While devotees of costume dramas instantly fell under the spell of Downton Abbey when it first premiered in the U.S. in January 2011 on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic, it took a second season for it to truly permeate popular culture.
Nominated for 16 Emmy Awards this year—including Best Drama, Best Actress in a Drama, Best Actor in a Drama, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and seemingly a billion others—Downton Abbey has become deeply entrenched in our collective consciousness. It is no surprise, then, that the show has prompted a slew of parodies, turning up everywhere from Saturday Night Live and The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon to an Arby’s commercial.
Fans, meanwhile, have taken to performing their own takes on Downton, spoofing the show with paper dolls, zombies, dogs, and stuffed animals. There’s even a “boyfriend’s guide” to the period drama that educates reluctant viewers about the difference between a “batman” and the Batman. PBS’s Sesame Street, meanwhile, plans to follow up its True Blood and Mad Men spoofs this fall with “Upside Downton Abbey,” described as “a chaotic manor house where gravity is inverted with Big Bird and Cookie Monster trying to maintain order.”
On Twitter, there are accounts dedicated to Lady Mary’s Eyebrows and to lady’s maid Miss O’Brien’s Bangs (@OBriensBangs), which seem to have a life of their own. The latter was created by comedian and actress Kate Hess, who also wrote and stars in her own Downton-themed one-woman show at the Upright Citizens Brigade.
“I had no idea that O’Brien’s Bangs would touch such a nerve!” said Hess in an email. “It made me laugh to think of her bangs having the twitter bio of ‘B. 1913 to a dustmop and a barrister’s wig.’ As an actress, tweeting as O’Brien’s Bangs allows me to explore a character, but I don’t actually have to learn any lines or get out of my pajamas. Also, O’Brien’s Bangs are more omniscient than even O’Brien herself—the bangs see past and future and even have their own tiny Ouija board.”
The producers of Downton Abbey, meanwhile, are only too pleased to see the show get skewered.
“I love them,” Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton told The Daily Beast. “Imitation is the sincerest form of television, Fred Allen [said]. There have been Masterpiece spoofs over our 40 years: Alistair Cookie, Monsterpiece Theatre. It’s an intersection of wit and humor, and it shows that you’re in the water. I don’t think anybody connected to the production in any respect does not like them.”
Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, meanwhile, was thoroughly charmed by last year’s BBC Red Nose Day two-part spoof of the show, the first part of which can be seen below.
“Oh, I loved it,” Fellowes told The Daily Beast. “It was so wonderfully well observed. ‘Have you all done your looks?’ and that stuff. I thought it was brilliantly done. And they knew that it was absolutely true that all the kitchen and the attic [scenes] were filmed in Ealing, which was an hour and three-quarters away from Highclere.”
Indeed, Fellowes was such a fan that he imagined one day doing his own send-up of the show. “I want to do a Red Nose Day when we have the past staff of Downton and the staff of Upstairs, Downstairs all working together,” he said. “I think that’d be really good.”
Until then, here are six of the best current Downton Abbey spoofs from both sides of the Atlantic.
Red Nose Day 2011: “Uptown Downstairs Abbey,” Parts 1 and 2
How many Downton spoofs can boast Michael Gambon as the narrator? In “Uptown Downstairs Abbey,” the BBC’s Red Nose Day parody from 2011, the period drama is mercilessly skewered by such notable actors as Jennifer Saunders, Kim Cattrall, Harry Enfield, Joanna Lumley (still in lip gloss), and Olivia Coleman (donning “knitting” for O’Brien’s hair), while revealing some truths, as indicated by Julian Fellowes (here uproariously portrayed by Simon Callow with “Oscar, Oscar, Oscar!” enthusiasm): the portions of the show set in the attics and downstairs weren’t filmed at Highclere Castle but at Ealing Studios. As Gambon intones semi-ominously about the plot, “It is the story of a house divided…by stairs.” Bonus points for a reference to Cattrall’s Sex and the City millions, “Fellowes” referring to the servants as “downstairs friends,” and the Thomas character muttering, “Oooh, I’m so evil!” after toppling poor Mr. Bates. But it’s Saunders’s turn as Dame Maggie Smith/Dowager Countess that is so pitch-perfect in looks, voice, and carriage that it’s downright spooky. More tea, please!
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon: “Downton Sixbey”
In the hands of Jimmy Fallon and the Late Night writers, Downton’s venerable English country estate is transported to Studio 6B of Rockefeller Center, where the intrigues of the entail become the machinations of a late night talk show. The inherent dedication and commitment of the spoof are mind-boggling to behold: the opening sequence is magically recreated within the confines of NBC’s Rockefeller Center facilities, the downstairs servants are recast as late night talk show writers, and various plot points are reimagined. (The sinking of the Titanic becomes a hot air balloon accident involving the current heir to Downton Sixbey, Carson Daly, as well as Christina Aguilera and Cee-Lo Green.) The multiple-episode spoof also features Brooke Shields as the American lady of the house, Questlove as the next heir to Downton Sixbey, and Fred Armisen, who steals the show as the middle daughter, “Hedith.”
Saturday Night Live: “Fancy Entourage”
Earlier this year, Saturday Night Live reimagined Downton Abbey for the bro set, as it recreated a trailer in Spike TV parlance, dubbing the PBS costume drama “Fancy Entourage.” Among the gems within the two-minute spoof trailer: “There’s a MILF and a dad, and they have three daughters, named Hot, Way Hot, and The Other One. And they all hang out with this old lady who looks like a chicken.” There’s something completely hysterical about the way the overwrought announcer continually refers to Dame Maggie Smith as “the Chicken Lady,” and how he laughs at Matthew Stevens’s Matthew Crawley for having a bicycle. By conflating the different approaches between PBS and Spike (and their vastly different audiences), “Fancy Entourage” manages to poke fun at both sets of viewers.
College Humor: “The Fresh Prince of Downton Abbey”
College Humor strikes once again with this mash-up of Downton and the 1990s Will Smith sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, depicting the struggles of Matthew Crawley as he’s unexpectedly named the heir to Downton Abbey. “Fresh Prince of Downton” manages to capture perfectly the simplicity of the matter of entail that becomes a major plot point in the first season: “Because of one little rule: the heir must be male, or the title and fortune are mine through entail.” Best bit? The signoff, which contains this gem, uttered matter-of-factly: “Screw the Dowager Countess, I’m Downton’s new heir.”
Mean Girls Trailer
A recut trailer for the 2004 Lindsay Lohan film Mean Girls, still a beloved cult favorite nearly 10 years after its release, deposits Lohan’s home-schooled heroine below stairs at Downton. Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary Crawley fills in for evil queen bee Regina George, Brendan Coyle’s Mr. Bates takes over for Damian, and Lohan herself is recast as redheaded housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie). Far funnier than it ought to be, there’s something innately electrifying about seeing the Crawleys referred to as “Plastics,” Thomas and O’Brien as “Burnouts,” and the downstairs servants as “the greatest people you’ll ever meet.” It’s totally fetch!
Kate Hess’s one-woman Upright Citizens Brigade show Murder Abbey, performed in New York and Los Angeles, mashes together Downton Abbey and a, Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, paying homage not just to Downton but to the larger Masterpiece brand. Playing nearly a dozen roles, including a superstitious scullery maid, a star-struck chorus girl, and a loud American millionairess who fires off pistols as well as one-liners, Hess explores the upstairs/downstairs divide following the murder of a butler on an English country estate where everyone has secrets. It is Hess’s take on the Anna/Bates romance that delivers the live show its sharpest laughs, depicting the melodramatic highs and lows of costume drama courtship as a series of alternating comedic crests and troughs. But who killed the butler? You’ll have to attend to find out. (Hess returns to UCB Los Angeles on Sept. 6.