Anyone who keeps their ear to the ground in the pop culture world surely heard yesterday’s news of the still-in-progress Han Solo spinoff production. Noted and crowd-pleasing directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of the Jumpstreet films and the kid friendly Lego Movie and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, have been removed from their latest project at the behest of LucasFilm producers Lawrence Kasdan and Kathleen Kennedy. The directors were a mere few weeks away from completing their film with scheduled reshoots for later in the summer. Comparisons have been made but not since Richard Donner was removed from Superman II has clash of creative heads been so disruptive to a film that it forced the director(s) to be taken off the project. Both The Hollywood Reporter and Variety have ran articles from their inside sources on this troubled production, citing a long gestation of “creative differences”, the go-to phrase of filmmaking divorcing. In this instance though, it seems to be harshly valid when you read Reporter’s source saying:
“People need to understand that Han Solo is not a comedic personality. He’s sarcastic and he’s selfish.”
So this is the interpretation that Kennedy and L&M seemed to disagree on. Their style of directing was looser and more sporadic, improvising lines and finding the material in the moment, at least that’s the idea of what we’re assuming here. This clashed with Kasan and Kennedy’s ideas of what the character is and how the script and direction should be utilized; which given Kennedy’s history with the character and the Star Wars films alone, gives merit to her interpretation. There is a reason that thousands of actors were tried out for this role, she clearly has an indication of how she sees Han Solo.
I’m not here to dispute who is right and wrong, even if the circumstances in which they’ve played out are quite odd. But I would like to ponder about how Lord and Miller operate as comedic writers. Their films and TV work (Clone High, cult classic) are steeped in self-awareness, the kind that lesser comedies completely fumble with while theirs succeeds. The Lego Movie for example exemplifies the childlike nature of imagination and sense of identity and self-purpose, all of which is taking place in the imagination of a boy. The Jumpstreet films know what they represent: an exhausted idea of nostalgia-baiting audiences with material that either doesn’t live up to its successor or completely misinterprets what the original media was even about and how cloying and artificial the concept of remakes and sequels are. I argue that the ending credits for 22 Jumpstreet is one of the best moments of cutting the golden-egg-laying goose off at the head, in that it knows how stupid the idea of franchising can become and how easy it is to exploit an audience with it. (It takes all the piss out of a film like Baywatch which wasn’t playing itself straight but at the same time doesn’t rise to the challenge that L&M established).
Lord and Miller’s approach is a blend of overt cartoonish behavior founded in a setting that is meant to be taken at face value. The Batman of The Lego Movie realm relishes in the reputation that the Batman aesthetic has created; he’s moody, loves the color black, and is way too cool for you, but also he is actually playing by the logistics of Batman’s character. So considering their comedic style, which is well-established at this point in their critical and financial careers, it begs the question of why Kennedy & Co. felt they would fit into this project?
It seems evident that this new era of Star Wars films wants to keep a consistent tone and style with each other, even though the setting of the Star Wars universe could actually benefit from genre diversification (which I’ll explain shortly). It is reported that this pairing of L&M and LucasFilm was doomed from the start, a match that was never going to fit because of what was expect of the other party and what was going to be compromised. So what is the point of bringing on a comedy duo when their comedy feels ill-suited towards your project?
Then again, how does comedy even work in the context of Star Wars?
Coming from my personal preferences as far as comedy writing goes, I’ve found that I respond strongly to absurdism particularly of the satirical and dark humor form. In general terms, it seems that absurdism is depicted either with a sense of awareness or of oblivion. Take for example the work of ZAZ team David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker and two of their most highly regarded projects Airplane! and the 1982 series Police Squad! (The latter of which I recently watched a sampling of, it holds up). In both pieces, the humor is entirely situational, in that the comedy comes from taking simple scenarios and creating the chaos around the situation as opposed to the characters.
Example: Robert Stack’s character Rex Kramer is a pilot arriving to work and is harassed by a bunch of people who want him to stop and listen to their causes in the airport lobby. The scene isn’t funny because he’s so annoyed or irritated with all these guys trying to stop him, it’s funny because they keep coming at him even though he starts wailing on each and everyone of them never once commenting about how annoyed he is, this is just part of his routine to get to his job. The absurdity is the normal here, it is a universe of (comedic) straight men (and women) who find nothing funny about being harassed but resolve it in a very funny way.
There is no character in either example who breaks down what we are supposed to laugh at or why something happened the way it did. (Robert Hayes turns to the camera at one point and comments, “What a pisser”, in reaction to something, but it is not out of place). Everything is taken at face value and the characters do not realize they are in a comedy.
Then when we look at media in the 90s/00s that’s when meta-contextualism really took hold in writing. The form of absurdism that was dominated by the likes of The Simpsons in this time would eventually transition into live action with TV shows such as 30 Rock and Arrested Development, two shows that are aware of the comedy around them but is strengthen by the characters who are trying to escape the situational mold as opposed to play along with it like ZAZ characters. Characters such as Liz Lemon or Michael Bluth know that their normal is not the real normal and their quest to escape into the real normal is a focal source of comedy from their respective shows because others around them may not be aware of this. Their life is a cartoon and they know it.
Now as far as comedy films of this era, they seem to be more slapstick-like or situational but without much absurdity because the absurdity is usually ill-defined or left to the actors to substitute effecient writing (lazy, the writing is lazy and dumb). That is what makes Lord and Miller’s filmography notable, they have been able to combine thematic elements and comedic elements into media that is accessible. This all being said, given the above examples of how I prefer my comedy I think they follow a comedic trajectory that Star Wars never has.
Simply put: Star Wars works on Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker logic.
Am I suggesting that in the downtime between A New Hope and Empire, Han and Luke got chummy on non-sequitors and wordplay? No not at all. But these two along with everyone else in the film, do not know they are in a science fiction movie. They are playing their roles accordingly and they are not questioning the rules and logics of a universe inhabited by aliens, androids, and technology that is not tangible. Unlike their Spaceball counterparts, they are not hawking Star Wars bath towels and toiletries, they are objective in their parts as characters in the films.
We all sit there and say, “and I thought they [tauntauns] smelled bad on the outside!” because it is contextual to the film’s aesthetic and design and it is subtextually defining Han’s sarcasm. That line is funny because the character believes it.
That is essentially why it is extremely easy to parody the Star Wars franchise. None of the characters within Star Wars think there is anything ridiculous about what is happening, who they are, or what they’re doing. This was never more evident then during the era of the Lucas-helmed prequels, which a rupture of Star Wars parodies became prominent as opposed to the ripoff craze that the original trilogy insipired in the 70s and 80s. Robot Chicken, Family Guy, throwaway lines and gags here and there on The Simpsons and Futurama (“Nah I’m not in the mood for a documentary”), That 70’s Show, Scrubs, essentially every comedy show at some point has taken a swing at Star Wars in some way or another.
And this revelation actually quite fascinates me because I am first and foremost not the biggest fan of The Force Awakens, largely due in part to its writing, but I can’t deny that this particular Saturday Night Live sketch is so spot on only because Adam Driver is still playing his character Kylo Ren exactly like he would in the movie, which is hilarious.
So if the humor in a Star Wars film is not overt and ridiculous (RIP Jar Jar Binks), then it is nuanced and character-driven. The angsty antics of Kylo Ren allow some humor within The Force Awakens because he is temperamental and child-like in his quest to be an evil Vader-prodigy. The wit and sarcasm from Poe Dameron comes from his natural charisma and underlying optimism. In contrast to that you have Finn, who I find to be extremely inconsistently written, is rather jokey and makes several one-liners that fall flat, perhaps because he’s trying to idolize Poe or impress Rey but it seems to apply only within whatever scene he is in. So you know every time I think about that “You gotta boyfriend?” line* I die a little inside.
This all circles back to Han Solo and the kind of humor that derives from his character. I’d say he is more reluctant than selfish, and while his wariness of the force could arguably come from a place of someone who is aware of how ridiculous their universe is, it’s more that he is pragmatic opposed to Luke who believes in the myth of the force or Leia who believes in the heroism of the Jedi. This mindset adjacent to the constant adventure he and his friends go on and the aversion to playing a role in a war that is bigger than him is what humors him. He doesn’t want to go be a rebel, he just gets roped into it and grins and bears it after a while. But he’s not sitting there side-eyeing the camera either, he’s just a reluctant person who’s own unexplored experiences have characterized him.
So now that we’re not going to see Lord and Miller’s take on the character at least not entirely, we can only speculate at this time of what that could have been that was at least drastic enough for Kennedy to pull the plug on their partnership. Does Han Solo fit into that latter-day self-awareness? I would say almost, as he is certainly one of the trickier characters to parody due to his dry and unassured nature. Any attempt to derive comedy out of him that isn’t reactionary to what is happening around him becomes derivating of his core characteristics; which would likely become some kind of machismo stereotype which is a very broad interpretation of his character.
For the movie itself, the conceptual genre and tone seems to be that as a “western”, which falls in line with Star Wars’ simplistic mold that fits the “Hero’s Journey” writing that carried the original film. Does that mean that Han Solo would fit into any genre?
Well ideally, yes. As I said, Star Wars is so pure in its identity and oblivion of itself that it could conceptually be allowed to be interpreted in various “genre film” forms. The universe is malliable that you could make a horror-Star Wars story or a western-themed one, and even possibly a comedy within the context of its own cinematic universe. The trick though is embracing the absurdity that is comedy. A reason modern comedies often fall flat is that they have a premise that will benefit from non-restraint in terms of how the comedy is depicted but prefer the meta-awareness that holds them back, thus forcing this awkwardness that ends up becoming the comedy itself. (Awkward/cringe humor alone is like nails on a chalkboard to me, hate it!). So if Lord and Miller were brought on to this Han Solo film to provide a sense of comedy, but were also expected to be restrained in their absurdism, that could possibly have created a film that was neither Lord and Miller’s project or LucasFilm’s. Without a proper sense of identity, the movie will surely fail.
That is to say though, that a version of this film that completely embraced L&M’s form of absurdist and surreal humor may not have been beneficial for this particular Star Wars film. When it comes to what makes Han Solo an interesting and sometimes funny character, surreal and absurd do not come to mind. Do I think it could work? Ignoring the Star Wars franchise machine and the need to have a “house style”; it could only work in a movie that indulges in what it’s trying to be, there could be no half-assing it, but ultimately it would probably not work with Han Solo. At least not in the way we know him to be written.
The argument here is that what is the purpose of bringing in genre directors when there is no sense of wanting to diverge in genres within the Star Wars franchise? But then again, Lord and Miller weren’t asked to create a genre film within the Star Wars universe, they were asked to make a movie featuring Han Solo.
*Finn, you’ve been a prisoner and a soldier since infancy, how the fuck do you know what basic societal norms like dating is? Why does the movie forget about this so freaking fast?!