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Fifty Shames of Earl Grey: The Fifty Shades Parody

Thursday, 23 Aug 2012 | 12:33 PM ET

I knew the best-selling "Fifty Shades" trilogy by E.L. James had gotten under America's skin when a farmer recently told me he'd read it. "Oh, did your wife make you read it?" I asked. "No, she hasn't read it," he replied with a straight face.

Fifty Shames of Earl Grey by Fanny Merkin (a.k.a. Andrew Shaffer)
Fifty Shames of Earl Grey by Fanny Merkin (a.k.a. Andrew Shaffer)

Oh my.

In June I ranted a bit about the trilogy's writing. I am not a fan. (Read More: Fifty Shades of Profit.)

However, I blogged about the ancillary businesses benefitting from the buzz, as rope and riding crop sales soared, not to mention how the "audio book version" helped resurrect Gilbert Gottfried'scareer post-Aflac. (Warning: content and language.)

Last week I was in a Barnes & Noble (yes, I was the one). I was buying a birthday gift for a friend, and I asked the cashier if anyone had yet written a "Fifty Shades" parody.

"Oh my," he replied. Actually, he didn't say that, but if E.L. James was writing this blog, that's what she would have written.

In truth, he said, "Yes we have one, but there are only a couple copies left." He then fetched me a copy of "Fifty Shames of Earl Grey" by Fanny Merkin, a 200-page parody which is the funniest take on a best seller since Harvard Lampoon's "Bored of the Rings."

In the parody, the young, troubled, handsome and fabulously successful Christian Grey is replaced by Earl Grey, who has a penchant for Nickelback and thinks BDSM stands for "Bards, Dragons, Sorcery and Magick." Naive, wide-eyed virgin Anastasia Steele in now Anna Steal, a young woman so incomprehensibly innocent she's never been on an elevator before and wonders how they work.

The parody intentionally stumbles into "Twilight" territory occasionally, a poke at E.L. James' beginnings as a writer of Twilight fan fiction. (Read More: Top Grossing Movies Based on Books.)

There is even a video promoting the book using dolls which look a whole lot like Edward and Bella. (Warning: This also has some inappropriate imagery.)

If you read the trilogy and hated yourself for it, reading this parody will make you feel a whole lot better.

Fanny Merkin is the nom de plume of Andrew Shaffer, a long time reviewer of romance and erotica novels, who has also created offbeat greeting cards and studied comedy writing at Chicago's Second City. He writes a blog called Evil Reads.

Shaffer explains how he ended up writing his parody.

I asked Shaffer how a nice guy from Kentucky ended up parodying an erotic trilogy penned by a British housewife.

"My mother, grandmother, and aunt have always read romance, and I'll admit to reading romance novels for 'the good parts' when I was a teenager," he said. "A couple of years ago, I attended a romance novel convention, ostensibly as research for a nonfiction book on romance I hoped to write."

That is when he started to meet romance novelists and really look at their work. "Some romance novels are great." (Read More: 12 Unique Dating Sites.)

"Fifty Shades" is not one of them, in Shaffer's opinion.

"Once you get past some of the grammatical and technical issues, I still didn't get it — Ana is such a weak character. There wasn't much about her that interested me."

Most annoying to him were lapses in credulity. "I get that it's a fantasy. That doesn't mean that this college girl wouldn't, for instance, even have an e-mail address? Or a computer? Or even, at the very least, a smartphone. No matter your financial situation, you're going to at least have an e-mail address in college. How did she turn in her homework? Stuff like that just got under my skin and would not leave." (Read More: Highest Grossing Fantasy Movies.)

Shaffer started live-tweeting his review of the novels on Twitter, and then he began posting a parody on his blog in March.

"This was before Fifty Shades was sold to Random House for seven figures."

He said after the book sold, his agent suggested he finish writing the parody ASAP. Several publishers expressed interest, and he finally signed with Da Capo Press.

"It was reported on one industry website as a five-figure advance — a report I won't contradict," he told me. "I don't get out of bed for less than five figures these days."

The book came out this month in North America and is already in its third printing, with 20,000 copies in print. His favorite part of the parody? The scene where Grey and Steal have sex on a dinosaur's back.

"The kosmoceratops trots gently through the jungle at a leisurely pace, blissfully unaware that two people are getting busy on her back." Among my favorite lines? "I gaze into his gazing eyes gazingly like a gazelle gazing into another gazelle’s gazing gaze.”

The author hopes to make people laugh with the book, but he also wanted to "write a modern day fable about shame." Shaffer said, "Christian Grey was ashamed of his sexual proclivities in Fifty Shades of Grey — BDSM was treated as something dark and mysterious, and a lot of the plot revolved around Ana trying to 'cure' him of his 'deviant' tastes."

In the parody, "Earl Grey, has 'fifty shames' — fifty things that he's embarrassed about, for one reason or another. The moral of my story is that you should feel comfortable in your own skin. No one should be ashamed of their personal taste, whether it's for BDSM or Nickelback."

As for the original trilogy's runaway success, Shaffer believes people have found the books an acceptable way to read about BDSM, but he also says the allure of extravagant wealth has played a role.

"I was surprised that, as we're still pulling out of the Great Recession, a fantasy about a wealthy CEO would be so popular," he said. "It's very much Mitt Romney, Romance Novel Hero."

—By CNBC's Jane Wells
@janewells

Questions? Comments? Funny Stories? Email funnybusiness@cnbc.com

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  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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