This week’s question comes from reader Stephen Winchell:
What’s your favorite example of lampshading in pop culture?
A scene from Winnie Holzman’s glorious-but-painfully-canceled-in-its-first-season series My So-Called Life offers a straightforward textbook example of hanging a lampshade on a plot point. Graham Chase (Tom Irwin), Angela’s father, confides to his brother that he’s been flirting with another woman, and that she proposed meeting up in a hotel room to actually move this attraction into the realm of full-on adultery. Tom’s brother responds by saying exactly what a writer worried about being accused of ginning up a hack plot point would fear being confronted with: “God, that’s such a cliché.” And Graham, responding much as that theoretical writer no doubt would, responds (with just the slightest hint of indignation): “Well, clichés happen.” We get it, show: You know this storyline might be a bit moldy, but dammit, you’re doing it.
Archer pulls this as a joke all the time; everything from the improbability of its cast’s continued survival, to its adamant refusal to establish what year it’s actually set in (“I know, right?”), gets referenced and mocked. The show even lampshades its own tendency to do this, by name, in the first season episode “Skorpio.” Cornered by a bad guy in the aftermath of an awkward, chocolate-covered three-way, Sterling Archer (sort of) saves the day by pulling out a grenade, seemingly from nowhere. After deploying it (with the immortal battle cry, “Eat grenade, stupids”), his exasperated partner Lana asks where he got the explosive device. “Hanging from the lampshade,” he yells back, in what’s either another occurrence of Archer’s tendency to have esoteric, largely useless references on hand in the middle of a crisis, or just the show’s writers having fun with the fact that they’d written themselves into a corner.
My go-to example is from DOOM 3, a divisive reboot that attempted to ground one of the series at the height of video-game inanity. You play as a space marine and fend off the demon invasion of a research facility on Mars using modernized versions of the classic DOOM arsenal. As such, you had to come across a chainsaw sooner or later. At some point, though, the developers thought about this “chainsaws on Mars” thing a little too hard, and included some in-game emails from facility employees that pointed out and explained the illogical presence of tools used to cut trees on a treeless planet. “I requisitioned a crate of jackhammers,” an email from David Robbins reads. “What we got were several crates of chainsaws and no jackhammers at all. What the hell were they thinking? Chainsaws serve no purpose on Mars!” Clearly Mr. Robbins failed to consider the likely possibility of a demonic invasion when he came to that ridiculous conclusion. There’s always a purpose for chainsaws.
The saga of the Beckys is familiar to any Roseanne fan. Lecy Goranson took off to attend college, and tried to juggle both Roseanne and academics. Eventually her schedule became too hectic, and Sarah Chalke—forever known as Becky 2—took over for part of the the sixth and seventh seasons. When Goranson was able to return for the eighth season, she was met on the show with, “Where the hell have you been?” Chalke would sometimes step in for Goranson when her schedule wouldn’t allow for shooting, and was met with similar lines like, “Aren’t you glad you’re here this week?” Perhaps my favorite, though, was a glimpse into the Connors’ future, featuring an older D.J. (played by John Goodman), who keeps saying, “They say she’s the same but she isn’t the same” about his shifting sister(s).
I hate lampshading when it’s done to cover up lazy writing or to provide a tidy resolution to a story that hadn’t earned one (I’m looking at you, last 15 seasons of The Simpsons…). But Futurama gave me a lampshade to love, as the plot point that gets poorly wallpapered over is utterly pointless and pushed so far into the realm of absurdity, it’s clear the writers wrote it in for no other reason than to tease the audience with a winking explanation. In “The Deep South,” the gang visits the now-sunken city of Atlanta, and everyone finds something good under the sea. Fry gets to romance a mermaid voiced by Parker Posey; Farnsworth gets to administer suppositories; and Zoidberg finds a giant shell he eagerly moves into. Problem is, his shell inexplicably burns down. Underwater. Only straightlaced accountant Hermes cares enough to question how this could happen, and the show’s only answer is a discarded cigar that started the fire. “That just raises further questions!” proclaims an exasperated Hermes. Questions, the writers assure the audience, which are far less important than getting a laugh.
I’m not sure if I can think of an answer I like as much as “that just raises further questions!” which I find myself saying all the time, but I’ll try: one of the reasons the recent Key & Peele sketch about Gremlins 2: The New Batch fell a little flat for me is that, affectionate as it is, the sketch doesn’t really do justice to the self-awareness at play in Joe Dante’s boldly nutty sequel. Plenty has been written about the subversive and strange delights of Gremlins 2, but I’m particularly fond of the way the movie pauses to have some control-room dudes pick apart the “three rules” of mogwai care, specifically the edict that they not be fed “after midnight.” For their diligent mockery, they are rewarded with a gremlin popping out and killing one of them—functioning as both a lampshading of the impossible-to-follow rules and a concise rebuke to any accompanying nitpicking.
My first thought was the scene in Avengers: Age Of Ultron where Hawkeye flat-out acknowledges, “The city is flying and we’re fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. Nothing makes sense.” But there’s another Marvel lampshade moment that made me laugh more in Ant-Man. After hearing of the potential threat Hank Pym wants him to stop, Scott Lang immediately replies, “I think our first move should be calling the Avengers.” I’m so glad I somehow avoided seeing that line in any of the film’s trailers because Paul Rudd’s earnest delivery absolutely slayed me in the theater. Why would a guy with no crime-fighting experience be asked to take down baddies when Thor and Iron Man exist? Plus MCU fans are constantly bemoaning the fact that there’s little in-world explanation as to why the Avengers don’t join forces in their solo films. To see Marvel poke fun at themselves before inserting the requisite handwave made me remember why I like this franchise so much in the first place.
I’ve recently been rereading the terrific webcomic The Order Of The Stick, which is full of smart examples of this trick. One of the things the comic does best (in addition to being really, really good at storytelling—seriously, if you ever wanted a masterclass in building a narrative, there are worse places to start) is maintaining a level of self-awareness in its characters; they’re at once conscious of the Dungeons & Dragons-type role-playing the world is based on, and of the medium they exist in, without losing their distinctness or believability as characters. It’s the best of both worlds, in that it allows author Rich Burlew to mock the conventions he’s playing in while simultaneously exploit those conventions for their full storytelling value. Which creates the perfect environment for lampshading: Every so often, a hero will mention (often with a slightly puzzled expression) how convoluted the storytelling has become, or comment on the ungainliness of a certain plot twist, and it reads like a natural part of the strip’s world, and not just an author taking the easy way out.
I generally spend any viewing of the film 24 Hour Party People flipping back and forth between enjoying it for what it is—a movie—and grumbling about moments of dubious historical accuracy. But there’s one very specific bit that always makes me laugh, most likely because it’s tackling that very issue. It’s a scene where Tony Wilson, played by Steve Coogan, is walked in on by his wife while getting a blowjob from a hooker, leading her to extract revenge by having a fling with Buzzcocks frontman Howard Devoto in a toilet stall. When Tony catches them in mid-coitus, the camera cuts to a janitor who’s cleaning the bathroom sink, played by the real Howard Devoto, who says, “I definitely don’t remember this happening.” At this pronouncement, the movie acknowledges that, in fact, Devoto is correct: It never actually happened. It’s a pretty twisted version of lampshading, admittedly, but I think it still counts.