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.

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 ‘Halloween 60’

With Michael Myers’ return to the big screen only three days away, it seemed fitting to take a look at… well, a ‘Halloween’ film that hasn’t happened yet, and probably never will (though with Hollywood’s history with sequels, it’s not out of the question).

‘Halloween 60’, a parody trailer by Fuzz on the Lens, imagines an 81 year old Michael Myers breaking out of prison – again – in 2038 and heading out to kill Laurie. Although it’s a parody trailer, there’s still quite a few goodies and tidbits for writers to learn from, so let’s take a look at at what that lovable goofball Myers is up to twenty years from now.

Consider showing what happens when homicidal killers grow old

If there’s one thing we rarely see in horror films, it’s homicidal senior citizens. Plotting, scheming, elderly masterminds? Yes. Evil dictators and politicians? Totally believable. Axe/knife/chainsaw wielding murderers? Not so much. Considering how our bodies inevitably decay with old age, the idea of an 80 year old going after teenagers is laughable, since it’s easy to imagine those teenagers just kicking away his walking stick and having him break a hip when hitting the ground.

However, there are always exceptions to every rule: For every crippled old man in a wheelchair, we have a Jack LaLanne, Sylvester Stallone, or any number of older people who don’t let age stop them from being fit, and in an era where more and more people than ever work to keep themselves healthy in old age, the idea of an axe murder collecting social security checks isn’t as far-fetched as it used to be. Choosing an older person as a killer offers some unique traits you can’t get with a 20 or 30 year old: an older killer will be more entrenched in their evil ways (and less likely to be redeemed),  be deeply set in the local community to avoid drawing suspicion to themselves, and even have numerous sidekicks who can help him/her carry out their vile work. Even having them be physically weaker can make battles more interesting, as they’ll have to be more clever than the protagonists to compensate for reduced strength, relying on wits and fooling their prey rather than endless stamina.

Consider showing what happens when homicidal killers grow old… and play it for laughs

With all that said, it’s still hilarious to see an 80 year old heading out to kill youngsters. Despite his formidable determination, poor Michael:

*Uses a cane to hobble around

*Drops his dentures to frighten people

*Takes viagra

*Gets crippling back pain after being bumped by children

*Can’t keep a grip on his knife

*Uses oxygen

*Has a heart attack and uses LifeAlert to call for help.

Even Laurie – determined to end Michael once and for all – has to get around with a walker. In short, the trailer relishes in the fish-out-of-water comedy trope of taking near-mythical characters and having them suddenly deal with everyday problems… in this case, old age. Just imagine Darth Vader having to fight Jedi Knights as a 90 year old in a wheelchair, or Leatherface trying to chase down and carve up teenagers when he doesn’t even have the strength to lift a chainsaw over his head, yet still trying with all their might to make it happen. This can also have the bonus of making them laughably ineffectual villains, leaving us feel sorry for them for them, even as we laugh.

The Takeaway

Consider having your evil mass-murder be a senior citizen instead of a fit, young person; while a bit far-fetched, it can offer the chance to write a more interesting character who has more interesting ways of killing people beyond hacking and slashing, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to poke fun at the inherently silly concept of an old and weak killer trying his best to kill people.