The Dangers of Going Meta
Note: This is going to talk extensively about why I loooove the JUMP STREET series.
I can tell you the exact moment that I fell in love with the meta-ness that is 21 JUMP STREET. The moment happens when Ice Cube comes out to explain to new Jump Street recruits Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum). It’s this scene.
“I know what you’re thinking. Angry. Black captain. It ain’t nothin’ but a stupid stereotype. Well guess what? I’m black! I worked my ass off to be the captain! And sometimes, I get angry.”
It wasn’t until on subsequent rewatches of 21 JUMP STREET that I saw Ice Cube talking about being a stereotype, which is crazy because the whole movie is about being anything but a stereotype. He’s talking about his character being a lot like Ice Cube AND he’s talking about the movie all at the same time!
Pretty meta, right?
In case you don’t know, “meta” refers to meta-references, which means that your character/story/whatever you have has an uncanny self-awareness of the medium that they are being depicted in. If you see a movie where a character knows they’re in a movie, it’s meta.
To demonstrate in completely unsubtle terms, here is this meta scene from Spaceballs:
Meta has been going on since the days of ancient Greek theatre. Back then, characters talked directly to the audience to get tone and exposition to them faster. While ancient Grecian audiences probably appreciated the direct approach, more sophisticated (read: bored and jaded) tastes have taken hold about their meta. It had a lot more of a dramatic structure as opposed to how it’s been commandeered today, which is usually as a weapon of comedians working today.
Meta as Crutch
If you’ve ever done/watched/walked by an improv comedy set, more than likely you’ve seen an improv troupe recognize that they are doing an improv set while being in the middle of a scene within an improv set.
Hey, look! They’re acknowledging that someone just walked through a mime table. Hilarious! You’re acknowledging that some players just failed to pay attention to the thing! You’re acknowledging that the audience, who paid money to be there tonight, is watching something lackluster!
Many times, if an improviser or comedian goes to meta, it’s because of insecurity in themselves or the material. It’s a similar reason I point out I’m overweight before anyone else can; that gives me the power. Therefore, you can’t hurt me. If I acknowledge that you just walked through a mime table, I now have superiority over you because I was paying more attention to the improv work. Hooray, book me, Hollywood!
But don’t just take my second-hand account of improv sets. Here’s some proof of this theory in action in a real life Hollywood movie! BAYWATCH!
See, it’s funny because BAYWATCH knows that it’s just another remake made to cash in! It’s preposterous that BAYWATCH would deal with drug cartels! Isn’t that hilarious?
Obviously, BAYWATCH is not confident with the source material, so they’re acknowledging the flaws of it. But then they go ahead and just do the source material, but still keep a distance from it. That’s a tricky balance. It’s kind of like when your Trump-loving relative acknowledges that Trump isn’t the best guy: just because you know Trump’s awful doesn’t make the world a better place (and guarantee I’ll still have health care at the end of the month).
Meta as tactic to mask your insecurity doesn’t say anything. It just tries to acknowledge, get a laugh, and…well, that’s it. Which is fine and good, especially in short bursts. But if your work is rife with meta acknowledgements (like BAYWATCH), then you need to make a bigger statement with your work.
Meta as Analysis
The most successful instances of “going meta” is when it serves a larger purpose. It’s used to either indicate character, story, or bigger ideas. In 21 JUMP STREET, the self-awareness of the character’s stereotypes in the film serve to reveal that you can be more than your stereotypes. This is style (meta-ness) serving the substance (moral of the story).
An even better example of going meta with purpose is 22 JUMP STREET. 22 JUMP STREET functions both as a movie on its own terms and a huge meta statement on sequels.
The great thing about this film is that it works on its own terms. It enhances the relationship between Schmidt and Jenko, but still challenges their core partnership. Also, it’s insanely funny and avoids a lot of comedy sequel problems.
The way they avoid comedy sequel problems is by being a movie about sequels. The police chief gives them an assignment that is exactly the same as the 21 JUMP STREET. The conflict comes when their actual lives and assignments start to interfere with the same-ness of the first movie. Because Schmidt and Jenko need to grow as characters, they cannot do 21 JUMP STREET again. In order for these characters to succeed, Schmidt and Jenko need to do their own thing.
Yet the film shows restraint in showing this subtext. While 22 JUMP STREET is very clear in what its about, it showcases its thesis about comedy sequels via character relationships. Schimdt and Jenko grow apart by trying to emulate the formula. Meanwhile, Jenko and his football buddies, a new element of the film, become even closer. It’s only through acceptance of chance that the film can resolve its issues, learning that change can be a good thing.
Again, the stakes of 22 JUMP STREET are that, if they do 21 JUMP STREET again, they will become stagnant and die. So the characters learn to grow and become better. In this case, going meta was thematically appropriate and actually said something about sequels, how studios should make sequels, and also showed a journey about two men loving each other.
So, comedy nerds, the next time you cross through your mime table during your improv scene, think carefully. You can go meta and, more than likely, get a laugh. That’ll work! But realize that meta can also reveal character, make important statements, and enhance your story to talk about how an entire system should work. In short, meta can be so much more than just a bandaid to fix your comedy.