I am taking a break from the Zir’an series this week to focus on some GM advice from an unlikely source: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.
I’m a big fan of the directorial efforts of Christopher Guest. When your weakest entry into films is the still-hilarious For Your Consideration, you have made some wise choices. With this is mind, it is no small consideration for me to state in the future there will be back-to-back viewings of This is Spinal Tap! and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. The last few years have seen a resurgence in the music star biopic. Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, One Direction, and more have put out theatrical release documentaries. This is to say nothing of all of the reality shows and news magazine shows that cover celebrities. While people might say, “This is just a rip off of This is Spinal Tap!”, it is really a topical mockumentary lampooning recent trends, while also presenting some amazing comedy. However, this article isn’t really to sing the praises of the film. Instead, it’s to discuss some of the specific ways the film approaches classic jokes and spins them in new directions, reappropriating them to create something else entirely, but with the trappings of the classic jokes. This is invaluable for storytelling, specifically if you are looking to expand your GM skills.
A Brief Word of Caution
As a brief warning, I will be discussing two crude-on-the-surface jokes. They are penis jokes. Jokes about human anatomy and bodily functions are as old as time, and you have probably heard them all. Most of the time it doesn’t matter, because it’s about timing and execution. Sometimes it’s an ancillary feature of a separate joke and the base joke is used to highlight or serve as a companion piece to the other. Every once in awhile, the jokes are inverted in a way that creates a new joke, or at least a rarely-seen variant. The fact these jokes are so old and are being used in ways that still evoke laughs due to their ingenuity and execution is great news for all game runners out there. People love a lot of classic aspects of tabletop games, but keeping them new and fresh is a huge challenge. The way these jokes show up in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping can be a blueprint for changing classics in your own game.
First Things First
Let’s break down the first of the two jokes. It comes at a time when Connor, the main character, is experiencing a downward trajectory in his career. He is resorting to stage tricks to sell concert tickets because his second album is awful and not selling. He does laser light shows, holograms, costume changes, and magic tricks. The joke is in two parts, setting up a situation where you believe you have already experienced the payoff, only to have the payoff come later, but resulting in a completely altered scenario. In a segment showcasing the costume change trick, the costumes keep getting hung up on his twig and berries. There is a rapid fire clip segment of him getting hit in the balls, and then ends with him discussing how he solved the issue: by tucking it between his legs. This is pretty funny, but it’s more of a grin and a smile than a guffaw. It’s funny, because this man insecure in his sexuality and masculinity acts like he solved this great problem, something men dressing as women have been using for time untold. That’s not the payoff.
Interspersed in the segment on stage tricks is a segment discussing how Connor and Hunter the Hungry, Connor’s tourmate and burgeoning rival, love pranking people. Hunter is portrayed as a mean-spirited prankster who loves nothing more than making people embarrassed and miserable. The payoff comes when Connor is in the midst of a performance, after showing several very successful shows featuring the clothes change trick, and the trick goes awry.
Connor is left naked, with his eggs and sausage tucked between his legs. Connor is mortified, of course. Afterwards, he is terrified people will believe he has no penis. This is obviously stupid, and he is reassured of this by his manager. When Connor swaps on the television, a 24-hour news network has “Connor has no penis?” scrawling across the bottom, and the talking heads are debating whether or not he has genitalia. Hunter is genuinely confused about it, and so are all of his fans. Chris Redd’s deadpan delivery as Hunter saying, “For real though, where his penis?” just slays it. That’s the payoff. No one has any common sense, and the frenzy around the event is utterly stupid, yet you can easily imagine it playing out exactly that way. It’s the best sort of satire. It’s biting in its portrayal of the media and the people unwilling to use any sort of critical thought, yet at the same time the subject matter is entirely ridiculous. Hunter plays mind games with Connor over whether Hunter is responsible or not, only revealing he did it as a final stake through the heart at the moment of Connor’s fall.
Think about this setup from a GMing perspective. You are creating a scenario where on the surface it’s selling two things: an obvious thing, and a seemingly unrelated secondary thing. For example, you could be presenting an orc army seeking to crush a town, and the possession of a small child by Glasya. The players clash with the army, who is seeking to destroy the town. The twist is the leader of the orcs is actually a goodly paladin of Torm. He was given divine guidance that the leader of the church in the town was actually a devout follower of Asmodeus, and he is hoping to give the daughter of Asmodeus, Glasya, a living avatar within the world. The orcs don’t actually kill the citizens, but instead subdue them and tend to any wounds, and abide by a strict code of battle conduct. These are woke orcs. Now, this is hardly the most inventive scenario, but it takes the tropes of pillaging orcs and devil possession and twists it in a direction that combines both and pays them off in a way that is yet a third thing entirely.
The second penis joke worthy of discussion occurs later in the film. Connor is tricked into meeting his ostracized bandmate, set in an after-concert limousine. The two of them get into a heated discussion over the reasons why their band broke up, leading to Connor’s solo career. Connor is talking about how humble is he, and how he is treated like a normal person, only to have bare breasts pressed against the window. He continues on and on with how loyal he is to his fans, how they are in sync, and how it’s a bond that can’t be broken. He makes signing bare breasts sound like an onerous task he doesn’t enjoy, in order to prove a point to his ex-bandmate, Lawrence. He doesn’t want to do it, but he will, because he loves the fans. During the conversation, the breasts have been replaced with a flaccid penis pressed against the window. Connor realizes he has just given this speech about loyalty and duty, and is caught in a situation where he has to do this thing he obviously no longer wants to do, now that the tables have turned. The joke could have gone the easy route of penises being disgusting. That’s not where the joke takes it.
Instead, Connor, who does obviously find signing the penis repugnant, doubles down on his previous speech. Yes, he is disgusted to sign the penis. He is almost gagging and is comically attempting to do find ways to not touch it, but still sign it. Connor continues to use this moment as a “teaching lesson” to Lawrence. It’s obvious to everyone Connor does not believe what he is saying, but he is oblivious to their insight. The enlightened state of mass connection he is trying to portray rings hollow, even more so because of his reaction clashing with his words. The joke isn’t penises are gross. The joke is how Connor has no idea of the image he portrays, how fake he is, and how unwilling he is to admit he is wrong or be flexible in any way. Connor is egocentric in a way that is damaging to himself and others, and can’t see dangers his behavior is leading him towards.
This is a depressing joke. It deals with very real, identifiable issues viewed through an absurdist lens. This is indicative of some of the best comedy around. Truth is at the core of the humor, and even with the outlandish trappings it is scoring a hit as a result. While non-sequiturs and random events can be funny, truth-centric humor sticks with us and remains classic. It is also a little bit uncomfortable to watch. You probably know someone who has spectacularly imploded in a similar way, albeit on a smaller scale, or you have been at the epicenter of such a meltdown. It’s ugly, it’s familiar, and it rings true. Luckily for us, it’s also hilarious.
What a Tweest!
As a GM, executing a good reveal or face/heel turn can be challenging. Impact requires emotional buy-in from the players. This is often hard, because players are so invested in being Big Damn Heroes, a phrase I have grown to loathe. The current trend when I view characters created by those I know, a large sample size across genres and games, is the unwillingness to feel fear, pain, or in any way waver from their goals. I understand people want to portray heroes, but they are doing so in a shorthanded power fantasy way that is a disservice to the heroic narrative (there is nothing wrong with fantasy empowerment, but everyone needs to be onboard or it can ruin story and theme). Challenges should be overcome, but the struggles need to have internal weight to lend them credence. To do otherwise is is akin to a Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl romantic comedy. It’s lazy, exists entirely on tropes, has no room for actual story or growth, and is a bad substitute of the real product. Better Off Dead and Grosse Pointe Blank are two of my favorite movies. They are both romantic comedies, but they have growth and actual arcs occurring. Both are excellent examples of the genre require strong comedic moments and romantic payoff. The fact they are endlessly quotable comes from this execution, not vice versa.
The subverted penis joke above is a great formula to learn from. It carries the weight of the familiar, being caught in a situation that belies what you are espousing to the detriment of your character. It illustrates the dangers of dogmatic beliefs, and pairs it with enough distance and absurdity to render it comically telling. It sounds complex when you break it down, but it’s elegant in its simplicity when it is put into action.
Let’s look at another example. One of the best books I have read in the last year, The Buried Giant, executes this style of twist in a way that centers on grief rather than humor. In a scenario that could fit directly in Ravenloft, the adventure stops when memories of long lost family members surface. The adventurers seek answers to their confused memories, and find others who seek the same. The adventurers find out this confusion and fog is the result of a magical spell woven by Merlin, and intertwined with the breath of a dragon. This is as typical as you get: people who need to slay the dragon that is causing despair and melancholy. However, the reveal flips this on its head. Merlin did this not out of any evil impulse, but to avoid a future war against a neighbor after war crimes were committed. Shame caused this, and the people are forced to weigh their own memories against the grief, shame, and a future of war. It’s ugly stuff, but everyone can identify with wanting to forget an event that caused them shame or grief.
As much as tabletop games and players draw character and content inspiration from their favorite books, TV shows, and movies, take the the same amount of storytelling inspiration. Interactive games are different by necessity, but the flows of stories and the techniques used to hook an audience are timeless. All storytelling is predicated on the idea that you will become invested in the story being told. Interactive fiction requires the perfecting and evolution of the techniques. Every group is different, and every player in that group is different. Cast your net wide. It’s worth it.