"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."--Groucho Marx
I've been playing Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, and I find myself thinking about comedy in games, comedy in movies, and, well, comedy in general. I'm far from the first person to observe it, but comedy ain't easy, folks. In the theater, after we lay an egg onstage, we're fond of quoting the English actor Sir Donald Wolfit who said on his deathbed, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." True that.
"If you've heard this story before, don't stop me, because I'd like to hear it again." --Groucho Marx
As any experienced performer will attest, it's fairly easy to elicit empathy from an audience. Put a little girl on stage and communicate the possibility that she may be mistreated by a mean old man, and the audience is immediately on her side, engaged and concerned for her well-being. Bioshock toyed with this natural tendency in us, turning it on its head for useful effect. We are naturally empathetic creatures - which is often the one thing that keeps me going when wars, genocides and elections challenge me to question why we humans make such awful choices.
"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others." --Groucho Marx
Comedy is difficult because rather than aiming at our vulnerable hearts, comedy aims at our mixed-up, culturally disparate heads - and those are shifty targets at best. If you don't get the joke, it's not funny. If you don't like the joke, it's not funny. Comedy also relies on technical expertise. If the punchline gets bobbled, it's not funny. If the pie to the face arrives a second too soon or too late, it's not funny. If I make it look too hard or too calculated, it's not funny. A perfectly good joke or pratfall can be messed up in a thousand different ways, each one rendering it not funny.
"Quote me as saying I was mis-quoted." --Groucho Marx
Comedy is hard to get a grip on because, unlike tragedy, it comes in so many different forms. Parody, satire, slapstick, black comedy, musical comedy, romantic comedy, grotesque comedy - and mash-ups that mix sub-genres together. Much of the brilliance of the Monty Python troupe was its ability to easily move from one genre to the next, mixing musical, parody, grotesque, social satire and one-liners - often all in the same sketch. Dave Chappelle has demonstrated similar skill forging his own subversive satirical critiques.
"Room service? Send up a larger room." --Groucho Marx
On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness operates within the fairly limited comedic palette of parody. I say this not as a criticism, but merely as an observation. Will Farrell is essentially a parodist, and I think he's one of the funniest guys on the planet. The Penny Arcade game plays with RPG conventions, inserting PA references and generally washing the all-too familiar genre with a fresh coat of Penny Arcade sensibility. It's fun, especially for fans of the comic strip, and it captures the defiant but ultimately warm embrace of video game culture Gabe and Tycho are known for. It's a stylish and welcome gift (albeit not a free one) to the community that Penny Arcade has built over the last decade, and I salute them for tossing their hats into the ring with an actual game subject to scrutiny, rather than merely using video games as the fodder and frame for their comics.
On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness also has me thinking about the Marx Brothers and hoping the next episodes of the series move beyond simple parody and one-liners to more ambitious satire and commentary - much like the Marx Brothers did when they made the transition from vaudeville to the movies. Such a transition would, in my view, also align the game more directly with the comic strip that inspired it, which is often significantly more transgressive than the video game.
When the Marx Brothers moved to Paramount Pictures, their first two movies were basically film adaptations of their two most successful Broadway plays: The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930). These early talkies were knockabout farces full of anarchic action, one-liners, and musical interludes. They may feel a bit dated today, but they remain laugh-a-minute romps with Groucho, Harpo, and Chico unleashed on high society.
The last film the Marx Brothers made for Paramount, Duck Soup (1933), was very different. All the zany antics remain, but in this film it's all in service of a deeply satirical and biting assault on the lunacy of war. The musical numbers highlight the absurdity of unbridled nationalism while simultaneously satirizing the ridiculous nature of musicals. Duck Soup illustrates the Marx Brothers growing awareness of film as a medium, self-reflexively using the language of film to comment on the action, characters, and story. Groucho's blatant assault on cinematic continuity - each cut in one scene finds Groucho wearing a different hat signifying various eras of military conflict - simultaneously targets the madness of war and the arbitrary "rules" of moviemaking.
"Either this man is dead, or my watch has stopped." --Groucho Marx
When form and content coalesce as they do in Duck Soup (Dr. Strangelove is another very different but similarly effective example), comedy emerges like a force of nature that must be reckoned with. Is such a thing possible in a video game? It seems to me it ought to be, especially if the next PA game aspires to more than poking fun. I haven't yet completed the game, so perhaps more is in store for me than I think.
Finally, regarding comedy in games and inspired by the Penny Arcade demo, my friend Chris over at The Artful Gamer has written an appreciation of LucasArts' classic Day of the Tentacle which he describes as "unmatched in its synthesis of humor, story, and world." It's well worth a read.
"Well, Art is Art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know." --Groucho Marx