Monday, 21 January 2008

On Comedy: Play The Monster Straight


It's been a while since I did one of my "On Comedy" posts, so here it is, and it's about monsters!

I was channel surfing one snow swept Sunday afternoon recently and one channel the movie Tremors was playing and the film 8 Legged Freaks was playing on another channel. Being bored and having the attention span of a gnat on meth I was flipping like a fiend between them.

I had seen Tremors before, several times, and always found it to be exactly what it is, a light, fr
othy little diversion perfect for a day when the wind is howling and it's too cold outside.

8 Legged Freaks, was another story.

I just couldn't get into it.

I really couldn't.

Now they are similar films. Both are about isolated small towns
being attacked by nasty giant creatures (Man-eating worms/Tremors, Huge Spiders/8LF) and both were horror comedy hybrids. They should rate about the same on the entertainment scale, but they don't.

Now I won't go into full fledged reviews about character development, plot points, or anything like that, this post is about comedy and I'm going to look at it from what I consider the most important rule of horror/comedy.

I call it the Abbott & Costello Rule, and it goes something like this:

"When you're making a horror/ comedy movie play the monster straight."

I'm not saying that the spiders in 8LF were playing it 'gay' this has nothing to do with 'orientation.' But it has everything to do with comedy.

In classical "Team" comedy there's the "comic" and the "straight man." The comic is the guy who does the pratfalls and the punchlines and gets the laughs.

But he's not the really important part of the team.

The real important part of the team is what's called the Straight Man.

The Straight Man literally plays it straight. He doesn't do many pratfalls, almost never gets the punchline, and generally has to play things relatively seriously.

But it's the job of the straight man to set up the rhythm, the tone, and the structure of the joke. The straight man has to be the voice of the audience, showing curiosity, annoyance, outrage, or any other emotion that any reasonable person would be feeling in the situation playing out on the screen.

The straight man has to maintain intense self-control and h
e can't break into laughter, or goofy mugging, or it would ruin the gag. A mediocre comic can be covered up by a good straight man, but a poor straight man can kill an act.

That's why, in ye olde vaudeville, the straight man got 60% of the take, and the comic got 40%.

Now when a team is taken from a simple 2-man stage act, to a larger ensemble in a film, the rest of the cast has to take on the straight man role for the comic
antics that involve the team interacting with them. That's why Groucho Marx worked so much with Margaret Dumont, because she could play it straight no matter what he got up to around her.

Now let's get back to monsters.

In the 1940s Universal got Abbott & Costello to star in a series of films as comic foils for the studio's stable of monsters and madmen. The best of the bunch being Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein where they yuk it up with not only Frankenstein's Monster, but the Wolf-Man, and Dracula too.

Now a lesser film would have had made the monsters ham it up, but that's not their job. They're monsters, they have to be the straight man reacting to the comic antics of Abbott
& Costello.

Back to Tremors and 8LF.

In Tremors the monster was a monster. Pretty much all the humour in Tremors came from the humans the monster-worm was munching on. The monster played it as a monster and didn't try to do shtick.

In 8 Legged Freaks, they tried to make the spiders funny. They made silly noises, they were comically sped up as they spun webs around their victims. Trying to make the monsters funny weakened the horror, and practically killed the comedy.

So here's the lesson for today.

When making a horror-comedy hybrid, the humour comes from the people, not the monsters.

The monsters have to play it straight, or you won't be making a horror-comedy, but a film that is neither horrifying or comedic.

And there you have it.


  1. Is that why Shaun of the Dead worked so well? Outside of Ed at the end, the monsters basically were still flesh-eating zombies and it was the interaction of the group Shaun was leading that was the comedy.

  2. I think you've pretty much nailed it.

  3. Forlourned22/1/08 9:56 am

    How would you rate the '82 classic "Gremlins" then? Those little monsters where typically the comics and the humans where for the most part the straights.