Uncomedy and The Room

So yep, I’m reviewing The Room. Famously terrible movie, known to be one of the most enjoyably poorly constructed productions of all time, now canonized through rifftracks performances and Rocky Horror-style midnight showings and all manner of other cult classic silliness. It’s honestly difficult to say much that hasn’t been said about The Room at this point – as far as truly horrible things go, this one has been pretty much analyzed and mocked as a movie and a phenomenon to the point of saturation. So what’s a poor, contractually bound media critic to do?

The Room

Muddle through, I suppose. People initially suggested I revive something similar to my Sword Art Online comedy writeups to match The Room’s particular genius. I actually did do a bit of this for twitter, but I couldn’t see this as working for a full writeup. Comedic riffing on an existing comedy is normally a fool’s game – most of the time you’re just pointing out jokes that already exist in the text, like someone replying to a joke tweet with the same damn joke. When you’re not doing that, you tend to be highlighting stuff that was funnier than your additions, or just adding canned topical humor, or making things more obvious.

As a brief comedy side note, this tends to be one of the main reasons why spoof movies on stuff like Twilight are such an unfunny waste of time. The source material generally tells the overt jokes the spoofs are making unintentionally, and thus with far more subtlety/humor. And since the spoof movies are intended for people who apparently needed those initial jokes pointed out to them, that means most of the added jokes will fall into the most broad, lazy, can’t-miss humor possible. Even if you’re actually trying to appeal to a comedy-literate audience (like with MST3K, who readily admit their work is intended for a very specific insider audience who appreciate a very specific comic vocabulary), spoofs of existing comedies are one of the trickiest and most failure-fraught concepts you can find.

The Room

But The Room is not a spoof of a comedy – it’s actually a pretty distinctive thing, something that’s funny for very specific reasons. And these reasons don’t make it some weird cultural outlier – living in our ironic post-twitter reality, The Room’s sense of humor now actually feels kind of prescient. So while there may be jokes in the critique to follow, feel free to assume they are there by accident, and thus funnier. The Room is serious critical business, and I am going to treat its craft with the seriousness it deserves.

The first, inescapable part of The Room’s humor is Tommy Wiseau himself. Many films simply rely on a funny central character to support them – people like Mike Myers and Sacha Baron Cohen have made whole careers out of doing this, and it’s also the common formula for when SNL stars try to make the jump to film. Tommy (or his in-film character Johnny, but the two are essentially the same person) has a very funny way of talking, a very funny way of looking, and a very funny way of presenting himself. His uncharisma lights up scenes and adds a surreal energy to even very simple lines. His transitions from “I did not hit her, I did not” to “o hi Mark,” or his sad puppy intonation of “they strung me along… and I am the fool” make him feel weirdly sympathetic even when every fiber of the universe he has constructed rallies against sympathizing with him. Everything he does to seek sympathy is horrible, but everything about his base existence cries for love.

The Room

Wiseau’s humor extends beyond his own presence in his film. The movie is also a joke about him, but not an intentional one. The psychology informing The Room is transparent from the first few scenes – it’s clear in every action of Nice Guy Johnny and his shithead friends that some woman deeply wronged Tommy Wiseau, and likely even drove him away from a treasured male friend. Women are tricksters in this world, scoundrels who break apart good honest guys who just want to throw the football together. Drugs are bad, and likely the tools of lying women as well. Nice guys don’t just finish last, they give and give and give and eventually die of pure broken-heartedness, betrayed by the people they only wanted to love.

The Room essentially feels like a film created by its own main character to lionize him, which unintentionally paints him as a sad but unsympathetic man whose personal failures have crystallized into some kind of awkward messiah complex. Characters constantly reiterate what a nice guy Johnny is, and how terrible they are to him. Every male character with more than one scene of screentime devotes at least some of their lines to extolling the unfathomable nature of the female mind. If there is any single “room” to actually be found in The Room, it is the sad, sullen room of Johnny/Tommy Wiseau’s mind.

The Room

The general meta humor/sadness of The Room’s world is a kind of humor you rarely get in traditional, “good” movies. Knowledge of the film’s construction is the film’s most fundamental joke, and you can’t avoid this joke – Tommy Wiseau is credited five times in the opening credits, with two of these billings accompanied by the man himself surfing across the screen in a street trolley. The Room’s sadness is relatable, but not truly sympathetic – it’s basically a Notes From Underground sadness, a sadness that makes you wonder how much of a sulking Tommy Wiseau lurks inside all of us.

But big, philosophical meta-sadness isn’t the only appeal of The Room. As far as unintentionally funny productions go, it’s pretty remarkable how consistently the film hits great, unique comedy beats. There are inept elements of the craft that are wonderful to behold, from the constant pans across the Golden Gate Bridge (you realize pretty quickly that Tommy’s only made one b-roll trip to the city he decided to set his movie in) to the incoherent narrative construction. It seems apparent that Tommy saw “passing the pigskin” as a good stand-in for the general good wholesome friendship of boys with toys, and so characters toss the ball in small rooms, toss the ball on rooftops, toss the ball while wearing tuxedos in an alley. There’s a deadpan inhumanity to the character exchanges that feels marvelous in action. Actors often seem to physically resent the lines they’ve been given. And the film’s attempts at moral points are, of course, completely absurd.

The Room

The Room’s unjokes might as well be the precedent for Weird Twitter, the deadpan unhumor of a good dril tweet. Through their stilted execution and Tommy-centric version of reality, they generally fail to be to be traditional jokes by themselves, but often imply an entire worldview that is itself hilarious. Like, take a look at a tweet like this – there’s no “traditional punchline” there, but the line inherently implies a person who’s not only baffled by the idea of metaphors, they are so confident in their bafflement that they express it as smug anger, through intentionally “slurred” language. This mixture of total self-confidence and utter inanity is one of dril’s most consistent tricks, and explains a great deal of The Room’s appeal. You can basically see the guy who’d type this without needing another detail, and The Room in its construction does the exact same thing for Tommy Wiseau as a person. Both the style of humor and the movie’s overall construction accidentally riff on the viewer’s expectations about humor, narrative, and character writing – the ways it accidentally fumbles traditional craft beats makes it very funny to people who’ve seen way too many “real” movies.

Of course, if you’re looking for traditional punchlines, the movie will just be frustrating. Take the “I definitely have breast cancer” scene. In a traditional Hollywood comedy, that “unjoke” would be framed differently. My first guess would be someone would say, “dude, my mom has cancer,” and his bro friend would respond, “no, your mom has cancer,” and the first guy would say “yeah, that’s what I said” and there’d be a silent beat. Slightly morbid humor that betrays a traditional comic expectation in a very safe way. In an anime comedy (not that I’d expect an anime comedy to make a cancer joke), the construction would possibly be the same, except the narrator would think to themselves (“you don’t just say that!”) afterwards, underlining the joke. But here, there’s no punchline at all – it’s just a whimsical piece of absurdity that makes no goddamn sense, a joke at the expense of the movie’s coherence, a joke at the expense of the world.

The Room

Most of the film’s “jokes” are like that, though they go on for far longer than they have to, which is itself a doubling of the unjoke. Like the sex scenes. Or the football interludes. The lack of punchlines doesn’t make these scenes less funny – in fact, drawing attention to these moments would only destroy their absurdist sting. Intentional unjokes have always had a place at the experimental edge of comedy, ranging from Andy Kaufman’s whole career to some of the more transcendently weird episodes of Mr. Show. Even Adult Swim is somewhat known for this, with most of its notable examples falling into what generally gets considered “stoner comedy.” Twitter has given unjokes a strong new platform courtesy of its enforced brevity – sitting through a whole Kaufman skit can feel almost painful, but 140 characters of dril shitting his pants is easy.

So how does The Room work for an entire damn movie?

I think it’s just Wiseau. He’s so sad. You want to hug him. He doesn’t know about people. That’s adorable. He fears women. That’s less adorable. But who’s going to take care of him? I hope things work out okay.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got on The Room. Good luck with your shittweets, everybody!

This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you for making me watch stupid crap.

9 thoughts on “Uncomedy and The Room

  1. That was an interesting writeup! Managed to make me read the whole thing even though I haven’t seen the movie. Doubt I’ll ever see it, unintentionally funny stuff just makes me cringe.

    • I guess that means that intentions can count for a lot in comedy(everything), where I can laugh at Dril tweets that are a form of sarcasm but will mostly feel bad at something genuine that is failing to be what it wants. I would agree though that there is definitely something sad and adorable about lost people that get the worst ideas.

      • I actually think part of the appeal of films like this or the stuff MST3K cover is that the audience does feel a genuine love of the broken material. I’ve heard those guys say they couldn’t do what they do if they didn’t actually like those movies, and I think that’s a good spirit to hold for this stuff. But I can certainly sympathize with not enjoying cringe stuff – while I like The Room well enough, I generally don’t enjoy actual, intentional comedies that are based around bad people being awful to each other. Which actually kinda limits my comedy options!

        • Oh I’m not a fan of mean comedy(ies) either (at the displeasure of my friends who are fans of socially unacceptable attitudes has jokes). I just can’t deal very well with cringe despite my love for anything genuine.

    • Ununjokes. Jokes that try to rely on being not funny to be funny but fail at that and turn out genuinely funny, thus being unfunny, and yet funny in how hilariously they missed their objective.

  2. I’m curious if you’ve heard about The Disaster Artist. It’s a book written by Mark’s actor about the production process behind the film, and I think it adds a whole other layer of comedy to the film itself.

  3. Kudos on the comparison to dril; where the humor is not necessarily in the words, but in the alienatingly funny worldview that the author implies.

    It hits on a point that I never thought about, and what makes “Weird Twitter” its own brand of comedy — that is, taking a medium filled with audience expectations of being personally revealing or candid (Twitter, independent film, etc.), and twisting the unreliable author into the actual punchline. Because this humor’s primary audience is already instilled with a certain literacy, about the really basic nature of performance; it’s funny, fresh, and imaginative that the performer be as much of the joke itself. (And like you mention, this construction isn’t totally new, but it’s never been prominent until recently either.)

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