Trope-a-licious

Many years ago, my son became interested in stand up comedy and decided to start writing his own act.  He did a credible job of it, actually, given that he was only 8 at the time.  But one of his jokes was, “What’s the deal with airline food?”

There was no follow-up—that was it.  Setup and punchline all in one go.

And the thing is, it kind of works—as an anti-joke commentary on all the bad standups of yore who might have tried to spin something out of that setup but were doomed to be pedestrian and predictable.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eh3KeFIgr8s]

And that’s how Max picked it up as a joke—by watching other comics, and internalizing that “What’s the deal with airline food” would be funny.  What’s noteworthy about this, is that Max is a seasoned traveler.  He’s spent a lot of his life on airplanes, and has almost never been served any airline food.  Maybe on an international flight, but we don’t do that often—his most familiar experience of air travel doesn’t include food at all.

So what is his joke referencing?  Not any personal experience.  Just the fact that, in the past, other people experienced bad airline food, and that led comedians to make jokes about it, and he eventually heard some of those jokes—enough to recognize it as a trope and pick it up into his own act, but without really recognizing that the underlying reference was now wrong.

OK—“tropes.”  I figure some grammar police may wince and moan about my misuse of the term—the actual meaning of “trope” is just “figure of speech.”  But in common usage its meaning has evolved, so that it now more often describes a certain conflagration of ideas and actions that recur in popular media.  Since little to none of what contemporary English is would exist if it weren’t for the continued misuse of words by people and the resulting drift of meaning, I am going to line up behind the current usage of “trope” unashamedly.  Sue me.

Anyway, back to the discussion—Max’s “airline food” joke is an example of a trope where the familiarity of the overall idea overrides the fact that it doesn’t correctly reference reality anymore, if at all.  And that’s what’s key here–there are plenty of things movies get wrong, like action heroes outrunning explosions or the way characters in movies make dates with each other without ever actually specifying where and when they’ll meet.  But those kind of movie distortions are accepted and understood as part of the storytelling process.  What I’m after here are those distortions that by some peculiar magic are accepted in ways the real thing wouldn’t be.

For example: the countdown.

Fritz Lang gets some credit for creating the notion of a launch countdown, in this scene from Woman in the Moon.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQlwhG76P9A]

OK, well, it seems to me a little odd to imagine that something as complex as a moon launch could be orchestrated without carefully coordinating when people did things, but if you want to give Lang props for thinking up a countdown, good on you.  But, even as you do so, there’s something off about Lang’s countdown—nothing happens until the countdown finishes, and then the engines blast.  If Lang invented the countdown, he invented it wrong.

In the real world, the rocket engines start burning fuel before the rocket is launched—that is, the rocket starts blasting before the countdown hits zero.

Watch this clip of the actual Apollo 13 launch, and note that the engines start blasting at T-8!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eN31_PyaN14]

When Ron Howard made Apollo 13, he had a problem.  The movie is about a space disaster—and he wanted his movie to be faithful to the actual events.  But when it came to the launch sequence, he realized if he depicted the launch of Apollo 13 correctly, with the engines going off before the countdown ended, everyone in the audience would misperceive that as a mistake and either think the film sloppy or attribute the “misfired” engines as a sign of the coming calamity.  (“Of course the ship had a problem, its engines fired too soon!”)  So, to keep people thinking the movie was faithfully reproducing reality, he had to knowingly present the launch countdown incorrectly.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgHYGw9OL7c]

Another common trope that has no relation to reality: waking up from nightmares.

People do this in movies and TV all the time.  I used to have recurring nightmares and have family members with hereditary night terrors, so I know what real nightmares look like—and people don’t bolt up in their sleep like that.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BR_midwZ2f0]

But you know what?  If you were making a movie, and in it you had a character who experienced a nightmare, and you decided to hold firm and have that person wake up gradually, uneventfully, and show no outer signs of their bad dreams—the audience wouldn’t understand what you were doing.  It wouldn’t “read” as a nightmare at all.  So, even good writers who know better dutifully have their characters bolt up in bed.

Now, any good list has to have at least three items.  In fact, three items is the best number of things to have in a list.

But I don’t have a good third item for my list of tropes.  I tried to think up a worthy successor, and had a few ideas that didn’t really seem to hold water.  I’m really curious to see what ideas show up in the comments thread.

Before we get to comments thread, though, I need to pay off my list with one last item.  So here goes: the knockout punch.

Time and time again, the movies make it look easy to knock someone out with your fists.  Setting aside the fact that the lasting adverse consequences of being knocked out like that would be horrific, not something you just shake off, the first issue if just how easy is it to render someone unconscious with a blow to the head.  Most of us, the especially clumsy of us more than most, know that you can take a lot of head trauma without losing consciousness.  Nevertheless, we take for granted that in movie logic, a swift punch can mean lights out in any number of circumstances.

And the sheer familiarity of this trope enables this joke, from Ishiro Honda’s Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster.

[wpvideo CO1UvUYW]

I’ve always loved how Detective Shindo just looks flummoxed that he smacks this crook in the head with a wrench and instead of knocking him out, he just hurts him.  It’s a gag that wouldn’t work right at all if it wasn’t the default expectation that bludgeoning someone in the noggin would knock him out.

Max, the wunderkind who started this blog out in the first place, thinks this was a lame example but didn’t give me a better one.  Now it’s your turn.

38 Responses Trope-a-licious
Posted By davidkalat : January 12, 2013 11:10 am

Oh crap. All the YouTube links are missing from this post! I thought we had that fixed.

Posted By davidkalat : January 12, 2013 11:10 am

Oh crap. All the YouTube links are missing from this post! I thought we had that fixed.

Posted By Nick R. : January 12, 2013 1:09 pm

A couple meta-tropes: Professionally shot security cam footage. The “invisible” style of classical narrative editing has trained us to not even notice cuts or changes in set-ups, so you always get just the right angles and even close-ups so you can see exactly what’s happening and who’s doing it.
Speaking of which, “enlarge the upper right corner, enhance” and the tiny speck in the consumer photo becomes crystal clear, showing the date on the newspaper in someone’s back pocket.
My friend’s father was retired law enforcement and as kids he always told us that firing a gun sideways is impossible, so every HK, and later American, action movie got it wrong. Years later I found out this was bogus and left my friend and me wondering why he’d go and make up something like that. Kind of a trope hyper-corrective.

Posted By Nick R. : January 12, 2013 1:09 pm

A couple meta-tropes: Professionally shot security cam footage. The “invisible” style of classical narrative editing has trained us to not even notice cuts or changes in set-ups, so you always get just the right angles and even close-ups so you can see exactly what’s happening and who’s doing it.
Speaking of which, “enlarge the upper right corner, enhance” and the tiny speck in the consumer photo becomes crystal clear, showing the date on the newspaper in someone’s back pocket.
My friend’s father was retired law enforcement and as kids he always told us that firing a gun sideways is impossible, so every HK, and later American, action movie got it wrong. Years later I found out this was bogus and left my friend and me wondering why he’d go and make up something like that. Kind of a trope hyper-corrective.

Posted By Jazzmonkie : January 12, 2013 6:59 pm

I remember that scene from “Ghidorah.” It reminded me of the knifing in “Torn Curtain”

Posted By Jazzmonkie : January 12, 2013 6:59 pm

I remember that scene from “Ghidorah.” It reminded me of the knifing in “Torn Curtain”

Posted By jennifromrollamo : January 13, 2013 1:09 am

Similar to the above trope mentioned, in movies, when a door or safe is locked, or a car door, and one has to open it, out comes the gun to shoot the lock and voila! The locked item opens easily. Watching the tv show Mythbusters on day with my sons, the Mythbuster guys and their team decided to test that theory and found it can’t happen! I don’t know if it’s a trope or not, but someone in a scary movie always enters a dark room and rarely turns on the lights-pet peeve of mine.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : January 13, 2013 1:09 am

Similar to the above trope mentioned, in movies, when a door or safe is locked, or a car door, and one has to open it, out comes the gun to shoot the lock and voila! The locked item opens easily. Watching the tv show Mythbusters on day with my sons, the Mythbuster guys and their team decided to test that theory and found it can’t happen! I don’t know if it’s a trope or not, but someone in a scary movie always enters a dark room and rarely turns on the lights-pet peeve of mine.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : January 13, 2013 3:08 pm

just being off-topic here,but the Ghidrah clip reminded me of something,every Japanese movie in the 60′s you could spot the bad guys because they always wore fedoras,wrap around shades,or both

Posted By DevlinCarnate : January 13, 2013 3:08 pm

just being off-topic here,but the Ghidrah clip reminded me of something,every Japanese movie in the 60′s you could spot the bad guys because they always wore fedoras,wrap around shades,or both

Posted By swac44 : January 14, 2013 4:41 pm

I love the knock-out cliche, and one of my favourite takes on it is in the fun low-budget action flick High Risk (1981), in which James “Pee Wee Herman” Brolin leads a group of weekend warrior mercenary wannabes on a mission to storm a drug kingpin’s compound and take his cash. These guys have no clue what they’re doing, and when one of them tries to knock out a compound guard with a rifle butt to the head, the struck guard simply grabs his head and starts yelling in pain, and the doofus has to hit him again a few times before he goes down for the count.

Kind of like The Hardy Boys, they were knocked out in nearly every one of their adventures that I read as a kid (and on nearly every episode of the ’70s TV show), making me think that they must have suffered some severe brain trauma by then end of their run.

Posted By swac44 : January 14, 2013 4:41 pm

I love the knock-out cliche, and one of my favourite takes on it is in the fun low-budget action flick High Risk (1981), in which James “Pee Wee Herman” Brolin leads a group of weekend warrior mercenary wannabes on a mission to storm a drug kingpin’s compound and take his cash. These guys have no clue what they’re doing, and when one of them tries to knock out a compound guard with a rifle butt to the head, the struck guard simply grabs his head and starts yelling in pain, and the doofus has to hit him again a few times before he goes down for the count.

Kind of like The Hardy Boys, they were knocked out in nearly every one of their adventures that I read as a kid (and on nearly every episode of the ’70s TV show), making me think that they must have suffered some severe brain trauma by then end of their run.

Posted By Doug : January 14, 2013 8:26 pm

David, the guy who blew up the tropes of stand up comedy, Steve Martin, worked against the expectations of audiences which had grown too used to mother in law jokes and other standard comic fare.
He has a DVD set out now, “Steve Martin-the Television Stuff”
which showcases his early concerts plus the specials he did on NBC with a cast which included Pee Wee(James Brolin)Herman’s alto ego, Paul Reubens…pre-Pee Wee.
It’s worth looking at just as history, though one of the ‘specials’- “All Commercials” is so unfunny that you’d swear Dane Cook had a hand in it.
Here, let me tempt you some more. One of the highlights of the set has Steve acting out Marty Robbins classic “El Paso”…with chimpanzees. Worth the price right there!

Posted By Doug : January 14, 2013 8:26 pm

David, the guy who blew up the tropes of stand up comedy, Steve Martin, worked against the expectations of audiences which had grown too used to mother in law jokes and other standard comic fare.
He has a DVD set out now, “Steve Martin-the Television Stuff”
which showcases his early concerts plus the specials he did on NBC with a cast which included Pee Wee(James Brolin)Herman’s alto ego, Paul Reubens…pre-Pee Wee.
It’s worth looking at just as history, though one of the ‘specials’- “All Commercials” is so unfunny that you’d swear Dane Cook had a hand in it.
Here, let me tempt you some more. One of the highlights of the set has Steve acting out Marty Robbins classic “El Paso”…with chimpanzees. Worth the price right there!

Posted By swac44 : January 15, 2013 7:04 am

Doug, I saw some of those Steve Martin bits when they first aired, and it should be noted that Paul “Pee Wee ‘James Brolin’ Herman” Reubens plays a terrorist in one of those sketches. Now that’s casting!

Maybe it had something to do with him being cast as an imaginary Nazi in a Larraine Newman short on the SNL special, Things We Did Last Summer.

Posted By swac44 : January 15, 2013 7:04 am

Doug, I saw some of those Steve Martin bits when they first aired, and it should be noted that Paul “Pee Wee ‘James Brolin’ Herman” Reubens plays a terrorist in one of those sketches. Now that’s casting!

Maybe it had something to do with him being cast as an imaginary Nazi in a Larraine Newman short on the SNL special, Things We Did Last Summer.

Posted By Commander Adams : January 15, 2013 3:01 pm

The title should be Topoi-A-Licious, since tropes are actually figurative representations in literature in text, but thanks to a certain website, people have mixed-up the terms trope and topos (plural topoi). A pipe is just a pipe but it becomes a trope when used to denote, say, high intelligence or upper-class stature and a topos when it becomes used regularly as such.

Posted By Commander Adams : January 15, 2013 3:01 pm

The title should be Topoi-A-Licious, since tropes are actually figurative representations in literature in text, but thanks to a certain website, people have mixed-up the terms trope and topos (plural topoi). A pipe is just a pipe but it becomes a trope when used to denote, say, high intelligence or upper-class stature and a topos when it becomes used regularly as such.

Posted By Doug : January 15, 2013 4:36 pm

And Commander Adams, you must be aware that on board ship a rope is just a rope until it is utilized, and then it is referred to as a ‘line’. Which also has nothing to do with this post.
swac44-I found the Steve Martin set at Barnes and Noble for less than $20.00. It has a lot of fun in it; the first stand up special is from HBO in its early days, so he cusses a bit.
Which brings to mind another movie trope: cussing grandmas/grandpas/cute kids. Maureen Stapleton in Johnny Dangerously. Burgess Meredith in Grumpy Old Men.
Little Ruby Sue (niece of the Griswolds) in Christmas Vacation.
Also, why is it that most aliens from outer space look alike?
An Indian in the westerns rarely is seen without feathers or paint-did they actually doll up every day? Or would they lose identity for the viewer if they went around in their civvies?
Another trope which no one seems to mind: beautiful young women
who look 18 but are supposedly astrophysicists/brain surgeons/extremely accomplished ___________ fill in the blank.
Unless they started college when they were two, there’s no way that these fantasy overachievers could be so young.
A trope I could do without: vampires baring their fangs and snarling, with or without the eyes flashing red. Just get on with it.

Posted By Doug : January 15, 2013 4:36 pm

And Commander Adams, you must be aware that on board ship a rope is just a rope until it is utilized, and then it is referred to as a ‘line’. Which also has nothing to do with this post.
swac44-I found the Steve Martin set at Barnes and Noble for less than $20.00. It has a lot of fun in it; the first stand up special is from HBO in its early days, so he cusses a bit.
Which brings to mind another movie trope: cussing grandmas/grandpas/cute kids. Maureen Stapleton in Johnny Dangerously. Burgess Meredith in Grumpy Old Men.
Little Ruby Sue (niece of the Griswolds) in Christmas Vacation.
Also, why is it that most aliens from outer space look alike?
An Indian in the westerns rarely is seen without feathers or paint-did they actually doll up every day? Or would they lose identity for the viewer if they went around in their civvies?
Another trope which no one seems to mind: beautiful young women
who look 18 but are supposedly astrophysicists/brain surgeons/extremely accomplished ___________ fill in the blank.
Unless they started college when they were two, there’s no way that these fantasy overachievers could be so young.
A trope I could do without: vampires baring their fangs and snarling, with or without the eyes flashing red. Just get on with it.

Posted By swac44 : January 15, 2013 5:43 pm

Thanks Doug! I have the Steve Martin set already, found it at Costco for around the same price, but haven’t had a chance to really delve into it. One thing it leaves out is a rare 1974 special called Steve Martin’s The Funnier Side of Eastern Canada, which I used to see locally on VHS in the earliest days of the format, and was probably left off this collection due to rights issues.

But you can still see it through the magic of YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afh3sjdlCEI

Mind you, as a Nova Scotian, living on the East Coast of Canada, I’ve always found it weird that Ontario and Quebec get referred to as “Eastern Canada” instead of the more correct “Central Canada”. Or maybe I just live in Eastern-er Canada.

Posted By swac44 : January 15, 2013 5:43 pm

Thanks Doug! I have the Steve Martin set already, found it at Costco for around the same price, but haven’t had a chance to really delve into it. One thing it leaves out is a rare 1974 special called Steve Martin’s The Funnier Side of Eastern Canada, which I used to see locally on VHS in the earliest days of the format, and was probably left off this collection due to rights issues.

But you can still see it through the magic of YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afh3sjdlCEI

Mind you, as a Nova Scotian, living on the East Coast of Canada, I’ve always found it weird that Ontario and Quebec get referred to as “Eastern Canada” instead of the more correct “Central Canada”. Or maybe I just live in Eastern-er Canada.

Posted By Doug : January 15, 2013 10:13 pm

Thank you, swac44-even if the humor wasn’t yet perfected, I always love hearing his banjo playing.
I spent four months in Montreal back in 1977-78 courtesy of the U.S.Coast Guard. My ship had hit a rock and somehow ended up in Canada for drydock. I reported aboard ship via helicopter as it was headed to Montreal. What a beautiful city!
Seeing Steve Martin exploring the Expo in these clips put me in mind of the great Farley Mowatt book, “The Boat That Wouldn’t Float” detailing his journey from Nova Scotia to the Exposition in a newly purchased boat that lived up to the book’s title. A great read.
It lacks the gentle grace of “The Trailer Park Boys”, though it is fun. Mowatt’s second best book after “The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be.”

Posted By Doug : January 15, 2013 10:13 pm

Thank you, swac44-even if the humor wasn’t yet perfected, I always love hearing his banjo playing.
I spent four months in Montreal back in 1977-78 courtesy of the U.S.Coast Guard. My ship had hit a rock and somehow ended up in Canada for drydock. I reported aboard ship via helicopter as it was headed to Montreal. What a beautiful city!
Seeing Steve Martin exploring the Expo in these clips put me in mind of the great Farley Mowatt book, “The Boat That Wouldn’t Float” detailing his journey from Nova Scotia to the Exposition in a newly purchased boat that lived up to the book’s title. A great read.
It lacks the gentle grace of “The Trailer Park Boys”, though it is fun. Mowatt’s second best book after “The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be.”

Posted By swac44 : January 16, 2013 9:29 am

Glad you liked Montreal! It’s one of my favourite cities, and the birthplace of my father, and I try to get up there at least once a year. It’s not a bad movie city either, highlighted in films like The Luck of Ginger Coffey with Robert Shaw, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz with Richard Dreyfus, and the underrated thriller The Score with Robert DeNiro. And I wish more of Mowatt’s work would make it to the big screen, I love the adaptation of Never Cry Wolf.

And that’s the first time I’ve heard the words “gentle grace” applied to Trailer Park Boys, but I think I see where you’re coming from.

Posted By swac44 : January 16, 2013 9:29 am

Glad you liked Montreal! It’s one of my favourite cities, and the birthplace of my father, and I try to get up there at least once a year. It’s not a bad movie city either, highlighted in films like The Luck of Ginger Coffey with Robert Shaw, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz with Richard Dreyfus, and the underrated thriller The Score with Robert DeNiro. And I wish more of Mowatt’s work would make it to the big screen, I love the adaptation of Never Cry Wolf.

And that’s the first time I’ve heard the words “gentle grace” applied to Trailer Park Boys, but I think I see where you’re coming from.

Posted By Doug : January 16, 2013 3:06 pm

I first caught “The Trailer Park Boys” on BBC America, and I was curious as to what was being said behind all those many ‘bleeps’.
Sure, it’s all played for laughs, and all, but I KNOW people like Julian and Ricky who constantly screw up their lives. The Boys may be lovable losers, but they keep trying to make their lives better. Sadly, their real-life counterparts don’t have great writers.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Robb Wells breakout into more mainstream roles as a character actor.
I must admit that I do not know anyone like Bubbles.

Posted By Doug : January 16, 2013 3:06 pm

I first caught “The Trailer Park Boys” on BBC America, and I was curious as to what was being said behind all those many ‘bleeps’.
Sure, it’s all played for laughs, and all, but I KNOW people like Julian and Ricky who constantly screw up their lives. The Boys may be lovable losers, but they keep trying to make their lives better. Sadly, their real-life counterparts don’t have great writers.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Robb Wells breakout into more mainstream roles as a character actor.
I must admit that I do not know anyone like Bubbles.

Posted By DBenson : January 16, 2013 5:23 pm

In “Easy Street”, Chaplin repeatedly clubs hulking Eric Campbell to no effect. Campbell, finally deigning to notice, calmly offers various angles of his head for Chaplin to try again. That could be taken as a riff on the already-standard gag of knocking people out.

Posted By DBenson : January 16, 2013 5:23 pm

In “Easy Street”, Chaplin repeatedly clubs hulking Eric Campbell to no effect. Campbell, finally deigning to notice, calmly offers various angles of his head for Chaplin to try again. That could be taken as a riff on the already-standard gag of knocking people out.

Posted By swac44 : January 16, 2013 5:32 pm

We’re already quite a bit off-topic here, Doug, but I should note that Bubbles is actually a composite of a few characters that actor Mike Smith knew while growing up in small-town Nova Scotia (more specifically, Pictou County, which has a unique character all its own). It just so happens the glasses were discovered by a friend of mine, who was also the show’s wardrobe person, and the voice comes from a denizen of a local bar in the area that I’ve heard really exists from a few other Pictou Countians. As for Robb, he recently had a starring role on his own in the Newfoundland wrestling comedy Beat Down, which was written by a friend of mine as well, and is worth seeking out.

Posted By swac44 : January 16, 2013 5:32 pm

We’re already quite a bit off-topic here, Doug, but I should note that Bubbles is actually a composite of a few characters that actor Mike Smith knew while growing up in small-town Nova Scotia (more specifically, Pictou County, which has a unique character all its own). It just so happens the glasses were discovered by a friend of mine, who was also the show’s wardrobe person, and the voice comes from a denizen of a local bar in the area that I’ve heard really exists from a few other Pictou Countians. As for Robb, he recently had a starring role on his own in the Newfoundland wrestling comedy Beat Down, which was written by a friend of mine as well, and is worth seeking out.

Posted By swac44 : January 16, 2013 5:39 pm

DB, I think Woody Allen was paying homage to that Easy Street gag in a similar scene in Love and Death. I can’t remember exactly who was being knocked out, possibly Napoleon’s guard, but I think it was done undercranked style, with Diane Keaton in it as well.

Posted By swac44 : January 16, 2013 5:39 pm

DB, I think Woody Allen was paying homage to that Easy Street gag in a similar scene in Love and Death. I can’t remember exactly who was being knocked out, possibly Napoleon’s guard, but I think it was done undercranked style, with Diane Keaton in it as well.

Posted By DBenson : January 16, 2013 9:21 pm

swac44: I don’t know if it was a specific homage as a combination of slapstick and pretending everything’s cool when it’s clearly not.

If memory serves, the plan was for Allen to club a man Keaton was distracting. He notices the impending attack so Allen, trying to cover, playfully clubs Keaton who likewise pretends this is all in good fun. Allen clubs the smiling Keaton again, and lets the intended victim try it. As the victim notices that Keaton is sinking to the floor, Allen finally smacks him.

Posted By DBenson : January 16, 2013 9:21 pm

swac44: I don’t know if it was a specific homage as a combination of slapstick and pretending everything’s cool when it’s clearly not.

If memory serves, the plan was for Allen to club a man Keaton was distracting. He notices the impending attack so Allen, trying to cover, playfully clubs Keaton who likewise pretends this is all in good fun. Allen clubs the smiling Keaton again, and lets the intended victim try it. As the victim notices that Keaton is sinking to the floor, Allen finally smacks him.

Posted By swac44 : January 17, 2013 10:22 am

Yes, homage was probably the wrong word to use, I agree it was more of a broad slapstick thing, but you remembered the scene better than I did.

Posted By swac44 : January 17, 2013 10:22 am

Yes, homage was probably the wrong word to use, I agree it was more of a broad slapstick thing, but you remembered the scene better than I did.

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