In order for a parody to work, a work of fiction needs to also take on many of the traits of its target. For example, a parody of action films will, inevitably, have to have some action sequences of its own. If it didn't, it wouldn't be so much of a parody as it would be a public mocking of the genre. A parody of Magical Girls would be required to have at least one Magical Girl character or else it would just be mocking the character type. Most of the best parodies actually stand not only as comedy, but also as the particular genre they are a creation of.
However, the line for what defines a parody can often get murky. Besides flat-out labeling something as a parody (which is rarely a good sign due to the lack of subtlety involved), the criteria for what defines a parody changes from person to person. Some works of fiction straddle the line, unsure of whether it's a parody or just a quirky, self-aware entry in the genre it's supposed to be a parody of. This can often lead to Misaimed Fandom when people take a parody dead seriously (or, perhaps due to the Weird Al Effect, are unaware that it even is a parody).
How this happens can vary widely. Perhaps it is just too affectionate of the genre it's a parody of. Perhaps it's making jokes already made. Perhaps it's just too close to its target. Perhaps it was actually meant to be serious, but took on too many comedic traits. But often, this happens because the writer(s) just couldn't decide what they wanted to do. In any case, an Indecisive Parody is when something is confusing about its intent.
See Stealth Parody for when something very intentionally evokes this to try and get responses as such.
Compare Indecisive Deconstruction. Also compare Denied Parody, where a work that is seen as a parody is denied to be such through Word of God.
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Anime & Manga
Black Lagoon. it's hard to tell, at times, whether it's an over-the-top parody of the Hollywood action film genre or a straight example with a tendency to occasionally take Refuge in Audacity. The series seems to swing a bit back and forth depending on the arc in question.
Love Hina starts mocking the harem genre hard, inserting audience surrogate Keitaro in a female dorm inhabitated by character prototypes from diverse dating games, in an onsen (making every early episode an onsen episode). It goes so far into comedy land that one wonders if the romantic plot will ever resolve. But when it wants to get serious it gets serious.
Super Dimension Fortress Macross It's said that this happened here, but that the parody elements didn't last much beyond the first few episodes, then it became a partial deconstruction and partial homage of the genre.
One episode of Zettai Karen Children is essentially a parody of Yuri Genre shows, but the only parts that are actually a parody are that Kaoru and Sakaki are lampshading everything and that it's all actually an undercover mission on Naomi's part. However, just about every visual element associated with the genre is used completely straight, along with other tropes such as one-sided Bait-and-Switch Lesbians, with the teacher actually being attracted to Naomi.
The fanfic Max Wolf Revolutions supposedly is (At least, according with its own author) a direct parody/homage of another fanfic, Christian Humber Reloaded, but as the story advances it turns crazier and even more deranged than the story it is parodying.
Kung Fu Panda. The action scenes are breathtaking one minute, and downright silly the next.
Films — Live Action
Big Trouble in Little China can easily be seen as a straight action movie, rather than the parody it's intended to be, especially if one isn't familiar with the Wuxia tropes it mocks throughout. The idea that Jack Burton is an incompetent parody of an American action hero can get a bit lost when he kills the main villain single-handedly.
Commando can very easily be seen either as a typical Arnie action movie of the era with his trademark tongue-in-cheek humor and awesome action scenes, or a campy, over-the-top and very self-aware parody of the big-name action films that Hollywood had been pumping out at the time.
Condorman is an extraordinarily campy Disney live-action spy flick, but it's so absurd and occasionally self-aware at times that it's hard not to see parody.
Death to Smoochy seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to be a full-on black comedy about an embittered former kids'-show host (played by Robin Williams) seeking revenge against his replacement, an insipid purple dinosaur named "Smoochy", or a wacky and only-kinda-dark-humored parody of kidvid shows in general. Then it veered off into a heartwarming ending where Smoochy (or the puppeteer behind him, anyway) and the embittered kidvid host reconciled their differences, and the whole thing became not just an indecisive parody, but an indecisive mess in general.
Enchanted has elements of both, thus this trope. While it mocks a lot of the tropes of fairy tales and shows how ridiculous they would be in real life, it also has a happy fairy-tale ending and suggests that life would be better if people did live more by fairy tale ideals of kindness and trust. The only way that a relationship between Giselle and Robert can work is for her to become less of a fairy-tale true-believer (and give up the perfect prince) and him to become more of one (allow himself to love someone again).
Feast , a survival horror film starts as an obvious parody of such films, wherein the characters are simply named after their archetypes. However, despite the occasional sex joke, it creates some truly frightening monsters and horrific death scenes. By the end of the movie, no-one's laughing.
Seth Rogen's version of The Green Hornet seems a parody of the comic book heroes that the Green Hornet actually predates. However, parodies by their very purpose exaggerate the outlandish elements of the target. To take the Batman, one finds it outlandish that a man would dress up as a bat and even more outlandish that he would drive around in a huge car with wings on it that would look screamingly outlandish traveling to and from a crime scene. Now look at the Green Hornet who wears a rain coat with a hat (just as numerous undercover law enforcement officials do), and drives around in an ordinary looking Imperial Chrysler. Kind of odd for a parody to jettison the ridiculous elements of its source, making this an indecisive parody.
Gremlins: The first film seems to waffle between being a dark comedy and a genuine horror film. Many scenes are played for campy, violent comedy, while others are played for straight horror. This was because the script was written as a horror film, but director Joe Dante decided to take a Lighter and Softer approach without changing the material. The sequel is a more clear-cut case of being a spoof.
The collaborations between Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg sometimes involve this trope intentionally by parodying genre conventions and then reaffirming them.
Lesbian Vampire Killers At times seems to be parodying the ridiculous oversexualisation of female vampires and vampire clichés, it also has long scenes of gratuitous nudity and a massive phallic sword MacGuffin.
The film version of Leave It to Beaver placed the wholesome fifties family in the nineties like the film version of The Brady Bunch that came out around the same time. However, unlike the other film which was a straight up parody, Leave It To Beaver didn't go very far with it and ended up being an odd mix of parody and a plain old remake.
Never Say Never Again The "unofficial" James Bond film can't quite seem to decide if it's a harsh satire of the Eon series or if it's a regular James Bond film. Plainly satirical scenes (such as Bond's discussion with M at the beginning) are side by side with normal Bond-style scenes.
Pineapple Express starts out as mushing a stoner movie into an action movie, showing how poorly this type of thing would go in real life. But then Seth Rogen's character Dale takes an offscreen level in badass, and is jumping on top of people and shooting everything.
Spice World can't seem to decide if it's a self-spoof, a harsh satire of the Spice Girls themselves, or just a vapid ripoff of A Hard Day's Night.
The Slumber Party Massacre does it unintentionally, where a script feminist parody of the slasher genre was filmed completely straight by a director who didn't realize it as such. The effect is surreal.
Interestingly, whether or not a person likes Van Helsing seems to be determined a great deal by whether they thought it was a parody or not.
Christmas with The Kranks starts off as a jab against holiday commercialism and conformity, with the titular family deciding to skip Christmas and spend the money they would've spent on it to take a cruise instead, resulting in their neighbors turning against them and trying to bully them into it. Then Tim Allen's character suddenly starts taking several levels in jerkass and the film pulls a 180 and starts painting the Kranks as the wrong ones for not conforming to their neighborhood's demands.
Desperate Housewives: When it premiered, it straddled the line between parody & nighttime soap before landing on the side of soap (albeit with a good dose of comedy).
Glee seems to be sliding in here. Is it a quirky teen drama with dark comedy elements and Crowning Music of Awesome? Or is it a dark comedy parodying teen dramas with intentional Soundtrack Dissonance? Nobody seems to really know. Indeed, one of the main criticisms of the is that it both wants to be a goofy hyper-skewed version of high school, while at the same time wanting to "really speak to the kids" and seriously "be a voice to the voiceless", something that smacks of eating one's cake and having it too.
Ryan Murphy's previous high school show Popular was worse. One minute the show would be an over-the-top parody of high school shows complete with on-screen graphics and pop culture references and then the next it would be a serious drama about cancer, eating disorders, and sex. The show hypocritically tried to condemn bullying while routinely making the bitchiest girls in school (Nicole and the fabulous Miss Mary Cherry!) the funniest and most entertaining parts of the show.
And in a different genre entirely but still under Ryan Murphy's peculiarly indecisive umbrella of creatorship is American Horror Story, which sometimes comes across as a deliberately silly Horror Kitchen Sink anthology and sometimes seems to take itself too seriously for a series where all anyone does is have kinky sex and/or rape everyone. In the end, one could pretty safely classify all of the above shows not as parody but as self-aware examples of the genre with a dose of camp.
Ugly Betty could never really decide if it was an affectionate send-up of soap operas and telenovelas or if was a dramatic example of one.
Power Rangers RPM In a definite case of Tropes Are Not Bad, it manages to be one of the most depressing parodies of Power Rangers ever. The show constantly varies between lampshading PR tropes ("Sometimes when I morph, a giant fireball appears behind me for no apparent reason..."), and dark storylines (Dr. K's past).
The 7pm Project. Is the show a news satire, a news parody which looks at amusing stories, or an ordinary news show that happens to be hosted by comedians?
Nobody seemed to get that She Spies was an action-comedy series bordering on parody, mainly because to the untrained eye, it looked like just another trashy syndicated action show. Which is probably why it got retooled into a straight action show for its second (and last) season.
Other than the pilot, the first few episodes of The Middleman weren't very clear on whether their intention was to parody Disney Channel-style heroes or to join them. Halfway through the first season, though, it solidified on the side of parody.
"Yer Blues" by The Beatles. Lennon wrote it as a parody of the English blues scene, but the song rocks so hard that it succeeds on its own terms as a straightforward rock tune. Beatles scholar Ian MacDonald characterized "Yer Blues" as "half-satirical, half-earnest".
The Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps" is supposedly a parody of misogynistic mainstream rap.
Noting, of course, that most of the reviews vary from lukewarm to positive, with ratings of around 60-90%, and that of the few bad reviews, one is titled "I hate this and anyone who likes it is a scumbag", which betrays just the slightest twinge of bias.
Also, while it would be entirely possible to either interpret the over-the-top guitar solos as straight over-the-top guitar solos or parodies of over-the-top guitar solos, the lyrics are fairly unambiguously parodic.
Kesha might appear as this to some listeners. She claims to be an intentional parody of modern pop music, but aside from a few notable lyrics, she doesn't go as ridiculous as Spinal Tap or The Rutles, so she often just comes off like any other pop starlet.
Religious(?) example: The Church of the SubGenius. One Church text openly taunts the reader with this: "A joke disguised as a religion? Or an actual, secretive religion, disguised as a joke disguised as a religion? Or an incredibly complex joke, disguised as an extremely ambiguous religion, disguised as a joke disguised as a religion?"
At least one of the above has been described such that "If you don't see the joke, you've missed the point. But if you think it's nothing at all except a joke... you've also missed the point."
The creators of FATAL have variously claimed it to be a work of "historically and mythically accurate scholarship" and "controversial humour".
Arguably, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Particularly the scenes with the Mechanicals, who are performing a self parody of Romeo and Juliet, it's possible those characters are parodies of some of the Lord Chamberlain's Men
The Broadway version of Tanz der Vampire, retitled Dance of the Vampires. Tanz is a serious rock musical, albeit not without humor. Dance tried to make the show into a straight-up musical comedy, since the producer thought this would go over better with an American audience. Unfortunately, due to an incredibly dysfunctional creative process, many of the songs didn't fit in with the new approach, so the show wound up swinging between Camp and seriousness, leaving no one satisfied. To quote the Variety review: "It's not an outright comedy [...] but as a serious musical — well, it's pretty damn funny."
The Real Life tropes page can't seem to decide whether to pretend that reality is a TV show, an MMORPG, or a Tabletop RPG, or whether to just play the examples straight. As examples on said page can change drastically in style Depending on the Writer, there may never be a unified vision for that page.
High Voltage Software claimed that Conduit 2 is supposed to be "tongue-in-cheek". Some portions the game are clearly taking the piss (half of Ford's dialogue, for instance), but other parts of the game are done completely seriously (like the conspiracy objects), and still others are ambiguous (the ending).
It's not always immediately clear whether Iron Brigade is supposed to be Rated M for Manly or Testosterone Poisoning. Some aspects seem to be firmly mocking over-the-top manliness, while others seem to be playing it straight. The Word of God isn't very helpful either — when citing over-the-top men's magazines like Man's Life as a source, they both refer to how warped their values are, and how awesome they were.
The first game was a bit unsure as to whether it wanted to be a parody; on the one hand, you've got screaming midgets and bandits yelling about how you killed their friends before they got a chance to. On the other hand, the final boss is a straight-up Sealed Evil in a Can, and the Precursors sideplot is also completely straight. By the time the DLC's came out, they had made their decision—parody all the way. General Knoxx spends most of his DLC calling you up to complain about his boss, who is five, and warn you that he sent assassins after you.
Knoxx: Oh, by the way, I sent Omega Squad to kill you. Love!
The Zombie Island of Doctor Ned and General Knoxx's Secret Armory (DLC 1 and 3 respectively) both leaned more on the parody side, while Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot (DLC 2) went mostly straight. Claptrap's New Robot Revolution (DLC 4) apparently decided once and for all that the series was meant to by parodic.
The second game is also a shameless parody. More midgets, more nonsensical enemy banter, and a Big Bad who calls you up to gloat about how awesome he is. Such as the time he got a pony made out of diamonds, which he named Butt Stallion.
Handsome Jack: It's not a statue or anything, it's an actual living pony—you know, I'll just show you. Butt Stallion! Get over here! Say hello! [whinny] Handsome Jack: Butt Stallion says hello.
Although the sidequests and enemies stay largely hilarious throughout the game, the main quest of Borderlands 2 gets dark near the end. There's the fight against Bloodwing, the fight against Angel, the abrupt murder of Roland and kidnapping of Lilith, and a bit of torture that isn't Played for Laughs (there's lots of torture, just only a little bit that isn't funny).
Far Cry 3 was supposed to be a satire/deconstruction of typical video game power fantasies, but spent so much time playing them straight (and doing a very good job of it) that it's hard to actually parse out the intended satire. The lead writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, wound up on the interview circuit trying to explain to people what the story really meant.
Similarly, even though Shortpacked! tried to parody clumsy transitions to Cerebus Syndrome with the "drama tag" arc, one of the biggest criticisms of the comic in the following years was that it was trying to be dramatic and it wasn't working.
A Very Potter Musical and its sequel run on Rule of Funny—until they get to a particularly serious moment from the books and play it up as heartwrenchingly as possible before settling back into nonsense again.
The Total Drama series started out as an animated parody of reality shows. The focus on shipping and other such plot tumors have essentially made it a totally pre-scripted (read: slightly more scripted than usual) reality show that happens to be animated.