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And the Villains Vamped

June 8, 2018

Thanks to Ben Peterson, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

“Laughter is the best medicine.” -- everybody ever

If you have been alive at any point in time, you have probably heard this expression. If you’ve been alive for more than a few years strung together, you may have heard it evoked in many different situations by many different voices, of which a slim minority belonged to licensed doctors. There should be no need to point out that in a literal sense the notion is absurd. It’s a platitude, a pleasant chunk of bunk. In a nonliteral sense, however, this oft-repeated nugget of pop pharmacology really is thicker than snake oil. Funny business might not cure our carnal ills, but when it comes to quality of life there is something in that daily block of Seinfeld reruns more soothing than any pill, drip, or salve. The influence is less pharmaceutical than metaphysical. It reaches down into the psychic depths where monsters dwell and eases the thorns from their aching feet. Under a wave of cool, honest laughter, anxiety is dispelled, insults neutralized, grudges eroded, gloom allayed.

It makes sense, then, that any supplier of this special drug would become a recipient of the best compensation: our gratitude and affection. The one who makes us laugh is the one who saves us, an act which seems invariably to foster a deep, sanguine, human connection. Physical jokery is one of the simplest forms of this exchange: the clown submits to all manner of embarrassment which, should we be amused, we repay with at least a general feeling of approval (short of any horrific makeup). If Chaplin ended the movie in the gutter, spiritually squashed, we probably would feel that this was not a comedy after all. We like to watch the fool fail, but we love to see him prevail in the end—even if prevailing means simply to keep on truckin’. This comic law underpins the paltriest Keystone one-reeler as much as it does contemporary gems like The Big Sick.

And then there’s Lemony. One of the greatest fortunes of my growing-up years was to witness the unfolding of A Series of Unfortunate Events, a bleak and often thrilling Young Adult mystery saga credited to the fictitious narrator Lemony Snicket. Even today, I’m not convinced that this name is not a joint nom de plume for Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie, or possibly Dr. Seuss and Jorge Luis Borges. Impaling touches of absurdity and wry lexical digressions upon dark, twisting vines of plot, Snicket relates the trials of three hyperintelligent children who are orphaned by a housefire and spend the next thirteen increments of their lives escaping from horrid foster environments and ducking a vain and pernicious actor who lusts after their sizeable inheritance.

Unfortunate Events is currently nine books deep into a Netflix adaptation featuring Neil Patrick Harris as the openly theatrical antagonist, Count Olaf, and Patrick Warburton doing a pretty fine Don Draper impression. The show is scripted in part by Daniel Handler, the “real” identity of Lemony Snicket. Like Nickelodeon’s attempt to vacuum-pack the first three titles into one movie back in 2004, I think the Netflix series is clever in some respects but ultimately too…for its own good…silly. It plays the way an adult probably feels reading these books. The show sports a kind of pop-up-book whimsy in place of the very legitimate sense of dread that hangs over Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire. The novels—thanks to Snicket’s melancholy voice leading us through the story like a well-read Charon—are populated mostly by dry, black humor that never betrays the seriousness of the children’s grief and unrelenting peril. The jokes in the home streaming version are lighter, more extroverted, and stem mostly from Count Olaf being a narcissistic dunce.

This is a very unusual prescription indeed. Villains have always been viable focal points of humor, of course: my mind goes to Biff Tannen’s periodic rendezvous with his least favorite animal waste product. That gag amuses not only because it’s happening to someone else (rather than ourselves), but because it happens to someone we particularly dislike. In scene after scene, Biff is nothing but vicious and nasty to his fellow man—and even, in Back to the Future Part II, to older and younger versions of himself. He is a pure, 24-carat villain, so he warrants a bit of filthying up; them cow pies are just desserts. Even if we don’t catch Marty McFly pausing for a chortle over the manure shower we can assume that, as a chronic victim of Biff’s brutality, he would find some righteous amusement in it.

What sets Unfortunate Events apart—in dark, un-Hubbled regions of the comic cosmos—is that we are given no one to laugh with. There’s a stark divide in this misfortune-strewn world separating the good guys from the bad, and that line comes down fairly predictably between children and adults. But the behaviors of these two groups are curiously inverted. Horseplay and hamming are made exclusively the affairs of the grown-ups, most of whom are either actively victimizing the Baudelaires or, at best, trying to lift their great despair with allergenic peppermint candies. Snicket will have no such shenanigans from his underage heroes. By and large, he denies them the propensity to laugh at the most clearly laughable premises, even on the rare occasion that the joke does not mortally imperil them. There are exceptions in the books, but so far the Netflix orphans have done little to suggest a humor center.

The fact is they are simply too busy: Snicket denies them the time to find things funny. The Baudelaires are not merely bereaved, they are literally forced to tidy up after a gaggle of adult goof-offs who cannot take care of themselves. (Olaf’s hygiene, for one thing, is enough to make a rat queasy.) The siblings are written as book-smart whiz kids thrown into high-gear survival mode. They cook and clean, craft appliances, saw logs, disinfest dank cellars, decipher Dan Brownian codes—they survive, and they do it with a demeanor that’s industrious, resourceful, gloomy, and strangely pedantic. They are like weary single parents, endlessly harangued by the mess-making monkeyshines of almost everyone they meet. They have no time for smiles. They have only a few cards in their emotional decks, while their foes are fully emotive and animated.

It works. Maybe because the storytelling funnels us into the kids’ corner, or maybe because their plight is so plainly undeserved and unjust. (Or perhaps the novels’ exquisite balance of tones has impressed me so deeply that I can project it back onto the more shambolic streaming series.) Regardless of why, the show gets away with having these long-faced junior MacGyvers oppressed by a conspiracy of jocular thieves. I root for Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, and I zealously await the unmasking and indictment of their enemies, even knowing those perfidious clowns are the ones who have been making with the funny. All the yuks are theirs to claim. The orphans, to be honest, kind of bum me out and bore me. A wax statue of Liam Neeson garroting a panda is more risible than these kids. Yes, I cheer them on through their unfortunate toils, but if their folks were still alive and they invited me over for a playdate in the library, I would try to think of a credible excuse to get out of it and go watch Olaf workshop his newest bizarre trainwreck of a theater piece. My sense of right aligns me with the eternally breathless Baudelaires, but my sense of humor gravitates toward their tormentors.

Should my loyalty not be split in two? Between the glum youths I want to prevail and the snickering cads who must be thwarted? It isn’t. Somehow my mind accounts for the fact that, in this world, fun is felonious. Perhaps enabling that kind of contortion is the power of art. Storytelling like Snicket’s manages to play not just on my emotions, on my squirming id’s need for entertainment, but simultaneously on my moral fiber. And it’s able to play these sections against each other, entrusting me to be rational and ticklish, even when each of those forces seems fixed to undermine the other. Olaf and his cronies are constantly making fools of themselves—like Chaplin, keeping my cabinet flush with over-the-counter Hardeehar. Wouldn’t it be easy—natural, even—to let the funny bone serve as the gavel? These zany malevolents do me a great service with their clowning. How do I repay them? With betrayal. The baleful Baudelaire bambini aren’t doing me any favors, yet they furnish themselves with my full support.

In a sense, we are deputized by the story. The Olaf cabal suffers no diegetic witness equipped with the critical judgment and functioning sense of humor to acknowledge how royally pinheaded they are. It’s like their frivolity itself is their most successful scheme, the one trick they keep getting away with. The orphans are smart enough to see through every other ploy and disguise, but they’re too smart to realize what nimrods are at their heels. So it’s up to us. Only our vigilant ridicule keeps the villains in check—and yet every smirk they inspire gives us that much more in common with these buffoons, and that much less with the wet blankets we are here to champion. When we step into the world of Unfortunate Events, humor is no longer a virtue: it’s a cause for suspicion.

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