Favorite Moments: TLC Promo

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:

Today’s video is a perfect example of how comedy can be used to make a point about the failings of society, corporations, or any other entity. In this instance, it’s how The Learning Channel, which used to show high-quality educational programming, has morphed into doing nothing but cheap reality shows that have almost nothing to do with education, AKA, Network Decay.

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.

What we can learn from my favorite videogame commercial

In tales, myths, and legends told throughout the centuries, one constant rule is that the characters in our stories are unaware that they’re fictional. It’s only been in the past few decades that writers have played with this idea by occasionally having these characters realize that they’re characters in a book, a movie, or a video game, existing only to give pleasure and enjoyment to their observers. Naturally, it’s logical for these characters don’t react well then they realize that they don’t exist beyond the confines of the medium they’re in, that they’re little more than playthings of the author. And who can blame them? If I found out I was a background character in a sitcom, I’d probably go crazy, too.

But what we rarely see is when the fourth wall is broken is characters who are okay with their situation. Even rarer is the work where the characters are grateful to their author, player, or audience, which is shown so beautifully in the Sony PS3 ad, ‘Long Live Play’:

When doing a fourth-wall breaking story, consider having your characters be grateful to their creator/audience.

‘Long Live Play’, my favorite video game commercial of all time, is perhaps the best example I’ve found of fictional characters being grateful to their audience. Aside from the coolness of seeing numerous characters from different video game franchises coming together (and just hanging out instead of fighting), it runs with the idea of the player (in this instance, Michael) being a sort of god who helps all of them accomplish great things, which they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise, ending with all of them cheering Michael’s name in gratitude for everything he’s done for them.

For writers, ‘Long Live Play’ shows that when the fourth wall is broken, it can lead to fascinating story concepts. We aren’t confined to tales of fictional characters fighting off suicidal depression at realizing that they’re not real, or raging against all the hardships and sufferings they’ve been forced to go through; why not try a story where those characters look at their creator, audience, or player with gratitude and reverence for all the good things they’ve been given? Even better, explore how would self-aware fictional characters interact with their creator? Do they try to have a face-to-face meeting with him/her/it? Do they start a religion? Do they ask for certain things to happen to them, in hopes that the author will grant them that request?

Breaking the fourth wall can be a good source of comedy and tragedy, but it also gives the author a chance to explore what it means to be a god, and the relationship that god has between themselves and their creations. And in doing so, it also invites the reader to rethink our relationships with our favorite characters from books, films, comics, and games. How would they react if they learned about you, or the reasons why you enjoy following them? Such questions invites us to expand our thinking and see fictional characters in a whole new way. And while it was meant in the context of videogames, consider what Youtube user Tia Shok said:

“This was the commercial who showed us that game companies can give characters souls, but it’s the players who give them heart and morality and nobility. Players can make characters into heroes. Thank Sony for understanding the power gamers give their characters.”

What we can learn from ‘Water Fight’

Raise your hand if you’ve seen a car commercial that features the following:

*Some rich dude/gal drives their super-expensive luxury car that no ordinary person can afford out of their seventy gazillion dollar home.

*They drive through the empty streets of Los Angeles at night (which are conveniently empty of trash, homeless people, and homeless people having arguments with invisible aliens).

*They’re incredibly happy at their car that looks like every other car in every other car commercial since the 90’s that will one day either be crushed into scrap metal or become a pile of weed-covered rust in the backyard because its owner is a crippled, 90 year old man who is convinced that he will one day restore it, sell it, and become rich.

Sound familiar? I’d estimate that’s about 80% of all car commercials in the United States since the 90’s (the rest are either cars driving around Southern California hills while a creepy kid whispers, ‘zoom zoom’, and cowboys throwing things into pickup trucks while a guy yells, ‘Like a rock!’). With almost every car commercial being almost identical, it takes a lot to stand out. I can only think of three that do so; this one:

and this fake one (warning: This video contains language that is VERY not safe for work):

But the one that stands out for me is this one:

It may be short, but it has one great trick for writers to learn:

When doing a parody fight, have your characters treat it seriously:

I still remember watching this commercial for the first time and laughing at the absurdity of these Matrix-style tough guys going into battle with colorful water pistols, water guns, and water balloons (come to think of it, a remastered version of the Matrix trilogy where everyone wields water guns would be hilarious). Watching the commercial again, what strikes me the most is that the characters treat their situation with the utmost seriousness. They see nothing funny at all about trying to kill each other with H20.

In our own comedic stories, it can be tempting to have characters comment on the absurdity of the situations they’re in; a ‘wink at the audience’ moment, if you will. But I’ve come to realize that those moments should be avoided. When watching a scene unfold, our brains have a good idea of what to expect, but when an unexpected, comedic element is thrown it, it throws us off balance (in a good way), and we enjoy the novelty of seeing something we’ve seen done a hundred times be done in an absurd way.

Think of classic Hollywood parodies: ‘Airplane!’ ‘Monty Python and The Holy Grail’ ‘The Naked Gun’ trilogy. In all of them, their characters don’t see anything funny about the situations they’re going through. Had they laughed, pointed out the absurdity, or otherwise become aware of the parody elements, the films would have lost much of their humor. Thus, when writing our own comedy, perhaps the simplest rule to remember is to keep it straight… and that you probably shouldn’t bring a water pistol to a gun fight.

 

Perfect Moments: My favorite Christmas Moment

Because of the Christmas holiday, I’ll be taking a break from posting until January 3rd. But before then, I’d like to share my favorite piece of Christmas related media. It’s not a movie or a TV special, but – of all things – a commercial for Directv.

While Christmas traditions revolve around giving gifts, celebrating the birth of Jesus, and many festivities, the one aspect of the holiday that often gets overlooked is the wish for peace on earth, and goodwill to all.

Imagine a world where there’s no evil or war. A world where everyone – including villans – are at peace with themselves and each other. It’s a dream that only gets more beautiful the older I get… but one that I know will almost certainly never happen. But thanks to this silly commercial, we can have a glimpse of what such a paradise might look like, where Darth Vader, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Kruger, Dracula, The Mummy, Chucky, Hannibal, and the girl from ‘The Ring’ celebrate Christmas with an ordinary family.

Is it cheesy? Yes. Is it goofy? Oh heck yes. There are other movies and stories that are more emotional, more heartwarming, and that inspire us to be grateful for all the wonderful things in our lives, including our loved ones. But this commercial shows us a world where peace, love, and goodwill reign, and everyone – including the most despicable of people – have turned to the light, and that’s why it’s my favorite piece of Christmas media.

Well, that, and seeing this once-in-a-lifetime image:

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(GIF from this page)

May you all have a wonderful and heartwarming holiday season.

Perfect Moments: ‘Combat Rangers!’

Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.

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The Video:

Fedex’s ‘Combat Rangers’ commercial.

 

Why it’s Perfect

There are some moments in media that beg for deeper explanation, moments that causes us to pause and think deeply on why they move us, prompting lengthy soul-searching in an attempt to better understand ourselves and our desires, our frailties and vices. From such deep prompting, growth and understanding can result, and possibly even enlightenment as we come to understand our place in the cosmos, and what we can do to contribute to it… Or we can just laugh at the sight of muscular toy soldiers going into war wearing tutus and wedding dresses while wielding handbags and umbrellas.

I remember watching this commercial as a kid back in the mid 90’s; back then, I had little comprehension of shipping, manufacturing, and the unseen side of the retail industry, but I didn’t care, as I thought the Combat Rangers were hilarious. Over twenty years later, they still are, and this remains one of my favorite commercials for its use of humor to illustrate what could happen if a mistake is made in shipping goods from overseas. Most of that humor comes from the sheer absurdity of warriors charging into battle wearing attire and weapons so inappropriate it’s absurd, making it an excellent example of ‘fish out of water’ comedy that I love so much: Someone or something taken into a situation that they have no experience or business being in, and doing their best to make it work. In this instance, men dressed in women’s clothing, yet still charging into battle.

To take this idea to it’s logical extreme, imagine how ridiculous, yet hilarious it would be for any modern war movie to have it’s soldiers wearing wedding dresses into combat. ‘Hunter Killer’ may have gotten triple its box office revenue if Gerard Butler and the Navy SEALS were wearing pink ballerina outfits as they battle to save the Russian president. It would be a comedy goldmine.

The very best commercials stay with you years after you’ve seen them, and long after their products have left the market. ‘Combat Rangers’ easily earns its place among those hallowed ads… and I have to confess, that squishy mud sound effect six seconds in never fails to make me laugh.