Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

The Jokes Are Out There: Investigating the Dark Humor of 'The X-Files'

Despite the letdown of the last two seasons and the unsatisfactory conclusion, I confidently say that The X-Files is one of the best shows of all time. To the casual TV fan, this might be a bit of a stretch. This was, after all, a show that had an entire episode centered around a human tapeworm and wasn’t exactly for everyone. To the show’s cult following, this is old news.

Wherever it lands on your cultural barometer, there’s no denying that The X-Files was a phenomenon. It was a show that took more risks than anything on TV at the time. It set the foundation for a whole new generation of cutting-edge programs that followed on cable, from The Sopranos, to Battlestar Galactica, to The Wire and Breaking Bad. It was a daring show that got away with so much crazy shit, anything seemed possible. However, I don’t want to wax on about all of that. I want to talk about how god-dammed funny it was.

Funny you say? Isn’t this the same show that broadcast an episode so graphic and disturbing that it was banned from reairing on FOX? Well, yeah. And oh, wasn’t it hilarious when Mulder and Scully were trapped alone in the forest with a bunch of deadly, ancient insects that wanted to entomb them in their death cocoons? Actually, that does sound kind of funny.

But I will concede that The X-Files is not known for comedy. Scaring the bajeezus out of you, grossing you out, making you suspicious of black sedans and old men smoking — these things it was definitely known for. Any dissection (or autopsy, if you will) of the what makes The X-Files tick will usually revolve around aliens, a sense of paranoia, the mythology/conspiracy storyliens, and how the show can be just downright terrifying. If you’re part of my generation, watching this show as a kid/teen meant cowering in a dark corner of the living room, usually alone, just trying to keep it together. Not laughing out loud. Yet as I’ve been re-watching the series on Netflix recently, that’s just what I’ve been doing.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of episodes that still make me want to go hide behind the couch. But now that I have a few more years under my belt, I can better appreciate all the humor that creator Chris Carter and his writers worked in. And the more I laugh with the show, the more I notice that the humor was just as important and prevalent as the scary stuff. Between the running gags alone, like the numerous references to Elvis, Frohike’s ongoing crush on Scully, or Mulder’s penchant for sunflower seeds, porn, and dropping his gun, almost every episode had something to laugh at. Even in the dark and gloomy ones, there was always a dependable wisecrack or sight gag to help relieve the tension and prepare you for the inevitable severed limb or deformed mutant that was lurking around the corner. But when it wanted to be, The X-Files was as funny as any comedy on TV.

After the first season or two, once the show found its legs, Carter and co. began to experiment more, playing with genre conventions and tropes, messing with narrative structure, and also making fun of themselves. By season three, you could count on at least a couple of episodes that were pretty much straight-up comedy. With the main plot threads focused on heavy stuff like aliens and government conspiracies, these tongue-in-cheek diversions provided some necessary relief and let the show go places and get away with things it couldn’t pull off within the greater mythology.

In War of the Coprophages, Mulder spends the majority of the episode battling killer cockroaches. Bad Blood, which is often near the top of many Top 10 lists of the best X-Files episodes, features the fat kid from The Sandlot and Luke Wilson as small-town vampires. The season seven episode X-Cops is a totally-committed spoof that’s shot entirely in the trademark, handheld style of COPS.

One of the more inspired comedic moments from the series pays homage to the famous mirror scene between Groucho and Harpo Marx in Duck Soup.

In part one of the two-part Dreamland, Mulder wakes up to discover that he’s swapped bodies with a government agent named Morris Fletcher, played by the always-funny Michael McKean. The two then start to mimic one another, spontaneously goofing around in unison with their reflections.

The X-Files was also funny when it didn’t necessarily want to be, especially early on in the series. After all, the show was made in an era of TV where top-shelf dramas were required to produce around 20-22 hour-long episodes per season, almost double the 12-13 standard of today’s cable dramas. Not surprisingly, the rigorous demand to meet those totals led to a couple of stinkers per season, which in the context of this piece, are not without their own merit. Ghost In the Machine, long derided as one of the worst, finds Mulder and Scully matching wits with a deranged office building. Fire has the agents battling an Irish gardener who can start fires with his mind (he’s also a red head). First Person Shooter and Improbable are great later examples of the show at its cheesiest, the latter of which features Burt Reynolds as God. Who knows, maybe with some of these so-bad-it’s-good examples the creators wanted to go balls-out and shoot for some of the B-est material possible, rather than going for a spoof or a take.

When it was firing on all cylinders, The X-Files could effortlessly blend together a perfect mix of intelligence, wit, comedy, horror, and pathos. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the weird and wonderful Post Modern Prometheus. Shot in black-and-white, it was Carter’s tribute to Frankenstein, inspired by the music of Cher. A visually striking, hilarious, and genuinely touching episode, it exemplified The X-Files at its fearless best. The ending, set to the tune of Cher’s “Walking In Memphis,” is one of the most amazing moments of the series. PMP was part of a handful of episodes that were so rich and dense, they each could have their own piece on this site.

I won’t be able to do justice to gems like Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, Humbug, The Unnatural, and Jose Chung’s From Outer Space here, other than to say that they are not only some of the best of what The X-Files had to offer, but TV as a whole.

Ben Worcester is a writer who’s still trying to get published in The Lone Gunman.

Sponsored Content


fox, the x-files, tv

  • Joshua Kurp

    Nice work. "Arcadia" and "Hollywood A.D." are two of my favorite funny episodes of The X-Files, because in the former, Mulder gets to tell Scully to make him a sandwich, and in the latter, Garry Shandling. "Jose Chung" is just perfect TV. Also:

    Mulder: All right, Homer. We want you to re-create your every move the night you saw this alien.
    Homer: Well, the evening began at the gentleman's club, where we were discussing Wittgenstein over a game of backgammon.
    Scully: Mr. Simpson, it's a felony to lie to the F.B.I.
    Homer: We were sitting in Barney's car eating packets of mustard. You happy?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @Joshua Kurp Thanks, Joshua. "Arcadia" and "Hollywood A.D." are both great episodes as well. There's more too… enough that this piece could probably be twice as long.

      "Small Potatoes" is another gem that comes to mind, with series writer Darin Morgan guest starring as the shape-shifting schlub Eddie Van Blundht. Come to think of it, I should have highlighted Mr. Morgan as one of the main forces behind the show's comedic sensibility. He's written some of the best X-Files episodes, including Bruckman and Jose.

      Also, I love that Simpsons episode. When Homer blows up the lie detector? Kills me every time.

    • Benjamin Blattberg@facebook

      @Joshua Kurp I'm glad you mentioned "Small Potatoes" in this comment, one of the comedy greats for this series.

      But I also think you're right about how every episode has something worth a smile or a chuckle. Even something like "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man," which is all about the dark history of CSM, has a few chuckles: like when the Lone Gunmen turn on their anti-surveillance equipment at the beginning and CSM just turns on his super-surveillance equipment; or when CSM says that he won't let the Buffalo Bills win.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @Benjamin Blattberg@facebook I don't know about this season. Look at those Bills! Maybe all those Morleys finally got to him. CSM… totally a Pats fan.

  • Joshua Kurp

    Did you ever watch The Lone Gunmen? It wasn't great, but I liked the show's dark humor a lot. Coincidentally, Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, wrote many of the episodes.

    According to his website, the guy who played Langly is now a visual artist. Here's my favorite work of his: http://www.deanhaglund.com/Paintings.html#4

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @Joshua Kurp I think I've seen an episode or two, but never did get into the spinoff. And that Langly art is awesome. I want one!

    • JenW

      @Joshua Kurp Great stuff! I like this one.

  • Megh Wright

    Awesome stuff Ben. The X-Files was totally my Sunday night jam with my dad growing up, and I use "Mulder/Scully" as an adjective for any platonic couple who seriously needs to get it on, but also really shouldn't ever. Great article! I definitely have to rewatch on Netflix now.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @Megh Wright Thanks, Megh! Yeah, I still can't believe they're all on there… might even have to delve into the depths of Seasons 8 and 9.

  • lifeasweblowit72

    Funniest line from any episode: "I don't wanna wrestle!"

    • sunnyciegos

      @lifeasweblowit72 Yes! I always thought that line was improvised – any scholar know if it was?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @lifeasweblowit72 I just re-watched that episode for that line. Great moment. Also funny is Scully's choice for what to sing to Mulder while they huddled together for warmth: "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night – a band that named itself after the old practice of sleeping with dogs on cold nights (a three dog night was freezing).

  • sunnyciegos

    As much as I love talking XF shop, I would disagree with this column's premise that the show wasn't known for black humor. It was following in the footsteps of Twin Peaks, after all. The clip from "Dreamland," to me, is XF humor at its broadest and worst, and not one that I would pick to exemplify the show's sensibility. Instead I would go with the scene in "Small Potatoes" when David Duchovny plays Darin Morgan playing Mulder. Incredible work there, and one of the few moments that convinced me he was more than just a luckily well-cast actor.

    • sunnyciegos

      @sunnyciegos for everyone's viewing pleasure: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvo-lcW85fM

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @sunnyciegos Thanks for the scene! RE the premise: I would say that it was directed more towards those that might have enjoyed the show (since it was super popular), rather than big fans who loved the show and thus already knew how funny it could be.

      And I don't think I would win an argument over which body swapping episode is better (it's definitely Small Potatoes). But that Dreamland moment has such history to it, I wanted to highlight the comparison.

  • sunnyciegos

    Ooh ooh! Also, "Bad Blood" featuring a hot (or not so hot?) Luke Wilson. That's an episode that couldn't have happened early in a series, because it played on the established relationship and history of Mulder and Scully. Great, great stuff.

    • hypnosifl

      @sunnyciegos Yes! That was one of the best, and the joke about Mulder's version of Luke Wilson was hilarious.

  • sunnyciegos

    Also "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" featuring LILY TOMLIN and ED ASNER!

    Ok, I'm done now. Carry on all.

  • half fiction

    Morgan & Wong were always my favorite writers on the show, but Vince Gilligan has my heart for writing my all time favorite ep, Bad Blood. I stopped watching after season 6, but I think streaming netflix may change that.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @half fiction Season 7 definitely has some good ones. And Ricky Jay! 'nuff said (sorry, been reading some old Marvel comics recently).

  • professorsnootypants

    Interesting article. It reminded me of how much I liked the first few seasons of the X. I do find it odd, however, that there's no mention of the X Files clear predecessor, Twin Peaks. Mark Frost was involved with both, and I really don't think that The X-Files could have gotten away with some of the dark, edgy and yet hilarious stuff they did without Twin Peaks' massive pushing of the TV envelope.

    • JeffMc2000

      Mark frost wasn't involved with X-Files, was he? Are you confusing him with Mark Snow, who did the music?

  • Femikaze@twitter

    YES. in fact, i would argue that the biggest reason why the last two seasons were so lame was not the loss of duchovny, but the loss of the show's sense of humor — scully was having a pretty rough go of things, sure, but once she lost her penchant for dry rejoinders (and mulder's wisecracks were nowhere around) the show just got deadly dull.

    also: "home" is HILARIOUS. absolute horror-comedy classic. i mean… johnny motherfucking mathis!

  • Martín Abresch@facebook

    "Our Town" had one the funniest bits of black humor that I ever saw. (For those who haven't seen it, **Spoiler Alert**) Mulder & Scully investigate a chicken plant. Early in the episode, they show the exterior of the plant, including the Chaco Chicken logo. You don't really think about it. It turns out that the cannibalism is going on at the plant. The denouement returns to the chicken plant, and they show the Chaco Chicken logo again: "Great People, Great Food."

  • Claire Zulkey@facebook

    I shipped this show shamelessly and my favorite eps were the ones where Mulder/Scully poked fun at their own relationship. I wish someone would compile a list of the most essential episodes for someone like me, who didn't really give a shit about the cigarette smoking man but wanted to revisit the eps like the one where that guy made himself look like Mulder and seduced Scully or the one with those crazy teenage mind-control kids where Mulder and Scully fought.

  • Justin Zero@facebook

    My favorite running gag is definitely Mulder's pencils stuck in the ceiling. And I'd disagree that the Burt Reynolds episode falls under "unintentionally" funny.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @Justin Zero@facebook The pencils! Another good one. And I think I agree w/ you on Reynolds. I lumped that moment/episode in with the cheese factor of "Ghost" and "Space" type episodes, not really specifying that, like a fine restaurant, The X-Files offers many different kinds of cheese. Burt Reynolds as God is definitely an intentional flavor of cheese.