By Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
There is an often-repeated, often misunderstood, rule of improv called “yes and.” What it boils down to is that when you’re in an scene with another person, it is your job as a performer to not deny any of the reality your partner has set up, and everything you say should add to that reality. Mechanically, it looks like this: you hear what your partner said, acknowledge and affirm it, and then add something that respects what has already been established. This is great for starting scenes, but beyond the first couple lines, the “and” half of the equation gets dangerous. That’s how you start to get President Michael Vick drilling for pirates’ gold on Jupiter. See how fast that sentence got away from me? That’s too many premises to deal with in any way that makes sense, and is totally divorced from reality.
The new Image series Ice Cream Man as written by W. Maxwell Prince suffers from an overabundance of “yes and.” Prince starts the issue simply enough, with a little boy visiting the ice cream truck all by himself. It’s a fairly normal, transactional scene, punctuated by the titular Ice Cream Man noticing that the little boy does not have his mommy or daddy with him. Prince has planted the seeds of creepiness here, and to this point, it’s working. When the boy returns to his home, a mysterious narrator takes over, describing a spider with the menacing title “most venomous spider in the world.” A second creepy tease. The boy approaches the door, puts an old-timey clothes-pin over his nose like he’s fighting Pepe Le Pew, and slowly opens the door. Creep tease three. All of which leads up to the reveal (er… twin reveals, I guess) that the kid’s parents are dead and he’s talking to this deadly spider.
That’s a lot, but it is by no means too much. Dumb kid lives with a spider who killed his parents — that’s a fine premise, and one that demands further investigation. How does the kid live? How does he feel about his parents? Has he had to hide it from his neighbors? Why does he think the spider is his friend? But rather than answering any of those implicit questions, Prince generates more questions. The cops are investigating a crazy lady’s claim that there’s some kind of cat-sucker-monster stalking the neighborhood. She proves it by pulling the cat’s clean skeleton out of her purse. Then, while out of a peaceful stroll in the woods (?), the kid encounters the ice cream man, with his uniform tattered, as though from some kind of transformation.
And and and and and. Artist Martín Marazzo does some beautifully grounded work here, acting as a necessarily foil to Prince’s manic “yes and”ing his own story into oblivion. By the end of the issue, the world of Ice Cream Man is so fucking weird, I don’t really have anything to latch on to. Is the ice cream man a magical cat-sucking werewolf locked in an on-going war with an ultra-venomous spider? And are they also drilling for pirates’ gold on Jupiter?
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?
Patrick, I may be totally off base here, but I get the impression that comedy nerds have less patience for snowballing absurdity than the general public. That is, while I definitely agree that “President Michael Vick drilling for pirates’ gold on Jupiter” isn’t all that funny on its own, I lack the “jesus, we have to sell this?” experiences you’ve had, so I don’t have that instinct that it’s absolutely devoid of humor, either.
Which I guess brings me to my actual question of this issue: is it supposed to be funny? I definitely snorted when that lady pulled a fully intact cat skeleton (her beloved cat’s skeleton, no less) out of her bag, and I believe Prince and Marazzo meant for that to be a funny image. So like, how much of this is supposed to be genuinely scary, and how much is supposed to be over-the-top absurd? I’m not defending this issue, exactly — the fact that I genuinely don’t know speaks to some profound failures in selling either the horror or the humor — but I do wonder if the run-away “yes and”ing is the joke. Heaven knows there are stories out there that are unintentionally hilarious for piling up this many weird cliches, as well as intentionally funny send-ups of those stories. This issue definitely fails to be either of those things, but I’m not 100% sure which one of those it’s even trying for.
Sure and we both write favorably about Fu Jitsu, which is all about rapidly heightening absurdity. But Fu Jitsu def knows it’s being funny, and pursues new punchlines on every page. Fuj’ also ends up being endlessly more imaginative than this, cramming those silly things together and then making them make sense (at least internally).
And I’m not convinced non-comedy nerds really do have a higher tolerance for that sort of thing than improv dorks. I think improvisers may just have the vocabulary for expressing why something doesn’t work for them. Like, an audience member at an improv show might not like a scene, and when pressed for why could only tell you that it wasn’t funny. A performer or a student could be able to drill down into it with more specific language. (Which of course isn’t to say that the audience member is wrong – the scene wasn’t funny.) I think that’s what my mom means when she says something is “stupid” – unsupported premises that aren’t explored.
Let’s take the example of the cat. You said you laughed at it – which is great. It plays almost like a non sequitur, and that SHOULD be good for laugh. But that’s where it necessarily has to stop. Half-acknowledging the cat skeleton and sorta regarding it as the reality of the situation softens the absurdity of it without really mining any comic (or creepy) potential of it.
I agree that the execution is a mess, but I wonder if part of the problem is that it doesn’t commit to either the horror or the comedy sides fully. It may be just me giving them the benefit of the doubt that the “let’s throw all the logs on the fire” mentality is meant to be part of the joke, but that has to make more sense than “creepy suburban accidental deaths AND ALSO WEREWOLVES.” So like: is that a (poorly executed) joke, or is this issue just that dumb?
Have you guys heard of the writing advice of ‘One Big Lie’? Like all writing advice, it is not a rule as much as it is a guideline. And it was probably a guideline specifically to get past this problem. The idea is that you are only allowed one, single incredible element to your story, one great leap away from reality.
I don’t think it is the best advice (Black Mirror is proof of just how well such a rule can be used, but I think there is a lot of space in exploring the interaction between two great lies). But I also think all rules of writing are valuable to know, so you understand why to break it. Because the rule exists to make sure that the story does not drown in premises. That quality always matter more than quantity
Yup. One Big Lie is very similar to the concept of Game of “First Unusual Thing” in improv. (Sorry, it’s the lens I looking through when writing about this issue, and therefore the one I’m going to stick with.) The idea being that you hit the first thing that feels odd or noteworthy and then really work with that one thing to understand it and get all the possible meat of those bones.
There’s totally room for a second thing, but like, you totally have to understand the first thing. The real danger is one one weird thing makes the other weird thing basically irrelevant (like the old Michael Scott-ism of always pulling a gun in a scene). That’s what the werewolf feels like here – a gun in a scene that can’t really use one.
There’s a big reason I said that ‘there is a lot of space in exploring the interaction between two great lies’. Because I think if you are going to have a second lie, you generally should explore how each lie influences the other lie. And if you don’t, one lie (like the werewolf) will end up being vestigial. Which means a great risk of breaking ‘One Big Lie’ is that the amount of work needed to properly service your premises expands exponentially. Which is hard.
It is quite interesting how the rules of so many different art forms end up saying the same things. Because ‘Yes and’ is also a call for propulsive storytelling – to have things happen. Which speaks to just how universal the principals of drama is. Every rule of drama should be broken (you could probably do a great meta piece of improv by consistently breaking ‘Yes and’, though it would certainly be hard to do, because its improv).
The biggest problem with this issue is the werewolf-thing. Otherwise, this series is implied to be a supernatural/horror anthology, following the ice cream man from town to town and weird story to weird story, almost like he’s our host, the cryptkeeper or something. That works fine.
The problem is the Ice Cream Man being inserted into the story as some sort of werewolf, when he’s already a supernatural creature of some other sort. It gives him a role in the one-off story that isn’t explained and that doesn’t support the spider-boy story, just complicates it. It’s a completely unnecessary and confusing plot point that muddles both the one-off tale and the overarcing mythology. I’m confused as to what it’s supposed to accomplish.
(The Ice Cream man WAS the werewolf, right? That’s what I got, but if not, the werewolf becomes even more out of place and jarring. No matter what, what point did it have being in this issue at all? This was a very strange comic, and not in a good way)
SPENCER THAT’S A GREAT QUESTION. Maybe? The shorts on the werewolf and the shredded uniform suggest that that’s the case, but who knows? Not only is it impossible to tell if the Ice Cream Man is the werewolf, but what would be the point? Is he a curator of weird tales, or an actor in them?
I’m just disappointed this isn’t a comic book adapatation of 80’s horror schlockfest Ice Cream Man.
CLINT HOWARD – cashing in on that ugly mug.
EDIT: I stand corrected– Ice Cream Man was made in 1995. I’m not sure if this makes it better or worse.