Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bride Wars and Joke Smithery

There's really not much to say about Bride Wars, and I don't think anyone who reads this is also going to watch Bride Wars, but now that I've seen this particular movie for the second time, I feel as though I need to get some things out of my head.

Comedy writing. I don't claim to be an expert on this topic, but I have noticed some problems with lazy writing that applies not only to this movie, but to many many other things as well. By way of example, Bride Wars uses "Really?" as a punchline of the "what you just said was ridiculous, and I'm not going to dignify it with an actual reply" variety. It's difficult to really call this a punch line, but I think it's where the laugh is supposed to occur, so it qualifies technically. For it to work as a joke, I think it has to act as a segue back to reality following a silly diversion, and the transition needs to make the silliness seem funnier by way of emphasizing how incongruous it is with reality or the actions of normal people. Jerry Seinfeld was on 30 Rock in the last year or two, and he used "really" in this way twice. In one episode! The one use that I remember was when he was riding in an elevator with that one irritating guy who was doing an imitation of the Seinfeld synth and mouth-noise music that accompanied the old show, to which Jerry followed with .... "really?".

In a similar vein is the "who does that" or "what is that", which is a slightly wordier version of "really" that functions in essentially exactly the same way. Someone does or says something wacky, and then that line comes out to drag a laugh out of the reality/silliness contrast. When the Odd-Job knockoff towards the end of Austin Powers throws a deadly shoe at Meyers, there's sort of an homage joke there for the people who know who Odd-Job is, but then there's a bonus joke when Meyers asks "Who throws a shoe?". If there's any humor in that line, I believe it's coming from the sudden return to reality that makes what just happened seem even sillier and also gives us a reason to wonder why anyone ever thought Odd-Job was menacing for throwing a hat. That's kind of funny, right? Laughing at cheesy characters that were at one time taken in earnest? I think it's the same kind of joke as the "quasi-futuristic clothes" or whatever line from earlier in the movie, or when Seth Green questions why they have to set up an elaborate death trap when he could just shoot the spies and get it over with.

He's transporting the contrived (silly) conventions of the spy thriller into reality for comedic effect, which is sort of a broader application of "really". I think Yahtzee had something similar to say about video game humor, which is primarily reliant on taking video game logic and tossing it into reality so we can see the humor in the contrast. I agree with Yahtzee that it's a pretty easy sort of gag to write, and you really don't have to be very clever to come up with it or get it. Saying "really" and "who does that" is, I hope, the laziest form of this joke, and that there is no lazier way to get the same cheap laugh. Maybe having an actor look into the camera and say "just kidding!" would be worse, but I'm not sure.

As an aside, I'm pretty sure that if you're writing for ANY sort of script, and you have a character who begins a line with "it's time [for/to]...", then you are writing a shitty line. Picture Jeremy Irons in Dungeons & Dragons yelling "IT'S TIME TO DIE" and then picture an equals sign, and then recall Darth Vader yelling "NOOOOOOOOOO" in Revenge of the Sith because both line types are exactly as impossible to include in a movie without being completely retarded.

So anyway, that's Bride Wars, tangentially. There's also some crap about treating mundane but carefully orchestrated activities (wedding planning) as though they were dangerous military campaigns as a joke, and a lot of treating weddings and relationships as tightly regulated activities that only girls can understand, participate in, or care about.

Also, I'm surprised that the guy who wrote the dictionary definition of "hysterics" didn't get his name in as a screenwriter for Bride Wars, because he was obviously a strong influence.


MA17 said...

Venture Bros kept coming to mind in writing this. When the show got part way through the second season and, in my opinion, stopped being any kind of worthwhile product, I think a big part of that was coming from an overdose of self-aware sarcasm directed at all of the tropes the show is built on. No matter how silly you might think Johnny Quest looks in retrospect, you can really only get a laugh on that joke once or twice, I say.

The other problem with Venture Bros was when they just started making everyone gay and crazy. I'm overgeneralizing, but the most visible tip of this iceberg is their making Quest a crazy druggie with father issues. It's like that Simpson's gag about Mad Magazine writers coming up with "Everybody HATES Raymond". You might get away with this sort of thing once or twice, but then it's time to fucking stop it.

MA17 said...

And of course taking the logic of pulp comics and making them coincide with reality got real tired real immediately.

_J_ said...

Is it sensible to catalog "really?" or "who does that?" with fourth wall humor?

As you said, what makes these "jokes" function is that they contrast the fictional world of the story with reality. Seinfeld in the elevator or Austin Powers are all comparing what would normally occur (outside the fourth wall) with that which occurs within the fictional reality of the series.

I adore fourth wall humor. So, to me, while the writing may be shitty I can at least appreciate that they are appealing to a sensible source of comedy. It's recognizing that the situation within the wall is absurd based upon not an internal inconsistency but rather an appeal to something else, namely the reality of the audience rather than the reality of the characters.

This is part of what I appreciate in Venture Brothers as well. The series is not a series qua series in the sense that it is telling a story unto itself. Rather, the series serves as a medium through which commentary can occur on other series from our reality. Take the Scooby Doo episode of Venture Brothers. In and of itself? Stupid premise for a stupid episode. But when one compares the portrayal of the Scooby Doo characters in Venture Brothers to the Scooby Doo characters with whom we grow up? I can appreciate that commentary and the reinterpretation of those characters.

It gets even more interesting if you take Venture Brothers to be a more, dare I say, realistic interpretation of other fictional characters or stories. Johnny Quest had a degree of idealism to it whereas Venture Brothers take the Johnny Quest model and applies realism to it while still maintaining its fictional qualities. Brock Sampson is a more realistic Race Bannon, in some sense of the word. Dr. Venture is a more realistic Dr. Quest. Yet they are all fictional.

That is the shit I enjoy from these sorts of series. I do not want a Battlestar Galactica where the series or movie takes itself so fucking seriously that it cannot accept that it is fictional. I want the absurdity of the series to be recognized by the fictional characters within the fictional reality.

Because if the fictional characters can have that realization then that gives some hope to the actual characters out here in our bullshit existence. If Doctor Venture can declare "Unorthodox? The defendant's wearing a crown for god's sake!" then maybe, just maybe, the shitheads who like William James will realize how absurd THEIR lives are.

_J_ said...

Also, why the fuck did you watch Bride Wars twice? Did you lose two bets?

MA17 said...

I don't disagree, but I would say that Venture Bros was at its best when it had Dr. Venture chipping away at the fourth wall with comments like the one you quoted about the Monarch on trial. Then they decided to mostly rip out that fourth wall by the second season, specifically in that episode that was part 2 of an episode with no part 1. With the mummies or some shit.

I say that they ripped out the wall because in that episode EVERYONE was taking shots at the silly conventions of pulp adventures, including the conventions themselves (the fucking mummy or pharaoh or whatever the hell) instead of just Dr. Venture. By my understanding, fourth wall humor needs people in the room who believe that the room is real and enclosed or else there's no point. Hank and Dean are usually pretty earnest, and it's fun to demean them, but my favorite character was the usually dramatically serious Dr. O. Why even have an Orpheus if there's no fourth wall and nobody takes this shit seriously? As soon as he knows he's silly, it's all over. Order of the Triad was over before it started.

I saw Curse of the Queerwolf at Atomic Age Cinema, and it was a terrible movie that winkingly acknowledged its own shittiness by making fun of itself. There's no point sitting there in the dark hurling insults at a movie that agrees with you explicitly, and Venture lost his comedic bite when his world became populated with people just as cynical and non-participatory as he is.

And probably putting "really" and 4th wall humor together is a bit broad...

MA17 said...

I watched Bride Wars twice because there are times when one is presented with limited options while on a lengthy flight.

Plus, I really do like bad movies.

Roscoe said...

The "Really?" response? Something of an advanced class in comedic timing and character set up, right?

I mean.. you've kinda hit it on the head. Though, the Seinfeld thing could work in the rake joke sense, if the repetition is really part of the setup. 30 Rock does like to do that... like Carville's Cajun Style gag.

Crap.. I didn't realize you and J went at it for lengthy posts below this.. .. was writing as I read.. .. I'll read more, you've probably hit all this allready.

Roscoe said...

Okay.. what the hell is going on here?

You seem to have opened a Pandora's Box - J is praising metafictious humor. Also, straw-manning a drama into a humor argument, but.. mostly.. J praising something he despises.

As for Venture.. I think you might be mistaking a drop in quality for the focus shifting away from the Ventures, and into the World a bit more.

Also, and I say this with love - You mock the Order of the Triad in my presence? And you're getting a permenant set of blue balls in your bloodeye.

Seriously, though, you might be mistaking a cultural awareness for fourth wall breakery. A lot of the Dr. O stuff isn't forth wall breaking so much as blending. The action figures etc...