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It's Time to Tear Down the 'Hamilton' Parody Industrial Complex

We used to make things in this country, now we just combine the world's most popular musical with other popular things.

by Harry Cheadle
Jul 4 2016, 9:43pm

Today Americans across the land are celebrating our independence from Britain by eating meat, waving flags, getting drunk, and setting off small explosions. It's important that we remember the achievements of our Founding Fathers, and the bravery and fortitude it took to cast off the yoke of the Union Jack, but today our nation is once again weighed down by an oppressor: Hamilton parody videos.

A frivolous cause? Maybe, but remember the concerns of those brave colonists who won us our freedom began as simple things: the price of stamps and tea, mainly. So too do Hamilton parodies at first seem to be mildly annoying as they flash across your feed. Why would anyone make this? you ask before closing the window. But when this happens over and over, to everyone, those small irritations begin to add up. First we reach the point where we reflexively wince at those opening string chords, and eventually we will find ourselves buried under the psychic weight of those "Born to a ____ and a ____" jokes.

Here is a video of, basically, a summary of the plot of Star Wars set to "Alexander Hamilton," the musical's opener. If that description appeals to you, it's pretty good! There are props and effects and the cast sings and raps well. It doesn't really have "jokes" but it's two popular things put together. It's fine.

Now here is the same thing but instead of Star Wars it's Batman. Also totally fine.

Now here is the same thing but instead of Batman it's Game of Thrones. Perfectly tolerable if you want to listen to that sort of thing.

What's wrong with making a Hamilton parody, you ask? It's a mega-popular musical, even if no one has actually ever seen it, and it's fun to do the kind of slow, rhyme-heavy rap that's all over "Alexander Hamilton." Amy Schumer did a Hamilton parody that creator/star Lin Manuel-Miranda appeared in; a sketch comedy group did a Donald Trump–based Hamilton cover and got a bunch of attention; what's wrong with buying a few wigs, inviting your friends over, and doing a song about, say, "William Henry Harrison"? That would be funny, right?

Maybe it was funny when this guy did it. But when this guy did the same thing ("Help me show this to Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton!" pleads his YouTube video description) the magic was clearly gone. The world, arguably, did not need this second Star Wars/Hamilton parody, or this Trump/Hamilton parody or this other Trump/Hamilton parody. And I'm not sure what to say about this College Humor Angela Merkel/Hamilton sketch except that part of the joke is that it would be a boring bad musical, right? But it still goes on for more than four minutes?

Some Hamilton parodies, like this feature-length google doc of Jeb!: An American Disappointment or the upcoming Drumpf: The Musical, are the result of obviously a lot of work. Others, like this Isaac Newton parody, um, seem to have taken less work. Individually, some of them are funny. But taken together, this piling up of parodies results in what you might call a "collective action problem."

This is the term for a situation where individuals need to act unselfishly in order to achieve an outcome that would benefit everyone. Everyone would benefit if we all chilled out on making these videos for a second, but no one seems to be able to stop themselves. Why not just one more, where it's Voldemort instead of Hamilton, or mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, or Taft? Why not one more after that, where Captain American fights Iron Man or where Batman meets Superman?

I'll tell you why: Because having famous historical figures rap is the lowest form of comedy, a genre dominated by "cool" history teachers and amateur YouTubers (that Hamilton manages to transcend this and actually be good is one of the things that's so surprising about it). Because it's always vaguely sad to see something original and popular sag beneath the weight of parodies and rip-offs, and wouldn't you rather not add to that pile? Because America used to be a country where we built things, like large cars and larger buildings, and today we can't even build our own rhyme schemes, apparently. And finally, because even the best parody song based on a rap about a Founding Father is still going to be a parody song based on a rap about a Founding Father.

Tonight, while watching the sky explode in honor of men who refused to take a bunch of bullshit from some dumb country on the other side of the ocean, remember two things: 1. Don't drink and drive and 2. Just because "Napoleon Bonaparte" has about the same number of syllables as "Alexander Hamilton" doesn't mean you need to start writing lyrics. The battle against the British began when some guys threw some tea into a lake, or whatever. Similarly, the battle against Hamilton parodies begins when you, a talented young person with video editing software, decides to go with a Gilbert and Sullivan parody instead.