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.