“So-Bad-It’s-Good”: The Room and the Paradoxical Appeal of Bad Films

What makes some bad films “so-bad-they’re-good”? We explain the paradoxical appeal of trash films with reference to Wiseau’s 2003 cult classic The Room and argue, from the perspective of cognitive film theory, that the film’s obtrusive violations of Classical Hollywood conventions deny viewers narrative absorption but allows them to derive from those very violations a humorous pleasure that is often social in nature.

Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 cult classic The Room has often been heralded as “the greatest bad movie ever made” and “The Citizen Kane of bad movies” (Raagard 2018). In fact, the consistency with which the film violates all the narrative and cinematic conventions that have governed mainstream filmmaking since the time of Classical Hollywood Cinema is quite astonishing: Its story is strange and often directionless, its staging erratic and often distracting, and its characters, for the most part, speak and act unnaturally and often incomprehensibly. But how, then, can we explain its ample and continued success? To this day, fans of the film congregate all around the world for screenings, renowned for the fervor of their many audience participation rituals (Romano 2017). Alongside such trash classics as Troll 2 (1990) and Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), The Room is a film that has paradoxically triumphed by virtue of its failure, a film that is so hilariously awful that it both boggles and beguiles—it is, in other words, a prime example of a film that is “so-bad-it’s-good.” It is this curious phenomenon of “so-bad-it’s-good” that is of our interest here.

Since the “cognitive turn” of the 1980s, film theorists have been hard at work charting how traditionally “good” films are attuned to the cognitive and emotional dispositions of their audience (see Grodal 2009; Plantinga 2009; Smith 2017). The film psychologist Ed Tan (1996), for instance, has argued that Classical Hollywood norms serve to induce in viewers a state of narrative absorption, which is what has allowed such films reliably to offer audiences an emotionally stimulating, enjoyable experience. But why, then, do some viewers nevertheless reap enjoyment from trash films, which by contrast offer very little in the way of narrative absorption? In this article, we offer a cognitive account of the paradoxical pleasure audiences derive from films that are neither “good” nor just “bad” but rather “so-bad-they’re-good.” Drawing on the humor research of psychologists Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, we argue that the pleasure audiences glean from a trash film like The Room is primarily humorous pleasure and that its humorousness stems from its violations of the norms of Classical Hollywood Cinema, though we also stress the importance of audiences’ expectations for their enjoyment of these violations. Narrative absorption being off the table, in turn, frees audiences to engage with these films in unorthodox yet pleasurable ways as apparent from the playful rituals that characterize screenings of The Room, which we make sense of with reference to the origins of humor in mammalian social play.

The Good in the Bad: The Humorousness of Trash Films

The Room is a 2003 drama film written, directed, financed, and produced by Tommy Wiseau, who also cast himself as the star of the film despite having no prior experience in any of these roles. The film, at bottom, is a $6,000,000 vanity project with an ostensibly simple plot concerning a love triangle between Johnny (played by Wiseau himself), a successful and universally loved banker, whose fiancé Lisa (Juliette Danielle) betrays him by sleeping with his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero) (fig. 1). This through line of the film, however, is greatly overshadowed by the consistently strange and off-kilter choices made in terms of its acting, dialogue, editing, mise-en-scène, and everything else. In his 2013 book The Disaster Artist, co-written with the journalist Tom Bissell, Greg Sestero has relayed The Room’s long and troubled production under the auspice of Wiseau. As they conclude in their book, The Room “is, essentially, one gigantic plot hole” (xiiv). Despite this, however, it has gone on to become an indisputable success with an international fanbase and widely attended screenings still over a decade after its release (Raagaard 2016).

Fig. 1: From left to right: Lisa (Juliette Danielle), Johnny (played by Wiseau himself), and Mark (Greg Sestero). Promotional material for the movie.

If The Room is almost universally regarded as “bad,” why do enthusiastic audiences then continually congregate around the world to watch it? On the face of it, the answer is simple: because they find it funny (fig. 2). In their study of audience responses to trash films, Sarkhosh and Menninghaus found enjoyment “primarily [to be] driven by filmic aspects perceived as amusing, funny and comical” (2016, 13). Through interviews with audience members from one of the monthly screenings of The Room in Britain, Richard McCulloch similarly found that his subjects all seemed to have adopted a “reading protocol … that identifies ‘badness’ specifically in order to locate humor in it” (2011, 212). The pleasure audiences glean from trash films like The Room, then, is primarily humorous pleasure, and the word “good” in the phrase “so-bad-it’s-good” is usually meant to denote the humorousness of such films (195). But if audiences enjoy trash films because they find them funny, the question nevertheless remains as to why they find them funny. What, exactly, makes The Room’s badness humorous as opposed to simply boring, off-putting, or distressing? To answer that question, we have to examine the cognitive properties of the humor response and, importantly, the context of audiences’ appreciation.

Fig. 2: Audience members at the Copenhagen premiere of The Room showing their appreciation for the film by laughing heartily at its unintentional humorousness. Taken from The Disaster Artist (Sestero & Bissell 2013).

As a psychological response, humor is characterized by an emotional component, humorous amusement, and a physiological component, laughter (see Martin 2007). Scholars have long debated what general characteristics define the kinds of stimuli that can elicit this response in us—what kinds of things tend to strike us as funny (Morreall 2009, 1-24). The vast majority of humor theorists working in psychology, philosophy, and aesthetics today, though, subscribe to some variation of what is called “the incongruity theory” of humor, which can be traced back to thinkers like Aristotle (1895), Kant (1790), Schopenhauer (1818), and Kierkegaard (1846). This theory holds broadly that humor depends upon “incongruity,” something that is incongruous with and thus violates our expectations or our normal mental patterns (Morreall 2009, 11). A joke, for instance, is commonly theorized to be humorous when its so-called “set-up” successfully sets up an expectation that its “punchline” then violates (3). According to this theory, then, the humorousness of The Room can be explained with reference to its “incongruities,” its deviations from what we normally expect from traditional mainstream cinema, from established cinematic and narrative conventions (for an example of such an explanation, see McCulloch 2011, 196-8).

This traditional account, however, is too broad to satisfactorily account for the humorousness of trash films: Why, for instance, do the incongruities of The Room strike us as humorous while the countless transgressions of Classical Hollywood norms in the films of a director like David Lynch most often do not? Many of Lynch’s films like Mulholland Drive (2001) or Inland Empire (2006), for instance, involve jarring cuts, nonsynchronous sound, stilted acting, and unnatural dialogue not unlike what we find in The Room, yet these unconventional aspects of Lynch’s work are typically thought deserving of praise and recognition as opposed to derisive laughter. Similarly, we may ask ourselves why only some bad films strike us as humorous while others do not. Many fans of the Star Wars film franchise, for instance, found The Phantom Menace (1999) to be a decidedly poor piece of filmmaking (fig. 3), yet most report having felt frustration, disappointment, or even anger at this perception as opposed to humorous amusement (Williams 2019). If we want to understand the appeal of a trash film like The Room, then, we need a much more precise model of the humor response than that offered by the basic incongruity theory.

Fig. 3: The Phantom Menace has often been called “bad” but never “so-bad-it’s-good.” The character of Jar Jar Binks (in the middle) is a particularly derided aspect of the film.

Such a model, in turn, can be found in the work of psychologists Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren (2010; Warren & McGraw 2015, 2016), who build on the incongruity theory while incorporating insights from cognitive and evolutionary psychology in order to offer much stricter conditions for the elicitation of humor. As they note, incongruity by itself is demonstrably insufficient for humor: Why, for instance, is someone slipping on a banana peel commonly considered humorous while, say, winning the lottery or being unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer is not, despite all three scenarios being both incongruously unexpected and atypical? By itself, the incongruity theory is incapable of answering such questions. Drawing on the work of Veatch (1998) and others, therefore, McGraw and Warren have sought to improve hereupon with their own “benign violation theory,” which sets out not only to offer required but also sufficient conditions for humor. The benign violation theory thus improves upon the incongruity theory by allowing us much more precisely to distinguish between what is humorous and what is non-humorous. Eminently applicable to the domain of humorous film (Hye-Knudsen 2018), it can therefore help us answer our questions about what makes some bad films “so-bad-they’re-good.”

Beyond Incongruity: Bad Films and Benign Violations

The benign violation theory stipulates, firstly, that the violations necessary for humor must have a negative valence instead of simply departing incongruously from our expectations or our normal mental patterns, hence why slipping on a banana peel is commonly considered humorous while winning the lottery is not. To account for this, McGraw and Warren define a violation as a stimulus that departs not just from our expectations of how things usually are but rather from our normative sense of how they “ought” to be. A violation, then, must be somehow wrong, bad, or threatening. In order for such a violation to elicit humor as opposed to purely negative emotions, however, the benign violation theory further stipulates that it must simultaneously be appraised as tolerably benign, i.e., ultimately non-worrisome, hence why the tragic prospect of death by cancer most often does not move us to laugh either. In order for humor to be elicited according to McGraw and Warren, then, two juxtaposed appraisals must occur simultaneously, namely a benign appraisal and a violation appraisal.

The benign violation theory explains why a director like David Lynch’s deviations from the norms of Classical Hollywood Cinema most often do not strike us as humorous even though we may find them both incongruously surprising and atypical: Lynch, after all, is thought of as an arthouse director, and his films consequently cannot be appraised as somehow wrong or bad according to Classical Hollywood standards. When he employs jarring cuts or nonsynchronous sound, for instance, these aspects of his work are thought to be conscious artistic choices as opposed to signs of poor filmmaking, and indeed they tend to serve a specific function within his films. A filmmaker, then, has to be perceived as attempting to make a film within the Classical Hollywood paradigm in order for that film’s violations of Classical Hollywood norms to strike us as inadvertently humorous as opposed to self-consciously subversive and thus deserving of critical thought and reflection instead of laughter.

Herein, too, may lie the answer as to why so much attention has been given to Wiseau’s authorial intent: Did he set out to make a moving drama within the Classical Hollywood paradigm and fail miserably, or was he secretly intending to make a comedy all along? Scholars, journalists, and virtually everyone involved with the film agree on the former, but Wiseau himself has made scattered allusions towards the latter, claiming, for instance, that “everything that you see and experience … was done meticulously,” and that the film was intended to “provoke the audience” (in McCulloch 2011, 196). As James McDowell notes, though, “[w]e absolutely must assume that The Room wasn’t intended to be a self-parodic comedy in order to laugh at it in the way that we do” (2011). In other words, in order for the film to strike us as genuinely humorous it is important that we appraise it as the equivalent of a slip on a banana peel, as an earnest filmic slip-up owing to its director’s total lack of judgement as opposed to an intentionally subversive piece of cinema. This may also account for why lovers of trash film often disparage films like Sharknado (Ferrante 2013), which they perceive as too kitschy and self-aware and consequently dismiss as “cynical rubbish” (Newman 2013) that is “bad on purpose” (Arf 2014) (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: The Sharknado films are dismissed by many trash film aficionados as too kitschy and self-aware to be genuinely “so-bad-they’re-good.”

In order to elicit humor instead of a purely negative response, however, the benign violation theory stipulates that a violation must ultimately be appraised benignly non-worrisome. Having earnestly set one’s hopes on a film being good, for instance, may prevent an audience from seeing the benignity of a bad film’s violations, inhibiting them from approaching its badness with the detached and playful frame of mind that psychological research indicates is necessary for humor (Eitzen 1999; Morreall 2016). This may explain why fans of the Star Wars film franchise originally struggled to find humor in the badness of The Phantom Menace, namely because their fandom meant they were emotionally invested in the film living up to its predecessors’ standards. The Room is said to have been met with a similarly negative response during its first screening with “most of its viewers [asking] for their money back – before even 30 minutes had passed” (Foundas 2003). In other words, this original audience’s monetary investment in the film—based on the premise of it being at least well-made enough to have been put in theaters—kept them from finding its violations benignly humorous. The film’s entire initial two-week theatrical run, in fact, was an indisputable flop in this way, with the film garnering a total of $1,800 and critics eviscerating it in the press (Collis 2008).

An audience’s capacity to find humor in a bad film’s badness, then, may crucially depend on their priming, their prior expectations and the attitude they bring towards it. As The Disaster Artist has it, in fact, it was not until the very last weekend of The Room’s initial theatrical run that “the seeds of its eventual cultural salvation were planted” when two young film students with a taste for trash, Michael Rousselet and Scott Gairdner, walked by a ticket booth with a sign proclaiming “No refunds” and the following quote from a review: “Watching this film is like getting stabbed in the head” (Sestero & Bissell 2013, xiv). Rousselet and Gairdner, the story goes, “were sold” (xiv), and they consequently entered the theatre with the requisite frame of mind for enjoying the film for its badness, what Sarkhosh and Menninghaus term an “ironic viewing stance” (2016, 41-2). Free of any conflicting expectations or emotional investment in the film being good, then, they were thus able to appreciate its countless striking violations of Classical Hollywood norms as instances of what Noël Carroll has termed “found humor” (2014, 28), namely as unintendedly humorous stimuli.

Under the right conditions and with audiences in the right frame of mind, a film as conventionally bad as The Room can thus become “good” by virtue of offering its viewers an inadvertently but pleasurably comic experience. As McCulloch has observed, though, audiences themselves play an active role in facilitating this comic experience, and a great many attendees at screenings of The Room, in fact, report gleaning much of their enjoyment not directly from the film itself but rather from the responses its badness inspires in others (2011, 200). The Room screenings famously involve a whole range of audience participation rituals, many of which originated at the first screenings arranged by Rousselet and Gairdner and their friends and fellow fans in the film’s early cult following: Attendees traditionally will not only heckle the film throughout and engage in humorous chants but will even throw plastic spoons at the screen at designated points in the film (Collis 2008; Sestero & Bissell 2013, xv) (fig. 5). In order to understand these playful rituals and the enjoyment audiences glean from them, in turn, we have to understand the social nature of humor as an evolved response to benign violations together with its origins in mammalian social play. First, however, we must appreciate exactly what it is about the norms of Classical Hollywood Cinema being violated that permits these responses to take place.

Fig. 5: Attendees at a screening of The Room throwing plastic spoons at the screen, as is tradition. Taken from The Disaster Artist (Sestero & Bissell 2013).

Absorption, Enjoyment, and Classical Hollywood Cinema

It does not take a film scholar to note that it is usually considered rude and annoying for audience members to talk, heckle, or throw objects at the screen during viewings of traditionally “good” films. This is likely because a major part of the enjoyment audiences glean from such moviegoing experiences stems from narrative absorption, from their being so engaged that they lose awareness of their own immediate surroundings and instead feel “transported” into the narrative world of the film (Bilandzic & Busselle 2017; Tan et al. 2017). As Tan has convincingly argued (1996), the Classical Hollywood norms governing traditional mainstream feature films, in fact, seem to have developed largely because they reliably allowed filmmakers to engage viewers in this way by concealing their films’ artifice and thereby bolstering the “diegetic illusion” on which they are based, the sense filmgoers have of the movie screen offering them access to a coherent and authentic diegetic world in which the film’s narrative can unfold (see also Bordwell, Staiger & Thompson 1985; Bordwell 1985). This is what allows such films, in the words of Tan, to function as effective “emotion machines,” artifacts that can reliably and forcefully manipulate audiences’ emotions and interest in order to offer them a gratifying moviegoing experience.

Upholding the norms of Classical Hollywood Cinema, though, is not the only way in which films can entertain their audience and arouse their emotions. Audiences glean emotional pleasure from narrative absorption, but they also glean aesthetic pleasure from film form. Tan, here, usefully distinguishes between two kinds of emotions a film can evoke in its viewers: fiction emotions, which have as their object events within the fictional world of the film, and artifact emotions, which have as their object the film as an artifact in itself. By concealing the film’s constructedness to thereby foster narrative absorption, the Classical Hollywood norms are largely geared towards effectively engendering fiction emotions in viewers at the expense of their counterpart in artifact emotions. The conventions of continuity editing, for instance, serve to direct the viewer’s attention towards the diegetic continuity between shots and to impede them from noticing the cuts themselves (see Cutting & Candan 2013). This, in turn, lends the diegetic world of the film a sense of coherence and verisimilitude, which allows audiences to become absorbed and thus to be moved by the fictional events unfolding within this world. The Classical Hollywood norms thus result in a style that is largely “invisible” to the average spectator, with the film’s status as a constructed artifact effectively concealed from their conscious experience (Belton 1994, 22).

By virtue of its incessant and obtrusive violations of these Classical Hollywood norms, however, a trash film like The Room makes narrative absorption virtually impossible on the part of its viewers, repeatedly breaking the diegetic illusion so central to traditional filmmaking and thus forcing audiences to relate to it as a constructed artifact, and a badly constructed one at that. Consider, for instance, the function of staging in Classical Hollywood Cinema: As Tan notes, mise-en-scène is here used to offer viewers a “realistic sensory impression” with absorption being spurred on “by their easy recognition of the relevant objects in the fictional world” (1994, 12). Filmmakers, in other words, usually seek to impart their fictional worlds with credibility by ensuring that their settings resemble only slightly stylized versions of their “typical real-life counterparts” (12). Wiseau, however, fragrantly violates this norm in The Room, most notably by having his central character Johnny’s San Francisco townhouse apartment inexplicably adorned with framed pictures of spoons (fig. 6). No plausible diegetic reason presents itself for this aberrant choice of decoration: no sense can be made of it with reference to Johnny’s character or the world of the film. So why are they there? As Sestero recalls in The Disaster Artist, Wiseau was so anxious to start filming that he simply did not care to replace the stock photos of spoons included in the sample frames his art department had procured him (Sestero & Bissell 2013, 127). As a result, absorption is hindered every time the viewer is confronted by one of these absurd photos of spoons in Johnny’s apartment, which realistically have no reason to be there.

Fig. 6: Johnny sitting in front of three of the framed pictures of spoons that inexplicably adorn his apartment. Whenever these appear onscreen, it is tradition for audience members at The Room screenings to throw plastic spoons at the screen.

Attendees at screenings of The Room are in this way continually pulled out of the narrative world of the film, allowing them, in turn, to appreciate the film as a humorously bad artifact in itself. The humorous amusement evoked by its perpetual violations of Classical Hollywood norms, then, is a clear case of artifact emotion in that it is the film in itself and not an orchestrated event within its fictional world that is being appraised as comically bad. The prospect of narrative absorption being off the table, in turn, frees audiences to interact with trash films in ways prohibited at screenings of traditionally “good” films. Here, of course, we are referring to The Room’s famed audience participation rituals. Whenever the aforementioned framed pictures of spoons appear onscreen, for instance, it is customary for attendees to throw plastic spoons at the screen (Collis 2008), thereby playfully joining in and building on the humorousness of the Classical Hollywood norm violation that has just occurred. Why should audiences collectively be moved by their amusement to engage with the film’s norm violations in this way, and where exactly lies their enjoyment in doing so? To understand this distinctly social aspect of audiences’ enjoyment, we must first appreciate the distinctly social nature of humor.

In-Crowds and In-Jokes: Ritual, Play, and Audience Participation

Humorous laughter, biologists have argued, is likely to have originated as a “play signal” with an apparent antecedent manifested in the distinctly laugh-like panting vocalization that accompanies the so-called “play face” of some of our closest related primates like chimpanzees (van Hoof 1972; Provine 2000; Morreall 2009). Mammals, including primates like chimpanzees and humans, commonly form social bonds and learn vital skills through rough-and-tumble play, during which play signals serve to indicate that all physical violations are intended and construed as benign, ensuring no misunderstandings occur that could accidentally escalate the play fighting into actual violence (Gervais & Wilson 2005). The first stimuli to have elicited laughter and “protohumor,” then, are thought to have been the benign physical violations that constituted the rough-and-tumble play of early humans (398). During the course of our evolutionary trajectory, the benign violation theory consequently holds that the situations capable of eliciting humor were gradually expanded to include other kinds of violations (McGraw & Warren 2010, 1142), like violations of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick), communicative norm violations (e.g., puns and wordplay), and moral norm violations (e.g., black humor). As such, humor allowed humans to relieve the tension potentially caused by benign violations to instead utilize them for spontaneous and peer-bonding exploratory play (see also Eitzen 2012, 10-5).

The humorous amusement evoked by a benign violation, then, serves to motivate us to explore and play socially and cognitively with its implications while our laughter in turn recruits others to join us and do the same (Warner & McGraw 2014, 76-8). To the extent that an audience has internalized the norms of Classical Hollywood Cinema, it is therefore not surprising that they should be moved by The Room’s humorous violations of these norms to engage in the ritualized play behaviors previously described—or, to put it more precisely, that they should be moved to engage playfully with the violations in question, which the established audience participation rituals, in turn, provide them with a standardized way of going about. We have already dealt with the notorious spoon throwing, but other examples abound: One Classical Hollywood norm, for instance, dictates that the film’s principal cast of characters, which should be limited in number, are all introduced within its first 30 minutes or so, which allows audiences to keep track of their faces, names, and persons without much conscious effort (Pramaggiore & Wallis 2011, 38-9). In The Room, however, new characters continue intruding into the narrative throughout with little explanation as to who they are or why they are there (fig. 7). To humorously bring attention to this fact, it is a common tradition at screenings for audiences collectively to shout “Who the fuck are you?” at the screen whenever this happens (Bather 2017).

Fig. 7: The character of Steven (Greg Ellery) does not appear in The Room until its last 15 minutes. He serves no function within the film. It is tradition for audiences to shout “Who the fuck are you?” at the screen whenever a new character randomly intrudes into the narrative in this way.

Through collectively participating in these playful rituals, in turn, audiences are afforded the enjoyable experience of coming together to form, in McCulloch’s words, a “temporary community … that exists only in that place and until the cinema has emptied” (2011, 203). Such effective social bonding, as we have seen, seems to be the very thing that humor has evolved to facilitate, and it is not without reason that shared laughter and play can in this way forge social amity and affinity. In order to find humor in the film’s violations and to participate in the screening’s rituals, after all, audience members are required to share a wide range of implicit information, beliefs, and assessments about Classical Hollywood Cinema, its largely unspoken norms, and The Room’s failure to live up to these norms. It is quite unspectacular, for instance, for Classical Hollywood films to use establishing shots to inform viewers about their narrative setting. The Room again violates the norm here, but only by virtue of its excessive use of this device with its “many, many… many, establishing shots of San Francisco” (Ratcliff 2016). This, coupled with the audience’s knowledge that the film was actually shot in Los Angeles with a green screen used to recreate the San Francisco skyline for its rooftop scenes, has led to the ritual of audience members collectively shouting “Meanwhile in San Francisco!” during these shots.

Such intricate Classical Hollywood norms as those dictating what amount of establishing shots are appropriate for a film, however, are not all that audiences have to agree on in order to enjoy The Room’s badness in the way that they do. Much of the film’s humor specifically stems from its violations of the central Classical Hollywood norm of realism, which Wiseau’s seemingly strange and eccentric view of the world makes him unable to adhere to. As Bissell puts it, The Room “is like a movie made by an alien who has never seen a movie but has had movies thoroughly explained to him” (2017). Characters’ behavior and dialogue are consistently so humorously off in the film that it manages to unite audiences in laughter at what they jointly consider inauthentic and unreal human behavior. Immediately after having been accused of domestic violence by his fiancé, for instance, Wiseau’s character Johnny storms onto the rooftop of his apartment building, angrily muttering to himself “I did not hit her, it’s not true! It’s bullshit! I did not hit her! I did not!”. Upon noticing his best friend Mark, however, his attitude suddenly changes completely as he greets him warmly with the words “Oh, hi Mark!” (fig. 8). Audiences, in turn, often honor this unrealistic mood change by greeting certain characters similarly when they enter a scene, saying “Oh, hi Johnny!” and the like (Ratcliff 2016).

Fig. 8: “Oh, hi Mark!”. The emotion in Tommy Wiseau’s delivery of this line is so incongruous with his character’s mental state that it has become iconic of the film’s badness.

The Room is full of such strange remarks and turns of events, which are humorous by way of their staggering incongruence with most viewers’ intuitions of how people actually speak and behave. In one scene, for instance, Lisa’s mother offhandedly announces that she is dying of cancer, only for the subject swiftly to be brushed aside, never to come up again (fig. 9). Not only is this a needless divergence in terms of the film’s plot, but more importantly it departs vividly from how any sane person would actually deliver or react to such calamitous news. Exposition, furthermore, is weaved awkwardly into the dialogue of the film throughout, with characters repeatedly overexplaining their situations and their internal relationships to each other for no clear diegetic reason. When Johnny comes home to a surprise birthday party arranged for him by Lisa, for instance, he remarks “Thank you, honey. This is a beautiful party. You invited all my friends. Good thinking!”. Again, the humor here comes from how this strangely inhuman response violates any semblance of realism in the film. The Room is so rampant with such Classical Hollywood norm violations, in fact, that most do not have rituals attached to them. Audiences, however, spontaneously heckle the film throughout, making up new gags on the spot. As such, no two screenings are alike in that it varies which bad aspects of the film any given audience latches onto and brings attention towards with their laughter and with their spontaneous banter and witty remarks. In this way, audiences play an important role themselves in ensuring that the film, though bad in itself, provides them with an enjoyable, i.e., “good,” comic experience.

Fig. 9: “I got the results of the tests back. I definitely have breast cancer.” This line is delivered with a humorously unfitting nonchalance, and the subject is swiftly brushed aside, never to come up again.

The profoundly social aspect of audiences’ enjoyment of films that are “so-bad-they’re-good,” then, is critical to understanding their allure. Even when trash films are not screened in theaters like The Room, audiences nevertheless still often watch them in groups, and a major part of their appeal, as reviewer Mary McNamara notes, remains “the fabulous in-home commentary[, o]ften accompanied by the consumption of many alcoholic beverages” (2013). The bad film, in other words, is as much an occasion for humor as it is humorous in itself, and the humorous play that it occasions is essential to the trash film experience. By laughing at the film’s Classical Hollywood norm violations, audience members not only signal their own appreciation hereof but they also invite others to join them in this appreciation, and through the humorous play that follows in terms of witty banter and commentary, in turn, audiences collectively negotiate and bond around a shared comic reading of the film. This social aspect of their enjoyment, though, is of course only made possible by the Classical Hollywood norm violations themselves and by way of the fact that narrative absorption is made virtually impossible hereby. An appreciation for the traditional functions of Classical Hollywood norms, the cognitive properties of the humor response, and the evolutionary kinship between humor and play, then, can in this way help us to understand what paradoxically makes some bad films “so-bad-they’re-good.”

* * *

Facts

Films

  • Inland Empire (2006), dir. David Lynch.
  • Mulholland Drive (2001), dir. David Lynch.
  • Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), dir. Ed Wood.
  • Sharknado (2013), dir. Anthony C. Ferrante.
  • Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace (1999), dir. George Lucas.
  • The Room (2003), dir. Tommy Wiseau.
  • Troll 2 (1990), dir. Claudio Fragasso.

Literature

Marc Hye-Knudsen & Mathias Clasen
Marc Hye-Knudsen: Marc Hye-Knudsen is a graduate student at Aarhus University. His research revolves around the cognitive and evolutionary underpinnings of humor and its various manifestations in film, television, and literature. /////////////////////////////////////////// /////////////////////////////////////////// Mathias Clasen: Mathias Clasen is associate professor in literature and media at Aarhus University. His research focuses on horror media from a cognitive-evolutionary perspective (e.g., Why Horror Seduces, OUP 2017).