Comedy is all about contrast. That’s why the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke is funny… or at least it would be if it wasn’t so well known! The oddly specific set up is juxtaposed with its mundane conclusion, creating shock and even relief. It’s this release of tension that creates the physical response of laughter, which is why so many great jokes often involve very taboo topics. The science fiction genre has a virtually limitless amount of outlandish stories to work with, however, looking closer at the overall construction of science fiction, it’s not difficult to understand why so few people even attempt to make it funny at all.
For starters, the setting is automatically unfamiliar to the audience. There’s a big difference between “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “Why did the nuclear powered cyborg transcend the galactic inter-dimensional star gate?” This is also true for fantasy stories, but excluding the vague properties of magic, it’s easier for the viewer to grasp the concept of a sword than a Laser Rifle. Many, if not most, sci-fi comedies attempt to fix this detachment by introducing human characters to serve as audience surrogates, often with their slovenly behaviour jarring with the setting’s bizarre and/or pristine aesthetic. Obvious examples are Fry from Futurama and Dave Lister from Red Dwarf. The viewer learns at the same time they do, since the time it would take for the film to dump exposition eats into joke opportunities.
Another method of closing this gap – a lazier method – is to simply make the sci-fi element as human as possible. This often occurs in children’s movies like Planet 51, Lilo And Stitch and Escape From Planet Earth, where alien characters just act like relatable people. It picks up the pace and allows for jokes to start earlier, but the trouble with humour in science fiction is that as you add elements to make it a comedy, it may as well not even be science fiction anymore. Even Lonestar and Princess Vespa from Spaceballs are essentially just a trucker and valley girl who are coincidentally in space.
The human aspect is vital, but what’s equally important is that it bounces off the odd scenarios. Whether it’s a sentient alien suit washing itself in My Favourite Martian or the bumbling human crew in Galaxy Quest conversing with a stereotypically stern villain, the application of comedy in films requires a balancing act of seriousness and weirdness, sci-fi elements being the latter. This contrast is also noticeable with comedic moments in non-comedy science fiction movies, such as Han’s disgruntled response of “That’s not how the force works!” in Star Wars: The Force Awakens working as a quick and realistic takedown of Fin’s hopeful suggestion.
The explanation of the ‘rules’ in a sci-fi movie can easily overstay its welcome; probably more than any other genre, so the audience is very easily sucked into the spectacle of the scene rather than the plans for jokes. It’s a shame that the boundaries of comedy render the science fiction genre practically immovable from this role, but at least we’ll always have Jar Jar Binks sticking his tongue out. Classic.
Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox