Funny Video Games: No Such Animal?

Filed Under Funny 2.0

A recent article in Slate bemoans the lack of funny videogames. It’s rather cursory in the limits in the medium to create funny content, but still interesting as a jumping off point. As Variety’s EEG blog points out the usual suspect of lack of quality writing certainly doesn’t help. But it might just a fundamental problem of the medium.

I do think videogames can be funny, but I don’t think intentionally funny is a possibility. Recently I played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas with a friend. In the game, we climbed to the top of a mountain and began to take great delight in driving vehicles off the top, bailing out midair and activating a parachute so we could float down safely watching the car hit bottom in a satisfying explosion from a safe distance. The third time we did this, we realized that we had failed to acquire a parachute at the exact moment we bailed out of the car mid air. There was only one thing to do as we watched our avatar plunge to his death.

We laughed. Hard.

Video games, like comic books, are mostly adolescent power fantasies. You attempt fantastic feats against overwhelming obstacles, mimicking an action movie. Being competent and skilled are not qualities you put into a comedic protagonist. Comedy protagonists may struggle against overwhelming obstacles, but usually those obstacles are their own stupidity, greed or other character flaw. Not exactly qualities that makes for the visceral escapism of a video game. The best you can hope for is a comedic action character… an Axel Foley covered in Fur.

The great thing about the parachute mishap was that the game was built for me to make my own fun, also allowing me the freedom to let my human failings to create a moment of slapstick. It’s not intrinsically funny, but if you create a funny action (like a gun that shoots, oh, cows), after a while the humor of the items gets superceded by the function of the item (a gun destroys enemies, even if it shoots mooing cows). Humor is based on surprise. Shoot a cow gun 1,000 times, the surprise is gone.

However, I think satire is actually possible in videogames, which is one of the reasons I like the GTA series. Grand Theft Auto paints an exaggerated version of the world that you can dive inside… highlighting how crazy our own is. Though it aspires to realism in many details, including violence, these thing only serve to ground the series enough so that the satirical details of thug life and the early 90s come through even sharper. It’s pretty impressive experience design and makes me wonder how other games set in a satirical world would work. An adventure game in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil anyone?

Posted by Todd Jackson at 02:26 AM | Comments (0)

Saturday Night Fired or “You’re on a Charles Rocket Out of Here!”

Filed Under Sketch Comedy

As a successor (and possible replacement) of Last Comic Standing, but with an obvious Apprentice twist, NBC reportedly is working on a reality competition to become an SNL player. Lorne Michaels would obviously play the Donald Trump role.

With the enigmatic nature of Lorne Michaels firmly established in the media
along with rumors that Mike Myers’ “Dr. Evil” is just a really great impression of the SNL impresario, why NBC didn’t try this sooner become the question. On the other hand, Michaels trademark unflappability under pressure (to paraphrase a quote I’ve read: “Lorne gets more British every year.”) might radiate too much cool to be a compelling TV-style boss.

Just like LCS, this won’t necessarily find the funniest sketch player, but maybe it’ll give fans and detractors insight into making the show, if the competitions are made relevant at all to the truly destructive pace the show is assembled under. Much as I hate the idea of reality funny taking place of actual funny, I’m curious.

Posted by Todd Jackson at 06:19 AM | Comments (1)

No. 7… They just don’t make me laugh anymore.

Filed Under Late Night

This article informs us that Letterman’s Top Ten list is now nearly 20 years old. Though a list is a perennial format for ha-has, I remember my distinct distaste for it developed when I heard my high school’s “class clown” ripoff the Top 10 list during the morning announcements. (Even then a comedy snob.)

Thankfully, this little article features Executive Producer Rob Burnett’s favorite lists, which are naturally a bit more eccentric than your topical one: one featuring what if everyone was named Kevin and the other, names for Phil’s new hat store. From the latter:

  • Jimbo’s Lid City.
  • The Jim’o'shantery.
  • Wally’s Hat Shop (under new management).
  • If You Don’t Want a Hat, Then Screw You.

Good reminder that it’s not the form, it’s what you stick into it.

Posted by Todd Jackson at 09:35 PM | Comments (1)

Writers’ Rooms: Naughty by Nature?

Filed Under Comedy Writers, Sitcom

Read the Sunday NY Times article (original link) (author’s archive), which details the possible ramifications of the sexual harassment suit against three Friends writers.

Though I was cautiously favoring the writers’ side when I first blogged the lawsuit, this article tipped me there completely when it noted that plaintiff had none of the sexual references directed at her. Even if the comments were lewd and immaterial to the matter at hand, they all could be part of the creative process. In fact, one anecdote about having oral sex with a prostitute who turned out to be a man inspired a joke actually used on the show. All grist for the mill. Even if you don’t like the humor used in the room, if it gets a usable result, it’s hard to argue it wasn’t necessary to get the job done. You can’t judge beforehand which smutty remark would finally break a joke, so as long as it doesn’t target anyone working on the show, it should be OK. Though it doesn’t excuse the comments on Courtney Cox, Jennifer Aniston or writer/creator Marta Kaufman... it’s clear that most of the “disgusting” language took place in regards to doing the work. 

Lindsay Robertson finds fault with the assistant for considering a field like comedy writing if she didn’t have the stomach for the writers’ room talk. I don’t really think that’s entirely fair, after all… at the bottom of any field you are essentially trying out the job and seeing if it’s right for you. (Obviously it wasn’t for the assistant, she’s now in the Air Force… pretty much the exact opposite of comedy writing.) You wouldn’t necessarily imagine the writers from Friends would be talking about Joey being a rapist from watching an episode of the show. But you could be told that when you applied.

I think for every writer and assistant there will need to be a waver which states that the employee acknowledges they will work in an environment where uncomfortable subject matter will come up in order to create material, don’t sue. Sign it if you want to make the funny. People should still have the option of suing if they feel they have been directly sexual harassed… like the Bill O’Reilly case.

Posted by Todd Jackson at 12:44 AM | Comments (0)

I Wouldn’t Say it was a Bad Set…

Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy

Christian Finnegan supplies for starting comics a what they say/what they mean about post-bomb comments.  It’s humor, but (ha-ha) “it’s funny cuz it’s true!” My fave:

COMMENT: “The audience really sucked tonight.”
TRANSLATION: I like you as a person, so I am going to help you shift the blame for what just transpired off of your either half-written or over-written jokes and non-existent stage presence to a group of people whose only crime was to spend their hard-earned money and time trying to be entertained by you.

Posted by Todd Jackson at 12:34 AM | Comments (1)

Stewart 1, Carlson 0, The Public -243

Filed Under Late Night

I’m sure you’ve already heard about the huzzahs for Jon Stewart’s confrontational appearance on “Crossfire” (transcript, video). People were a little surprised to see a serious Stewart challenging the premise of Crossfire and particularly Tucker Carlson (whom Stewart attempts to even avoid facing, if you watch the video). But I think Stewart is sick of the idea that his show, a comedy show, is seen by many as the only oasis from spin.

Tucker Carlson attempted to make Stewart address his softball questions to John Kerry, but Stewart’s job isn’t to interrogate Presidental candidates. He’s a comedian and, sure, often a satirist, but the viewing public shouldn’t need him to do the job of the actual press. The media claims that they aim for objectivity but it’s obviously both parties have learned ways to work around that. The media has yet to adapt to these new realities. And that’s what Jon Stewart’s been screaming about for months.

As the media has been taking “The Daily Show” more seriously, it’s been missing the message of the show. It’s not that this is how people get their news. It where people gets the perspective that news used to provide. Satire only starts becoming a viable option for information when the media fails in its job. Demanding Jon Stewart ask harder questions of our elected officials shows how far our media has slipped. He’s not a newsman. He’s a comedian. Once the press stops trying to be entertainment, reporters and pundits won’t have to worry about entertainers doing their jobs better.

Posted by Todd Jackson at 06:37 PM | Comments (2)

An Auteur Theory Of Funny

Filed Under Print

Humorist and Author of the Harry Potter parody “Barry Trotter” Mike Gerber makes an interesting case for the singular voice of a humorist without interference from an editor. One statement I particularly like:

Any novel that’s the least bit pointed or ironic is christened “a satirical romp” or “a comic tour-de-force,” but when you put them up against The Daily Show, which makes you laugh more? And that’s the test of a humorous piece of writing—does it make you laugh?

The rarity of laugh-out-loud prose compared to the number of blurbs that suggest it is enough to make a reader suspect that literary critcs have a congenital funny bone deficiency. No wonder the Daily Show book “America” is number one… the literate are starved for laughs.

In some ways the question of how much latitude a creator needs to have in their work is important. I think one of the most important factors in creating something funny is having something to resist against… the more restrictions on a piece the funnier it gets. This goes for no-holds-barred humor that stretches society like National Lampoon, but also from humor that doesn’t aspire to be as caustic. A good editor of humor will help hold a writer to the comic boundaries setup at the begining of the piece. If the writer wavers, goes too far… a smart editor will recognize that and rein them in. I don’t think the editor should ever drill down so deep as to the mechanics of joke-telling (and if they did, why would they need the writer in the first place?). But they can help a writer keep honest with their premise.

Posted by Todd Jackson at 08:37 PM | Comments (4)