, and I asked a girl to read Hildy’s part and I read the editor, and I stopped and I said, ‘Hell, it’s better between a girl and a man than between two men.’”) Now, a charming story is not nothing. Still, this is nothing but a charming and superficial story. His Girl Friday turned out joyously, but if such an accident did cause Hawks to see how easy it was to alter the play, he still must have done it rather cynically, in order to make it conform to the box-office patterns then current. By the mid-thirties—after the surprise success of It Happened One Night—the new independent, wisecracking girl was very popular, especially in a whole cycle of newspaper pictures with rival girl and boy reporters. Newspaper pictures were now “romantic comedies,” and, just as the movies about lady fliers were almost all based on Amelia Earhart, the criminal-mouthpiece movies on William Fallon, and the gossip-column movies on Walter Winchell, the movies about girl reporters were almost all based on the most highly publicized girl reporter—Hearst’s Adela Rogers St. Johns. Everybody had already been stealing from and unofficially adapting The Front Page in the “wacky” romantic newspaper comedies, and one of these rewrites, Wedding Present, in 1936 (by Adela Rogers St. Johns’s then son-in-law Paul Gallico), had tough editor (Cary Grant) and smart girl reporter (Joan Bennet) with square fiancé (Conrad Nagel). This was the mold that The Front Page was then squeezed into to become His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy (already a favorite square from The Awful Truth) in the same roles, and Rosalind Russell was so obviously playing Adela Rogers St. Johns that she was dressed in an imitation of the St. Johns girl-reporter striped suit.
        Some things that students now, seeing films out of the context of the cycles they were part of, may take to be brilliant inventions were fairly standard; in fact, the public at the time was so familiar with the conventions of the popular comedies that the clichés were frequently spoofed within the pictures. But today, because of the problems peculiar to writing the history of modern mass-art forms, and because of the jumbled circumstances in which movies survive, with knowledge of them acquired in haphazard fashion from television, and from screenings here and there, film enthusiasts find it simpler to explain movies in terms of the genius-artist-director, the schoolbook hero—the man who did it all. Those who admire Citizen Kane, which is constructed to present different perspectives on a man’s life, seem naïvely willing to accept Welles’s view of its making; namely, that it was his sole creation.

  3. Kyle C says:

    Steen, Don Quixote is actually a member of today’s class because it was a burlesque of trashy romantic fiction that just happened to be written by a genius.

    Kids Today don’t realize that Airplane! was a parody of the disaster-movie genre.

    Not exactly a parody? — It’s rarely mentioned that William Gibson’s Neuromancer is, for its first two-thirds at least, a trope-for-trope transposition of hard-boiled detective fiction to sci-fi.

  4. Paul C says:

    This notion of a parody being more noted and well-known than the original can be extended to many of our sayings. Do most people know where “stole my thunder” or “getting upstaged” come from? Some do I’m sure. These are both examples of a more or less literal description of a situation entering the language, and now the sayings and their meanings remain but the context of their invention is long since forgotten. (I’m indebted to the TV show “America’s Secret Slang” for these examples–great show and really fun to learn the original contexts.) I wonder if humans will physically evolve to the point where they no longer have digits but still use the phrase “I’m all thumbs.”

  5. zbicyclist says:

    Some of Weird Al Yankovich’s parodies likely fall into this class.

    For example,

    “I lost on Jeopardy”, in which Al loses badly on the TV game show, has 2.4 million plays.
    “Our love’s in jeopardy”, the original, seems to have about 800,000.
    (hard to tell for sure due to multiple versions)

  6. Neat stuff. I took a look at the original post, and there’s a mention of Don Quixote. Which is funny, because the main work that Don Quixote riffs on is Aristo’s Orlando Furioso, which is itself… well, it’s not a direct parody of any one chivalric work, but it’s a send-up of the whole field, sort of like Blazing Saddles is to westerns.

    Don Quixote kicks off his madness by deciding that a washbasin is The Casque of Mambrino, which is a helmet contested by the Saracen knight Mambrino and the Chinese knight Argalia in Orlando Furioso. All the knights in OF have Italian names, no matter where they come from. And all the women are blond, even if they come from China, India or Morocco. It’s kind of interesting that this was a trope worth mocking back in 1505. There’s actually a decent-sized body of “mock-heroic” works from the 1400s on, with authors like Luigi Pulci and Alessandro Tassoni.

    In case you’re wondering why you never heard of Orlando Furioso, it’s still considered an ultra-classic in Europe, but was never taught in the American schools as it has lots and lots of sex. And lots. And almost all the romances are interracial. And polyamorous. Just not something we tolerate in our “great literature”…

  7. John Hall says:

    I thought Back in the USSR was more akin to California Girls. I hadn’t heard of Back in the USA.

  8. Mark Palko says:

    Theatrical cartoon shorts of the 1940s and 1950s, particularly the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons released by Warner Bros., are particularly awash with Of Mice and Men parodies. The reference most often appears in the form of one character asking another, à la Lennie, “Which way did he go, George; which way did he go?”,[2] such as the episodes Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt or Falling Hare.[3] The other popular reference draws on Lennie’s love of soft furry animals and his underestimation of his strength. In The Abominable Snow Rabbit (1961), the abominable snowman grabs Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck saying, “I will name him George, and I will hug him, and pet him, and squeeze him” with Mel Blanc doing an unmistakable imitation of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Lennie. This material was re-used in Spaced Out Bunny (1980), the last Warner Bros. cartoon in which Bugs Bunny was voiced by Mel Blanc.[citation needed]

    Tex Avery, who worked as a director on Warner-released cartoons during the 1930s and early 1940s, started the Of Mice and Men trend with Of Fox and Hounds (1940) and Lonesome Lenny (1946) featuring Screwy Squirrel. The formula was so successful that it was used again and again in subsequent shorts, notably Robert McKimson’s Hoppy Go Lucky (1952), Cat-Tails for Two (1953) and Chuck Jones’ The Abominable Snow Rabbit (1961). Avery himself used it again when he went on to direct several cartoons starring the George and Lennie doppelgangers George and Junior for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the late 1940s.

  9. numeric says:

    Most people have seen Airplane but have never seen the Airport movies that it is parodying.

  10. Thomas says:

    The whole question of the provenance of any cultural artifact is fraught with hazard. Consider the Hamlet myth. If you believe de Santillana and von Dechen in their book, Hamlet’s Mill (Godine, 1965), the word “hamlet” originated in Persia thousands of years ago in the linguistic form of “amlodhi,” a cognate of the Persian word for necessity. Then it diffused through time and culture including Old Icelandic myths and other vestigial forms to appear in the version closest to Shakespeare’s in a 13th c work by the Danish author Saxo Grammaticus where “amlodhi” had morphed into “amleth.” The authors of Hamlet’s Mill viewed these ancient creation myths as the technical language of a pre-scientific elite, finding their analogues in biblical “floods,” West African (Dogon) cosmologies and MesoAmerican oral histories where lurking beneath these mythic artifacts are cosmological phenomena such as the 26,000 year precession of the equinoxes.

  11. Greg says:

    Another example: one of the best-known jokes in American culture is the unjoke “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.”

  12. Diana says:

    I’d guess that the youth of today is vaguely aware that Crusty the Clown is a parody of something (probably Bozo) but I doubt they realize what a rich world of local kid’s TV he represents — J.P. Patches in my case. In fact, I’d put forward The Simpsons (seasons 1-10) as a kind of lagerstätte of objects of the F.L. class for people my age.

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