Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick (pt. 2)

TAAB

Dear Matthew:

A mutual friend of ours, Syrup Trap editor Nick Zarzycki, once made an observation that has really stuck with me: he argued that the best comedic films, at least in terms of laughs per minute and broad popular acclaim, are almost always parodies.

I think he’s probably on to something. If you take a look around the internet for what people think are the best comedies of all time, Airplane!, Life of Brian, Blazing Saddles and their ilk are usually in the mix, and pretty near the top, too. And when I think of it, a lot of my more modern favourites are very much in the same mold — Hot Rod and They Came Together and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are some that spring immediately to mind, and there are definitely others.

If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Genre spoofs work well because the audience knows the material — you don’t have to do a lot of world-building or characterization, because you’ve already got a whole box of tropes and archetypes to work with. Since they’re spoofs of whole genres, they tend to age reasonably well, unlike spoofs of specific films — compare the staying power of the aforementioned Blazing Saddles with that of, say, Spaceballs.

The other thing about movies like this is that they tend to rate very highly with self-proclaimed ‘comedy aficionados’*. I think this is because, unlike a wholly original film, the story doesn’t really matter; in a genre parody, the plot is basically just a vehicle for jokes. In a way, the genre parody allows for filmic comedy in its purest form, because you aren’t writing anything that isn’t either the setup for, or the punchline to, a joke. You don’t have to sell the audience on a complicated story or complex characters — it’s just all jokes all the time.

I think a similar effect is probably why Thick as a Brick works so well. But the thing about TAAB is that it’s almost too good of a parody. Let me explain what I mean.

To reference Mel Brooks for the third and hopefully last time this article, TAAB suffers from a sort of reverse Springtime for Hitler effect. It’s intended to be a spoof of all of the most ridiculous aspects of prog, but in doing so, it embodies them so well that I, an admitted prog neophyte, would be hard-pressed to pick this out as a parody on first listen if I didn’t already know. It would be very easy for the less studious listener to mistake it for a completely serious endeavour — and indeed, some background reading on the album suggests that many did and still do.

The extremely dangerous internet time-sink TV Tropes refers to this effect as Poe’s Law. The law, roughly stated, is that parodies of extreme ideas/things are often mistaken as being sincere, and that sincere expressions of extreme ideas/things are often mistaken as parody — and paradoxically, the more extreme the idea/thing is, the more likely the confusion. This is why you get people who think that Stephen Colbert is actually a hardcore right-wing pundit, why people still think that Jonathan Swift actually condoned eating the Irish, why the Yes Men are able to get away with as much as they do, and one of the many reasons why LiarTownUSA is possibly the best thing to happen to Tumblr.

So, while I certainly got a kick out of the record, I expect my experience was similar to that of yours with Mr. Oizo — which is to say that I get it, but without a more deepseated love for the material being satirized, I don’t know that I’ll ever truly appreciate it on the level that you do. In my defence, it’s a pretty tall order to appreciate TAAB on the level that you do, but I’m still sorry to let you down.

But for what it’s worth, I did very much enjoy this pondering of the nature of parody that TAAB inspired. That, and the album sleeve is outstanding.

— Matt

* These people are the worst.

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