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John Scalzi – Science Fiction Is Easy, Comedy Is Hard

I took my daughter to go see Wall-E last weekend, and as just about every critic in the world has noted, it’s an absolutely delightful film. There’s apparently already a whisper campaign to get it nominated for Best Picture, which if it were to succeed, would make Wall-E both one of the very few animated films and one of the very few science fiction films to get such a nod. Which would make it a pretty rare film, indeed.

But in one sense it’s already a very rare film: It’s one of the few science fiction films that is primarily a comedy. Furthermore, it’s one of the few science fiction films that’s primarily a comedy that is actually funny. Science fiction, taken as a whole, is not a notably funny film genre (at least, not intentionally). I’ve spent a little bit of time trying to figure out why.

Now before anyone starts listing them off in the comments, yes, there are some funny science fiction films, and here are some of them: Back to the Future , Men in Black , Spaceballs , Sleeper , Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy , Galaxy Quest . What do these films have in common? First, they break into two wide and overlapping categories: Time travel (Back to the Future, Sleeper) and farce (Spaceballs, Hitchhikers’ Guide).

In both those cases, the comedy happens because the film knows it’s
being watched — that is, the humor comes out of the fact that the
folks who made the film are relying on the audience to get all the
in-jokes. Spaceballs only works if you’ve soaked yourself in Star Wars; Galaxy Quest likewise needs an at least passing acquaintance with Star Trek. In both cases, it was a safe bet for the filmmakers — who doesn’t know about Star Wars and Star Trek?
— although on the off-chance you spent the last 40 years in a cave, if
you were to see either film, you’d be wondering what was so funny. Even Men in Black trades off a cultural construct (dude, the government’s been hiding aliens! For years, man!)

Likewise, time travel is all about the audience seeing the humor in
someone from one time period dealing with another, whether it’s someone
from the past defrosted in the future (Sleeper) or someone from the future meeting the squares from the past (Back to the Future).
It’s fun to watch Marty McFly struggle with a pop bottle, or a 1973
Woody Allen living in a world with Orgasmatrons, but it’s dependent on
the audience knowing from their own experience why these things are

In short, in science fiction film, humor basically happens with a
wink and a nod to the audience. Which is fine — I like all of these
films. But are there science fiction comedies that don’t get their
laughs this way? And if there are, are they actually any good? My
problem is that when I think of science fiction comedies that get their
laughs specifically out of the characters and science fictional
elements of the story, I can’t think of many that are actually good.
Examples in this wan category include the terrifying Eddie Murphy
science fictional trilogy of the “Nutty Professor” films and The Adventures of Pluto Nash (I shudder to think about the upcoming Meet Dave), the played-for-laughs remake of The Stepford Wives , the steampunk misadventure known as Wild Wild West , and the occasional mawkish robot movie ( Short Circuit , Bicentennial Man ). There are a few cult movies one can toss in here for discussion — Buckaroo Banzai ,
for example, which I personally love, but which many people loathe with
a passion — but when it comes down to it, when a science fiction
comedy doesn’t lean on farce or an audience indulgence of cultural
in-jokes, it tends to fall down.

Which is what makes Wall-E even more impressive as a
science fiction comedy. Certainly the film gets in its share of
cultural references and then some, from Rubik’s Cubes to Mac start-up
sounds. But those are asides to the real humor in the story, which
comes first from the pure physical comedy of the Wall-E character
(ironic, since he exists only virtually), and then from the
downtown boy-uptown girl romantic mismatch between Wall-E and Eve, the
film’s other primary robot character. The fact that both these elements
play out and depend on the film’s science fictional setting without
requiring a wink to the audience means (at least for me, anyway) that I
can lose myself in the movie, rather than getting a constant reminder
from the filmmakers that hey, you’re watching a movie, and gee, aren’t
we clever? Yes, clever is nice. It’s even nicer when it happens without you noticing.

Now, my question to you all: Am I being unduly harsh on science
fiction comedies? Are there some examples that I’m missing that will
totally invalidate my theories here? I’m relying on you to tell me.

scalzi.pngWinner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man’s War and the upcoming Zoe’s Tale. His column appears every Thursday.

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