Sunday, May 26, 2013

Humor Writing: Parodies

So parody... what is it? To steal from Linda Hutcheon (no clue who she is, but seems to talk sense), "parody … is imitation, not always at the expense of the parodied text."

I like that definition better than, "Parody is making a new wine that tastes like the old but has a slightly lethal effect." --which is partly true, a parody should have the flavor of its predecessor, yet doesn't necessarily have to be in (lethal) mockery. Some parodies can be homages, which is what I'm going to focus on, and save the satire for another day.    

One excellent example that everyone should be watching, and if you aren't you are completely The Venture Bros. Why is this show so great? Because it goes above and beyond what parodies normally do, which is just make fun of their source material. The Venture Bros. started as a parody of Johnny Quest, but has evolved into its own little universe with complex characters and deep back stories.
(top) The Venture Bros. (bottom) Johnny Quest
missing out, is the

Dr. Thadeus "Rusty" Venture, a failed super-scientist who has major daddy issues, blaming his father for just about everything wrong in his life and taking little credit for his own actions, some of which are rather slimy. Yet, although unlikable, you can't fully blame him because he was forced into this life, following in his father's footsteps, when clearly--as you find out later on in the series--he had passions in other things, such as music and theater.

The boys (based off the Hardy Boys) Hank and Dean Venture, are spared a similar fate due to their father's ineptitude, allowing them to strike out their own paths. They are actually two of the very few characters who have any hope on the show, seeing as they're young and haven't screwed up their lives yet.

Yes, the show is mainly about failures and fuck-ups. It's not as depressing as it sounds, because it's what makes these characters human. Dr. Venture's ache-nemesis, The Monarch, sucks at the whole arching thing, and is basically a giant man-child who needs his wife and faithful Henchman 21 to clean up after him. But he has passion--the kind that inspires others to do his stupid bidding.

The show even goes so far as to have a empathetic pedophile as a character, Sargent Hatred. I know a lot of people dislike this character just because of the fact that he's a pedophile, but the thing is, Hatred doesn't act on his behavior, and in one episode, locks himself away so he can't do any harm.

Honestly, I think this is something a lot of writers are afraid to do: allow their characters to make mistakes. Because mistakes are bad, and we don't want our precious characters to do anything bad. Thus we wind up with a bunch of passionless, inhuman characters.

The reason I site a TV show as an example of parody, is because most writers don't read. A sad and astounding truth. Also, because there are not a lot of good examples of parodies in the writing world. Most of them just poke fun at the source material without attempting to develop the characters into something more, making them very forgettable.

Fortunately, author Milo James Fowler still understands what makes a good parody. His Coyote Cal series is a parody of those old spaghetti westerns, that takes the West into weird and unusual directions. Coyote Cal is the over-the-top good guy, accompanied by his grumbly goofy side-kick Big Yap. They get into mishaps while breaking the fourth wall.  But Coyote Cal has a past, as we learn in Harbinger of Arroyo Seco, he wasn't always the hero with the pearly-white smile, and could've easily been a villain himself.  

That's the important thing I want to get across: do something more than just a parody.

Create characters, create a story, just with the flavoring of the text (or show) you're spoofing.

If you haven't seen a spaghetti western, you may not get all the jokes, but you'll still enjoy Milo's Coyote Cal. Likewise, you don't have to watch an episode of Johnny Quest to "get" The Venture Bros. That's the brilliance of these parodies, and that's why they'll live on for years, maybe even decades, to come. 

Once again, longevity: make your laughs last.

So that ends parodies. I know this post took forever, hopefully my next one doesn't. Although I might detour and do a review. We'll see!

*edit* I realize I should probably put some The Venture Bros. clips, since I didn't talk about in what way they parody, and that's mainly because they parody so many things. So here's a taste of their spoofings.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Onward into the Realm of Humor Writing

If you caught my post the other day, I started commenting about Five Practical Tips on Writing Humor, specifically the final point about having to have a working story when writing humor.

The next tip I wanted to look at is: "Comparison Joke is Your Best Friend"

While a girl's best friend are diamonds, and man's best friend is his dog, it seems a humor writer's ally is making funny comparisons. The thing is, although it is indeed easy to make up comparisons, they're more or less quick laughs, and if over used, get really old. I hardly see more than one or two comparisons in a single short story, and these comparisons are often used in descriptions. Think of it as a metaphor.

But I take greater issue with the example that Alex had chosen, a la:

Game of Thrones is a lot like Twitter: There are 140 characters and terrible things are constantly happening. 

This is a bad example, a very bad example. Not because it's not funny, but because it's a flawed joke for a couple of reasons.

1) It sounds like it came from a stand-up comedic act. It's the sort of one-liner you'd expect a comedian to say, and although not inherently bad, doesn't work so well with narrative writing. Stand-up comedy is performance; you stand on stage, throw out jokes, wait for the audience's laughter--and if no laughter, use a quick recovery joke and move on.

A writer isn't so lucky; they can't recover from writing a bad joke. Everything has to be a preemptive and carefully thought out, paced properly, knowing when a joke is appropriate and when it's not. It's tough and it doesn't always pan out. However, it should all flow together. A joke like the above sticks out; it's there to make a funny and be gone, doesn't build a picture or acquaint us with the narrator's voice. Yeah, I know, it's an example to show us what a comparison joke is; but if you're going to use an example, should at least do it right. Like here's one I came up with:
Bertha's menopause was so infamous, that people started calling it 'Grizzly'. For after dealing with Bertha, they felt like they'd been mauled by a grizzly bear.   
My example compares menopause with a grizzly bear attack. Whether you find it funny or not, you at least get an idea of how terrible Bertha's menopause is. Something like this could easily be slipped into a story, perhaps The Adventures of Bertha's Grizzly Menopause.   

2) Limited-appeal. If you're familiar with Game of Thrones and Twitter, the joke is spot on and humorous. But if you aren't familiar... it's a "Huh?" moment. This is why I think Family Guy and all its spin-offs are complete failures when it comes to humor, because most of the jokes are pop culture references, of some era or another, that fly right over your head. If you get it, cool. If you don't, you're wondering why the hell you're watching it--or in our case, reading the story. You don't want that.

Thus, I point to my example once again. I purposely did not use any pop culture references, instead, opted for more widely known things like menopause and grizzly bears. You'd have to be seriously ignorant to not know either of those things.

3) It has a time-stamp. The minute you use pop culture references or anything widely popular at the moment, you immediately put an expiration date on the joke. There's a good chance Twitter may not be around ten years from now; as with all these social media sites, they're only used until something better comes along. Remember MySpace? And who's to say the same won't happen to Facebook or Twitter? Don't hing your bets that those things will last.

Instead, aim for laughs with some longevity. Take Shakespeare for example, even after 400 years, his comedies are still found to be funny. The Taming of the Shrew is practically the basis for most comedies consisting of a squabbling married couple.

I know I may be bashing pop culture jokes, but they really are weak jokes, and I would like to encourage people to think a little harder when it comes to comedy. A joke about Twitter and a popular fantasy series can't be re-used or recycled decades later. And when they're gone, no one is going to know what the hell your joke was about, making it a dud.

There is of course the exception of pop icons, such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, The Rolling Stones, etc. But that's because we're constantly re-using these icons' images in every generation, so they never die out. You'd have to be living in a cave not to have heard about them! But because they're so popular, you risk making a comparison joke that has already been done before, or is flat out of fashion (I'm pretty sure everyone is tired of sparkly vampire jokes by now).

Once again, I prefer relying on creativity rather than whatever is currently popular.

So that wraps up this discussion. That was the last nit-pick I had with Alex's tips (Although I'm sure I could come up with a few more reasons... Nah.) Next, we'll look at parodies and one of my favorite comedy shows of all-time The Venture Bros. (New season starting in June!)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Applying Practicality to Practical Tips on Writing Humor

Well, perhaps not practicality, but at least a deeper look at Alex Shvartsman's Five Practical Tips on Writing Humor--which is really four tips and one statement. Humor is subjective? No shit! That goes for any form of media, really. For example, some people love Katy Perry, other people think she's rubbish (which she is).

I'm not just going to pick fun at a couple of the points, because some of them are good and useful... while some not-so-much. What qualifies me to take on SFWA writer's tips, when my own publication creds are sub-par? Nothing really. But, I do have this thing called 'reason', which is a powerful thing that even a n00b writer like me can use to deconstruct tips--and perhaps even offer a few of my own. Also, I've been watching way too many critique shows on the YooTubes... Err, let's just jump right in.

So although tip five is a statement, there is an actually point: "Make sure that your story works regardless of whether the reader finds it funny or not."

Yes and no.

There are stories where humor is integral to the story, as in, if you were to remove the humor the whole story would fall flat. At first, we would say that story fails because it uses humor as a crutch... Yet, the beloved Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy does exactly that. If you've never noticed before, HGttG doesn't have much of a plot except this vague search for the planet Magrathea, which doesn't come into effect until the latter part of the book. Even the main character Arthur Dent isn't exactly engaging, as he's an Average Joe who provides a foil for the weirder characters like Zaphod Beeblebrox, while whining about tea. So how does the book keep itself afloat and justify its novel-length? By humor of course! Dear Odin, look how much mockery is in the book; from bureaucracy to poetry to religion and philosophy, and much, much more.

Compare this to the Disney movie of Hitchhiker (which say whatever you want, was actually kind of good), where the plot was far more driving, but also, it contained the story of Arthur trying to win Trinity's heart. We can take the silly moments and jokes away from the movie, and although it might not be as charming, it would still hold up. If you did that with the book... well, Douglas Adams would've had a lot less to write about.    
Just think: A humorless Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy... Scary thought, huh?

Same thing with Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The first chunk of the movie is just King Arthur (what is with the name Arthur?) romping around, and showing how horrible and miserable the middle ages were. We don't even care about the cast of characters, as a good many of them die--but oh, do they die in the most hilarious of ways.

Both the novel HGttG and Monty Python and the Holy Grail manage to work without having much of a plot or engaging characters, as testament to their popularity. Which says something about how powerful humor can be.

But of course, you'll find people who don't care for either of the two, simply because the humor doesn't work for them, and the story (or lack thereof) isn't compelling on its own. I know, I know. It's unfathomable to think that someone would consider HGttG boring, but it's true. Yet, if your humor manages to strike a funny cord in enough people, who cares what the others think?

Speaking of subjectivity, I'm going share one of my all-time favorite rejections from FFO; not only because it's extensive, but it shows quite a few different opinions of the same story--which as you can guess, was humorous. No worries though, the story was picked up by On Spec, proving that they have excellent taste. :)

~A couple good moments of humor, like the bandit whose bandana got in the way of talking. However, what on earth does this guy do with his flesh-eating turnips? How does he make money? I mean, I'd expect people at market would give that particular wagon a wide berth.

~Didn't believe it. Humor overdone and heavy handed.

~You're not supposed to like the MC; he's the petulant unreliable narrator, and I don't think the all the turnips are flesh eating (except when the opportunity comes up) - just the queen. Omnivorous at most. The purple barn, the pouty turnips, it's so quirky and off the wall, you have to smile. So much of what we see blends together in one grand grey morass, but you have to admit this one stand outs.

~I liked this one. I liked how it poked fun at the hero legend. The first line was pretty darned good too. In some ways it reminded me of the heavy-handedness of The Colour of Magic.

Cute and original. And for once, this round, the execution worked for me.

~Cute in places, but feels kind of half-hearted. Bards and minstrels clash with the modern, slangy language. Overdone.

~Seemed like a tall tale, which is a tough sale for me. Didn't grab me. I did like the idea of mocking the hero legend, but the tale wasn't that interesting to me.

~I imagined the narrator to be a guy spinning tales at the local tavern, with all the tall tales and random inconsistencies it entails.

~I was totally set up for the old "con the bad guys into digging up my turnip field" gag. I was glad that isn't where it went, but I wasn't satisfied with where it did go.

I'm going to stop here, but I'll come back in a day or two to nail at another tip. I also wouldn't mind going over a few types of humor (i.e. satire/sarcasm, black comedy, absurdism), since humor can take many routes. If you think you fail at writing humor, it may just be that you haven't found the right type for you.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Movie Review: Iron Man 3

So the Iron Man saga comes to close with the latest film... and will probably be rebooted at some point down the road, because Hollywood ain't got any original ideas. But does this finale leave the viewer wanting more?

Quick setup: The movie flashes back to 1999, opening with the song Blue (Da Ba Dee), because nothing says 1999 like bad europop music. This flashback serves to show that Tony Stark  (Robert Downey Jr.) hasn't changed much in 13 years, still the lovable jackass that he is, but also he managed to piss off a few people.

Back to present day, we discover Tony is suffering from anxiety--and this is where you need to be familiar with The Avengers movie, otherwise you'll wonder what's going on. Meanwhile, there are bombings going on, committed by the Mandarin--updated to be more of a middle eastern terrorist. When Tony's friend and former bodyguard gets caught in the blast of one of these bombs and falls into a coma, Tony publicly challenges the Mandarin by sharing his home address. And so, let the action commence!

Despite the trailers depicting a darker story (which I think they were trying to pull a "Dark Knight" feel), the movie isn't all that dark. Sure, there are dark moments, but there are plenty of laughs too.  

As for the actual story, it's more about Tony getting over his anxiety and letting go of his obsession. The Iron Man suit becomes more of a crutch, a place where he can hide rather than face his "inner demons". We've got bad guys as well: semi-immortal human furnaces that can regrow limbs and recover easily from damage--a lot like T-1000 from Terminator 2.These super-human soldiers are employed by the Mandarin, and naturally, they cause much chaos.

There's also a really big twist, which I think is the highlight of the movie. So the sooner you see this movie, the less likely it is for someone to spoil it for you.

The pacing is rather sporadic, and almost too jarring. One minute we're in California, next we're in Tennessee (where people are so out of touch with the media, that no one has a clue what Tony Stark looks like), then onto Air Force One.

The ending is BIG. You've got the army of super-human soldiers facing off with an army of Iron Man suits, with the President and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) lives hanging in the balance.

This is where I have a rather large complaint, because the movie decides to turn Pepper Potts into super Pepper Potts, because the bad guy thought it'd be a good idea to infuse her with their magical scientific formula. And not only is she super, but she can fight! WTF? As much as I enjoy super-badass women, it has to make sense. Pepper is written to be a damsel in distress, not a fighter--so where the hell did she learn to kick ass? It's so out of character, it's ridiculous; which doesn't help the ending since it's already overblown.  

It's probably not the best of the three Iron Man films, but it's still decent and fun. As always, Robert Downey Jr. totally owns the role of Tony Stark. Ben Kingsley is just awesome in this and quite frankly, a little underused. And of course, there's a cookie for those who are willing to sit through the credits.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

April W1S1 Update

For most, Spring is in full swing; but here in the Arizona desert, it's practically Summer. I have my fan going and window open, and it's still hot.

But enough complaining... How did this month turn out?

Stories written: 1 (I thought I had also written a flash, but turns out I had finished it last month, but didn't get around to revising it till this month.)
Stories submitted: 18
Stories accepted: 3
Stories rejected: 22

Much to my surprise, this was an excellent month. So I guess the heat and numerous rejections can be overlooked. This also beats my December 2011 record of having the most acceptances in a single month!

I had "Turnip Farmers are Heroes Too" accepted by On Spec, "By the Stars You Will Know Her" accepted by Plasma Frequency, and "Stone Within" which I co-authored with my very good friend Rez, accepted by Nightfall Magazine

Last time I forgot to share a music video, but I've recently found one on the Youtubes that's absolutely enchanting, while also haunting. It's a fan made video of Bat for Lashes cover of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire." The imagery of late French actress Francoise Dorleac, in her playful demure, to a heavy tune has a lingering effect. Enjoy!