A Blog Post About Jokes About Jokes

“The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes.” ― Nikolai Gogol.png

When I first started following Deadpool as a character in the 2000s, he was really a interesting but far from the only character doing what he did. 4th wall breaks were somewhat common in comics and She-Hulk was much better at breaking the 4th wall than Wade Wilson ever was. It may have been my love of manga and anime which is full of meta humor and puns that made me sour on the whole thing faster than the average American, but I’m frankly quite tired of meta-humor. Here’s why I dislike meta humor and some practical examples of how it actively usually hurts the narrative its in.

Let’s take a moment to discuss some vocabulary, because once I get started, I will not be slowed down. Meta-humor as currently defined is humor at the expense of the subject. For instance, Scream calling out all the logical fallacies in other horror movies makes it metacritical and metatextual while still being at the time subversive. To subvert or be subversive is to undercut or defy the expectations of a medium or genre. For instance, Rick and Morty subverts the sci-fi genre by being mostly bleak and entirely nihilistic. Meta-humor like this has been popularized for decades and is a vital part of the postmodern culture we live in: thanks, late-capitalism. Meta humor is said to be funny at all because it’s calling out the tropes we know and hate now because they are so overdone. A 4th Wall Break (an instance where a show or piece of media admits it isn’t real and breaks the wall between performance and audience) is rare in theater and was rare in other pieces of media but got more popular with comic books. This is different from being an anti-joke or even surrealist as the goal with these is to defy expectations by being either entirely serious and completely doing something out of the norm. Think of the Lobster Telephone done by Dali. Again, to give credit where credit is due,  the earlier runs of She-Hulk was full of 4th wall breaks but let’s be honest; when you think of a 4th wall break currently, you think of Deadpool.

Deadpool as a movie franchise is interesting, really the character is a hard sell if you aren’t super into comic books. Wade Wilson is a character who cannot die and essentially has gone crazy due to his mutation and is in no way a cheap rip-off of Deathstroke. That being said, the whole idea around his particular version of meta humor is actually pretty strange, Wade Wilson knows he’s a comic book character and knows he isn’t real but most of that is chalked up more to mental illness or lazy writing than it is to anything else. The movies ignore that aspect of canon keep him as every teenage edgelord who thinks he’s funny and too good for the humor of the common folk. This worked in the first movie that came out just after the first big wave of superhero movies. It was funny to have a character comment on the logical fallacies in superhero films. It was great to have jokes lobbed at the film’s own expense, it was, at first incredibly refreshing. By the time we reach Deadpool 2, it’s simply tired. The superhero movie bubble has started to burst and since Avengers: Infinity War had ripped the hearts out of most fans, his humor was just tired. It was no longer new, refreshing or subversion: it was a chore and that movie was mostly a slog for me except for a few scenes that genuinely almost made me spit out my overpriced cola in the theater. Because by the second time Deadpool is commenting on Cable’s weirdly limited time travel abilities or the fact that there are still very few people of color in comic book movies despite there being several people of color in comic books: it just feels like it’s exposing a plot hole. That is a problem.

A 4th wall joke is funny the first time, the second time may even be insightful but the third or fourth is just tired and if anything can take you out of the film. It’s no longer subversive once the trope has already been subverted. Think of the last post we did on the Trope Trope: once being subversive of tropes is established, it then becomes a trope.

It’s especially difficult when a large company tries to comment on the tropes they established. Disney has recently gotten very meta about Disney and it’s infuriating. I grew up with Disney movies and while I didn’t notice many of these errors as a kid, I certainly don’t bat an eye at them much now as an adult. It doesn’t bother me that Beauty and the Beast was full of plot holes: it was a beautiful movie. It doesn’t matter to me that Cinderella isn’t “feminist” enough, she was engaging and the animation on the older movie is gorgeous. But the newer Disney movies have been determined to comment on the tropes that made the movies famous. Don’t like Disney princesses falling in love? Frozen is here to comment on that and then cop to Anna falling in love with her new disposable boyfriend. Disappointed that Belle didn’t fight back more? Beauty and the Beast (2017) is here to make her extra “feminist” and actively weaken her character with an invention subplot that goes nowhere and a total lack of performance or chemistry from Emma Watson. Tired of all those pesky cookie-cutter princesses? Here’s Moana with a character (in the form of Maui who is supposed to be our secondary protagonist) who is literally every teenage edgelord of a kid to undercut the serious moments to the movie’s detriment.

It’s just exhausting. The reason why it’s such a cheap shot is because rather than, you know, fixing the narrative issues; writers assume that calling it out acts as a blanket to cover them instead of just being better. So when Deadpool calls out Cable having a crappy motivation as an antagonist, guess what. I’m aware of how crappy his motivations are. When the new trailer for Wreck-It Ralph makes a jab at how horribly Disney treats its princesses, I’m not laughing. I’m just hyper-aware of how terribly they are all treated and how repetitive it is. When you intentionally poke a hole in the curtain, it becomes easier to see all the other holes in it. Do you know what would be actually subversive? Doing the right thing. In this age of cynicism and senseless cash-grabs, what would really be shocking and subversive would be to just write well. It’d be subversive to have a princess with two loving parents and a stable home life. It’d be subversive to have a gay character who is complex but not magical, a martyr or a token. Sincerity in this cynical postmodern age would be more unique and special at this stage and I can’t believe I have to say that now.

 

Make Anime Weird Again

_This place has only three exits, sir_ Madness, and Death._ — René Daumal (A Night of Serious Drinking) (1).png

Late last year, during one of Carlos and I’s famous hours long Skype calls, we ended up having a pretty profound discussion. You see, as two longtime anime fans, we were both a little exhausted by the recent trends in fandom. Shows like Yuri On Ice and Attack on Titan have brought muggles into our fair community. And while Carlos and I lamented the glory days of anime being strange and exclusive, a brilliant little anime strolled into my queue and actually at Carlos’ recommendation.

I want to talk about Pop Team Epic and making anime weird again.

But first, I want to talk about anime, the surreal and the strange. One of my favorite animes of all time is FLCL. It’s at its core a coming of age story but also features penis allegory robots, a giant steam-powered alien iron that wants to smooth out the wrinkles of human thought and a woman with pink hair on a Vespa who goes around hitting people with a guitar. Anime at its core has always been a little weird. And that can be said about animation in general, but anime’s weirdness is oftentimes a huge barrier to entry for many casual fans. Even excellent animes like Cowboy Bebop and FullMetal Alchemist have very strange parts to them and I’m empathetic to newcomers who are put off by some of the cultural eccentricities of Japanese popular culture.

This is probably going to sound a lot like fan-gating to those in the know and, yes, it is a form of that. When people who are not well-versed in anime critique and comment on anime, you get fresh hot takes like “Anime has a representation problem.” and “why are none of these women wearing pants?” True, holding anime and manga to a higher standard is important. I can be a feminist and struggle with poorly written female characters while also admitting that culturally Japan is very different than the U.S. in 2018.  I came into anime as a little one and struggled a great deal as a fan in the early 2000s when it wasn’t cool to be an otaku. I built anime clubs, made friends, cosplayed and went to conventions to find people who were like me. And popular animes that bring in casual fans can at times muddy the waters. There’s nothing like seeing someone who teased you in high school over a Naruto t-shirt back in the day suddenly saying that love JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. And while that may be somewhat immature to say, I’ve never said claimed to be a perfect human being.

Which brings us to Pop Team Epic. The show centers around two main characters: Pipimi and Popuko and they are surprisingly expressive considering their minimalist designs. The show is now an animated version of the popular 4-Koma webcomic and it follows many of the comic’s best gags and jokes. It’s a weird one and it’s hilariously referential and meta. There are gags that barely count as gags. Each episode is mirrored with male and female voice actors playing two teenage girls. There are crappy segments (intentionally bad ones) in the middle of each episode and there are jokes. So many jokes. And many of them are at the expense of other popular anime, video games and fan trends. Popuko many times calls fans “haters” and it’s actually quite interesting to see. I’m not normally one for self-aware humor and non-sequitur gags but for some reason, it all works for me in Pop Team Epic. And it probably is one of the best mines for reaction gifs that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in a while. Did I mention that the soundtrack is surprisingly good?

I love how unapproachable this anime is. You have to really love comics, really love anime and really love video games to catch all the references and hell, I don’t get all the references. And the humor is often dry and doesn’t go anywhere. The animation is crappy at times, but it’s intentional and the voice acting is strange and strained. The comments about how awful the show can be is rarely lost on me and if you are looking for consistent payoff for jokes, look elsewhere.

And there are plenty times where I’ll end an episode of Pop Team Epic and have no idea what just happened. It’s strange that I’d be so attached to a show like this considering that other shows with humor like that (think Rick and Morty) are not usually shows I enjoy or overly meta shows (continue to think Rick and Morty).

Watching Pop Team Epic reminds me a lot of how many people felt watching Luke Cage over on Netflix. Many said that Luke Cage was unapproachable and “too black” and to anyone who said that (mostly casual white comic book fans), you are right. He is unapproachable and too black. That’s how his character is meant to be. The same can be said for Pop Team Epic. Anyone who says “This anime makes no sense, is poorly animated and is weird.”; congratulations, you are right. It is poorly animated, makes no sense and is weird and if you cannot appreciate it for what it is, then maybe you should try something a little more mainstream. There’s nothing wrong with that. I still love plenty of mainstream animes. And that’s not to say that Pop Team Epic is some secret handshake between the “OG” otakus, there are plenty of long-time anime fans who are put off by the series and basically any actual criticism lobbed at the show is probably understandable.

But you know what? It is also nice to have something that makes anime feel intimate again. There’s something nice about having an anime that is too weird, too good and too strange to live. It’s nice having something that not everyone understands and feeling like some strange unicorn again.

Just for once, it’s nice to feel like anime is special, rare and unique again.