Fantastic sense of humor

Some thoughts about the importance of humor in epic fantasy

Fantastic sense of humor
Image: Lucasfilm 

If I want to get a group of friends laughing, there's one memory of a long-ago Dungeons & Dragons session that I can pull out:

Alex: "I use burning hands."
Sam: "Okay, the moose exploded."

If you've ever played D&D with a group of friends, your party probably has a whole bunch of core memories like this: someone does something ridiculously stupid, and the result is a spectacularly funny moment that derails the game for a couple of minutes while people start yelling and laughing.

I largely played the game with a group of friends while we worked at a summer camp (between 2000 and 2006). It was a fantastic way to let off steam after extremely busy days minding our groups of campers. We'd have our off-period after lights out and most of the counselors would head down the street to the local gas station to drink or hang out. My group of friends (we were collectively known as the "Geek Squad") would head over to the camp's conference room, where we'd set up shop a couple days during the week and continue our adventures.

My friend Sam ran the game: he set the campaign in a magical Roman era, and we were helping the Carthaginian general Hannibal wage war against Rome. It was a neat setting, but what I remember most about those games wasn't so much the worldbuilding or progression, but some of the funnier moments to come out of it. There was the time when my friend Blackwell decided to set his character against mine, and I ended up scoring successive high-rolling hits that drove him up the wall with mock (and a little real) frustration, and then of course, there was the Moose incident.

I was thinking about this element of D&D this week while I binged the final half of Lucasfilm's recent fantasy series Willow. Disney announced that it was joining several of the other big streaming services in pulling some of their original content from its platform, and it was one of the shows that had been lingering on my to-watch list.

To prepare for the series debut back in November I rewatched the original 1988 film with my son, and was struck at how funny it was. It's a dark and grim film, but it's peppered throughout with all of these irreverent lines of dialogue and situations that had us glued to our TV.

Fantasy often feels like it's a genre where everyone involved has to take everything seriously, a byproduct of the desire to inject some level of realism into the world and story. The world is about to end: you have to take that seriously. These spells that we're about to cast have to be properly pronounced and at the right time: don't mess it up. The other members of your party are a pile of talking rocks, an immortal elf, and a war-weary barbarian who's seen some shit. Definitely don't mess with them.

One of the things that delighted me the most with Willow (the series) was the irreverent tone that the writers stuck with throughout the season. The characters are sarcastic, goofy, and funny throughout. Key moments are built up and abruptly undercut with a funny thing that comes out of right field: in one later episode, two characters finally profess that they're into one another and are about to kiss when a troll comes out of nowhere and drags one of them off. Later, said trolls march out, and instead of a monologue from the villain, you get these characters that sound like normal people, rather than a gruff, guttural monster.

This even extends to the show's soundtrack: each episode was capped off with a final beat, then a rock song: Tommy Jane & The Shondells' "Crimson & Clover", Metallica's "Enter Sandman," The Beach Boy's "Good Vibrations," and Dire Strait's "Money for Nothing," which was a) a fun selection of music, and 2) a complete sendup from the types of music that we typically expect from epic fantasy.

When Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves hit theaters earlier this year, one of things that I liked about it the most was this same tendency: an emphasis on the comedy that comes out of a group of people doing ridiculous things. The film opens with Chris Pine's Edgin Darvis and Michelle Rodriguez's Holga Kilgore staging a bold escape from prison while they're at a pardon hearing – only for the film to reveal that they're about to actually be pardoned, while the rest of the film is chalk full of these funny moments and lines. One of my favorites is when they're questioning the residents of a cemetery to try and track down the whereabouts of a magical item. They can revive a corpse to ask five questions, after which point it goes back to being dead, and can't be revived. Hilarity ensues.

Humor is an important thing to include. It's a way to poke fun at the established conventions or for satirical purposes, but it's also a good way to undercut an audience's expectations and add an element of surprise into the story and characters. In the film, the party comes up with an elaborate plan to get into a castle to steal something, only to have their spell backfire and force them to improvise.

In an established genre, creators have lots of tropes that they can fall back on, either with character types, plots, situations, or dialogue, and it can be a short jump from nodding to some notable moment that fans will pick up on from book to book to constructing a story that's predictable. Comedy, in many ways, serves as a reminder that the real world can be chaotic and unpredictable, and that you can set out with a plan to do things, only to have human nature or actions get in the way of what you thought you'd be doing.

As a game system, Dungeons & Dragons is perfect for this: a dungeon master can plan out a game to her heart's content, only to have her players decide that they'd rather go on a crime spree while in town rather than listen to the wizened old guy who's about to send them off on a quest. Or, if she wants to mess with her players, there are plenty of opportunities to do that. (I always make sure that when I buy a grappling hook to make sure that it comes with rope: "I throw the grappling hook up over the wall. *rolls; succeeds*  "Okay, I climb up the rope." "...what rope? You just bought the grappling hook: I didn't say it came with rope.")

There are lots of super-serious fantasy epics airing on TV at the moment: Game of Thrones / House of the Dragon, Wheel of Time, Rings of Power all come to mind. They have their lighter moments, but that's not what I remember most about them, and while they have compelling stories and characters, it can feel almost like homework to get through them. I have to sit and pay close attention to every line of dialogue and every small plot point in order to get the full experience. That's fine: there's a place for those shows that reward rewatching. But there's also a place for the lighter and funny stories that I can put on while my attention is on other things, like cooking or housework.

But most of all, there's a place for stories that remind us that stories should be fun; they should entertain us and find the joy in life's lighter moments.

If you haven't checked it out, you've missed your chance to check out Willow for the moment: yesterday was apparently the last day that Disney was hosting it. I have a feeling that it'll return at some point. It seems like the playbook for streaming services is just to flip that content to another platform that'll pay for it: Westworld ended up on Tubi and Roku at some point (it doesn't appear that it's there at the moment), but I imagine that we'll see them pop up somewhere. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves recently made its streaming debut on Paramount+, and it's hitting DVD and Blu-Ray next week – something that I'll definitely be picking up, because *waves hands at the state of the streaming world.*  

Currently reading

I've been working on churning through my to-read list, and I've knocked a couple off: R.F. Kuang's Yellowface, John Scalzi's forthcoming Starter Villain, and Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas.

Yellowface was excellent and breezy, but there's definitely a lot to think about with it. Starter Villain is pretty typical Scalzi: light and fun (see my review for Kaiju Preservation Society), but without much in the way of calories. Consider Phlebas was a lot of fun to revisit: a huge world and some fascinating characters. I'm definitely looking to pick up the next installment at some point this summer.

Currently on the to-read list:

  • The Icarus Plot by Timothy Zahn: I've had this on the to-read list for a while, and after finishing Consider Phlebas, I needed a lighter space opera to dig into. This has been fun so far.
  • White Sun War by (General, retired) Mick Ryan: I like General Ryan quite a bit, and it's been at the forefront of the FICINT movement, so I've been eager to dig into his attempt at the genre with this future war novel.
  • Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow: I was looking for a shorter book to dig into recently, and Cory's was at the top of the pile.
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: this book turns 10 this year, and Ann's got an upcoming novel set in the same world called Translation State that I'm eager to dig into. I'm enjoying this reread quite a bit.

Further Reading

Here's a roundup of some of the recent pieces that I've written for TO supporters that you might have missed, as well as some other excellent pieces to check out from around the internet.

Farewell, Galactic Starcruiser

Disney announced it was shutting down its Star Wars attraction Galactic Starcruiser. I spoke with a couple of friends who've been multiple times to get a sense of why they went, and what they'll miss.

System shutdown
Two cosplayers reflect on Disney’s immersive Star Wars experience, Galactic Starcruiser in light of its announced closure

Finish that book. The folks at Lifehacker have some suggestions for tackling an insurmountable TBR pile.

Gareth Edwards' The Creator

I'm a big fan of original SF films with a lived-in look to their world, and judging from the first trailer, Gareth Edwards' The Creator fits that bill neatly.

Man vs. machine
The next film from Rogue One’s Gareth Edwards

Getting removed from Disney+. I wrote about Willow getting removed from Disney+ in passing, but there's a lot to talk about with that particular development in and of itself. Jake Thorton is the writer behind the film The Princess, which debuted on Hulu. He writes about what it's like to have that film get pulled from a streaming platform, after all that work and the big, intrinsic issues with the streaming world.  

2023 Ignyte Award Finalists

Here are the finalists for the Ignyte Awards.

Here are the finalists for the 2023 Ignyte Awards
The best BIPOC SF/F from 2022

2023 Kitchie Finalists

And in other awards news, here are the finalists for this year's Kitchies awards.

Here are the nominees for the 2023 Kitchies Award
An excellent-looking list of progressive SF/F titles

Maria Dahvana Headley's 2023 Tolkien Lecture

If you're looking for an excellent thing to listen to about the nature of storytelling and magic, give Maria Dahvana Headley's Tolkien lecture a listen.

We are made of stories
Watch Maria Dahvana Headley’s 2023 Tolkien Lecture, “Tell Me A Story”

May's Book lists. In case you missed them, here's the first book list for May, and the belated second one.

Rediscovered. I love these sorts of stories: a research team discovered a cache of medieval manuscripts and books in a church in Romania.

Sewer talk. My buddy Aidan Moher just placed two pieces in Vulture. In the first, he talks about video game design with for a game called Into the Breach, and in the second, phe talks about the side-scroller game Dead Cells and how video games have long used sewers as a location, and designing challenges.

The story of Burlington's Venetian Ginger Ale

This was a piece that I wrote for the Vermont Historical Society's Winter 2022 issue, about a beverage company called M. & F.C. Dorn Company. I had a lot of fun writing this one up.

A drink for Vermonters
The story of the M. & F.C. Dorn Company, prohibition and bottling in the Queen City

We wants it

Andy Serkis is headed back to Middle-earth for another audiobook: The Silmarillion.

Andy Serkis will narrate new audiobook of The Silmarillion
We wants it, precious

Who gets to tell the story? I mentioned finishing R.F. Kuang's Yellowface, and enjoyed this profile / interview with her in The Guardian, in which she talks about the nuance in this ongoing conversation about identity and story.  

That's all for this week. Expect a couple of things next week, but I'll be on the road Friday-Monday for a belated Memorial Day trip to see family.