Seven(ish) comedy influences behind my approach to humor in games
Spoiler alert: they're all cartoons.
· Game Development
#0: Credit due
Someone smarter than I am once said something like this, probably: the best of comedy is at the intersection of absurdity and wordplay. At least, that's the pearl of wisdom I've carried with me through my game development career. Maybe I invented it; maybe I deserve a medal. Maybe I'll wait while you forge one. Solid gold, if you please. I have a ton of student loan debt.
Subjective as humor is, I think I'm onto some sort of truth about how it ticks. These two factors, absurdity and wordplay, encompass what makes funny things funny: the element of surprise. Generally speaking on humor theory, what underpins alllll the myriad approaches to doing something for laughs is the subversion of an expected formula.
The hero image of this post — a blue orange — is a pretty succinct example. It's likely not the funniest thing you've ever seen in your life (and if it is, go watch something on this list, immediately). Yet, you expect the fruit named for the color to be, in fact, orange in color. Twisting this expectation with a little absurdity (oranges aren't blue!) and wordplay ("blue orange" is an oxymoron!) results in a touch of the smirks. Taken to the maximum extent, as do the things on this list, that conjoinery can be gut-bustingly, pants-peeingly, lung-punchingly hilarious, in a way so few things in life ever manage.
Oh, Aristotle! It was Aristotle who said the smart thing. "The secret to humor is surprise." Yeah, apparently, he figured all this stuff out a super long time ago? I guess you can give him that medal you forged. Pfft. Every time...
#1: 90s Nickelodeon
Rocko's Modern Life. Ren & Stimpy. AHH! Real Monsters. Angry Beavers. Rugrats. Doug. Hey Arnold! No wonder us millennials are so broken. Look at the animations that raised us. I'm still afraid of having my brain sucked into the TV when my cat and I fall asleep in front of it every night. And you trust us with mortgages?
Haha, jk, there are no mortgages millennials can afford. Especially millennials who write for games.
As a child in this magical era of Yak Baks and Gak, I spent Saturday mornings with a bowl of ~chemicals~ cereal and Nickelodeon. This was my religion, my holy day of rest. The school week couldn't be over fast enough — on the weekend, I had CARTOONS waiting for me. Who needed friends and extracurricular activities? I was preparing for covid lockdown way before it was cool.
90s Nicktoons were absurdity personified. Premises as simple as taking out the garbage would spiral into wacky life-or-death romps. The visual language of these shows, and the punny (often innuendo-laden) dialogue that went along with it, deeply informed my sense of humor from a precocious age of four. Not to mention, gave me a(n un)healthy appreciation for the weird, gross, and weirdly gross. (Remember those Ren & Stimpy close-ups? So horrible, so good.)
Also, shout-out to Batman: The Animated Series. Not a Nicktoon, but the puns are on point. Hey-oh.
#2: Nintendo (64)
It's no secret to anyone who knows me, or has observed the Triforce tattoo on my back, that I'm a Rabbid Nintendo fan. (Haha, get it, do you get my joke, because rabid, and also the Nintendo IP, and also you probably don't know this about me but I'm actually 52 rabbits under a trench coat pretending to be human.)
My first intro to Nintendo arrived via the OG gray GameBoy and Kirby's Pinball Land. (That chiptune soundtrack is still my jam, bruh.) A few years later, my little ten-year-old mind would be decimated by the utter amazement of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on Nintendo 64. To this day, it's still my favorite game (and the reasons why deserve a much longer post than this post is already shaping up to be).
Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, Banjo Kazooie, Paper Mario, and, of course, Super Mario 64 were the titles that inspired me to become a game developer. I remember beating OoT, staring at the credits in that post-boss-fight fugue of accomplishment and disbelief, and realizing for the first time that PEOPLE make games. All those patented Nintendo dialogue lines that made me laugh? All those ridiculous scenarios unfolding at my fingertips? PEOPLE made those. And ten-year-old Amanda, yet unburdened by a healthy sense of self-doubt and the realities of the games industry, thought, "I could be a people that makes those!"
Twenty-plus years later, whether I'm pissing off chickens in Breath of the Wild or screenshotting puns in Animal Crossing, I'm continually finding Nintendo at that intersection of absurdity and wordplay. They make, uh, some money, so they might be onto something, too.
#3: Adventure Time
Ah, Adventure Time. Just look at B-MO, a sentient GameBoy with limbs, or Lumpy Space Princess, a... uh, lumpy space... yeah. Then there's the kingdom populated by anthropomorphic candy. The piercing Earl of Lemongrab. A magic dog who can reshape his own matter, and dates a unicorn who's also a rainbow.
No one would confuse the improbable universe of Adventure Time with, say, Mr. Robot (another of my writing influences, but more on that in another post). But please tell me if you DO confuse the two, because your mind is fascinating, and I want to hear other things you think.
Given the entire TV Tropes page dedicated to the funniest dialogue lines in AT, it's clear we have our wordplay side of the equation. Even though I'd already graduated college by the time this show aired, I spent many a Saturday morning in my mid-20s, camped out with my (grown-up boring and healthy) cereal, praying at my altar of animated hilarity.
#4: Monty Python
I know. Not a cartoon, despite my aforementioned spoiler alert that everything on this list is a cartoon. Monty Python has cartoon elements, though, and has directly inspired the work of folks like Matt Groening, Seth McFarlane, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone. You wanna know why? Ooooo-weeeee, say it with me, folks: absurdity and wordplay! Those building blocks of improv, the very essence of "yes, and..."
Take the Dead Parrot sketch, icon of the Flying Circus brand of humor. The ridiculousness of being sold, and subsequently trying to return, a deceased parrot. The escalating banter between the purposefully obtuse shopkeeper and the parrot-prevented patron. Comedy gold like that makes one pine for the fjords...
#5: Rick and Morty
Uh, *burrrrrp* obviously, MORTY. And Solar Opposites. And Squanch Games. And pretty much everything Justin Roiland creates. This post is already long, so I don't think you need me to point out the running river of absurdity in Roiland's work, nor the biting wit and wordplay that suffuses it. The whole of the internet will gladly shove into your eyeholes its praise for Rick and Morty... along with some surprisingly well-thought-out theories on the identity of the One True Morty.
#6: Bojack Horseman
Bojack almost feels out of place on this list, given its unflinching and heartfelt take on subjects like addiction, mental illness, and death... you know, all that classic hilarious stuff. But the absurdity of an entire universe of anthropomorphic animals living their best anthropomorphic lives among humans is too good not to mention. And the PUNS, oh, the puns! What an absolute masterclass in visual and verbal gags alike.
#7: Adult Swim
South Park. Robot Chicken. I'm lumping re-runs of Futurama into this list, too. Even early Family Guyhas its moments. These IPs feature prominently in the public consciousness, icons of the surreal and satirical, and I've been talking for a long time already, so just #trust.
##: A reward
Stuck with me for this long? Congratulations! You've won the following game recommendations, my favorites of our modern era, which employ absurdity and wordplay in spades. I am but a simple Amanda; when asked about the funniest games I've ever played, I rattle off this list*:
*Excluding Nintendo games, of which I'd add dozens — but their brand is absurdity and wordplay, so it's like cheating.
It's a surprisingly short list. Unlike the point-and-click 90s, and all its islands monkey and secret, the modern games industry is... kind of lacking in the laugh-out-loud department, frankly. Put down the guns, fellow devs, and let's pick up the puns.