Fan Service and “The Last Jedi”


In the choppy wakes of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “Game of Thrones: Season Seven,” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” I have begun to think about what it means for creative persons to engage in what is known as fan service.

Fan service is a term that was originally coined to explain why Japanese animators and artists might want to add gratuitous nudity and near nudity to anime and manga.

They do it to “service the fans” (largely male, in that case, and apparently afflicted with an unnatural sexual interest in cartoon characters).

The phrase has since been expanded to address whenever a creator does something with a TV series or movie that may benefit fans more than it benefits the plot or the dictates of coherent storytelling.

“Game of Thrones: Season Seven” was widely acknowledged to be chock full of fan service: It largely jettisoned the deliberate pacing, crackling dialogue and careful world building of past seasons in favor of big, splashy (and often illogical) revelations and action sequences.

This strategy rewarded some fans and alienated others.

Fans of deliberate pacing, crackling dialogue and careful world building did not feel well serviced.

Different fans have different expectations, which is why providing “fan service” is a trickier undertaking that it might seem to be on its surface.

Case in point: David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return.”

“Twin Peaks: The Return” consists of roughly 1000 utterly surprising minutes. Whatever a fan’s expectations were going in, they were not met (except in a philosophical sense, which I will go into later).

Superficially, Lynch provided fans with little that qualified as fan service.

Lynch doesn’t seem to care much about our nostalgia. He wasn’t interested in cooking up the meal we know and love. He wanted to challenge our pop cultural palates. He wanted to whip up something worth whipping up.

The sequel series disappointed some fans of the original “Twin Peaks,” fans who apparently wanted nothing more than to see FBI agent Dale Cooper sit around for 17 hours eating cherry pie and talking about “damned fine cups of coffee.”

But for fans of Lynch – fans of the way Lynch has dependably frustrated and offended and amused and astonished and bewildered us – “Twin Peaks: The Return” was an improbably satisfying and stimulating reboot.

Which brings me to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (Spoilers to follow).

First of all, it would be difficult to make a “Star Wars” movie that pleased everybody because filmmakers are competing with adults’ idealized and rose-colored memories of having loved “Star Wars” as kids.

The older a fan is, the longer those memories have had to grow fat and a little crazy.

One of the biggest complaints leveled against “The Last Jedi” by the people who claim to hate it has to do with the character of Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill).

Unlike Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda before him, Luke did not age into a placid spouter of Jedi axioms.

In “The Last Jedi,” he is a tortured, bitter guy with skeletons in his closet.

Let us consider for a moment how bona fide Jedi were generally portrayed in Lucas’ films.

The last time we really got a good look at Luke was in “Return of the Jedi.” Gone were the sense of humor and range of emotions he’d demonstrated in Episodes Four and Five.

Lucas hamstrung Hamill in “Return of the Jedi” because he required the actor to shift into bland guru mode.

All the Jedi in Lucas’ prequels are insufferable, humorless bores. Lucas apparently has this idea about holy men: That true enlightenment leaches them of charisma, charm, nuance and any interest in taking or making jokes.

Imagine what a long slog “The Last Jedi” would have been if Luke had spent its duration uttering cookie fortunes in a bland, expressionless monotone.

Instead, “Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson gave Hamill some meat (and scenery) to chew.

And Yoda!

Johnson resurrected Yoda from the creative graveyard of the prequels where Lucas used CGI to set the wizened wizard free only to bring him crashing back to earth with thudding dialogue and a prissy personality makeover.

Say what you want about Disney: The studio brought something back to the franchise that it hadn’t been seen in decades.

Namely, recognizably human (and humanoid) characters.

But here is something I understand because I am a nerd: Nerds are a little defensive about their proclivities.

They’re used to being mocked for the things they love, so when they see humor, irreverence or brazen narrative doglegs in “The Last Jedi,” they mistake it for disrespect.

They almost prefer it when their beloved characters are rendered as one-dimensional. That’s the only way their integrity can be ensured.

This is why there is so much nostalgia for the prequels in certain nerdy circles: Because they’re reverent at the expensive of everything else: surprise, suspense, emotional investment, etc.

Well, nerds need to lighten up.

I am as big a “Star Wars” fan as a person who hasn’t purchased any new action figures in a while can be.

And I loved that “The Last Jedi” was as surprising and unpredictable as it was.

It took what we thought we knew and made it fresh without spoiling its substance.

This is the key to the longevity of movie franchises: Bringing in self-assured creative people who aren’t afraid to take a few chances.

That’s the epitome of “fan service,” it seems to me.


Cheeky Devils


Two years ago, I brought my wife to a Colin Mochrie/Brad Sherwood improv show for her birthday and Mochrie apologized to her on my behalf for my lack of gift-giving acumen.

Two years later, I am planning to do it again.

“You really don’t put any thought into her presents, do you?” Mochrie asked me by phone recently.

Mochrie and Sherwood will return to the Honeywell Center in Wabash on December 8 with a reconfigured show called “Scared Scriptless.”

Mochrie and Sherwood are both veterans of the long running, globetrotting TV series, “Whose Line is It Anyway,” which began in England in the late 1980s and which can still be seen on the CW.

“Whose Live Anyway,” another live show featuring some of Mochrie’s and Sherwood’s cohorts, came to the Embassy Theatre in September and it is interesting to contrast the two.

The “Whose Live Anyway” crew, funny though it was and is, played the “dazzling urbanites in a rusting setting” card in a way Mochrie and Sherwood never do.

Mochrie and Sherwood don’t try to generate comedy by pretending their audiences are rubes. There’s much more of a “we’re all in this together” vibe to their shows.

Mochrie and Sherwood have been touring together for 15 years and the Honeywell Center in Wabash has become one of their regular stops.

Mochrie, who was born in Scotland and who grew up in Montreal and Vancouver, has become one of the more recognizable improv comics in the world.

He said he didn’t dream of this life when he was a kid because improv comedy wasn’t a job then. Interestingly, both he and Sherwood once aspired to become marine biologists.

Looking back at his life from his current sexagenarian vantage point, Mochrie said he realizes that he somehow stumbled upon the only thing he is a good at.

“I shudder to think what would have happened to me if I’d tried harder to study whales,” he said.

Standing backstage before every show, Mochrie still gets a little nervous because he is thinking about how there is no show.

“There are people out there expecting to be entertained and we never know how we’re going to accomplish that or if we’re going to accomplish that,” he said.

Except for certain improvisational frameworks, each show is conceived on the fly based on audience suggestions.

Mochrie said that he and Sherwood are always looking for new ways to make themselves uncomfortable.

“We have found that that’s when we have the most fun with the show,” he said. “It’s best for us when we get ourselves into some sort of trouble and have to find a way out of it.”

The duo also tinkers with the process by which audience suggestions are procured. They want to make the process as easy as possible and they also want to encourage the audience to be creative.

“We want to try to steer them away from suggesting that we play proctologists and gynecologists,” Mochrie said.

Mochrie said they have had good luck choosing people to bring up on stage, but there are extremes they try to avoid.

“We want someone who isn’t going to be a showboat or come up thinking, ‘This is going to be my big chance’ – although God knows why anyone would think that; chance for what?” he said. “We also don’t want anyone who will freeze up.”

Mochrie loves it when people are nervous at first, end up having a good time and walk away having been “bitten by the bug.”

Asked if he ever imagined he’d still be doing improv comedy 40 years after he first started studying it, Mochrie replied, “I never imagined that I’d get so incredibly rich doing it.”

“Be sure you add the ‘Ha, Ha, Ha’ to that,” he said. “People always assume that if you’re on television, you’re rich. First on all, I am on the CW.”

The droll, mild-mannered and self-effacing Mochrie isn’t usually a magnet for controversy or intense national scrutiny, but he found himself at the center of a media and social media kerfuffle earlier this year.

Mochrie decided to announce public support for his transgender daughter Kinley on Twitter and there was an enormous response, both positive and negative.

“The positive part has been overwhelming and great,” he said. “ I have been on so many flights where flight attendants have come up to me and said, ‘I just want to thank you. I read about your daughter. We’re going through the same thing in our family.’ Or they had friends who were going through something similar.”

Mochrie said he didn’t really think it through when he “put it out there.”

“It was around the inauguration and, for some reason, things were really negative,” he said, wryly. “I thought, ‘This will be a nice thing.’ My wife and I were shocked that our extended families were so supportive because we do have a conservative element in both our families.

“But they’ve all been incredibly supportive,” Mochrie said. “None more so than our mothers – 91 (years old) and 87. So I just put out this tweet expressing my gratitude for that. The older generation really has no reference point for this sort of thing.”

Mochrie wasn’t surprised by the negative comments, just disappointed.

“I find it so frustrating that there are still so many of the ‘–isms,’” he said. “Racism, sexism. Every week it just gets worse and worse. By this point, we should be well into the ‘Star Trek’ years.”

Mochrie is troubled that so many social media conversations devolve into insults.

He said he once posted something on health care and followers who apparently disagreed with his stance on that issue started criticizing his appearance, among other incidentals.

“It became this horrible slagging,” Mochrie said. “I sat there thinking: ‘Why are you insulting me? Why don’t you just say you don’t agree and present your points?’”

A subsequent post about how we should all try to be nice to each other also devolved into sniping, he said.

“I mostly use social media to publicize the shows,” he said. “But it’s also hard not to say things these days. I think it’s important to get it out there and at least get people talking about it. There’s always going to be trolls who are just there to stir up trouble. But maybe you can give a few people something to think about.”