18th May 2021 | Open Movie | Sprite Fright
Note: the following piece contains major spoilers.
This is part two of an interview with Matthew Luhn. Matthew is the writer and director of Sprite Fright, the new Open Movie, now in production. In part one, Matthew summarized the “science of storytelling”: how triggering certain brain chemicals can create emotional responses in an audience. He also touched on advice for generating gags and visual comedy.
In this article, Matthew goes into depth on the latter.
“I am definitely no stranger when it comes to creating gags and visual comedy,” Matthew says. “I loved coming up with gags and additional funny moments on dozens of Pixar shorts, specials, and films.”
After a lifetime devoted to storytelling and humor, Matthew has noticed certain types of gags/visual comedy appearing over and over again. “Not just in animation, but in live action, theater, and sketch comedy like Saturday Night Live and Monty Python. And I wanted to highlight a couple of those gags here.”
Matthew says, “If there was one gag type that stands out on Sprite Fright it is the reversal of expectations. This is when you expect the character to do one thing, and then they do something completely different. The concept of Sprite Fright itself is a reversal of expectations. The reversal is: ‘What if cute, forest creatures end up going haywire? And kill everybody?’”
While at Pixar, Matthew worked on another film whose premise is itself a reversal of expectations: Monsters Inc. “When you think of monsters hiding in bedroom closets, they are creepy, evil, and scare kids. But in Monsters Inc., it turns out that monsters are just like us. They work jobs, drive cars and watch TV.”
The reversal of expectations gag springs from a rich tradition. “The king of reversal of expectations is my favorite cartoonist, Sergio Aragonés,” Matthew says. “He was a Mad Magazine cartoonist who was amazing at coming up with funny reversal of expectation gags. One of his recurring comic strips was The Shadow Knows, which was two pages filled with funny reversal of expectation gags. Aragonés would draw familiar characters doing one thing, while their shadows on the wall would be revealing what they really wanted to be doing.”
While Matthew sees the reversal of expectations as Sprite Fright’s primary source of humor, pain gags come a close second. “We’re using a number of funny pain gags throughout the short as we see the human characters disposed of in different comical ways by the Sprites. Getting drowned in Sprite pee, getting suffocated by snails, that kind of thing. This is why Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Tom & Jerry work so well. It’s why we love Mike Wazowski from Monsters Inc. getting kicked in the nuts over and over again. Or poked in his eye.” Matthew grins. “His only eye.”
The pain gag may be a straightforward form of humor, but Matthew cautions against discounting it. “Yes, it may seem a bit immature but it taps into that silly kid deep down in all of us who enjoys a funny pain gag. So we definitely have a lot of fun pain gags in Sprite Fright.”
Pain gags as a category can be subdivided. “There are slapstick pain gags,” Matthew says, “And there are pain gags that fall under dark humor. In order to distinguish the two, it’s about how you see other characters react to the pain gag. As an example, say someone is walking down the street in New York City with their little poodle. A giant safe falls and crushes the person, but the poodle is still alive, and you see the poodle’s chain sticking out from underneath the safe. I think that allows the audience to laugh and think, ‘Oh, that’s funny.’ Now if the dog had died with the owner, then it would have been more of a dark humor moment. A more ‘Oh, boy’ reaction.”
In Sprite Fright, Matthew is inclined to steer pain gags toward the darker end of the spectrum. “When a character dies, it’s going to make people cringe, and make them go ‘Yikes.’ But I also want there to be a bit of a giggle afterwards though. For example, when you see Victoria die in the spiderweb, a small tuft of hair will remain visible from her super high '80s hairdo. But Phil... Phil is going to be a little tricky. I want Phil’s death to be more intense and scary to heighten the threat of the Sprites. Then after Phil’s death, the other human deaths can be more comical. I also want people to laugh at when the Sprites get impaled and cut up. Funny deaths all-around!”
Matthew continues: “One of the things I also try to add when it comes to visual comedy and gags is comedy in threes. Now this type of comedy in threes goes all the way back to when the Italians had their commedia dell'arte in Europe during the 16th to 18th century. If you look up the history of comedy, it begins with these guys. I mean you could take it waaaay back to the first caveman dropping a rock on another caveman’s foot, but the Italian commedia dell-arte is a good place to start.”
“An important device back then was the comedy of threes. If you see something funny, like that caveman dropping the rock on another caveman’s foot, it’s funny. If you see it happen two more times, it gets really funny. But when it gets to the fourth and fifth time, it’s exhausting. So for some reason, there’s that power in threes.”
“You’ll see this happen a lot in Sprite Fright. For example, when you see Rex whacking the Sprites in the Whack-A-Mole scene we have the three holes. When you see the Sprites taking care of certain animals in the beginning, like the ladybugs, and they’re shining up their shells, we purposefully have three Sprites. So you will see this comedy of threes play out throughout the short.”
Matthew recalls his former colleague at Pixar, the renowned director Brad Bird. “While working with Brad on Ratatouille and The Simpsons, I would see his use of comedy of threes being woven into different sequences. What you see with Brad is that there are always comedy in threes moments in his films. For example, in Iron Giant, when you see Kent Mansley, the FBI guy, talking to his boss on the phone, it takes him three comical attempts to hang the phone up. His first attempt is a simple hanging up of the telephone receiver, which doesn’t work. So he picks it up and slams it down again. And it doesn’t hang up again. And then he picks up the phone receiver and goes bam, bam, bam, slamming it into place.”
“There’s something about the power of threes that works great in storytelling. This includes Act One, Act Two, and Act Three in storytelling, but it also works well in gags.”
As Matthew notes, the number three has power. So having explored three types of gag/visual comedy, it seems appropriate to end here.