Favorite Moments: Indiana Jones And The Ridiculously Complicated Quest For A Can Of Soda

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

Back in the 90’s, soda ads sometimes went all-out in an attempt to convince consumers how awesome it is to drink a high-fructose corn syrup-ladden carbinated beverage drink can be. Most of these ads have fallen by the wayside, but I recently had the pleasure of discovering this commercial, and the unimaginably devoted wife who has to go through a ridiculous amount of obstacles to get her soft drink. Still, the impressive production values makes it one heck of an entertaining quest.

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 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.

What we can learn from: ‘Every 90’s Commercial Ever’

Halloween’s only a week away, and the internet is in full swing with all sorts of Halloween-themed posts, sites, and spooky sights to celebrate the season. But you know what? Let’s take a break from Halloween horrors and take a fun-filled trip back to the 90’s!

Umm… yeah.

Aside from the totally radical 90’s attitude (oh, those bright colors! The VHS scratch marks! The guitar music!), this charmingly gruesome commercial features a few treats for writers digging into it:

When doing a period piece, consider embracing cliches and stereotypes

What do you think of when you imagine the past several decades? Rock and roll music, drive-ins, and cheesy sci-fi B movies of the 50’s? The garishly bright colors, disco, outrageous hairdos, and shag carpeting of the 70’s? Or how about totally radical hipsters getting around on skateboards and surfboards while playing Nintendo 64 and watching Arnold Schwarzenegger movies in the 90’s? While there was always more going on in those eras, embracing these stereotypes can work to our advantage when doing stories that don’t rely on historical accuracy: You can play around with these elements and exaggerate them, playing up the nostalgia factor for all its worth, bringing a smile to members of your audience who grew up in that era (and there’s nothing wrong with a little fun-spirited nostalgia every now and then).

If you’re doing a horror piece, consider starting off with ridiculously happy material before bringing the horror

What makes ‘Every 90’s Commercial Ever’ so memorable is that there’s no foreshadowing of its sudden swerve into horror territory. We’re sucked into this charming, goofy commercial of cliched 90’s kids heading out to the park to play football with a big name star (because that’s what every kid in the 90’s did) after drinking some totally awesome Capri-Sun Liquid Slam, only to be suddenly assaulted by a horrid, ‘Thing’ like abomination that proceeds to melt a kid’s face off.

Yikes!

In our own works, a sudden, unexpected swerve is guaranteed to get the audience’s attention because they’re not prepared for it. Such a swerve can work in blending different genres (horror to comedy, sci-fi to western, etc.) but going from comedy to horror may be one of the most effective because the audience will want to see how these happy characters deal with horrors that want to kill them in blood-chilling ways. Another great example of this is the opening to ‘Ghost Ship’ which, while not comedic, was still goofy with it’s family-friendly facade.

Consider having the comic relief/role model character be surprisingly effective at fighting

If there’s one thing more unexpected than seeing three children morph into an eldritch abomination, it’s seeing a professional football player yank a flamethrower out of nowhere and incinerate the beast while screaming for it to die.

In our own works, having role models/comic relief characters suddenly man up and take on monsters can be a great source of comedy (if it turns out they have no fighting skills at all and die almost instantly) and/or awesomeness. In real life, we love seeing a random stranger embracing their inner hero and saving the day when everyone is panicking, and the same runs true for fiction, especially if they’re larger than life characters like professional sports players who have never fought in their life.

Turning the comedic/role model characters into warriors also has the advantage of making them into the underdog: someone who’s phenomenally skilled at one thing, and then being thrust into a role they have no skill or talent in (You’ll also get comedy bonus points if they yank out a powerful weapon out of nowhere).

Consider throwing in product placement that makes everyone unrealistically happy, no matter the situation

How would you feel if you saw your friends be devoured/melted by an existential horror from beyond the stars? Shell-shocked, most likely, with a hearty dose of PTSD. In real life, such a catastrophe would take years of therapy to get over, but in commercial land, all you need to cheer someone up is give them some branded junk food.

Considering how short they are, commercials need to show you why using their product is a good thing, so it’s expected that eating junk snack food will make anyone in commercial land feel great. But why not try using that for comedic effect in in your own works? If you’re doing a comedy, have your characters recover from any experience, no matter how traumatic, by eating any manner of junk food: Someone lost a friend to rampaging dinosaurs? No problem! Your home planet just got blown up and everyone you know and love is dead? A few stuffed pizza pockets will take care of that! Died and ended up Hell for all eternity? Not to worry! A few microwavable tacos will have you dancing and singing your cares away!

Consider bringing the monster back at the last second, even if its been killed

Yes, it’s cliched, but bringing back a monster at the last second for one last jump scare is always effective, provided its appearance is pulled off well. Here, it comes in the form of another unexpected swerve, as the audience is expecting more jokes related to pizza pigskins, making the kid-monster’s appearance all the more unexpected.

Consider (very carefully) killing off a kid in your horror story

Aside from the sudden appearance of the Capri-sun Liquid Slam monster, what’s the one element of this commercial that sticks with you after you’ve seen it? I’d guess it’s that one of the innocent kids playing football ends up dead after having his face melted off. It’s arguably the one element that makes this video so memorable; if he had survived, or everyone had lived, the video wouldn’t have had the same impact.

While horror movies can get pretty bloody, there’s an unwritten rule that kids don’t die; breaking that rule tells your audience that you’re not fooling around, and can make for shocking moments that stick with the audience long after the story is over. Still, be cautious when killing children, especially in a comedy. It’s a very fine line between shocking and sickening.

The Takeaway

When doing a period piece, don’t be afraid to use stereotypes and cliches for comedic effect, and try using a comedic opening before starting your horror story so as to draw your audience in. When the carnage begins, considering killing off a child to show you mean business, while having your comic relief character be revealed to be a surprisingly good fighter, and then have everyone be cure of their depressions and trauma by enjoying blatant product placement before the monster unexpectedly returns.

BONUS

Just for fun, here’s some of the commercials being parodied here. I still remember seeing these, too!