Our Audience is Funnier Than We Are

**SPOILER WARNING: In this post, I talk about plot details from the 2015 film The Martian.**

I’ve found that selling hard science fiction books is remarkably difficult. While I’ve met a few fans who want their stories to be accurate down to the smallest scientific nuance, many SF fans, if not most, seem to be more concerned with the wonder and adventure aspects of the story. As an author it’s really hard to please both groups at the same time, which is why I was so impressed by how well Andy Weir (book) and Drew Goddard (screenplay) did on the movie adaptation of The Martian.

I think there are two main reasons for the movie’s mainstream success despite its very hard SF plot. First is that the story only rarely took the time to stop and explain the science behind the world. When they did, they were brief, clear, and entertaining. By choosing to show the consequences of scientific reality rather than engaging in long explanations and technobabble, the writers were able to keep the plot flowing and the tension high while still appeasing the hard SF crowd.

Second was that the story was very people focused. Matt Damon was extremely charismatic and likable as Mark Watney, largely because he was incredibly funny. We as the audience admire his “I will find a way” attitude and willingness to laugh in the face of near certain death. Humor is an incredible sympathy builder, but is also difficult to pull off well for a large audience.

One of the best executed comedic moments in the movie was Mark Watney’s first conversation with Earth. When Matt Damon’s character is told that his friends don’t know that he’s still alive, he responds with well-justified profanity. Instead of disapproving, we the audience chuckle along with the characters on screen. The small laugh sets up the bigger one to come. On screen, Vincent Kapoor then asks Mark to watch his language because the conversation is being live-streamed to the whole world. The scene then cuts to Damon’s face, who considers the request with an expression that shouts, “Oh yeah? Well then, you’re not going to like this!”

Instead of paying off immediately, the writers force the audience to wait and build tension with the promise of a much bigger laugh as the emotional release. At this point, most authors would sling out their best comedic line. However, the screenwriters and directors do something even more brilliant. They make the audience do the work.

We never see what Watney types back, but instead watch the other characters react with horrified gasps, titters of laughter, and profuse apologies to the President. The writers knew that they’d never write a single line that appealed to everyone. Senses of humor and sensibilities vary too much. Instead, they primed their audience for a laugh and then decline to provide the punch line. In so doing, we automatically filled in the blank with the funniest thing we could imagine and laugh harder than we would to any line that was fed to us.


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