In March 2016, aspiring comedy writer Anthony Novak decided while waiting at a bus stop to create a Facebook page parodying his local police department in Parma, Ohio. Within a few days, Novak was sitting in jail, his house was searched and everything relating to his or his roommate’s internet access had been confiscated by the police. He was charged with disrupting public services, which is a felony in Ohio.
The page in question was intended to look at first glance like the real police department Facebook page, but with quickly recognizable differences. (For example, the slogan on the parody page was “we no crime.”) After spending four nights in jail, a jury found Novak not guilty. Novak sued the city for violating his rights, a case that has worked its way up the US court system.
This is where The Onion – self-described as “America’s Finest News Source” – comes into the story. Novak’s lawyer contacted people at The Onion, who took immediate interest in the situation. Since the United States judicial system relies often on precedence, the decision made by higher courts could have huge effects on American’s right to parody. The Onion, who is not directly involved in the case, responded by writing an amicus brief defending Novak. The outlet obviously has a direct interest in Novak’s case, as they jokingly acknowledge in the brief. Given that they are all parody, limitations on the right to parody government officials actively threatens not only their business model, but all people’s right to criticize public officials.
“Americans can be put in jail for poking fun at the government? This was a surprise to America’s Finest News Source and an uncomfortable learning experience for its editorial team,” the brief begins. The Onion goes on to describes the essence of parody as “tricking readers into believing that they’re seeing a serious rendering of some specific form—a pop song lyric, a newspaper article, a police beat, then allowing them to laugh at their own gullibility when they realize that they’ve fallen victim to one of the oldest tricks in the history of rhetoric.”
This is an excellent demonstration of the importance of parody in the world. There are arguments that anything meant as parody must be immediately labeled as such. But part of the power of parody lies in the initial trick, followed by acknowledging said trick. In a time where fears about people being too gullible to media and internet lies and distortions are reaching new heights, we need a way to let people laugh at the tricks a little bit.
The brief adds, “The Onion cannot stand idly by in the face of a ruling that threatens to disembowel a form of rhetoric that has existed for millennia, that is particularly potent in the realm of political debate, and that, purely incidentally, forms the basis of The Onion’s writers’ paychecks.”
Parody is also another tool in a comedian’s arsenal to make you laugh while making you think. Parody has been in use since as long as there has been comedy and it continues to be an important part of comedy today. Just last week, Trevor Noah announced that he was stepping down from The Daily Show, arguably one of the most influential examples of parody in the start of the twenty first century. While Noah’s time on the show has been less celebrated, it is impossible to argue that the show was at one point an example of the massive power of parody.
The Onion’s brief is an enjoyable read almost top to bottom, written in the publication’s signature comedic tone. It also is a legitimately powerful and strident defense for the right of parody and the importance of it in our culture and discourse. It is available online in its entirety.