Posted on | October 15, 2013
There was an outbreak on Twitter this morning of quotes around the classic, classic film, Heavy Metal, which is one of my all-time favorite movies. But the outbreak had me thinking about an important issue, which is writing comedy.
Almost all comedy emerges from a disputation of power. In the classic man vs. man or man vs. nature, for example, comedy emerges when a man tries and fails to overcome a problem because of overreach fueled by arrogance and ignorance. A classic example is, to use television, from Seinfeld when Kramer tried to adapt his bathtub for better waterflow in defiance of his landlord’s requirement to reduce water use; he lacked understanding of the problem and arrogantly assumed he knew how to fix it; the resulting flood of his entire apartment was consequently funny. Other classic sources of comedy come from the Upstairs/Downstairs mould of television, where the powerful are never torn down, but are routinely shown up as incompetent and undeserving of their status by their cleverer underlings. Even The Argument Sketch from Monty Python is all about the two characters attempting to powerplay each other, each cleverly looking for a way to either needle or deflect the other’s jibe, to put the other man “under.”
Which is why there’s a moment in Heavy Metal‘s “Lincoln F. Sternn” segment that once seemed funny, but now dies like a landed fish. The scene is supposed to be comic. Sternn is on trial for being a very bad man, and his list of achievements is impressive. “Lincoln Sternn, you stand here accused of 12 counts of murder in the first degree, 14 counts of armed theft of Federation property, 22 counts of piracy in high space, 18 counts of fraud, 37 counts of rape, and one moving violation.” The prosecutor pauses after every count to let it sink in. The “camera” (Heavy Metal is animated) looks over the bored judge, the restless jury, the steely-eyed prosecutor. When the prosecutor reads the rape charge, the camera focuses on Sternn… whose smile broadens knowingly.
That used to be considered humor. It’s funy, because, see, we all know that, while, legally, rape is, like, a bad thing, Sternn is such a manly man that, well, he was just putting women in their proper place in the power structure, and it’s not like he killed them or anything, he was just doing what a man does.
The women in that scene aren’t human beings; they’re merely pawns.
Once you live in a world where men and women are equals, it stops being funny. Instead, it comes across as horrifying, and Sternn’s consequential escape from justice (as well as the murder of his henchman) loses all comic impetus. Then again, so does getting away with murder.