Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Combine the Drama of Dog-Bites-Man With the Comedy of Man-Bites-Dog

Let’s look at the closest that Blazing Saddles ever gets to a serious moment. Bart realizes that the drunk in his jail is the real Waco Kid:
  • You are the Kid!
  • Was. Yeah, I was the Kid.
  • Well, what happened?
  • Well, it got so that every piss-ant prairie punk who thought he could shoot a gun... would ride into town to try out the Waco Kid. I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille. It got pretty gritty. I started to hear the word “draw” in my sleep. Then one day I was just walking down the street and I heard a voice behind me say, “Reach for it, mister!” I spun around. And there I was face to face... with a 6-year-old kid! Well, I just threw my guns down and walked away. [pause long enough that we think the monologue is over, then…] The little bastard shot me in the ass! So I limped to the nearest saloon, crawled inside a whiskey bottle... and I've been there ever since.
  • Have a drink.
Given how flippant the movie has been up until this moment, Brooks has to work hard to earn a moment of pathos and this is the perfect solution. We get a nice little moment of genuine sadness, but then we’re seamlessly whipped back into silliness as the kid shoots Waco in the ass.

Obviously, in the tragic version, Waco would kill the kid, or at least traumatize him (the speech is, I believe, a parody of Gregory Peck’s in The Gunfighter), but Brooks knows how to push up to the edge of the tragedy and then flip it for a big laugh.

Journalism professors say that reporters should avoid dog-bites-man stories, no matter how dramatic they may seem, and instead seek out the man-bites-dog stories. In fiction you have your choice: you can wring the drama out of dog brutally biting a man (or a gunfighter shooting a kid), or you can create instant comedy by flipping it ...or both. The neat trick is that you can sometimes tap into the emotion of the serious version right up until you puncture that pathos at the last second.
A great spoof can have it both ways: Airplane has all of the genuine drama of Zero Hour even while taking the piss out of everything.  The LEGO Movie actually creates far more genuine emotion than The Matrix, even while gleefully mocking the pomposity of the original.  Brooks’s trick here shows a simple way to have the best of both worlds. 

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