The ‘Bad Movie’ is Dead, The ‘Circular Comedy’ is Born

Ian Ziering in a scene from the Sharknado series (2013–2018)

A large amount of online film discussion in recent years has been devoted to the question “What is the best bad movie ever?” What might have originated in cult circuits has long passed over into the popular consciousness: the moviegoing world at large understands the considerable cinematic pleasure of movies like The Room. There is worldwide adoration for the films of Tommy Wiseau, Niel Breen, Ed Wood and company. The mass-appeal is undeniable.

Whenever these discussions begin though, a caveat will always appear that separates these films materially from other ‘bad movies’: did the films mean to be funny or not?

While most of the cult films that spark this specific joy were almost certainly intended to be taken in earnest, there has been a subgenre of comedy emerging which is rooted in these cult classics, but with a critical difference of intent: these films were made to be comedies, and in fact to replicate that feeling of watching ‘a bad movie’.

This is an important semiotic variation in the texts.

We must invent new vocabulary to categorize these movies; ones who attempt to capture an appeal obviously as vast and worldwide as it is voracious. “So bad it’s good but they meant it” is too long and unwieldy, and has an obvious contradiction in the middle of it.

If the movie was skillfully made to mimic these ‘bad movie’ cues for the purpose of comedy, doesn’t that in fact imply the movie was made well? What is “so bad it’s good”?

Tommy Wiseau in a scene from The Room (2003)
  1. The Effect

The appeal of mass art is simple: catharsis of emotional, intellectual, aesthetic value. An emotion is provoked, we learn something and our opinions are challenged, or it feels aesthetically pleasing. When all three are in concordance, this is “great art”, or at least “good art”, art that is fulfilling its primary purpose.

Let us suppose that a good movie is a movie whose artistic decisions (screenplay structuring, production decisions, editorial ones), as well as the decisions of its metanarrative (advertising, social media, the real-life personalities attached to the film), are in direct concordance with the story as it wants to be told. Most films are made to an expected degree of technical competence, but these are stories that are told well, are memorable, and fall into our popular memory. A bad movie then, must be its inverse: a movie whose artistic decisions, as well as the decisions of its metanarrative, are in direct discordance with the story as it wants to be told.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1957) is often considered one of the best of these sincere trash classics

In sincere “so bad it’s good” movies, ones that did not intend to be comedy whatsoever, the movies are funny because the audience reflexively understands the language of cinema enough to know that these mistakes were not intentional. The joy that comes from these films is borne of a knowledge supplied completely outside of the text: that movies are ‘not supposed to’ look and act this way, have this pacing, have these lighting choices.

These visual and audial cues are immediately and intrinsically understood by an audience: this is ‘a bad movie’. It is a constant shattering of the invisible, vertical fourth wall between audience and text— the constant reminder that one is watching a movie, and of the temporal and literal disconnect between oneself and the characters. In essence, the audience remembers that it is watching a film, and indeed the sudden surprise of that specific feeling is the source of the comedy.

I propose the term circular comedy for this phenomenon, for effect’s comedy lives somewhere in the stream of communication between audience and text. It is a back and forth: the movie breaks, the audience knows this, the audience laughs because of its understood ‘incorrectness’, and the text continues its narrative as if nothing has occurred. No acknowledgement is made of this ‘incorrectness’ by the characters within the diegesis of its narrative.

This same effect can be employed with the use of certain actors who may contain certain cultural knowledge or implications. “Nicolas Cage as Fu Man Chu.” “Keanu Reeves is a hitman in it, and I love him, but you know he’s a bad actor.” A gag in a hypothetical movie might be of a character played Paris Hilton to win an Academy Award for acting.

Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder (2008) — a joke predicated on the audience’s knowledge of him being cast against type.

Circular comedy highlights something unique to cinematic form: these are not humans in the same room, performing. The text was in fact prepared beforehand (possibly many years ago), by many different real-life people seen and unseen, whose presence is tacitly understood within the reality of the art’s creation.

This can occur at any budgetary range. Immediately, reflexively understood. These are intentional artistic decisions that are often meant to provoke humor, but always to remind the audience of the artificiality of the text, and in fact its space within a greater canon. The text has communicated information to the audience, and the audience is reacting on knowledge the text has not supplied.

I have heard the term ‘meta-humor’ applied to this phenomenon and I find it insufficiently large. Meta-textual references are common in art. I am not speaking of a cinematic text referring meta-textually to another text (film, song, cultural knowledge or value), which I would consider meta-humor.

When I use the term circular comedy, I am referring specifically this: the cinematic text uses a creative device to remind the audience that it is engaged in the act of watching a movie, and of the movie’s place within a larger canon of art. While this is often done for comedy, numerous established art-house auteurs will more seriously explore the same phenomenon, the same catharsis.

Jean-Luc Godard employs circular comedy consistently throughout his movies. The Coen brothers employ some in Hail, Caesar! Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure employs visual cues to remind the audience of the viral YouTube video “Best Cry Ever”, among others. Lars von Trier brushes up against circular comedy in some of his cinema as well (Dogville, the use of Rammstein in the opening credits of Nymphomaniac). Guy Maddin explores this space with humorous and chronologically suspect silent-film intertiles which feel out of place in his 21st century cinema.

Brand Upon the Brain (2006) never lets viewers forget that they’re watching a modern movie with the trappings of cinema nearly a century old.

More popular cinema flirts employs this technique as well. In Oceans Twelve, the character played by Julia Roberts is used as a distraction because she “looks like Julia Roberts”. In Zombieland, Bill Murray plays a character named Bill Murray. His appearance is intended as a comedic surprise only and explicitly because of his lack of visibility in the film’s advertising metanarrative, where an actor of his stature would be expected to appear.

Spongebob Squarepants employs this technique often, with incongruous and bizarre shifts in visual-tone. The endurably brilliant Avatar: The Last Airbender employs a poorly-acted fictional stage show to recap itself before the finale.

Innumerable genre films since Scream have employed some version of the phrase “This is just like in a horror movie!” which the audience intuitively knows could only possibly be intended as a joke. It is or it is not a horror movie. The advertising and artistic decisions created a metanarrative that told you so.

Whether or not the joke is cleverly done or well executed, the audience will reflexively understand this to be a joke based on their assumed extra-textular knowledge of the genre, of advertising convention, of the visual and auditory language of film, of the intended emotional beat of a scene, and the litany of technical techniques that all had to work together to create piece of visual media, none of which is supplied by the artistic text itself.

These are all knowing uses of circular comedy, and indeed the appeal of its particular dissonance has exploded as the world has emerged into a busier internet age, constantly assaulted by visual and auditory information of conflicting tone; of increasing discordance. No wonder the popularity of things like TikTok and the bizarrely enduring appeal of Vine, both great employers of circular comedy in one way or another.

When Abbas Kiarostami changes the backstory of the characters off-screen in Certified Copy, the circular comedy space is being explored. Certified Copy is a great film — all of the artistic decisions are pointed like an arrow at the very asking of those questions, but when a character forgets their backstory entirely in The Room, it is considered a funny mistake because of our knowledge of the metanarrative: that the director did not at all intend for these questions to be asked.

In Certified Copy (2010) the backstories and relationship between the two lead characters is constantly changed and questioned, but the audience understands it to be intentional.

2. The Subgenre

Now, let us suppose the director actually did intend for these questions to be asked, challenged, and the intended consequence was in fact humor; that they set out to make a bad movie on purpose. Something materially different from the cult classics from which they take their common vocabulary, this is a new subgenre of satire.

What are we to call this subgenre? I propose ‘the circular comedy’. These films replicate the cinema-specific comedy of remembering the distance between audience and text — the comedic joy of remembering that one is watching a movie.

A selection of posters from The Asylum film studio, known for its low-budget ‘mockbusters’

We reflexively find this discordance funny — catharsis is provoked by the art — and many of these moments solidify in our popular cultural thought. Innumerable internet videos, shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! or The Eric Andre Show, films like Sharknado, Snakes on a Plane, Kung Fury, films by The Asylum or Troma studios, the enduring cultural appeal of things like Mystery Science Theater 3000.

While many of these films are emerging in low-and-no budget circuits, it is hardly confined to it. Death Proof and its sister films Planet Terror and the Machete series could be argued to be this in some form or another. The Spoils of Babylon and Casa de mi Padre are both excellent high-budget circular comedies, for they are more about the specific aesthetic joy of seeing bad movies than they are spoofs of their intended genres (Southern gothic horror and Mexican telenovellas, respectively).

Garth Marengi’s Darkplace is such an excellent example of this subgenre that it supplies interviews with the fictional creators within the text of the series itself. Conceived as a lost 1990s horror drama, made by an out of touch and self-important author, the audience sees both ‘the lost show’ (poorly made) as well as interviews with the fictional cast and creative crew (staged). The audience intuitively understands all of this, as well as the extratextular knowledge that this show is intended as a comedy. Richard Ayoade is incredibly memorable as Dean Learner, and his performance of a bad actor playing a poorly written character is a layered comic masterclass.

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004)

The cultural precepts of this emerging subgenre have become prominent enough for it to be discussed. I am speaking here specifically about media that has emerged steadily since the 1990s, absolutely exploding after the advent of the internet age. This is a subgenre that has its roots in cult and underground cinema, but has folded their genre tenets into itself and become something different altogether, defined by its ‘knowingness’ of the reaction that will be provoked by the ‘mistakes’ in its execution, and often its erasure of the LGBTQ+ undertones of camp.

These are films that people will say “know they’re bad”, I propose they know they are circular comedies, and the calculated emotional reactions they are provoking are in harmony with that. They are good circular comedies or bad circular comedies, but this is what they are intentionally trying to be, and their artistic decisions, triumphs, and failures should be judged accordingly.

This is a new brand of filmmaking and of storytelling, of communicating information between text and audience and provoking catharsis, so I propose that we discard the long and unwieldy verbiage ‘so bad it’s good but they meant it to be’, for the term “the circular comedy”.

Planet Terror (2007)

Filmmaker, musician, and author based in Pasadena, CA. I directed The VelociPastor.