Posted by David Kalat on January 12, 2013
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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