Genre Discussion: The necessity of subversion in true crime parody

A warning before we start: I’m talking about true crime parodies, and violence against women and minority communities. Nothing graphic.

Ever since A Very Fatal Murder made waves in headlines, the parodies of the true crime genre are coming in droves, having sighted a niche market deemed ripe for audiences. I am intrigued by the possibilities here — if there’s a genuine interest in more like The Onion’s podcast, then this may be a good arena to help people discover the wider world of audio fiction. Whenever there is a formula and a pattern of tactics, it’s ready for satirization, and people who consume deeply from that genre may also be the people who will enjoy watching a parody of all the tropes and strategies played out.

However, it has to be noted that the true crime genre itself is a tricky one, making scripted and improvised parodies of it a bit of a powder keg. Easily one of the most popular genres in podcasting, it is also one of the most easily exploitative. It is quite literally the business of making entertaining and engaging audio out of people’s deaths and the lives of the survivors, and out of crime. I listen to probably more true crime than I even care to admit sometimes, and when I recommend them, I always pay attention to how truly helpful they are, especially if they involve active investigative journalism.

So when it comes to parodying true crime, a thin line must be walked: genuinely poking sardonic fun at the methods employed across true crime podcasts, mostly instituted by Serial, and not poking fun at the often vulnerable and marginalized communities that are the focus of these kinds of investigations. It’s the same line that must be walked in much of comedy, though I suspect the trap here is much larger to fall into, because much of true crime focuses on the deaths of minorities — especially women.

Folks: stop killing off women in your parodies.

If you’re going to make a parody of a true crime podcast, subvert this. Stop fridging your characters in your parodies — subvert it. Change the status quo; use it to commentate on things that need to change. True crime podcasts are reflections of real, horrifying life, usually with a thick brushing of the podcaster’s personal views on top, and the material here to ethically poke fun and make a point is rich. As a positive example, we’re going to take a brief look at This Sounds Serious.

This Sounds Serious takes as its subject a particularly weird 911 caller who is accused of murdering his twin brother, a successful weatherman. This scripted comedy draws out major and popular plotlines we see repeated very often in true crime podcasts — a murder, a man living out in somewhere the feels like the middle of nowhere, a cult, a potential serial killer, following a trial.  It’s completely ridiculous, but only punches up, never down. And more to the point, this is not just an excuse for back-to-back tired jokes about true crime. This Sounds Serious stood out to me because it has a cohesive narrative storyline, even as every new improbable facet of the subject’s life isn’t not just discarded, but built upon in the fashion of a classic true crime podcast.

If we continue to focus in on true crime parodies, why would we want to continue the trend of violence against women? Why wouldn’t you want to pull away from the lens that has a tendency to sensationalize in uncomfortable ways when women die? These sorts of issues particularly come to light with discussions on most forms of comedy, especially in the ongoing toxic narrative of “sensitivity” and “political correctness” killing comedy. I’m not here to debate about that — I think comedy should punch up, and I think you should probably not be making jokes about minority communities you aren’t a part of.

Reframe your satire. Think about other ways to parody true crime — which I think is genuinely ready to be parodied and has been for a while, and is why I was delighted by This Sounds Serious, or the BBC show Kench, who presented a true crime podcast parody for their first set of episodes. This isn’t just about women, but all sorts of marginalized and vulnerable groups and their intersections; I focused on women here because this is the current trend I’m seeing, but it bears to highlight the fact that in true crime, all kinds of marginalized groups tend to be sensationalized victims.

What do you think? What true crime parodies do you think are doing it right? What do you think is the responsibility in parody, especially when dealing with a genre that where it is already easy to become exploitative? It’s another one of those multifaceted issues that we would need to revisit time and again in order to cover all the bases.

This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic Issue #9, July 2 2018.