Monday, September 05, 2005

The Gamers

We watched a hysterical movie last night called The Gamers. It was a 45-minute more-or-less amateur film produced by a bunch of college role-players. My wife and I, who are both gamers, were howling through the whole film (up until the ending, which was … odd). My in-laws were just scratching their heads wondering what was so funny. The entire movie was, I suppose, “in-jokes” writ large, but because we are such avid gamers, it really didn’t seem that way. The situations are ones we have seen over and over. In fact, we were able to assign each of the characters in the movie to people in our actual gaming group! They nailed it pretty well.

But this goes to show, I think, that humor is not universal. My in-laws, who have never even seen a role-playing game, much played one, couldn’t figure out why it was funny, nor could we really explain it to them. Here’s an actual example: “Look! Mark the Red is just standing there!” (Wife and I roll on floor with tears in ours eyes.)

It was hysterical. Really.

Okay, so you need a little background. There was a huge “epic fantasy battle” going on. All the characters were fighting for their lives. But one of the players hadn’t shown up for this gaming session. So, while the player wasn’t there, his character was, but couldn’t take part in the action, as there was no one there to control him. The bad guys would run up to Mark the Red (his character) snarling, stand there confused and waving their hands in front of his eyes, then shrug and move on to fight someone else. What’s so funny is that all of us who are gamers have had to deal with the problem of not having the entire group present for every session. Having it dramatized what that problem actually looks like in the “game world” was just too funny. Again, if you don’t have the background of being a long-time gamer, even my explanation won’t make sense.

Apparently, conventional wisdom says that if you analyze humor it ceases to be funny. Ridiculous. There’s no better way to learn to write humor than to analyze something you find funny in order to figure out why you think it’s funny. In the case of Mark the Red, it was a very visual joke, as were a lot of the jokes in the film. If these things were decribed verbally, they wouldn’t have been as funny. We have to keep in mind, though, that what some people will find funny, others won’t. A classic example is the “ultimate dirty joke,” The Aristocrats. Lots of famous comedians have taken a turn at it, at one time or another. For those who haven’t heard of it, the gist is that there is a family who tries to convince a talent agent to take on their act. The agent says, “No, I don’t do family acts, they’re too cute.” They convince the agent to watch them perform once. The comedian then ad-libs the most disgusting series of events he can possibly think of, as rapidly as possible. (Incest, murder, and other taboos are common. Actually, they’re mandatory…) At the end, the family says, “Ta da!” The agent, somewhat at a loss for words say, “Ummm, wow, that’s quite an act. What do you call it?” The family responds, “The Aristocrats!”


I’ve never thought this was funny, but lots and lots of people do. Practically every comedian since vaudeville has tried his hand at it. Even the South Park characters give it a shot. I dunno. The Stephanie Plum books my wife is reading are another example. She laughs so hard she shakes the bed at night – she’s actually woken me up. But when she reads the passage that was so funny, I often don’t get it. I’ve heard other people talk about how funny the books are – but in thinking about it, all of them have been women. Still, I think you may just need more of the context than I've been getting from the few paragraphs she's read to me.

So in addition to the classic humor elements of timing, punchline, visual, etc., there also has to be a shared cultural background. Humor is a uniquely cultural experience. In fact, humor is usually so specific that it appeals to a specific sub-culture (such as gamers, in the case of this movie). Good comedians know that they have to choose their jokes so that the humorous elements are shared by as large an audience as possible. He knows he won’t be able to hit everyone’s funny bone, so part of the art of humor is to decide how broad an audience to appeal to without making the joke watered down and weak.

I’ll leave you with a joke:

Three construction workers were sitting on a steel beam eating their lunch high above New York City. The first, an Italian, opens his lunch box and moans, “Spaghetti again! Mama mia! I’ve had spaghetti every day for thirty years! I can’t take it any more!” He stands up and makes a swan dive off the girder. Splat!

Somewhat in shock, the next man, a Mexican, opens his lunch and cries, “Ai yi yi! Tacos again! I can’t take it any more!” He, too, dives off the beam and smacks the pavement below.

The third guy, a blonde, opens his lunch and says, “A baloney sandwich again! I can’t take it any more!” He assumes the classic cannonball position and jumps off the beam to his death.

At the funeral, the wives of the three men are in tears. The Italian’s wife says, “If only I’d known he hated spaghetti so much, I wouldn’t have fixed it for him every day!”

“I know, I know,” the Mexican’s wife says. “If only I’d known, I’d have never made him tacos every day!”

The two women looked over at the blonde’s wife.

“Don’t look at me,” she said. “He makes his own lunch.”

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