“Young Frankenstein”: How to tell a Sincere Story in a Funny Way

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One of the things that has always irked me about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how adrift the entire franchise is in bathos.

What is bathos, you might ask? Bathos is most often used as a literary term to describe anticlimax. Basically, it’s the moment in a story that feels like it should be more serious and it’s suddenly punctuated with something completely unserious. Typically, in a Marvel film it’s one of those Joss Whedon jokey jokes that they can’t help writing into the script’s more dramatic sequences.

The reason I find it more irritating than not is that it often cancels out the story’s more serious beats. Adding a punchline at the end of a serious scene often robs it of its catharsis and message and it’s a frustrating reoccurring motif in these films.

Though it doesn’t bother me as much anymore because I know what to expect from this franchise, these movies have set somewhat of a template for Hollywood Blockbusters, that the only way to keep viewers intrigued with a supposedly serious story is to litter the script with bathos. The jokes just too often feel forced as a way to simply keep the viewer’s attention on a shallow premise that masquerades as serious storytelling.

It feels cheap because it is…

But levity isn’t a bad thing necessarily, it’s simply a tool, that when used appropriately can enhance the flavor of an already good story. A sincere topic can be made even more enjoyable through the use of humor plenty of times in film (hell, it’s not ALWAYS bad in the MCU either) and can lead one to viewing certain themes in new and interesting ways.

The point is it needs to work together, instead of against each other.

In many ways, Mel Brooks’s classic “Young Frankenstein” is exactly this, a kind of reverse of the Marvel formula. A movie that on its surface is simply a spoof of classic black & white monster movies but is actually a sincere story as well that allows viewers to not only see the classic Frankenstein story in a new way but also gain some closure in the process.

“Young Frankenstein” needs no introduction, of course. I’m sure most, if not all, of you have seen what is arguably Mel Brooks’ greatest work by now. A tale of the great-grandson of Victor Frankenstein returning to his ancestral homeland to discover and finish his great grandfather’s work, while hilariously stumbling multiple times in the process along the way. It might not be as over the top as say “Spaceballs” or as politically incorrect as “Blazing Saddles” (though I think people misunderstand that movie’s humor constantly) but it’s by far Brooks’ most compelling story he and Gene Wilder have ever written together and the result is a movie that resonates as much as it will make you laugh.

Born in the final shooting days of “Blazing Saddles,” Wilder came to Brooks with an idea for a new Frankenstein movie to which the great comedic director simply remarked “Not another!” during discussions. There had already been four Frankenstein sequels up to that point, and it’s even jokingly referenced by the villagers in this film, but Wilder had this idea of a grandson who wanted nothing to do with his mad scientist grandfather’s work. From there Brooks was sold remarking “Now that’s funny!”

“Young Frankenstein” has much of the Brooks-ian humor many fans are used to, with silly authority figures who don’t know any better. A wild and eccentric lead character played expertly as always by the late great Gene Wilder. And of course, a colorful band of supporting characters who add to the film’s hilarious quipping with Marty Feldman playing the grandson of “Eye-Gore” and Peter Boyle doing a very earnest but nonetheless humorous impression of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster.

It’s a movie that is consistently hilarious from start to finish with some great setups and payoffs that get me just about every single time I watch it (the blind villager scene with the Monster is my favorite). But what “Young Frankenstein” also does is tell an earnest and complete story around its titular main character. The grandson Frederick is pained and bogged down by his connection to the great elder Frankenstein. He feels the taint of his blood in his veins and worries about what it might mean for who he is and his destiny. He tries early in the film to distance himself from the name itself by deliberately mispronouncing it when discussing it in his classroom, humorously as “Frahnken-steen.” He chastises his grandfather’s work openly as “doo doo” to his colleagues to the point he accidentally injures himself in one of the film’s funnier bits.

But as funny as it is, there is something very real about this subject. Anyone who has ever dealt with an estranged relationship to family or relatives goes through this period of denial, as if mere mention of their name would taint their souls if spoken aloud. Gene Wilder does a tremendous job of selling this pain to the audience even if it’s done in a humorous way. We understand quickly in the film’s opening scene how much his grandfather’s name weighs heavily on his soul and even if it’s played for laughs the audience nonetheless sympathizes with him because it’s written so earnestly. Once again the humor and the seriousness of the subject work together instead of against.

Not to mention Gene is acting his heart out in more ways than one here.

As we move forward in the story, young Frankenstein comes face to face with his great grandfather’s work after discovering the elder Frankenstein’s secret library whereupon he finds the journal aptly named “How I did it.” From there a fire is kindled within him, an insatiable need to further the limits of science just as his grandfather did and thus he again treads down the same path to reanimate a corpse into the living undead.

Things don’t go quite as planned, of course. Igor accidentally drops the brain of Hans Delbruck and thus takes one labeled “Abby Normal” instead to the young Frankenstein for use in the experiment. Initially, the monster is not revived and Frederick is forced to accept defeat “with quiet dignity and grace” before going into a tantrum at his futile effort.

“Quiet dignity and grace?”

But the monster eventually does rise but unfortunately with the aforementioned “Abby Normal” brain, leading the doctor to put him under with a “set a give.” He isn’t the only one wrestling with his past, however, as housemaid Frau Blucher releases the Monster so that he may be free because of her affair with the elder Frankenstein, further complicating things for everyone at the estate.

After some wacky hijinks involving the monster, young Frankenstein is eventually able to bring him back to the lab where he commits to civilizing him and in a moment of tremendous catharsis reaffirms the pronunciation of his great grandfather’s name. It’s a proud moment that again, reawakens the audience to the sincerity of the story. We see how the grandson is again tormented by his connection to his familial past but is also transfixed by it and determined to fulfill a destiny that was never fully realized.

The scene is amazing in many ways not just for the way it ends but the way it seamlessly transitions from the unserious and humorous to the sincere and determined in the span of a few minutes perfectly. Where another movie might abruptly punctuate a serious moment with a joke, this scene somehow stays tonally consistent despite how far it evolves from one end of the narrative to the other. It’s an earned moment of catharsis and it’s played as humorously as it is beautiful.

Again, Gene Wilder, ladies and gentlemen.

In the original “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, the themes revolve most dominantly around science and nature and man’s relation to it. That there should be limits to how far we push innovation for if we go to far will we violate the laws of nature? But it’s also about responsibility, that after Doctor Frankenstein performs his bastardized experiment he can’t bear to accept what he has done and take responsibility for giving life to his monster which leads to tragic consequences after he refuses to help him.

“Young Frankenstein” is also about that responsibility, a responsibility to the actions we take and how we follow through with them. After another attempt to adapt the monster into society goes wrong, young Frankenstein takes an enormous risk by deciding the only way to give his creation the life he deserves is to transfer some of his own brain fluid into him to pacify his unruly, primitive mind. Where the great grandfather in the original story ultimately shunned and resisted responsibility for his creation, young risks his own life for his monster and in the film’s final climactic act saves him and thus redeems his family name.

There are a lot of funny jokes littered between all that, including a couple hilarious sequences involving the constable and his prosthetic arms going awry but again the way this story flows is pretty remarkable. The jokes and the more serious tonal themes work together instead of against each other. They never feel out of place.

But seriously just really funny though.

Most Mel Brooks’ movies tend to be mostly just gag after gag after gag, which is not a bad thing of course but ultimately are unserious stories for the most part. What we get in “Young Frankenstein” is a film that through all its hilarity tells a real story about how many of us deal with estranged family ties and how through all of that there is a deep-down desire to redeem that lineage in our present, while also happening to be really funny. The young Frankenstein is initially motivated in this story to shun not just his grandfather’s name but any responsibility attached to it but through the events of this film, he is able to learn what his grandfather could not back then.

Most people know the story of “Frankenstein” as a tragic one, and it is, but through “Young Frankenstein” we gain a sense of closure and catharsis for the way this character ultimately succeeds and surpasses his late great grandfather’s work in both dignity and humanity. For all its hilarity and timeless gags and jokes, it’s a good story too and I think it’s why many, including myself, consider it Brooks’ finest film.

What I would like people to understand more than anything from this write-up and of movies like “Young Frankenstein” is that humor doesn’t have to be a crutch to enhance weak ideas in a poor script. It can work together in an actual way with the narrative. A sincere story can be told through humor and it doesn’t have to be separate entities in the plot. Too often many of these big-budget Hollywood Blockbusters use moments of levity and humor like they are afraid the audience is growing bored with the story and its message. Punctuating serious sequences in a story with “Well THAT happened” over and over again is not funny after a while. It’s boring and tired.

Making every character the comic relief in a supposedly serious movie can really dilute a film of its thematic potency. It shows to the audience that maybe the director and writer in many ways aren’t taking the subject seriously themselves. It makes tone of the film feel strange and stilted and can leave viewers wondering what to feel with the story and the message it’s trying to convey.

What “Young Frankenstein” does so well with humor is it works together with the earnestness of the story. It’s again, a reverse of the Hollywood/Marvel formula these days; a comedic story expressing a sincere topic, instead of a supposedly sincere story throwing in comedy just for some cheap laughs.

It’s fine for movies to be cheesy (I love cheese!) but a movie like “Young Frankenstein” shows that no setup is so cheesy that it can’t be told in an earnest (but nonetheless humorous) way. Parody doesn’t have to be completely unserious, parody can tell some great stories, and “Young Frankenstein” is absolutely one of those.

So, if you ever find yourself thinking something you’re writing is too silly to be taken seriously and that you need to write in a joke to keep a story humming along, understand that your audience/readers might see through it. But if you actually believe in the themes of your story and write it from the heart then no idea is too cheesy, and then jokes can work together to enhance the experience of the narrative.

You just need to believe in the humanity behind it, just as young Frankenstein ultimately believes in his Monster in the end.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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