Favorite Moments: Game of Chairs

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

Why it’s great:

It’s Sesame Street poking fun of Game of Thrones.

Okay, I guess I’ll have to do more than post a sentence I never thought I’d write. What makes this sketch by Sesame Street great is that it manages to do three things at once:

1. Do a G-rated parody of an R-rated franchise.

2. Make it educational and entertaining at the same time.

3. Throw in plenty of in-jokes that only adult watchers of ‘Thrones’ would get that would fly over the heads of younger viewers.

It’s Reason # 3 that really makes this sketch shine: What 8 year old is going to catch the in-jokes about the bloodiest wedding in human history, the death of the most irritating teenage monarch ever, decapitation, and so much more? None, I’d warrant. You can almost hear the writers giggling as they turn R-rated horror into G-rated jokes, and on a children’s educational show, no less!

 

Favorite Moments: The Lion King (low budget)

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

 

Why it’s great:

If you were a little kid during the 90’s, you were probably traumatized by seeing Mufasa fall to his death in ‘The Lion King’. I should know; I was one of those kids who was heartbroken at seeing him become wilderbeast roadkill, and another unfortunate victim in Disney’s never-ending quest to kill all parents.

So, naturally, someone had to take the scene and remake it in 3D, but with incredibly silly animation that looks like it was saved from an animation student’s recycle bin, making another great example of how taking a dramatic scene and interpreting it with silly, amateur production values can make for comedy gold.

What we can learn from ‘Limbo with Lyrics’

NOTE: The music video for this song features a child drawn in a stylistic manner repeatedly dying violent deaths.

When it came out in 2010, ‘Limbo’ quickly became one of the most famous independent video games ever created, quickly putting developer Playdead on the map. With it’s beautifully dark art style, bleak aesthetics, brutal violence, and haunting soundtrack, ‘Limbo’ is a masterpiece of grim video games… so, naturally, parodies starting coming our way, including this rather amusing song.

There’s only one lesson to learn from this video, but it’s a good one:

Be cautious when doing making light of real-life horrors

If you haven’t played ‘Limbo’, here are two videos to show you what kind of game it is:

When I initially started this article, I was going to write about how the use of an upbeat tune and comedic sound effects makes for comedy gold when contrasted with very dark media (which it does very well). After all, such a mix has worked before:

However, I then realized that while that combination of lighthearted fun and horrific suffering is funny for fictional stories, it doesn’t work as well when used in real life: A fun Reggie song about concentration camps in Nazi Germany would be rather… tasteless. So would a happy jazz tune about atrocities committed by ISIS to innocent people. It’s easy and fun to parody Jason Vorhees, Darth Vader, and the Alien and Predator, but when it comes to poking fun at torture, genocide, or the mutilation and murder of ordinary people, we walk a very dangerous line between making a point and being tasteless.

Now, nothing is off limits when it comes to comedy. Writers should be free to do dark comedy if they wish, on whatever subject they wish. But discretion is important: Doing a parody song about how millions can’t pay their bills, afford insulin, or even a place to live can be funny because it critiques society and makes a point. Doing a Reggie song about children having limbs hacked off because their parents couldn’t make daily quotas on a rubber plantation probably won’t have the same effect.

When audiences watch or read comedy, they want to laugh and get away from the horrors of the world, if only for a few minutes or even a few seconds. As writers, we have to be careful how we use horror to make them laugh. If we use the horrors of a fictional world, we have more leeway because those horrors don’t really exist. But if we use the evil that surrounds us in everyday life, we must be careful of the point we’re trying to make… unless we’re talking about people who push shopping carts in grocery stores at half a mile an hour and block isles so that no one can get past them. They’re fair game.

Favorite Moments: It’s a Giraffe!

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

Why it’s great:

It takes one of the greatest film moments of the 1990’s and gives Alan Grant the voice of Patrick Starfish. That’s all you need to know.

Okay, maybe a more detailed explanation is in order. I adore how taking the audio from an episode of Spongebob Squarepants changes the mood and feel of such an emotional scene by making it comedic. It’s probably a cosmic law that adding circus music to anything makes it funnier, no matter how dramatic, heartwarming, or awe-inspiring it is, a law I’d love to explore and see if it’s true or not. But until then, I’ll continue chuckling at Dr. Grant acting like an over-excited starfish.

What we can learn from ‘Honest University Commercial’

Today’s video should hit pretty close to home for anyone who’s ever gone to college. While a college degree has long been held as the key to financial and personal success, they’ve been getting more expensive as time goes on, to the point where your great-great-great grandchildren will have to tell their grandchildren that they’ll have to work to pay off your debt. Okay, maybe not, but there’s no denying that college can be a major source of sticker shock. Making matters worse is how many of these universities and colleges produce fancy commercials to make it seem like attending their hallowed halls was a guaranteed path to success, instead of a one-way ticket to catastrophic debt and no guarantees of a job that can even pay the bills.

But what if these for-profit colleges were unashamedly honest about themselves? That’s where the hilarious (or heartbreaking) Honest University Commercial comes in, with three great lessons for writers:

Consider having a shady organization cheerfully promote their vices

We expect commercials – already little more than capitalist propaganda – to be as clean, friendly, and idealized as possible, their producers doing everything they can to convince you to buy their product or service. We, as readers and viewers, expect fictional companies to do the same.

But what if they didn’t?

In our own writing, and if the situation fits (i.e. you’re doing a comedy), try having an evil or shady organization doing a commercial to promote themselves, and not bothering to hide how shady and evil they are, even relishing in pointing out how greedy or corrupt their institution is. That’s what ‘Honest University Commercial’ does so well. We’re used to seeing ‘good’ institutions doing so, or even having evil companies putting on a good face, but when they don’t bother, it’s more memorable, and will stick with our audience. For another great example, look no further than one of the all-time classics, ‘Big Bill Hell’s’ (warning: Video is NOT safe for work).

Consider having people be relentlessly cheerful about their problems

What happens when things aren’t going your way? You get upset. You get angry. You complain. It’s only natural, and no one would begrudge you for needing to vent. But if you were cheerful and upbeat about how life is awful, you’re going to get a lot of baffled looks. You’re not supposed to be happy about getting into crushing debt for the rest of your life, about losing your loved ones, or having an unsustainable lifestyle (unless you’re a spiritual masochist, but we won’t go into that), which makes such a reaction stand out.

For writers (especially comedy writers), having characters be relentlessly cheerful about their problems can be a comedy goldmine because audiences don’t expect them to be that happy. After the initial humor wears off, they’ll want to learn if the unfortunate soul is delusional, crazy, a masochist, or someone who’s about to snap and go on a blood-drenched rampage. Consider poor Stanley Johnson:

Someone who’s happy when anyone else would be miserable makes audiences suspicious because there’s so many things that could be going on behind that stepford smile, giving writers plenty of material to work with. (personally, I think it’s only a matter of time before poor Mr. Johnson straps some chainsaws to that lawnmower, dons a hockey mask, and sets out to take his revenge on capitalism.) 

Consider using humor to make a point about absurdities in everyday life

Humor is great for more than just a quick laugh: the very best humor makes us reflect on life and it’s more absurd situations. ‘Honest University Commercial’ is merciless in pointing out how our higher-learning institutions are more focused on making money and how expensive it is to get a degree than they are about giving their students practical skills and not wasting time on subjects they have no interest in or will ever use (damn you, physical anthropology!). It’s funny, but also thought-provoking and sad at the same time.

There’s no shame in going for humor that’s meant only to make our audiences laugh and feel good for a few moments, but making them laugh while thinking and realizing a deeper meaning will leave a longer, more lasting impact.

The Takeaway

When doing a comedy, consider having an evil or shady organization promote themselves and not caring about broadcasting that they’re evil or shady (or both). For people who are affected by that organization (or the harsh realities of life in general), consider having them be relentlessly cheerful about their problems and difficulties, while using the absurdity of it all to point out how absurd real life can be.

Favorite Moments: Enya’s Space Jam

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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Today’s post doesn’t cover a favorite literary, film, or videogame moment, but a musical one: After I discovered the magical world of Space Jam remixes, I’ve been on a quest to find the best, most catchy, most implausable mashups I can. I’ve found many, but this one, which combines outer space basketball with my favorite musician, has quickly become a favorite. Enjoy!

What we can learn from The Onion’s interview with God

Of all the challenges that writers face in our craft, there’s one that sounds easy, but is anything but: How do you portray God? How do you put a face and a voice to The Creator Of Everything, especially when some ordinary person meets God. Let’s see how The Onion interprets such a meeting between us and our Creator:

Uhmm… Well, that was… something. Let’s dissect it and see what we can learn from one of The Onion’s most memorable videos.

Consider doing a shocking swerve

What’s so memorable about the video is that it starts off so innocently, complete with a dignified title screen and quiet piano music. We’re expecting a humanoid being to sit down before the interviewer (let’s name him Ted), and talk in a powerful, but gentle voice.

Then, seconds later, BAM, here comes an inter-dimensional being to take Ted on a fun adventure into madness.

As I noted in my critique of ‘Every 90’s commercial ever’, this kind of swerve is great for comedy, because luring our audience into expecting one thing, only to unexpectedly give them something else throws them off their feet, grabbing their interest as they try to make sense of what’s going on.

Consider having an encounter with the divine be pants-wettingly incomprehensible

When you imagine what God looks like, I’m betting the first things that comes to mind are either an old man in a white robe or a very bright light. What The Onion’s video does very well is portraying God more as a force of nature that is beyond anything we can make sense of.

For writers, try embracing that idea: Make your deity something beyond our comprehension. Make it so that even if your deity is benevolent, your character/s are so terrified that all they want to do is dive under the covers and cry for mommy to save them from this incomprehensible being who could destroy them in a nanosecond. By portraying a deity is an impersonal, incomprehensible being, you show your audience that you’re not going to be following traditions when it comes to portraying gods.

However, that impersonal power doesn’t have to be so terrifying: if your deity is benevolent, you can have them assist your character/s by using some of his/her/its power to stabilize their mind or counteract the effects of going mad. That shows that, despite being so far beyond its creations, your deity does care about them, and won’t just sit around passively while they go mad in its presence. Of course, if your deity doesn’t care, or is evil… well, helping your characters won’t be an issue.

Consider leaving it ambiguous if an encountered deity is malevolent or benevolent

While most people would assume that God is benevolent (or, at least, favorable to us mortals), we obviously can’t know for sure (assuming that God even exists). The Onion’s video, instead of portraying God as a beautiful, holy, benevolent being who loves us beyond all measure, goes for portraying God as a purple angel/skeleton thing that reduces Ted to a state of both sheer terror and unmatched ecstasy. We don’t know if God in the video is benevolent, malevolent, or something in between.

On the malevolent side, God turns into a hideous skeleton, makes Ted seemingly go mad with fear, and at one point seems to suck something out of his mouth. But on the benevolent side, God did show up for the interview, apparently grants Ted ultimate understanding about everything, and creates a beautiful tree after the interview is over, Either way, though, we don’t know if The Onion’s God is friendly, ticked off, or just messing around (or, as one Youtube user suggested, He’s just saying, ‘Thanks for having me’).

One pleasure of writing a god in our stories is the possibly of creating a being who is so removed from our notions of good and evil that its mortality is impossible to understand, similar to how ants, insects, and other small animals can’t possibly comprehend our own actions or the reasoning behind them. That opens up tremendous opportunities to explore morality, how it changes from culture to culture, or even if there is such a thing as absolute good and evil, or if it’s just something humanity has come up with. But there’s also another bonus to making your god morally ambiguous: When we can understand how a deity thinks, that god’s power and majesty is reduced. But when there’s a deity that we cannot understand in any way, it remains a mysterious, terrifying, and beautiful enigma. It’s the ultimate unknown, and leaves the door wide open for stories about characters trying to understand it.

The Takeaway

When writing about God (or a god), surprise your audience by portraying God not as a purely benevolent, humanoid being, but as something that can drive you mad trying to comprehend or understand, even if He/She/It is benevolent. Add more complexity by not showing if your god is benevolent, malevolent, or something in between.