Three people with opinions recording a podcast, what a ridiculous notion! See what we did there? That’s called lampshading, or when a story deliberately draws your attention to some aspect of its production, usually a flaw. It’s often a great source of laughs, but is it always the right choice? Join us as we talk about what lampshades are food for, when they should be avoided, and of course, how everyone loves Minimoose.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.[opening song]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today are…
Oren: And I know that we don’t always sound like we are actually wise mystic sages from the heavens, but that’s because we’re just three humble people from a podcast. So why don’t you just give us a break? I’ve lamp shaded the problem. Now, you can’t critique us ever again. Okay, there, boom! Done. We can go home now.
Chris: If we just say that we could be wrong, we can say whatever we want, right? Doesn’t matter how mad at makes anyone.
Wes: Yeah, because it’s on the it’s on the record. We can point to saying that.
Oren: So today we’re talking about lampshading, which is kind of a nebulous term. I discovered that according to TV Tropes, a lampshade is basically any joke with even vaguely meta context, which I don’t think is a particularly useful definition.
Wes: That confuses me more.
Chris: Yeah. No.
Oren: No, okay. So from what I understand, and from the way most people I have met actually use it, the word lampshading means deliberately calling attention to a problem that the story has in a meta way and making a joke out of it. That’s what lampshading is.
Chris: I would add to that that there’s no attempt made to actually fix the flaw – besides the lampshading perhaps if you consider that – as opposed to having a character mention a flaw within the work and then having another character insist that it’s not a flaw because of such and such weak explanation.
Oren: Right, that’s a justification. That’s not a lampshade.
Chris: So that would not be lampshading, even though the work is sort of talking about its own flaws, but it’s trying to provide some reason why they’re not flaws, trying to patch them up. And most of the time that just comes off as telling your readers that they’re wrong. That’s not something you usually want to do. Whereas in lampshading, I would say that we point the flaw out. We make a joke about it, but we don’t actually try to really fix the flaw in a more substantial way.
Wes: The term itself is just the metaphor that there’s a light that is a problem. So you put a lampshade over it, but you can still see the light. But you covered it up, so pay no more attention to that thing.
Oren: That might be where the term comes from. You know, I hadn’t actually thought about why it was called lampshading – that could very well be it. Just to give an example, in case this is all a little too conceptual: Probably the ultimate lampshade that I could think of is from the Deep Space Nine episode Trials and Tribble-ations where they go back in time to the TOS episode – TOS meaning The Original Series – The Trouble with Tribbles. And it’s a really fun episode: The DS9 crew wander around these reconstructed TOS sets and they digitally insert them into footage from the original episode. It’s super fun. But there is that obvious problem, which is that in the original series Klingons were just humans. They just wore lamé.
Sometimes they wore blackface, which was bad. But fortunately the Klingons in this episode I don’t think did – I could be wrong. But regardless, they certainly didn’t have the giant forehead ridge prosthetic the Klingons in the TNG era do, right? And there was just no way to square that circle, that happened because in TOS they couldn’t afford to make the Klingons look more alien and in TNG they could. That’s the reason that happened. And so the Deep Space Nine writers, realizing that this would be a thing, have a scene where O’Brien notices the Klingons from the TOS era and looks at Worf and he’s like, “Those are Klingons? What happened?” And Worf says, “We do not discuss it with outsiders.” And there. It’s a funny line, we move on, we’ve acknowledged that this is a production issue, that it is impossible for us to fix – we will just keep going and try and enjoy the episode. Right? That’s the ultimate lampshade. That’s what lampshading should be used for, ideally.
Chris: The objective of lampshading, of course, is to get your audience to just cut you some slack. And I think it works partly because you’re giving them an outlet for their confusion. It’s like, “Okay, we all acknowledge the elephant in the room. You’ve had your outlet. Now we can move on to other things.”
Wes: And it’s nice that it’s also happening in the context of the work itself, as opposed to just somebody on a commentary at the end of the episode trying to persuade you otherwise.
Oren: Right, it’s like we’re not trying to justify it. We just, you know, turned it into a joke. We diffuse some of the tension and now it’s just like, “All right. Now we can just kind of go with it.” It is an acknowledgement from the creators that this is a problem, that you’re not imagining things, and that they’re just asking you to bear with them. Supernatural did this a couple times in what I thought were really funny ways. Like, they have one episode where they meet a guy who, because of some magic nonsense, has been writing down their adventures as books that he thought were fictional. And when that happens he’s like, “Oh guys, I’m so sorry, if I’d known you were real I would have given Bugs and Racist Truck another pass.” And those are two of the worst episodes of Supernatural that everyone hates. It was a fun way for the show writers to acknowledge that, “Yeah, we messed up on those episodes.” Okay, good, you’re not making an excuse. It’s just a fun joke. We all appreciate it. Now we can move on.
Chris: One of my favorite examples of lampshading is actually from The Flash, which apparently is one of the few funny lines in The Flash – from what I understand, because I didn’t actually watch it, it was in the trailers …
Wes: I watched it. I’m curious what you’re going to say.
Chris: Lightning is the source of his power. Correct?
Wes: Kind of. Yeah, basically.
Oren: Magic space lightning.
Chris: Yeah, so there’s a scene, after he’s just acquired his powers, where he looks in the mirror and he lifts up his shirt and he’s all, like, built and he’s like, “Lightning gave me abs!?” Which is a great way to lampshade the idea that yeah, we know it’s ridiculous. And of course the superhero genre is full of these things like, “I got bit by a spider and now I have super strength,” and the connection is always very loose. But making fun of the fact that supposedly he now is built because he got struck by lightning, I think was really fun.
Oren: Yeah, I mean The Flash otherwise certainly has some things in it that are supposed to be funny – your mileage may vary. I thought that joke was legitimately hilarious. I think the show could have done better to be more in that spirit, whereas – it’s not like it was grimdark, but it certainly tried to be more serious, at least in the early seasons that I watched, than I think was good for it. But that’s another discussion about whether The Flash is good. [whispers] It’s not.
Chris: I know Oren will go into this too, but I think it’s worth mentioning that lampshading is not a Get Out Of Plothole Free card. It works in niche scenarios and I think the three big things to think about as to whether or not something that’s wrong with the work is a good candidate for lampshading are: It has to be difficult to fix – because otherwise you should just fix it. It really helps if whatever it is that is unbelievable otherwise adds value to the audience, like a trope that they will otherwise enjoy, even if it’s not realistic. Everybody wants the Flash to gain powers, right? That’s the premise of the show. And then the third thing is that it shouldn’t be something with ethical implications. If it’s problematic, then lamp shading is not good.
Oren: Yep. Absolutely.
Wes: Yeah, because it’s just going to keep coming back up, right?
Chris: Honestly, if you have something problematic, pretending ignorance is better than telling everybody, “Yeah, we knew that we were doing something really sexist, but we didn’t care enough to change it.”
Oren: That’s getting into the issue of “Oh, but we knew what we were doing was sexist, so actually, it’s a commentary” and it’s like – No. It’s not. it needs to be more than just doing the thing and saying, “Hey, we did the thing,” to be a commentary right? Where exactly the line is where it becomes a commentary is maybe a little subjective, but it needs to be more than just acknowledging you’re doing it.
Wes: You can’t just have a character be sexist and be like, “Oh well, we’re commenting on this type of behavior,” without having any character push back on that in the actual story. To be commentary, you have to have someone in the tale point this out and say that it is wrong, or challenge it in some way, and if you’re not doing that …
Oren: And usually that whole thing comes up in debates over whether or not a particular video game character is a parody of over-sexualized video game characters, or is she just an over sexualized video game character.
Chris: Hint: She’s an over-sexualized video game character.
Wes: Yeah. It’s not that hard.
Oren: Usually that one, but sometimes they actually put dialogue in, like – Chris, was it the Jumanji trailer that we were watching?
Chris: Yeah, this one made me real mad. The movie Jumanji, but inside Jumanji the video game, they had an outfit that they were lampshading. I think it is one of the woman characters who goes into Jumanji and then her outfit changes into something skimpy, and she’s like, “Really? Why do I have to have this skimpy outfit?” But – the writers decided to give her a skimpy outfit! They made that choice! And her joking about how terrible it is that she has a skimpy outfit because video games are doing it – that doesn’t undo their choice.
Wes: They’re using it as an excuse to just do what they wanted to do. That is a problem.
Oren: But I find it more common for people to use lampshades as a way to try to excuse plot or character issues. Like in early Buffy episodes they have Angel show up and he’s like, “The crow yells at midnight” and then runs away into the shadows. It’s like, what? What the heck did you just say to me? Why did you say that? And there’s no explanation. We never find out why Angel is so pointlessly cryptic for the first 10 episodes or so, but in those episodes at one point Buffy is like, “Oh well, Angel’s going to be here and he’s going to be all cryptic-y.” And it’s funny because we are commenting on Angel being cryptic – but just make him not pointlessly cryptic, guys. Just fix the problem. Nobody is enjoying this thing where Angel is pointlessly cryptic. It’s not like a trope we want to suspend our disbelief over. It’s just bad.
Chris: Right. It does sabotage him as a character, obviously the love interest, and it’s really hard to actually be interested in them having a romance when he’s doing weird things that make no sense. Another example of bad lampshading that is bad because it could have been fixed, it’s in my Mortal Instruments critique – there’s this one point, it’s really funny, where first Cassandra Clare has a really long, like a short paragraph length, line of dialogue where somebody is describing what a demon is. And it’s “obviously, as you and I both know,” dialogue that just sounds like a pure exposition dump. And then later she has another character say, “Nobody here needs a lesson in semantics or demonology.” Like that fixes it! And that’s clearly lampshading. But why would you do that when you can just make the dialogue sound more natural? I don’t know.
Oren: I feel like there’s a disconnect here that comes from a storyteller not knowing when something is a fun little quirk of their story that we all just accept and we can make a joke about, and when something’s actually irritating. For example, again from Buffy, at one point Xander makes this joke about how it’s a good thing no one ever checks out these library books because the library is just full of demonology books, like every book on the shelf is demonology. And that’s the joke. Nobody is watching Buffy and being upset that the library’s demonology ratio is off – I’m not saying nobody, but not most people, right? That joke works for most people because that’s a fun quirk of the show. Kind of like how they could have made a joke about how everyone in Sunnydale is buried on the same day that they die. That’s kind of a weird conceit in Sunnydale that happens and it’s funny. But then an alternate version of this is storytellers often think that like their technobabble is cute and fun, so they’ll make jokes about technobabble. The MCU and Star Trek both do this a lot where they’ll have a character rattle off some random technobabble phrase and someone else would be like, “That’s total nonsense. You just made that up.” And it’s indistinguishable from the actual technobabble, and they think that’s cute and clever but really it’s just irritating, because technobabble is irritating, because it’s meaningless. And we just would like less technobabble, please.
Chris: I do think that with shows like Star Trek, lampshading is usually best for things that have previously happened in the show and it’s too late to change them now. And I think redshirts would be a great example, because the death of redshirts on TOS was a pattern that you didn’t notice at first, and by the time you notice that there was this pattern of all the people in red shirts dying it was too late to change. You should still then fix it after that, but joking about redshirts dying would have been an appropriate lampshade. Or making a joke like, “No, this time, the redshirt lives,” or something.
Oren: Like on Deep Space Nine at one point there’s a joke where O’Brien and Worf are talking. Worf is still in the process of joining the crew. He talks about how great their adventures on the Enterprise were and he’s like, “We could do anything,” and O’Brien’s like, “Except keep the holodecks running properly.” That’s a lampshade. It’s a funny joke. It’s a lampshade because on TNG there was a bad problem where the writers would just get lazy and have the Holodeck break and start trying to kill the crew. It was kind of annoying and we didn’t love it. And Deep Space Nine doesn’t do that. I think Deep Space Nine has exactly one holodeck malfunction episode and in that episode, the holodeck actually saves them from dying, which I thought was a brilliant reversal of that trope.
Chris: Yeah, that’s true. I remember that episode. That was good.
Oren: And Deep Space Nine can make that joke and not just be like, “Haha, we’re doing that bad thing also.”
Chris: One of my favorite uses of a lampshade is in Invader Zim. Invader Zim had a hard time when the show was discontinued, they didn’t have the budget to make both of the episodes that they were planning, and the episode that they decided to cut was the earlier episode. But they had introduced a new character in that episode. So in the episode that ended up going out had a random character that was not introduced, that was just around. A new sidekick was just there.
Oren: Everybody loves Minimoose.
Chris: So they had Zim just joke about how Minimoose has been here the whole time, yes siree, and that was it. They had a serious continuity break that at this point, they could not keep it from happening. It was a good way to just make a joke out of it to smooth it over and make it less jarring for the audience.
Oren: Oh another good example of that is in the clip show episode of Legend of Korra, which I think has the highest ratio of how much I was expecting to hate an episode versus how much I actually loved it, of any piece of media I’ve ever seen. As I started I was like, “Wait, a clip show? Right before the finale?” And I was so mad. I was like, “A clip show, are you kidding me?” And then the clip show was great and it was hilarious. It was amazing. And obviously they only did a clip show because they didn’t have enough money, it was not their creative vision to have a clip show. So even if it had been bad, I would have forgiven them because they had no other choice. But instead I just really enjoyed it because it’s hilarious And as part of that clip show they make a lot of jokes at the expense of mistakes they made earlier in the series. By then, the fourth season is so good and they have fixed so many of those problems that it’s like yeah, let’s make a joke about how Mako is bland and has no personality, because he does have a personality now, he’s actually a character by the fourth season. It’s amazing. Whereas if they had made these jokes back in season one, I just would have been like, “How about you just give him a personality instead of joking that he doesn’t have one.”
Chris: Yeah, at its worst it could definitely seem flippant about real problems the story has. Why are you joking about something that is bothering us? Again, I think what it comes down to is the idea that you as a storyteller are putting in a good faith effort to fix problems and make the story good. And then if it’s clear that you are, but you have some constraints that are outside of your control, that’s when lampshading becomes really effective.
Wes: From the examples you guys have shared it definitely seems like if they’re trying to lampshade immediately, that isn’t necessarily as good. Just don’t do the thing. And the best examples you brought up are definitely ones where some time has passed and they’re reflecting on the storytelling choices that they had made.
Chris: Yeah, although sometimes your premise just comes with unbelievable things and so an immediate lampshade like the whole “lightning gave me abs”
Wes: Right, that’s more of an immediate lampshade.
Chris: Yeah. And for instance, if you’ve got an adaptation from another work, like a comic, and there are some things that are iconic about that comic that you don’t really feel like you can change in the adaptation but are a little silly – again, viewers generally understand those types of things. They can get an idea of some of the constraints you’re under. Another great example is if characters are sword fighting in a setting that has guns. People like watching sword fights; they are getting value out of the fact that there is sword fighting. A lot of times, at the same time it still would be unrealistic, and that can create some tension. Like, why is this character using a sword when they’ll just get shot? That might be another example of when a lampshade might be more appropriate because the audience wants to see that sword fight, but that sort of nagging idea of, “Why are they doing that?” is bothering them.
Oren: Yeah, this is an area that I’m not sure about. I don’t know if this technically qualifies as a lamp shade. There’s an episode in season 3 of Buffy when the mayor’s hip young vampire assistant is berating this older vampire for not using a gun because he’s using a sword instead. He’s like, “This is the modern age. You should get an Uzi.” And I’m like, “Why don’t you have an Uzi?” That felt like a lampshade to me, like the show was turning around to being like, “We know it doesn’t make any sense that these characters don’t use guns. But then we’re still gonna try to use that as a way to make this character seem smart and modern,” and it was just super irritating. I’m not sure if that technically qualifies as a lamp shade, but it felt very meta to me.
Chris: Right. Yeah. I think the problem with Buffy is that Buffy is incredibly inconsistent in the use of guns. If the show just swore off guns all together, because they’re just not fun to watch in fight scenes – it’s also not fun to see a character who should hit somebody with a gun just miss time and time again, which inevitably happens – if they swore off guns altogether and then they lampshaded how for some reason they never use guns, even though that’s obviously the logical thing to do in most modern day fights, I think that would be a good lamp shade. I think Buffy’s problem is that they are not willing to completely swear off guns and modern weaponry. So they only use them when it’s plot convenient, rather than actually showing some kind of philosophy or dedication to doing things a certain way.
Oren: Right. It’s like 99% of the time we just have to accept that a vampire would never use a gun to shoot Buffy, except for that one time when we wanted Darla to be especially threatening. So now she has guns. It’s like – what, why? Another one that I would feel very uncomfortable if someone decided to lampshade this – I don’t think they actually have – would be in the MCU, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If someone made a lampshade joke about the heroes not being able to help each other during their movies, that would be kind of annoying. Because that’s one of my big beefs with the MCU – and this is obviously a production issue – but they’ve established that all these heroes are running around in the same universe, but they also have their solo movies and it’s like, why isn’t Tony Stark in Captain America too? Why isn’t he there? There’s no reason for him to not be there. Likewise, why is Captain America not in Iron Man 3? That’s even harder to justify. You just have to accept that they can’t always have crossovers, because it’s just too expensive and it doesn’t work. And also the heroes will start to drown each other out after a while if every Marvel movie was The Avengers. But I would feel very uncomfortable if someone made a lampshade joke about that.
Wes: Yeah, because there would be no way to do that that wouldn’t make you cringe.
Oren: Right, it would just feel very like, “No, please don’t call attention to that! Just let me forget, let me be swept away in the magic of your movie, don’t remind me that that’s a thing.” And it might be down to this consistency problem again, because the heroes are all siloed off for each other except when they’re not. It’s like, “Oh, today the threat is enough to get us all combined.” But what about during Thor 2 when dark elves were destroying the earth? Why was that not a big enough threat to get the Avengers to assemble? I mean, Thor 2 is a bad movie, but you know, same deal.
Chris: Probably one of my least favorite lampshades that ever happened is in season 5 of Angel, the Buffy spin-off. Angel has a serious problem with its female characters. Really bad.
Oren: It does.
Chris: And in season 5, there is one main cast member who is a woman. Her name is Fred. They decide to kill her in a terrible way, very disempowering. She doesn’t go out like a hero. She just slowly suffers and dies as all of the men maneuver to try to save her and then decide not to. And while this is happening, the only female character is put in this completely helpless position where she has zero agency over what’s happening to her. And she is complaining about how she has zero agency over what’s happening to her, like literally saying, “How dare you turn me into a helpless damsel,” as they are doing it. And it just made me really angry because, again, I could more easily dismiss it as, “Okay. These people just aren’t thinking about the women on their show enough, right? Not thinking about representation. And they didn’t mean to do something bad, but they were really careless, and their sexism came through”. But now I know that they know, now I know that they knew that this was sexist, and they decided to do it anyway.
Oren: Now, I’m just angry.
Chris: Now I’m just angry!
Oren: Yeah, I had a similar reaction – it’s not as bad – but I had a similar reaction to X-Files, because occasionally X-Files will make some kind of lampshade joke about like, “Scully, why don’t you believe Mulder when he says weird things are happening?” And it’s a little annoying because it feels at this point like it’s just a setup, so that this very smart woman who is making very logical choices based on the evidence can be proven wrong over and over again by this Maverick dude who just like feels it, man.
Wes: Yeah. Gross.
Oren: He just knows, man. And yeah, obviously the X-Files’ core dynamic would stop working if Scully was just like, “Yeah, there probably are aliens.” Half the episode is Mulder convincing Scully that there are aliens, and what are you going to do if you take that part out? But it’s kind of uncomfortable at the same time, and so when they lampshade it is just like, oh no. No, dudes, I don’t love this dynamic. I wish you could find another one. Apparently you can’t – but you telling me that you know it’s a problem doesn’t really improve the situation.
Chris: I guess it’s kind of a balance between having something that is ignorable or not ignorable. If it’s a problem, but it’s something that people can ignore and it has to keep continuing, maybe it’s better to ignore it instead of lampshading it. Another example of a lampshade I liked which was a big jarring disruption: So the town of Sunnydale has absolutely everything in it. And when Buffy did a Dracula episode they decided they wanted a Dracula castle. So the characters go to find Buffy at Dracula’s castle and one of the characters says, “You know, I’ve lived in Sunnydale a couple of years now. You know what I’ve never noticed? A big honkin’ castle!” Now, in this case it might be that the castle was supposed to have appeared there magically, and that’s a way of acknowledging that it wasn’t there before. Although certainly it opens up a lot of questions. If Dracula actually has, like, castle-appearing powers, then what else could he do?
Oren: Can he weaponize his castle-appearing powers? Can he make the castle appear where he wants it to appear? Because that’s pretty devastating if he can do that.
Chris: But at the same time it’s fun to have a castle in the episode. It’s fun to have a castle as a set piece that they fight in, and that’s a big part of the idea of Dracula and what’s associated with him. Dracula wouldn’t be as much fun without a castle. So in that case I think that was a good lampshade. And again, it kind of relieves tension in the moment when you notice that disruption, much like Invader Zim’s Minimoose.
Oren: Right. It also helps that it’s kind of a funny episode with Dracula, they’re making fun of a lot of Dracula tropes. And with Buffy it’s like yeah, okay, certain tropes about Buffy bother me, but I have to admit Sunnydale having literally everything in it from a military base, to a college, to whatever else they have every episode even though that doesn’t make any sense – it didn’t really bother me. Again, it’s subjective, obviously there are some people it bothered, but it didn’t really feel to me like the show was rubbing it in my face. It was just kind of a thing that I’d accepted by that point. I was like, yeah, it’s very funny that there was also a castle here, very nice.
Chris: It’s also one of those patterns that emerge over time, like the redshirts. Fine when we add one thing to this supposedly small town, but then over time, for the convenience of different episodes, it kind of cumulatively begins to be too much, right? But nobody decided one episode that all of these things were going to be in Sunnydale.
Oren: That’s true. Although there’s one thing we did decide right now, which is that it’s the end of the episode. We are out of time. See what I did there? More lampshading!
Wes: Nice job.
Oren: Thank you. But before we go, I want to thank two of our patrons: First is Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek, and second is Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Otherwise, we will see you next week.[closing theme]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?