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A thought occurred to me the other day: Where are the science fiction comedies? With genre crossover seeming to be one of the few ways in which genres seem to move forward in this age of big budget blockbusters dominating the movie landscape – and, to some extent, the television landscape as well, just by dint of being so important to mainstream pop culture – you’d think that special-effects-laden SF and high concept comedy would be an immediate and obvious hit with audiences, and yet… there aren’t really any. Isn’t science fiction funny?
Okay, it’s not entirely fair to say that there aren’t any; after all, we have another Men in Black coming next year, and there have been classic TV shows like Red Dwarf in the past. But sci-fi comedies have always been few and far between, and in far too many cases, remarkably unfunny (Do I really have to point out things like Spaceballs? Tripping The Rift? Hyperdrive? Admittedly, that last one may be a little too obscure for a lot of people who don’t live in the UK and/or worship at the altar of Nick Frost, but a trip to Netflix will soon fix you up), and I’m not entirely sure why. After all, sci-fi is the genre in which the impossible is repeatedly made possible, or better yet, commonplace, which you’d think would be the root of all manner of comedy – but all too often, SF comedies ignore that potential in favor of something that goes for cheap comedy aimed at (or at the expense of) nerds and those who’re all-too-familiar with the genre conventions and cliches.
(I’m purposefully ignoring the comedy episodes of long-running SF series, because… well, more often than not, I think most people would like to do the same. I mean, Star Trek was a special case in that multiple-series franchise, in that it did comedy well. Was there ever a genuinely intentionally funny episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine or the other shows that didn’t rely too heavily on injokes and fan service?)
The problem may be that, when the two genres mix, the sci-fi overwhelms the comedy. In almost every successful SF comedy hybrid I can think of, the comedy comes out of understandable and relatable human interactions that are only amplified by the fantastical elements, not purely the result of them. Think of Red Dwarf – essentially the story of two men stuck in a house together even though they don’t like each other – or The Venture Bros., which is really just a comedy about a ridiculously dysfunctional family. Compare them to the disasters, where the jokes don’t come from character but silly names for concepts, or parodies of other, better, SF stories and series (I’m tempted to say that Men in Black is the exception that proves the rule, in that it’s entertaining and amusing, but far more rooted in the fantastic than the characters, but there is a relatable spine in the relationship between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones’ characters). It’s as if the merging of the two genres makes writers forget the normal rules of comedy, or think that they somehow don’t apply for whatever reason.
And yet… SF and genre movies and shows tend not to be po-faced and serious endlessly. Think of Iron Man or Star Wars or even Transformers; there’s a tradition of using comedy within the drama, of jokes being important and necessary to keep the audience connected with what’s happening. It’s rare that, these days, we think of SF without imagining comedy to be part of the mix… so why aren’t we awash with examples of that mix with the ratios slightly changed?
I genuinely don’t get it: The two genres should be a natural, and easy, fit – We should be used to seeing comedies with science fictional undertones in theaters without it being unusual or a special event, but that’s not the case. Is there a worry that you can’t do that kind of crossover without pissing off the SF fanbase (I genuinely don’t think that would be the case, but at the same time, I can imagine why studios might be reticent to test that out with a multi-million dollar movie), who aren’t the most forgiving when it comes to laughing at themselves? Is there nervousness about the idea of the comedy making the worldbuilding necessary for good SF seeming ridiculous? Or maybe there’s just a feeling that, at its heart, science fiction just isn’t funny?
The only way that this barrier will be broken, I think, will be for it to be shown to be untrue; someone will have to make a movie or TV show that mixes science fiction and comedy and does so in a way that’s successful critically and, more importantly, financially. Maybe we should try and convince Christopher Nolan to make The Dark Knight Rises into a non-stop laughfest, just to prove the point. Or, more likely, perhaps we should wait and see whether Joss Whedon’s Avengers will prove to be as much sitcom and non-stop action movie… because I wouldn’t be surprised if it was, and if that movie’s mega-success changed more than a few minds about what should and shouldn’t be made as a result.