Sci Fi Comedies -- Why So Few?
It came up in a conversation today that it is odd that comedic treatments of sci fi on film and television are so rare. Successful ones, that is. Movies like Pluto Nash managed some good moments, but so often ran into problems of pacing, perhaps because as the great comic author Moliere said, "Timing makes the whole show." Amid the special effects, costumes, and star blather, it is hard to focus on the magical timing that characterizes both visual and dialogue comedy. This is even evident in what may be the cult favorite of the sub-genre, Spaceballs. The incomparable Mel Brooks, John Candy, Rick Moranis and some of the Brooks crew regulars hit their lines with effect, but the male and female leads always seem so bedazzled by the context that they wind up being very unfunny. One could conclude that the trappings make space comedy impossible.
But if that were true, we would never have Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (esp. the original television version) or Red Dwarf. What were the Brits doing so well? For one thing -- economy of comic effects. Red Dwarf thrived with a small cast of well-differentiated characters: one very streetwise Earthling, a hologram, an overly-evolved feline, a wise-cracking software personality, and eventually that superb automaton Kryten. Each one of these figures could serve as a pharmakos, or comic butt, because of their inherent failings. Dave's slovenly habits and his lower class lack of taste, Rimmer's insufferable false pride, the Cat's clothes-horse vanity, Holly's lack of a real body, and Kryten's mechanoid Felix-Unger-fussiness could play off each other continually through any episode. The series' writers excelled at "ringing the changes" out of every permutation of contrasting traits.
And though it adhered to a classic episodic paradigm, Red Dwarf joined this to a narrative framework that was as old as literature, the odyssey quest. A double irony generated a lot of comedy in itself, for on the one hand, the odyssey quest had already been established by space operas like Battlestar Galactica as a perfectly serious standard, and on the other, this particular quest was inverted, since there was no home in the story line to return to, at least until the last seasons restored one through a trick of time travel.
Any comedy also needs some kind of comic nemesis to generate plot, and here Red Dwarf again scored a perfect ten by providing creepy aliens that were outlandishly overdone (for example, the Despair Squid), while at the same time introducing some intriguing scientific possibilities far beyond the standard sci fi fare. The fact that the crew invariably triumphs over or at least escapes from the nemesis (in Dave's case, running away from the altar of a presumptive troglodyte bride) does not pose too much of a problem in verisimilitude. It merely underlines the principle of Murphy's Law that permeates the whole show. In fact, it also cleaves to the ancient odyssey quest form, leaving its equivalents of Polyphemus, the Lotus Eaters, Circe et al on their own scattered planets. In the long run, this is a far more manageable formula for nemesis than continually reviving Cylons, Romulans, Ming the Merciless, or other long-running villains.
Hitchhiker's Guide relied on its own system for generating comedy that was at least as sophisticated as that of Red Dwarf and also quite different. It deserves a post of its own in the future. This little analysis limits itself to openings a few lines of inquiry that can start a dialogue on sci fi comedy.