Comedic Science Fiction: More Than Just a Laugh

Writing about his relationship with science fiction in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, Kurt Vonnegut stated that, “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’… and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” This desire is somewhat understandable, given that today, almost fifty years after he wrote these words, science fiction is still too-often regarded as an escapist/trash genre by both the general public and critics. Even though contemporary science fiction sometimes garners critical respect and attracts the attention of a wider audience existing outside of fandom, such works tend to be seen by these audiences as outliers rather than what they are: points on a quality-continuum that stretches from “great” to “terrible.” In light of this, it’s both odd and surprising that fandom and wider audiences alike often dismiss one of science fiction’s most commercially popular subgenres: comedic science fiction. If this statement seems all encompassing, take a look at any “best of” list relating to science fiction film and television (its literature is a different matter). While you’ll find high-quality works on these lists, you’ll also typically find that most are deemed worthy of inclusion either because of the complexity of their themes, or because of their unadulterated entertainment value. In terms of the former, think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bladerunner, The Matrix, and Looper; in terms of the latter, think of the original Star Wars trilogy, ET: The Extra Terrestrial, Firefly and Pacific Rim.

Even when a piece of comedic science fiction is deemed worthy of inclusion, it’s usually for one of two reasons: the originality and joy of is comedic approach (the Back to the Future trilogy, the first series of Red Dwarf, Galaxy Quest) or its subversive and satirical edge (the original Robocop, Starship Troopers, Idiocracy). Rarely are such works deemed worthy because of the ways they embrace or reinvigorate the tropes and techniques of science fiction. In fact, it feels like these self-appointed arbiters of quality view visual science fiction as an either/or art form: it can either be funny/comedic or it can engage with the genre’s tropes and techniques. This attitude is, frankly, an insult to comedic science fiction. While the creators of comedic science fiction undeniably set out to produce works that are entertaining and funny, it cannot be disputed that they tend to also be fans of the genre, with a strong interest in its existence as a narrative form. Otherwise, why would they use it as a framework for their comedy? In other words, the “science fiction” aspect of comedic science fiction cannot be overlooked or ignored, and like “great” straight science fiction, great comedic science fiction can show us the genre anew, and make us reassess what it can say and mean.

In fact, it can often be more successful at doing this than straight science fiction. Unlike straight science fiction, comedic science fiction is less bound by the need to have its scenarios, characters and events function in logical or realistic ways (at least at an in-universe level). In straight science fiction, whatever happens in the story must, no matter how over-the-top, make a certain kind of logical and realistic sense. An adherence to continuity, as well as rational causes, reasons or explanations at the core of the science fictional framework; these are two bedrock “rules” of straight science fiction. Existing hand-in-hand with them are the accepted precepts of fiction as a whole: the law of cause and effect, realistic character response, relatable or sympathetic characters, and narrative resolution.

Because comedy typically relies on concepts such as exaggeration, caricature, slapstick, parody and absurdity, concepts such as logic and realism (and the accepted precepts of straight fiction) are often superseded. In comedic science fiction, adhering to the concepts and precepts of straight fiction can often work against the comedic effect that is intended. As an example, take a show like Rick and Morty. Would Rick be such a funny character if he was bound by the rules of logic or realism? The answer is a resounding no – he would merely be an abusive arsehole who constantly puts his grandson in danger, and ostracizes everyone around him. And if the show itself adhered to these rules it most probably wouldn’t exist – in a world of realism and logic, Beth and Jerry (Rick’s daughter and son-in-law) most probably would have thrown the freeloading Rick out on his ear the first time he endangered Morty’s life or invited a hoard of aliens into their home, and ipso-facto the entire premise of the show would collapse.

This same argument applies to most forms of comedic science fiction, no matter their differences – if they were bound by the rules of logic or realism, their narratives would be completely different. The Men in Black series would focus on paranoia, suspicion of the government and conspiracy theories a la The X-Files; Paul would revolve around a desperate road trip in which ordinary citizens are hunted down by their government; Mars Attacks would be a terrifying tale of malevolent aliens hell bent on invading and conquering Earth; Galaxy Quest would be a downbeat story about has-been actors thrown into an intergalactic conflict, and their complete inability to adjust to their newfound situation. However, while this type of “narrative adjustment” via an abandonment of the rules of logic or realism integral is integral to comedic science fiction’s raison d’etre, it isn’t the only function of comedic science fiction. Instead, it serves to allow an arguably more interesting function: a re-examination of science fiction’s typical tropes, techniques and themes, and the ways in which they are usually employed and handled. For a contemporary example that excels at this, we must return to Rick and Morty.

Rick and Morty concerns the adventures of the titular Rick and Morty. Rick, the smartest being in the galaxy, is an eccentric and alcoholic misanthrope who has moved in with his estranged daughter-in-law and her family, as a way of hiding from the Galactic Federation that oversees the show’s version of the multiverse. Morty is Rick’s 14-year-old grandson, a typically insecure and self-conscious high school student, who is frequently dragged into Rick’s (mis)adventures in space. If this set-up sounds familiar, that’s because the show’s creators have acknowledged that the show began as a “troll” of the popular Back to the Future trilogy. Note the similarities between the names Morty and Marty (Marty McFly being the teenager dragooned by the mad scientist Dr. Emmett Brown/Doc Brown). However, while the Back to the Future trilogy focused on the comedic aspects of their (mis)adventures – with the darker aspects a secondary consideration – Rick and Morty foregrounds the darker aspects and uses them as the basis for its comedic elements. For example, Morty’s responses to his and Rick’s (mis)adventures are what you would expect of a typically insecure teenager thrown into new and uncomfortable situations. In Morty’s case, though, this set-up is pushed to an extreme, and the situations confronting Morty include meeting aliens and visiting dangerous alien planets; abandoning his family and escaping “his” universe following a world-ending calamity of his and Rick’s making; encountering alternate versions of himself, and discovering that they exist solely to shield Rick from the Galactic Federation; and having his version of Earth invaded by said Federation. His responses include panic, despair, anxiety, nightmares and self-doubt, which reflect many of the typical symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.

If the series’ creators hadn’t infused these responses with comedic concepts such as exaggeration, slapstick, absurdity and incongruity, it would be almost unrelentingly dark. And this is arguably their point – unlike Marty McFly’s casual and comedic acceptance of the events that befall him, Morty’s responses to his and Rick’s (mis)adventures are what we would presume someone would potentially exhibit when confronted with the aforementioned situations. They are “realistic” responses to these kinds of science fiction scenarios, achieving fruition precisely because comedic science fiction is less bound by the need to function in the logical or realistic ways expected of the straight variety. If we couldn’t laugh at the way Morty responds, we would scream instead, and under cover of this laughter the darker realistions of Morty’s situation slip through.

And then there’s Rick himself, a deliberate embodiment of a dyed-in-the-wool cliché (please pardon the pun): The Mad Scientist. Established at the dawn of science fiction, we need look no further than Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, H.G. Wells’ Griffin (The Invisible Man) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll to illuminate its influence on the genre. After all, these three characters are reinvented and reinterpreted every generation or so, and often sooner. The traits that bind them – overwhelming intelligence, arrogance, hubris, an aloofness borne of a superiority complex, a belief that the rules don’t apply to them – are all possessed by Rick. However, unlike them and their more contemporary incarnations – Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, Lex Luthor from Superman, Davros from Doctor Who – Rick isn’t a villain. But nor is he the endearing, absent-minded and ultimately altruistic version of the cliché, a la The Doctor, Professor Farnsworth from Futurama, or Doc Brown. Instead, Rick is a combination of the two types, exhibiting extreme expressions of their best and worst traits. While villainous Mad Scientists have such typically villainous ambitions as world domination, conquering the universe and exterminating one’s enemies, Rick’s (mis)adventures typically revolve around his own immediate needs and desires: keeping boredom at bay, accruing money to keep partying, or proving a point. He isn’t entirely selfish, though, often directing his enormous intelligence towards something that will help his family, no matter how ridiculous their requests. As well, his bond with Morty and love for him exists at his core, no matter how much he sometimes hates it.

In effect, Rick is a realistic version of the Mad Scientist cliché, neither villainous nor heroic but instead contradictory in an utterly individual and human way, made possible by the show’s comedic approach and its embrace of science fiction’s tropes. Because we can laugh at Rick’s contradictory nature, we can more easily understand it within ourselves and thus empathize. However, this device is only a part of how Rick and Morty demonstrates that the subgenre can make us look at science fiction with fresh eyes and reassess what it can say and mean. Another component lies in Rick’s attitude to life (his personal philosophy), which is tied to a question that only science fiction can answer: What would it really be like to be the smartest person in all creation? In Rick’s case, it results in overwhelming nihilism. This exists because one of the series’ major concepts has been Rick’s ability to travel across the multiverse, something that he does with gusto – his very first appearance involves him returning to his daughter’s home after having spent 30+ years there. At this point, having realized that in an infinite multiverse anything that can happen will happen, and that there are infinite versions of his own life ranging from the near-identical to the extremely different, Rick decides that life is actually meaningless. This is because each time he performs an action, an infinite number of other actions occur simultaneously across the multiverse, vastly overshadowing and rendering insignificant the action he has performed.

Rick not only intellectually understand the insignificance of a single human life amongst infinite others; he has literally seen the universe go on without him, through witnessing alternate versions of himself die. It’s unarguable that such an understanding would drive many of us into a nihilistic funk, and Rick’s responses are mostly forgivable – realising that nothing really matters, he throws his energy into looking out for number one, partying like there’s no tomorrow and drinking the pain away. These are “realistic” responses to the kinds of scenarios faced by science fiction clichés such as Rick: Wouldn’t ultimate knowledge and a familiarity with our insignificance potentially make us lonely, self-destructive and selfish? Much like Morty’s responses to his and Rick’s (mis)adventures, Rick’s behavior would be almost unrelentingly dark if the series’ creators hadn’t infused him with comedic overtones. Only through comedy can Rick’s obnoxious selfishness entertain rather than appall, and laughing at it helps us understand it. This is comedic science fiction’s greatest strength: because it can dispense with some of the concepts and precepts of straight fiction – realistic character response, relatable or sympathetic characters, narrative resolution, logic and realism – it can re-examine and show anew science fiction’s tropes, techniques and themes, and the ways in which they are usually employed and handled.

(Originally published in Aurealis #117, February 2019)

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