School is funny. Or at least it can be. When you're not actually forced to attend it and perform all the foolish assignments you're given.
The reason school is potentially funny is because it's so painful. Kids are going through the hardest times of their lives, as they learn how to deal with the naked savagery of peer groups and the cruel business of figuring out what to do with each new change that comes to their bodies.
And the teachers? Beset by endless idiotic requirements from district administrators who know that the only way they can rise in the bureaucracy is to come up with groovy new ideas that will cause endless extra, tedious work for the teachers, while improving the learning of students nary a whit, teachers have to deal with all these children being poisoned by their own hormones and tortured by their friends and enemies.
Why is it, then, that comedies about teachers are usually so dreadfully unfunny?
Let me give you a case in point, a sitcom called Teachers now airing on Comedy Central. It originally appeared -- and can still be seen -- as a web series called Teachers: A Web Series: For Those Who Can't Do. The creators and writers of the series are a group called "the Katydids."
My assumption is that "the Katydids" are the six actresses who star in the show, since their first names are: Caitlin, Katy, Cate, Kate, Katie, and Kathryn. It sounds like "Katydids" would probably cover them. A cursory search revealed nothing more, and it also doesn't matter.
Because the comedy reeks of desperation. You know, like Saturday Night Live sketches that are weirdly bad, so that you ask, What were they thinking when they decided to write this? And then you describe the sketch in one line, and realize: The logline for the sketch is really, really funny. It's just that nobody knew how to write it so it would be as funny as the idea.
What's odd is that the actresses are all reasonably good, though the quality does vary. And the children are surprisingly good, considering that this show is set in elementary school, so the kids are young. Young kids are notoriously awful to work with because they're not very good.
But little is asked of them beyond the stuff that Macaulay Culkin did in the Home Alone movies: They can look cute, and they can yell on cue. None of them is asked to do anything hard.
For instance, we have the competition in which the winning class gets to keep the school's pet iguana for the rest of the year. The teacher who pathologically wants this honor wins it, but then discovers, in front of the class, that the iguana is dead and has been stuffed.
What do the children do? They scream, of course.
Then, as they bury the iguana in a cardboard box coffin, they discover that they have dug a hole in exactly the right place to expose another cardboard box which contains the skeleton of the previous pet iguana.
And when the aged grief counselor comes to help the children get through this discovery of the finality of death, the old lady staggers, falls unrealistically, and is pronounced dead by one of the children. Whereupon all the children scream.
This is exactly the kind of idea that makes writers weep with laughter "in the room," but which feels obvious and perfunctory when the writing and performance of the scenes do nothing more than follow that meager plan. None of the actors, adult or otherwise, has the skill to make us care even slightly about the characters they play.
Probably the worst performance comes from Katie O'Brien (I think; it's sometimes hard to recognize people from their pictures in IMDb), whose character has the hots for the father of a pudgy student who, on picture day, comes to school wearing a T-shirt that advertises a crab house.
Like more than one lousy crab house from the Carolina shores, this one features a restaurant ostensibly named for someone called "Dick," and of course that name is featured in big letters at the top of the T-shirt, where it is bound to be the only word from the T-shirt that appears in that student's class picture.
Thus it will seem to be a caption for his school picture, and he will be mercilessly teased.
The teacher calls for the single dad to come and bring a new shirt for his son, but because she's so goofy with "the hots" for this man, the message isn't clear and he arrives without the shirt. Naturally, with no time to go home and get another shirt, the dad takes off his own thin sweater to give to his son, revealing washboard abs that send the teacher into such an exaggerated tizzy that I'm embarrassed for her.
Not embarrassed for the teacher, but embarrassed for the actress. Wasn't there anyone there to say, "Hey, kid: dial it back to something bordering on actual human behavior, or this won't be funny."
No one said that, she didn't do that, and it wasn't funny. Though the single dad was good looking. If the teacher had been played by Kristen Wiig or Tina Fey or heck, Amy Schumer, the actress would have tried to keep her dignity and shown almost no sign that she was going crazy inside.
Only a couple of "tells" would have let us know what she was feeling, and those might have been very, very funny. Meanwhile, we would still believe in the character as a realish person so that we might care about plotlines featuring her in the future.
So this is a well-intentioned series that I'm sure the Katydids had a great time writing and acting out, rather like a skit at girls' camp. But judging from the episode I saw, it really isn't worth even five minutes of your time.
However, Teachers isn't the only teacher-centered school comedy right now. TruTV is now offering a sitcom titled Those Who Can't.
In case you haven't heard the old saying that inspired this title (and the subtitle on Teachers), here it is: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."
I first heard that saying from my dad, who was a university professor of education at the time. He finished it off with, "And those who can't teach, teach teachers how to teach."
This dictum wasn't true of him, because my dad was a marvelous teacher. But judging from what I saw of his colleagues, Dad's punchline was true of many.
Those Who Can't is set in a high school, and the three men who form the core cast of the show (and are also credited as the series creators) are better comic actors than the six Katydids. Not good actors, or at least not yet, but they have some potential.
They have a secret weapon, however. They happen to have cast a marvelous actress, Maria Thayer, in the role of the main female teacher who interacts with them. Thayer is exactly what a sitcom requires: She elevates her material and remains a believable human being even as the script requires her to do appalling and stupid things for the sake of a gag.
You can't see the stitching in the script when she's in a scene, because she's not only luminous, she's also honest and has actual comic timing. She never overplays, she never looks desperate.
The result is that Those Who Can't is only half as bad as Teachers, and that puts it in the top 25 percent of sitcoms that actually make it onto the air. (You have noticed, haven't you, that most sitcoms are lousy?)
If the showrunner understands anything about what's going on, by the end of season one, Those Who Can't will be a sitcom about Maria Thayer's character, with the three guys who created the series becoming her madcap friends.
Think of Gladys Knight and the Pips. These guys aren't the stars, they're the Pips. The Pips were good, but they didn't carry the melody.
Only Maria Thayer has what it takes to carry a TV series week after week, because she's the only one whose character is believable enough for us to care what happens to her.
Many sitcoms are carried by one believable character, while everybody else is loony around them. Think of Megyn Price in Rules of Engagement, or Josh Hopkins in Cougar Town. These were ensemble series that lasted a long time, with very little critical support.
All the characters had comic turns and eccentricities, but in Rules, Megyn Price, the longtime-married lead, was the one whose perspective we could rely on to have some sanity in it. Eventually, we came to view all the characters through her eyes.
Ditto with Josh Hopkins in Cougar Town. He began as the newly divorced neighbor across the street who brought home different bimbos every night; during the first season he fell in love with Courteney Cox's character and became part of the insane group of friends (and ex-husband, and son, and lovers) she had gathered around her, but through it all, Josh Hopkins's character was the one who remembered what sane people were like, and tried to get others to act accordingly.
He spoke for us, the audience, and because of his core of reality, everybody else's insane characters worked.
Sitcoms that don't have a mostly-sane character rarely last long. Mary Tyler Moore had her Really Cute Wail, which she used in nearly episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, where she was normal-guy Rob Petrie's crazy wife.
But in her own show, she didn't pull that shtick out of the drawer in every episode. Mostly she was trying to live a sane life, while everybody else was able, because she was there, to push their eccentricities over the edge of believability. Best sitcom ever, in many people's view.
Maria Thayer seems to me to be up to the job of keeping Those Who Can't nailed to the wall of reality -- and that's why, because the insane male teachers keep coming back to her to report on their stupid ideas and antics, she is able to keep this series grounded. It may actually grow into something.
I'm TiVo-ing all the episodes of Those Who Can't. It may fall apart. But it may also be worth watching even before it hits its stride.
Speaking of comedies that are way over the top, what about Deadpool?
I'm afraid I'm wearying of superhero movies. On the one hand, some of them have been pretty good. I liked Ant-Man, X-Men was good for a while, and after a couple of expensive but failed tries, they finally nailed Superman with Man of Steel.
Some superheroes, though, are so stupid that even good acting and decent writing can't save them from the oppressive weight of cliche and unbelievability.
Usually you can tell, from how it's promoted, whether a new superhero movie is taking the story seriously or just dumping "heroic" special effects onto us like Gatorade over a coach's head.
Deadpool seems to have been Marvel Comics's way of coopting the criticisms of existing superhero comics that some fans -- and writers and artists -- had expressed. Deadpool partakes of -- no, wallows in -- every superhero trope, while simultaneously cavorting outside them.
The character first appeared in February 1991, so the movie came out a quarter century afterward. Other Marvel heroes have had troubling "dark sides," like Iron Man's womanizing and drinking. But Deadpool's "alter ego" was a full-fledged criminal before he acquired his superpowers.
In his original life as Wade Winston Wilson, he was a sort of vigilante for hire; as he explains in the movie, he was a bad guy who did bad stuff to even worse guys. That didn't change when he was diagnosed with a terminal disease and then was roped into an experimental program that promised not only to cure him, but to make him immortal.
The "immortality" treatment had little to distinguish it from torture: The "experimenter" believed that everyone had some kind of X-Men-style mutation, and being under extreme duress would cause it to manifest itself. In Wade Winston Wilson's case, he got the immortality -- along with a severely damaged face, somewhere between smallpox or burn scars and elephant-man syndrome.
This costs him his normal life, but he refuses to join the civilized and organized X-Men. Instead, he goes freelance, and unlike the other superheroes with their comics-code rules about not actually killing any bad guys, he blasts them to smithereens.
The movie is very self-conscious about its parody of normal superhero stories. Deadpool speaks directly to us in narration and, from time to time, on camera, pointing out just which comics and film cliches he's violating, and commenting on the fact that he's in a movie right now.
The movie invites us not to take anything all that seriously, and indeed it is funny. However, it also knows that we have to feel the character's pain or we're not going to care much about a guy who is, after all, a mass murderer.
It helps when you cast Ryan Reynolds in your title role, because Reynolds is kind of terminally likeable. They also make us care about him because he's really really really in love with Vanessa, played by the beautiful, intelligent, and charming Morena Baccarin. I assume she's all these things because those are attributes of all the characters she plays, and she's completely convincing.
I first saw Baccarin as the courtesan/geisha Inara in Firefly and Serenity. She is, if anything, even more charming in Deadpool -- though, alas, the film barely taps into her abilities. Instead, the writers settled for the stupidest of film shorthand, signaling true and undying love by having the couple indulge in long bouts of bouncy-bouncy sex.
"Oh, they're in real love," we stupid audience members are supposed to say as soon as we see how enthusiastic their lovemaking is. Because, after all, this is an action movie, and developing a real relationship usually involves lots of talking and many small actions and tiny events that don't really interest the audience that came to see things blow up and people get killed in entertaining ways. So you give the lovers a couple of minutes of bouncy-bouncy and the audience knows their love is true and the hero would die to save her.
It's a bit sad that a story created to ridicule cliches still relies on one of the dumbest.
Another sad fact is that too many of the jokes are aimed at the 14-year-old boys who are still at the heart of the comic-book audience. Lots of jokes at the level of flatulence and self-pleasuring references.
Partway through, I asked myself, How many times are they going to go back to that well? And pretty soon I realized the answer was, Every single time they think of it, which is constantly.
Anyway, Deadpool mostly exists to violate all the Comics Code restrictions. So F-words are as common as bullets in this movie, the hero kills bad guys in cold blood, and his goal is not to save the human race -- it's to get even with the bad guy who messed up his face, after first getting him to fix the damage he did.
The trouble is that violating the Comics Code is only interesting for about a minute, and then it's just annoying. What works is that there's an OK plot, some snappy writing, good asides to the audience, and the most important ingredients: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, and T.J. Miller.
Miller plays Weasel, a bartender who is also Deadpool's only reliable friend. You might know him from being the best thing in Silicon Valley and playing the hyper-cheery waiter in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. His ability to say awful things in a very friendly, trustworthy way makes him a perfect foil for Deadpool.
These three actors help elevate this movie above its script. But it's also important that in terms of crashes and special effects, the movie takes itself very, very seriously. Just because you're doing a "parody" doesn't mean you don't have to make it a very good example of the kind of movie you're making fun of, and these filmmakers understand that.
For contrast, think of a comic-book movie that got it completely wrong: The Spirit, released on Christmas Day 2008, wanted to be edgy, so they used weird-looking filming techniques the way Scorsese did in The Aviator, so it was nearly unwatchable, and then made it boring, boring, boring. (Just checked; no, Scorsese didn't direct it under a pseudonym.)
The Spirit tried to be an innovative, cliche-busting superhero movie, and failed so completely that its worldwide gross was about half of its budget, making it a colossal flop.
Deadpool is also trying to be an innovative, cliche-busting superhero movie, but it is also a first-rate superhero movie. So instead of a total worldwide gross of $30 million through its whole run like The Spirit, Deadpool did five times that amount on its first weekend.
Of course, Deadpool only made fun of the aspects of comic-book movies that those who make and love comic books think are amusing.
There are some tropes that I loathe, which Deadpool used but never made fun of. The worst is this: No matter what your superpower is, it always seems to include the ability to be thrown, kicked, punched, and otherwise zapped by other characters with superpowers, and get up and keep fighting.
I mean, when Superman fights Zod, you expect that sort of thing. But the two X-Men who end up helping Deadpool don't have his superpower of healing quickly from all injuries -- yet they recover from really bad blows.
Remember that Deadpool's only official superpower is that he heals so fast he can't be killed. You cut off his arm, and it grows back. The movie establishes that his supernatural recovery from wounds takes time. It's so fast that you can see bulletholes filling in. But the hand that grows back comes in much more slowly.
Only here's the thing. There's another character whose superpower is that he feels no pain -- but Deadpool seems to feel no pain, either. Neither do any of the other super characters. Apparently Deadpool's self-healing comes with a lot of local anesthetic.
And after carefully establishing that when Deadpool is injured, the injuries remain for at least a minute or so, through most of the movie everything seems to heal instantly. Or never to injure him at all.
Plus, how did he get the ability to make mighty superleaps like Superman, and slow down time so that he can see bullets leave his gun like Neo in The Matrix. How is that part of a quick-healing superpower?
I know. I shouldn't try to make sense of superhero movies. But when they invite us to care and believe, then they need to provide somebody worth caring about and a world that we can believe in, at least a little, kinda, sorta.
So on the one hand, this is a first-rate superhero movie that mocks itself, standing many cliches on their head without descending into the stupidity of Spaceballs, so that it's funny and clever and exciting and it has Ryan Reynolds.
On the other hand, every character in the movie is pretty loathsome, it's full of pointlessly offensive language, it's absurdly inconsistent and unbelievable, and ...
Well, let me give you the results of an informal poll I took of people watching the movie during the opening weekend. It isn't scientific, because the sample size was so small: me and my wife.
I cringed, groaned, shook my head, but also laughed and actually, now and then, cared. So on the whole, I would have said -- if you can stand the language and switch parts of your brain off, it's worth seeing.
But my wife fell asleep several times. She didn't care about anybody in the movie. No, let me clarify that: She hated everybody in it. She proved how much she loved me on the day before Valentine's by sitting there through the whole movie without ever suggesting that we leave.
Both of us had wanted to see the film, based on the promos. (Compare this with the promos for The Spirit, which were so incoherent that if they played them at the beginning of an airplane trip to entice you to watch it as an in-flight movie, people might jump from the plane without a chute to avoid seeing it.)
Deadpool delivered exactly the movie that the promos promised. And yet my wife found that the promos were about as much of a dose of Deadpool as she would ever need. I liked it better than that.
Is that a recommendation? Aw, shucks, nobody was waiting to hear what I thought about Deadpool before deciding whether to see it.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
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