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Apr. 24, 2005

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  Conan the Comedian?

Eddie Valiant: "You mean to say you could have gotten out of those handcuffs at any time?"
Roger Rabbit: "Not at any time.  Only when it was funny!"
                                                                      Who Shot Roger Rabbit?

There is a scene in the 1988 John Carpenter/Ray Nelson sci-fi flick, They Live, starring wrestler-cum-thespian "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.  Roddy acquires some funky sunglasses of questionable provenance and, when he puts them on, he finds he suddenly sees the world as it really is.  Everywhere formerly innocuous signs like stop signs on street corners or sale signs in store windows now, when seen through those shades, reveal sinister, subliminal, right wing messages: "Submit to Authority", "Conform", "Marry and Reproduce" and "Watch TV".  Even on seemingly ordinary paper currency he finds: "This is your God."  And everywhere he looks, he sees that about half the "people" are secretly hideous aliens whose real faces are only revealed by those glasses.

Roddy takes all this in for a few seconds, not saying a word, just looking slowly around while wearing the glasses.  Then, with a straight face, he says:  "I knew it had to be something like that."

I really hated that movie.  The way Cain hated Abel, that's me and that movie.  If Abel was really, really boring.  And yet, for all that I couldn't stand the other 92 minutes, that minute alone -- that joke -- makes me look back fondly on the experience and leaves me glad I saw it.  Aspiring screenwriters take note:  Never underestimate the power of humour.

The first lesson we can take from the foregoing example is that the "funniness" of a joke is closely related to the context in which it appears.  That joke from They Live probably wouldn't seem all that funny if They Live was an out-and-out comedy.  That joke would still be funny, but it wouldn't have stuck with me in quite the same way if it had to compete with a bunch of other jokes.  So that's something to bear in mind.  Even a single joke, if placed in the context of an otherwise serious story, can have them rolling in the aisles. 

There's a story about Alfred Hitchcock.  How, during a pre-screening of his masterpiece Psycho, he was amazed to hear the audience laughing uproariously at scenes which were supposed to be suspenseful.  Afterwards, a little puzzled, Hitchcock commented how he hadn't known he had made a comedy.

But, of course, Psycho wasn't a comedy.  It was, however, very, very funny.  That humour rarely arose from actual jokes per se, so much as from the sheer audacity and cleverness of the movie itself.  Watching Psycho, it is so obvious what Hitchcock is doing and he is doing it so well that audiences find themselves laughing even as they are riveted with suspense.  Then too, many lines of Joseph Stefano's screenplay (based on Robert Bloch's novel) are funny because they are self-reflective.  When Norman Bates observes that "We all go a little mad sometimes", we laugh because we know that that expression "a little mad" doesn't begin to describe the level of ding-dong-dom evinced by Norman and his mother.  And when Norman observes that he cleans the motel sheets regularly because otherwise they smell "creepy", we laugh because Norman could be the posterboy for Creeps R Us.

It is odd how often we overlook the humour in otherwise serious films.  We recognize the jokes in a comedy like Galaxy Quest or The Man With Two Brains because those are "comedies".  But what about a film like Jaws?  If asked to describe Jaws, adjectives like scary, suspenseful and horrific trip off the tongue.  And yet, if you really look at it, Jaws is filled to the brim with jokes, even in otherwise frightening scenes.

Of course, everyone knows the "You're gonna need a bigger boat" line. It makes us laugh through its total understatement of the situation.  Many of the jokes work because they spring from the characters and the situations such that they remain totally believable.  Something so simple as Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) accidentally knocking over the pencils in the shop while shopping for paint brushes is funny because it is so familar, we can see ourselves in the scene.  Then there is the scene where Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is trying to snap a photo of the shark as it cruises just off the ship's bow.  He keeps trying to convince Sheriff Brody to climb out onto the bow nearest the shark but Brody understandably balks.  He doesn't want to get any closer to the shark than he can help.  Again and again, he refuses, asking why Hooper wants him out on the bow.  Finally Hooper replies:  "For perspective."

I frankly think that there is no film which could not improve with the addition of a little humour.  What, you might ask, about Schindler's List?  Yes, even Schindler's List.  I'm not saying all types of humour work for all situations.  Self-reflective jokes would be the kiss of death to a film like Schindler's List.  But realistic jokes, humour that springs from the characters and the situations, could still work if handled with taste.  The reason jokes are so useful in a film like Jaws or Schindler's List is because they allow the audience a moment to catch their breath.  It is precisely because Schindler's List dealt with such a serious topic that it would have been well served by the occasional moment of levity.

At the risk of getting side-tracked from my main topic (whatever that is), about ten years ago one of our specialty channels -- "Space", the Canadian equivalent of the American "Sci-Fi Channel" -- started rerunning the old Batman series from the sixties.  Watching that series again, after so many years, was an interesting experience.  Of course, the Batman series was meant to be campy, a joke on the Batman comics.  (In fact, I have read that the word "camp" was first coined to describe that Batman series.)  And that is how modern critics always describe it.  But I was only a little kid when I watched it the first time.  (Even then it would have been in syndication; I'm not old enough to have seen it in its original Network run.)  And here's the thing. 

Little kids don't compartmentalize stories the way adults do.  At least, I didn't and my brother concurs.  I didn't divide TV shows up into "comedies" and "dramas", "funny" and "serious".  So I didn't understand that Batman was supposed to be a campy comedy.  That isn't to say I didn't recognize that it was funny.  I laughed at the jokes -- or at least those I could understand.  But, to an adult, once something like Batman has been classified as "comedy" or "camp", other avenues of interpretation are cut off.  It cannot simultaneously be considered a comedy and also be considered a serious adventure.  It must be one or the other.

Not so for a child.

To me, Adam West's Batman was every bit as thrilling as, say, a Tom Clancy movie.  It could be frightening one moment, then funny the next, then, sad the next.  All of which sounds ridiculous.   Batman?  you're probably asking in amazement. Guy in black tights?...cape?...about so tall?..That Batman?  But it's true.  That's how a kid's mind works.

The same goes for Get Smart, which was a comedic spoof of spy thrillers, James Bond in particular.  As a kid, I didn't understand that Get Smart was a "comedy".  As a result, many scenes intended as black humour frankly scared the crap out of me.  I remember one joke in particular.  A Bad Guy and his dumb-as-a-board Henchman had caught Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, in an underground cave with a sizzling, bubbling lava pit in the floor.  The Bad Guy holds a gun on Smart.  For some reason (I don't remember why), the Bad Guy accidentally fumbles his gun, dropping it into the lava pit.  Without hesitation, the dumb-as-a-board Henchman says, "I'll get it," and jumps down into the lava, vanishing in an instant.  Smart and the Bad Guy just stare in horror.

Seeing that scene again recently, I thought it was hilarious.  But not when I was a kid.  I think, even then, I understood it was supposed to be funny.  But I still found it terrifying.  And loved it for that very reason.

But now let's consider an example more in keeping with our principle topic here at Pulp and Dagger -- namely Pulp.  Specifically, Conan.

In one of my earlier editorials, I said I thought the main difference between Robert E. Howard's Conan stories and his other stories about big, brawny adventure types -- and the main reason Conan was more successful than the lot of them -- was because Conan liked girls.  And I stand by that.  But something else separates Conan from Howard's other bruisers, like Kull, Bran Mak Morn, El Borak and the like.  That was humour.

There is a natural tendency for scholars to divide Howard's heros into two main types.   There are the brawny, brooding heroes like Kull and Solomon Kane.  And then there are his comedic, burlesque western heros like Pike Bearsfield, Breckinridge Elkins and Buckner J. Grimes.  Because Conan is set in a fantasy milieu and features a hero who is physically akin to Kull and his ilk, they naturally place Conan in that group.  But I would argue that Conan owes far more to Howard's comedic westerns than to his brooding fatalistic fantasies.

Many Conan stories evince a wry sense of humour, dark perhaps but still funny all the same.  Howard's western comedies -- Elkins, etc. -- often depend upon the humour found in characters who aren't too bright and whose lives are so immersed in a sort of naive, casual violence that they are unaware how violent it really is.  By necessity then, such humour is at the expense of the hero.  Howard is laughing at his own creations, not exactly mocking them, but recognizing the problematic nature of their world view.  They settle all their problems with violence, but never take it personally when violence is returned in kind.  It is simply the world they know, and they accept it.

And while certainly some Conan stories are played straight, most have at least a touch of that same wry humour, poking funny at Conan and his world view.  Conan too simply accepts violence, turning to the fist or the sword to settle his problems, but rarely taking offense when violence is done to him.  Consider the opening scene from the otherwise very serious "Queen of the Black Coast".  The tale begins with Conan racing down a riverside pier, with the city's constabulary howling at his heels.  He leaps onto a moored ship and orders the captain to take him to sea.  When the captain demands an explanation, Conan tells him how he was arrested for helping a friend to flee the city and refusing to reveal where his friend had gone.  In Conan's words:

"A judge asked me where the lad had gone.  I replied that since he was my friend, I could not betray him.  Then the court waxed wrath, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had gone.  By this time, I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained my position.  The judge squalled that...I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot....So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge's skull..."

It is hard to imagine any of Howard's other brawny brooding heros making the same oddly guileless and ethically oblivious speech.  But such a darkly humorous incident would have seemed right at home in a Breckinridge Elkins yarn.

Even in an otherwise very serious tale like "The Vale of Lost Women" could Howard find himself working in a moment of levity.  A woman, lost in the jungle, held captive by a barbaric tribe called the Bamulas, pleads with Conan to rescue her -- offering her body as payment.  Conan accepts and kills the tribe's leader, (incidentally becoming their war-chief).  But, when sbe sees him approaching, blood drenched, to claim his reward, the woman flees on horseback, finding her way to a mysterious vale where she is nearly sacrificed to some dark creature from the stars, being rescued at the last moment by Conan.  Yielding at last to her fate, she offers to make good on her promise -- only to find the Cimmerian refusing her offer of sex.  He feels she isn't really the sort of tough woman he is looking for as a companion.  The woman is understandably overjoyed, hugging him in relief.  To which Conan reacts:

"Crom, girl," grunted Conan, embarrassed.  "Don't do that: you'd think I was doing you a favour by kicking you out of this country: haven't I explained that you're not the proper woman for the war-chief of the Bamulas?"

Howard isn't exactly mocking Conan, but he is certainly having a little fun at the Cimmerian's expense.  And the story is better for it.  Conan is better for it.

Well, that's all I've got to say about humour, I guess.  But before I let you go -- can you guess what was the funniest joke I think I ever saw in a movie?  The joke that came closest to leaving me passed out on the floor I was laughing so hard?  Any ideas?  Hint:  it was probably the most special effects heavy comedy ever made up to that point.  It was written by Canadian Dan Aykroyd.  Still don't know?

The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters.

Who ya gonna call?

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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