A day or two after Fox aired the mesmerizingly jarring Don Hertzfeldt couch gag that kicked off the 26th season of The Simpsons, I used a screencap from it as my cover photo on Facebook.
Within minutes, my friend semi-jokingly commented, “I turned on The Simpsons for the first time in, like, 8 years, and this is what I saw, and I got incredibly confused and shut it off.”
Having been a fan of Hertzfeldt’s for years, I had at least a general context of what to expect, but as for the eight million or so that reportedly tuned in that night, not to mention the countless others that watched it online the next day, I can imagine loads of people also “got incredibly confused and shut it off” fairly quickly. After all, it’s not a stretch to say that it may have been one of the strangest, most avant-garde things ever to be broadcast on primetime network television.
So I understand that. I find his work to be pretty accessible, especially as fringe filmmakers go, but he’s certainly not for everybody. Some of that may have to do with the capital-A art vibe that his more recent movies can give off, with their Big Themes, experimental animation and occasionally cynical outlook. To me, though, part of what makes his films so accomplished is the way he’s able to cut any of this pretension and self-seriousness with a lot of really great jokes. Hertzfeldt’s sense of humor is irrepressibly dark and absurdist, but like many great comic filmmakers, he uses his jokes to enlighten his points rather than use them to hide behind.
I bring all this up because Hertzfeldt released his newest film, World Of Tomorrow, to the public just a couple weeks ago via Vimeo, after it cleaned up at Sundance and SXSW earlier in the year. And, to be blunt, you really need to see it. At the risk of adding to the dangerous pile of hype already afforded to it, it may only be April, but I’m confident that it will wind up as one of my favorite films of the year – and it’s only 17 minutes long. Whether or not it’s his best film is up for debate (after all, Time Out New York named his 2012 trilogy, It’s Such A Beautiful Day,the 16th greatest animated film of all time). But World Of Tomorrow is a wonderful distillation of his gifts as a filmmaker and, more importantly to this article, his unique approach to dark humor.
I’ll come back to World Of Tomorrow in a little bit, but to understand what I mean about how he approaches his comedy, let’s go back through some of his catalogue. To an extent, most dark humor is based in shock. It’s watching a boy discover he’s eating a bowl of chili made from his parents or a long-suffering co-worker lose his mind and accidentally kill himself and laughing at it all anyway. It’s the “I can’t believe I’m laughing at this!” angle.
Hertzfeldt’s work, to be sure, has plenty of that. The entire premise of the five-minute Billy’s Balloon is a little boy’s balloon trying to murder him, while Wisdom Teeth is torture porn as surreal, deadpan comedy, based around someone pulling out a single of his friend’s stitches only to find that it’s a mile long and he just has to keep pulling. Even in these, though, Hertzfeldt’s prefers long takes, rather than quick hits of shock, so you have to sit with the silly anguish and watch it fold itself into new ridiculous contortions, the drama and the comedy both escalating.
And that relaxed, laugher-in-despair approach is where Hertzfeldt shines. More often than not, his best jokes come from staring into the void – mortality, existential crises, a potential lifetime of loneliness – and choosing to laugh at it instead, even if it can’t be shrugged off. Some of that is on a small scale: Lily And Jim, about a blind date from hell, plays like an episode of Louie more than a decade before Louie premiered, with its uncomfortable miscommunications, surreal flights of fancy and open-ended conclusion.
Rejected, his most famous film (well, until The Simpsons gag came along) and, so far, his only one to garner an Oscar nomination, is about creative stagnation. He explores this through a series of nonsense advertisements that culminate in its animated world literally being torn apart, ending on a climax that’s both terrifying in its intensity and still pretty funny. Released in 2000, Rejected proved to be his most influential, causing ad campaigns to rip him off (I’m looking at you “Crazy Good” Pop Tarts commercials) and presaging much of the rapid-fire randomness of YouTube videos and the trippy DIY animation of Adult Swim in the following decade. Some of those shows even paid tribute. Weirdly, it’s also probably the least like his other films, the humor being more in the non-sequitur vein than anything else.
Other times, as in the trilogy of Everything Will Be Okay, I’m So Proud Of You and It’s Such A Beautiful Day, all that plays out on a massive, cosmic scale, finding bleak humor in genetic illness and memory loss even as he also explores those subjects seriously. His “sit with the void” style always dares you to have a few emotional reactions at once. Watch one of his more recent films in a room with others, and you may notice the same moment may make one person laugh but another tear up. The trick is that he’ll let you laugh, but he also won’t let you forget what you’re laughing at, which makes every joke mean a whole lot more.
All of which finally brings me to World Of Tomorrow, which provides an even better point of entry for the uninitiated than Rejected, since it touches on a bit of everything he’s done so far in his career, even while pointing toward the future (it’s his first sci-fi film and his first to be animated digitally). The film tells the story of a young girl named Emily, who meets a clone of herself from the future. Aside from this basic premise, there’s little conventional plot to speak of. Instead, the film is more a series of short anecdotes as Future Emily (voiced by fellow animator Julia Pott) fills in the little girl, referred to as Emily Prime, on what her future holds, what she has to look forward to and worry about, and what absurd technology we’ll soon use.
All of this, of course, is completely lost on the adorable Emily Prime (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s four-year-old niece Winona Mae), who, at her age, is more concerned about colors and shapes than mourning her eventual demise. This provides the engine for plenty of the film’s comedy. (Snippet of dialogue: Future Emily: “Now is the envy of all of the dead.” Emily Prime: “Okay.”)
The experimental technology of the future also lends World Of Tomorrow some quintessentially Hertzfeldt-type jokes. See the thing about the future is, while we may have invented time travel, we’re not particularly good at it yet. So if the time machine isn’t coordinated precisely, travelers might inadvertently be teleported into orbit rather than back in time.
“Their dead bodies burn as they return to Earth and now light up our night sky,” Future Emily says in the affectless monotone that can be expected of a clone, as what looks like a meteor shower rains down overhead. Emily Prime is just enthused by the celestial light show above. Future Emily eventually acquiesces, “Yes, it is very pretty.” Then, Future Emily then goes on to speak about humanity is doomed as Emily Prime nonchalantly counts all the dead bodies streaking through the atmosphere.
But my talking about it isn’t really doing the movie justice, let alone its jokes. It’s best that you actually go ahead and plop down the few dollars to see it. Arriving as a $4 rental on Vimeo, it’s not going to take the normal route of theatrical release and indie darling-hood that Sundance Grand Jury Prize winners usually go down. But then again, it’s a short film. An animated short film. If not for Vimeo and the magic of VOD, few would even see it outside of festivals and, eventually, bad resolution YouTube uploads. There isn’t much money in the short film industry, so there isn’t much promotion. And without promotion, short films, even the highly touted ones, just get lost in the content dump that is our everyday human reality in AD 2015.
Like the best sci-fi, World Of Tomorrow peers into the future to ask big questions about how we live and fail to live, how technology hurts and helps us, how there’s a possibility, however remote, that you may just end up alone and afraid. These sorts of questions you may find your mind drifting off to at night, even when it’s been a perfectly fine day otherwise. They are enormous questions, ones without easy answers or any answers at all. There’s philosophy and art and all those sorts of things to think about in Hertzfeldt’s work, but there’s also comedy. Because if you can’t answer these questions, and you can’t laugh at them, what else can you do?
Chris Kopcow is a comedy guy and pop culture writer. He links to his Twitter because he craves validation from strangers.