Two notes. One: Spoilers for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will follow, and this is one movie that you don’t want spoiled. Two: When you watch the film, know that I’ve only seen it on VidAngel (similar to ClearPlay), and from what I’ve heard, I don’t recommend watching this one without filters. Go watch it on VidAngel, and then come back so we can chat!
I admit it- our family did not watch this movie until a few months ago. Honestly, I had zero interest in watching a remake of anything without Danny Kaye- even though I hadn’t even seen the original. Thanks to the debaucherous nature of too many modern films, I had no interest in a movie about a “Secret” anything. That is, until I found out that it was a rejuvenated family movie about a guy whose overactive imagination takes him on an unforgettable journey. Well. That sounded like a writer-friendly concept, so I watched the movie.
And it was indeed spectacular, yet not in the way you would expect. While I found the plot, development, and cinematography to be exemplary, none of these basic components of storytelling truly stood out. What stood out to me was the masterful use of humor.
That particular week, I had been informally studying the rules of good comic relief. I forget the names of the various sources I read, but from them I gleaned one crucial principle:
Humor, like any other component of a story, should tie into the larger picture.
It’s the same general idea as with romance or any other subplot. Putting something into a story just because the audience might like it is simply glorified mob rule, not storytelling. Subplots have to be relevant- sometimes even indispensable- to the main plot, and funny subplots are no exception.
Back to Walter Mitty. The story’s primary source of humor is a secondary character named Todd Maher, a support techie from eHarmony who faithfully works to fix up Walter’s page and find him a date. During Walter’s outrageous journeys throughout the world, Todd continually calls Walter with commonplace updates and questions about his webpage. Walter might just have come through the craziest of ordeals: sailing on a ship on icy seas with only a few grumpy Norsemen for companions, or maybe riding with a drunken pilot on a helicopter in a storm, to name a few. It doesn’t matter to the faithful Todd. Nor to the audience; we can’t help laughing with some relief when the phone rings and Walter hears “Hello! It’s Todd, from eHarmony!”
But irony and catharsis aren’t the only roles Todd fills. This seemingly meaningless humor device comes into play in the main plot near the end of the movie. (Mild spoilers.) After so much time out of the States in an ungoverned country, Walter cannot legally enter Los Angeles unless somebody who knows him personally can tell the police that he is the real Walter Mitty. But- guess who had mentioned that he lives in LA? Right. Todd from eHarmony. Even as the audience laughs at this ironic work of fate, we are saying to ourselves, “Ah. So that’s why Todd and eHarmony are in this story.”
It’s a seemingly simple thing, but the more you think about it, the more you realize just how artfully the writers wove this plot. Yes, they made people laugh, but they also added a little playfulness to lighten the intense scenes. They fixed a logical problem without resorting to deus ex machina. And besides all this, they wove one more lesson into the theme: everyone has a purpose and a part to play, and everyone you meet has the potential to be a valuable friend. Even Todd from eHarmony.
Yep. That’s how we do humor, folks.
Have you seen this brilliant film? What tips have you learned for successfully working humor into a story?