This month has been known amongst my friends as “Super September,” with at least one party, often landmark birthday parties, each weekend. It’s been a long, tiring, very busy month. Super September serves as both an excuse for not blogging in like a week (also some temp work that left me exhausted with a sore back for a few days), and a great set-up, as we continue to look at plays about super heroes.
But this time, instead of comic book creators, we tackled actual super heroes in The Death and Life of Lethargic Lad, written by myself and my colleague Chris Munroe.
What’s it about?
It’s based on the Canadian comic book-turned-long running webcomic Lethargic Lad, which uses the mostly mute super hero Lethargic Lad and his various friends/foes to parody super hero culture: the comics, the movies, the cons, the fans, whatever is big in the news or capturing creator Greg Hyland’s attention that week.
We focused on the major cast members. For good guys, the four “replacement Lethargic Lads” that turned up in a parody of the “Death and Return of Superman” story from the early 90s and then stuck around to be the principals: the Last Son of Lethargy, the Lad of Steel, Little Green Boy, and the Evil Cyborg Lethargic Lad. On the side of evil: Lethargic Lad’s primary nemeses Evil Smiley Face Guy and Mr. Mimico, plus the Part Time Lethargic Lad Revenge Squad: Evil Kitty Cat Guy, the Quizmaster, and Lady Bad Girl.
When Evil Smiley Face Guy and Mr. Mimico finally succeed in killing Lethargic Lad, the Replacement Lads spring up to carry on his legacy while the Part Time Lethargic Lad Revenge Squad plots to conquer the world.
But mostly they all sit around and argue about TV, movies, and comic book nerdery. And then the Evil Cyborg Lethargic Lad turns on everyone. ‘Cause, you know, evil.
So why’d that happen?
Many of my nerdier friends at that time had become huge Lethargic Lad fans. It spoke to my love of things geeky and made fun of them in just the right way, much like Hijinks Ensue does now. One day, Chris Munroe decided to email Greg Hyland and ask for permission to write a play about his characters. To my shy, quiet, nobody-will-ever-say-yes-to-my-dreams amazement, Mr. Hyland said go for it, and I decided I wanted in. Chris agreed to co-write the project, and soon we were crafting an outline and picking which scenes we were each going to write (for the most part, I wrote the heroes and he wrote the villains).
We found places for as many of the Lethargic Lad supporting cast as we could: Walrus Boy was made the owner of the coffee shop where the Lads hung out, Guy With a Gun Gal (a character designed, I assume, in reference to a Punisher storyline not even I’ve read) makes an appearance, Mr. Cheese is there solely to make fun of how ridiculous the plot of Batman and Robin was, we put in references to the No-Mutants (a team featuring no mutants) and Poison Uma Thurman, a character created to mock Uma Thurman’s portrayal of Poison Ivy who Chris re-imagined as a villain whose schtick was poisoning Uma Thurman. And, just like in the comics, Lethargic Lad’s one true love Lethargic Lass was a cardboard cutout.
I also found a way to include one of my favourite running gags. Every time something particularly bizarre happens, or there’s a continuity error to cover up, Greg would include the feature “Greg Talks to a Frog,” in which a giant frog would berate him about what was happening. In our script, this took the form of the Narrator being berated by a giant frog about once per scene. I thought it was funny. And done right, it certainly can be.
How’d it turn out?
You know what? Two of us worked on this thing, two of us should get to reflect. So joining us live via having emailed me last week, here’s the Internet’s Chris Munroe.
Three lessons I took from Lethargic Lad:
1) Ask for what you want in this life. The worst that can happen is that you’re told no, and sometimes you’ll offer nothing (nothing!) in exchange for the stage rights to your favorite webcomic and the author/artist, who’s never heard of you, will just give those rights to you out of the goodness of his heart, because why not?
2) To participate in the production of something you’ve written, you need to be able to sublimate your creative ego. The product will be different than what you put on the page. I have an enormous amount of respect for Dan’s ability to do this well. As to my own ability in that regard, we’ll leave the question hanging…
3) Reference-based humor will date. Rapidly, and badly. This is a show from the early 2000s, based on a comic from the 1990s, and WOW does that fact show. Both Dan and I were willing to go very deep into the genre-convention-based lampshade hanging and, while as an exercise this proves interesting to look back on with a decade or so’s hindsight, it shows on every page. Would a third writer who knew nothing of comic books or the culture that surrounds them have helped moderate our instincts in this regard? We’ll never know, as neither of us thought to invite one to give thoughts on the finished product…
Oh man. He ain’t kidding. The pop culture references were thick on this thing. Thick. And grotesquely dated. Future archaeologists could find a copy of this script and figure out it was staged no later than the fall of 2000 based on the references to Ally McBeal, Ironic by Alanis Morissette, and the endless shots at Batman and Robin. Throw in the fact that four of the main characters are references to a Superman story from 1993 (not technically our fault) and a running gag that depends on you having read the Superboy comic from the mid-90s (totally our fault), and yeah, we could’ve used someone to remind us what was going to amuse an audience rather than each other. Sorry, Munsi, do continue.
…I use the phrase “finished product” very loosely here, as I find the script reads very much like a promising first draft that desperately needs a few editing passes to trim the flab. Jokes are repeated again and again, character/plot points are told, not shown, and we both seem to be operating under the belief that drawing attention to plot holes in an occasionally humorous way makes up for the utter lack of interest we have in actually closing them. Overall the “plot”, such as it is, exists as little more than a minimalist frame upon which to hang comic-book inside jokes, working on the assumption that the audience at the actual show will know enough about ‘90s-era event comics to take that journey with us. If memory serves, they did not.
Fact. The lampshade hanging is both fast an furious, and not once did we consider that if our characters (mostly the Frog, also Walrus Boy and Lady Bad Girl) were complaining about the story this much it might be a red flag.
Which is a shame, as re-reading this I was surprised at how many of the jokes actually did still work for me. Poison Uma Thurman, in particular, is a super-villain concept that does still make me giggle, what with her poisoning Uma Thurman and all, and beyond that I think a lot of the banter, the bickering and the patter still hits more than it misses, even with a decade’s hindsight. It’s not that the material was BAD, as such; it’s just that there was far too much of it, spread too long, without enough framework to back it up properly, which led in the end to a script that was much less than the sum of its parts.
I don’t know why I thought for so long that “wordier is wittier.” I still catch myself thinking that sometimes. “I can make this awkwardness Hugh Grant-adorable if I just make the sentence three times longer than it needs to be.” No. Stop it. Streamline that banter, whittle the jokes down to something more rapid fire, and have less people yelling about how stupid this all is and we’re on to something.
I remember almost nothing of the production of the actual show, as I was on the other side of town rehearsing a different show simultaneously with this (Cabaret? Rocky Horror? For the life of me I can’t remember which) [Rocky Horror. He was Riff Raff. -Dan] and had to split my focus between the two. And the role that was basically “amusing, largely mute background business” wasn’t getting the lion’s share of my attention due to this fact, which is a shame, as I recall the actual performances being light, breezy fun, and would have benefited from more time to devote to what I was doing. I have no idea if the SHOW would have benefited, but I personally would have.
Overall, Lethargic Lad is a good summary of Dan and I, as writers, for both good and ill, at that time in our lives, operating completely free from editors, with all the problems that creates. A decade later I use editors for my writing. Lots and lots of editors. Broken Escalator went through eight different readings during three editing passes before I considered it sufficiently workshopped, and I was tempted to give it a fourth pass before finally releasing it. That’s me today. Me a decade ago, unencumbered by any significant editorial voice other than my own belief that I was hilarious? Lethargic Lad didn’t stand a chance…
I, too, have since learned the value of an edit, and the value of people you trust to tell you what does and does not work. We’ll get to that more as we move on.
Would you stage it again?
Like this? No. Very much no. The humour fades exponentially the further away you get from the late 90s. But there are elements in there that work.
Perhaps what we’d need to do to make a Lethargic Lad script work is completely change our approach. Rather than try to replicate the “hangin’ round, mockin’ comic books” narrative of the webcomic, if we made this a full-on mockery/celebration of the tropes and cliches of nerd culture. Move away from specific references (“Wasn’t it dumb in Iron Man when they did this”) to something more overreaching (“Them’s surely a bunch of white dudes you’ve assembled to save the world”). I mean, nerd culture is in the mainstream now, and we could have fun with that. Not that we will in all probability. We both have other projects on the go and neither of us is likely to go back to this well any time soon.
Shortly after the run of Death and Life of Lethargic Lad I envisioned an outline for a sequel, Lethargic Lad Returns Forever. It also involved a cast of at least 14 and many, many outlandish props and costumes. I never bothered to write a word of it down. I couldn’t imagine anyone being excited to do it all again, and started writing smaller scale comedies with more character development.
Not right away, as the next installment will show.
Repeated theme alert
- “Sittin’ around coffee shops.” A lot of my plays involve characters just chatting in coffee shops rather than, you know, doing things. I can’t believe I didn’t mention this trope in Apocalypse Soonish, given what a serious offender it is on this score. Anyway, 75% of what the Replacement Lads do is quibble about 90s pop culture in a coffee shop.
- No Simpsons quotes! But I did borrow a turn of phrase from… some sitcom. One character says “Get out!” in disbelief and the other replies “I’m out!” Not Seinfeld. What was it. Some lesser Friends clone, I think. Oh well. Hardly matters.
- That said I did lift a few scenes from the original Lethargic Lad comics, but I feel that’s allowed in this case.