Monday, January 2, 2012

New Years Resolutions: No Laxative Scenes

It's the first week of the last year of human civilization, so why not make plans to wrap up humanity in style this year?  This week, I'm spotlighting plot tropes, gags, premises and the like that I never want to see in a script again.

How is that different from virtually every other post on this blog?  Ummm.... look, just go with it.  It fits the New Years Resolution theme.

Laxatives.  They're a laugh riot, aren't they?  After all, I think it was the Greek playwright Aristophanes who once wrote that there was nothing more humorous than the chemically-induced evacuation of one's bowels.  (And I think we can all be grateful that it wasn't a discovery made by Archimedes under the same circumstances that led him to coin the phrase "Eureka!")

It's not that I can't appreciate gross-out humor when it's well-done.  Hell, a laxative gag in Dumb & Dumber had me laughing so hard upon first viewing I feared I'd cause myself physical harm.  (Important fact: I was also about 13 at the time.)

Still, there are three reasons why this gag worked:

Shock Value: I'm sure there were laxative gags in older films, but they hadn't yet become the hack writer national pastime that they were around the time of American Pie.  More importantly, I can't recall a laxative scene that prolongs the... punchline as much as this one does.  The scene of Harry on the toilet is unbearably long to the point of testing the audience's tolerance.  The fact it pushes it so much, and then doubles-down is likely to make one laugh out of either discomfort or admiration.

The reaction to the laxative isn't the lone payoff:  I'm going to be blunt here - a guy shitting his pants isn't funny.  It's sort of like what Krusty the Clown once said, "A pie gag doesn't work unless the sap has dignity!"  The number one mistake made by most scripts I read is that the writer thinks that someone crapping themselves is the punchline.  It's not!  The funniest part of the gag is when he's told the toilet isn't working, just after having deposited a foul mess into it.  The awkwarkness of having clogged up a toilet in the home of a date would be bad enough.  Here, there's no way to even flush or unclog the mess.  It's a "how does he get out of this?" gag.

Sound effects:  Look, it's juvenile, but the sound design is so exaggerated and over the top that you can't help but laugh.

These elements are too often neglected in the many specs I read, and even in the iterations of this gag in other films.  Though it's not precisely a laxative gag, the similarly-themed scene in Bridesmaids was, in my opinion, the nadir of that film.  It's the worst scene of the film, and possibly one of the worst scenes I saw on screen this year.

I'd venture that 99% of the laxative gags I read in specs are little more than rehashes of the same tired American Pie formula:

- Main character's rival wants to embarass him, rival spikes food with laxative.
- Main character gets intestinal distress at an inopportune time.
- Main character struggles with discomfort.
- Messy, public defecation ensues.

Those are the same basic points in Dumb & Dumber, but the difference is that there we empathize with Harry.  In American Pie, I don't care about Finch.  I have no identification with that character, so his humiliation doesn't mean anything to me.  Also, with D&D almost 20 years in the past, that sort of gag no longer has any shock value.  Some scripts try to overcome this by amping up the gross factor, but that carries a risk of backfiring.

Laxatives have just become an easy go-to for hack writers wanting a quick gross-out gag in their script.  If you've written a laxative scene into any recent spec, I feel confidant saying you're capable of better and that that particular spec is probably worth no one's time to read.  If THIS is what you find funny, I can't imagine how the rest of your work reads.

So make this resolution and pledge with me: "I will not write a laxative gag into any future specs."

1 comment:

  1. See, for me laxative scenes don't work at all - except one time in Michael Crawford's autobiography Parcel Arrived Safely Tied With String. (For those wondering, his mom actually had him out of wedlock and that was the code to her mom that she had a boy.)

    In it Michael talks about a director he had who was always stealing peoples' chocolates. So Michael substituted Exlax, but he doesn't really say much about it, except that later the director called him up to curse him out.

    Hilarious, real life, and no need to even see the pooping scene.