Knock em dead

In the soup

Mrs. Teasdale: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
Firefly: Is that so? How late do you stay open?

Duck_soup In my last post I promised to write about DeathSpank as a comedy, and that's precisely what I planned to do when I sat down to write this. I soon realized, however, that I need to do a little more table-setting before moving on, if only for myself. I'm one of those teachers who believes writing is a form of thinking, and I suppose that's what I'm up to here. Hope you'll bear with me.

I'm interested in comedy as a system, and I think we can turn to useful examples in other media that illustrate how such systems work. I don't reference films here as often as I used to, partly because of the apples and oranges argument, but also because I worry the game industry's infatuation with film limits the potential of games to chart their own course. 

In this case, though, looking back at a film made during a transitional period makes sense to me. Besides, do we really need an excuse to watch five minutes of Duck Soup? Of course not, so here we go. 

Would you kindly watch this brief scene from the Marx Bros.' Duck Soup (1933, dir. Leo McCarey)? It could be the best five minutes you'll spend all day.

Within months of the advent of talkies, Paramount Pictures signed the Marx Bros. to an exclusive contract and quickly released two films based on their Broadway hits: The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. These films showcased the Marx Bros. signature anarchy, but both were primitively shot by pedestrian directors, and both look like what they essentially are: filmed stage productions.

In 1932 Paramount assigned Leo McCarey to direct what would be the Marx Bros. last film for Paramount: Duck Soup. McCarey was a veteran filmmaker from the Hal Roach studio where he first teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy and helped shape their film personas. 

McCarey understood that Duck Soup's screenplay, which skewered fascism, jingoism, and warmongering, required more than a collection of vaudeville-style routines. Duck Soup needed the language of film to fully deliver its comedic payload. Fortunately, according to Marx Bros. biographer Joe Adamson, "McCarey was the only man on earth who could teach the Marx Brothers a lesson and come out of it with his life."[1]

McCarey also understood that the Marx Bros.' brand of raucous comedy required filmic mechanisms that could amplify their humor without squelching it. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico could be counted on to do what they did best: Groucho the sardonic wit; Harpo the silent man-child; Chico the (sometimes crude) ethnic. Duck Soup's famous mirror scene and lemonade vendor's hat routine (pure comic brilliance) are drawn directly from the Marx Bros. vaudeville days. 

The Marx Bros. may have been comic geniuses, but it may not always be possible to cut and paste such genius from one medium to another. Duck Soup transcends the Marx Bros. previous work because its comedy functions systematically within the film. 

Cross-cutting for comedic effect (Groucho asleep in his bedroom while his grand entrance is heralded below); lavish faux production numbers, expertly edited and shot with a fluid camera; close-ups and 4th-wall-breaking asides featuring Groucho speaking directly to the camera - all transport the Marx Bros. from verbal-medium theater comedians to visual-medium movie stars. 

The quips and one-liners are still there, but they've been recontextualized and repurposed for an art form that, in 1933, had only recently discovered its voice.

Firefly: [into radio] This is Rufus T. Firefly coming to you through the courtesy of the enemy. We're in a mess folks, we're in a mess. Rush to Freedonia! Three men and one woman are trapped in a building! Send help at once! If you can't send help, send two more women! Make that three more women! 

And so, in McCarey's hands, the Marx Bros. inimitable comedic style is elevated to film poetry. I can think of no better evidence than Duck Soup's final bunker scene in which Groucho randomly appears in five different military uniforms (Union soldier, Confederate general, Boy Scout troop leader, Revolutionary War British general, and a Davy Crockett outfit) as bombs explode all around him. Even the establishing shots shift nonsensically from a WWI-era bunker to a cavalry fort. 

Groucho's wisecracking persona combines with McCarey's continuity-be-damned filmmaking to produce a movie that remains one of Hollywood's most potent diatribes against the madness of war. But more importantly for my purposes, they demonstrate a unified vision of sound-era comedy that filmmakers like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder would soon extend much further.

This is the lesson worth taking. Games have tremendous potential for comedy, but not if we relegate it to 'writing' or 'dialogue' or 'performance.' Interactivity would seem to be a barrier - comics rarely let us write their punchlines - but are we overlooking opportunities that only an interactive medium can afford? What can we learn from comedic games that continue to inspire legions of loyal fans, years after they were released?

Okay, I'm done setting the table. In my next post, I'll suggest how video games can find a unified vision for comedy - a systematic approach that connects all the parts - and I'll try to explain why DeathSpank is such an encouraging step in that direction.