The website TVTropes.org catalogs some 20,000 plot devices and dialog conventions that show up throughout pop culture. Freelance writer Zachary Pincus-Roth explains that the wiki-structure of the site has allowed contributors to identify some bizarre and hilarious tropes.
ANNOUNCER: On the next As the World Turns.
ACTOR: You’re all I want!
MAURA WEST AS CARLY: Are you seriously considering having a child with Janet?
MICHAEL PARK AS JACK: It’s hard to find a reason not to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Soap operas are both loved and hated for their use of outlandish plot devices, introducing an evil identical twin or bringing a character back from the dead. These are just a couple of soap opera tropes cataloged on the website TVTropes.org, an online Wiki where contributors collaborate to identify tropes in everything from literature to film, to pop music. The list is exhaustive and delightful. For example, there’s the trope dubbed “arson, murder and jaywalking,” where a character ends a list of three or more things with a pretty weak example.
[CLIP FROM GHOSTBUSTERS]
DAN AKROYD AS DR. RAY STANTZ: Rivers and seas boiling!
HAROLD RAMIS AS DR. EGON SPENGLER: Forty years of darkness, earthquakes, volcanoes.
ERNIE HUDSON AS DR. WINSTON ZEDDEMORE: The dead rising from the grave!
BILL MURRAY AS DR. PETER VENKMAN: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Zachary Pincus-Roth wrote about TVTropes for The L.A. Times. Zachary, welcome back to the show.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me, what’s the origin of the site?
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: It came out of this discussion website for Buffy the Vampire Slayer called Buffistas. One of the guys on that site – his name is Fast Eddie – decided, well, why don't we create a site that talks about all these repeated patterns we see on TV, and it took off. Now there are over 20,000 tropes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s amazing about it is that it’s so comprehensive and so spot-on.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: Yeah, definitely. There are things that you sort of have always thought about [LAUGHS] in your head but never heard articulated. There’s one called the “suspiciously specific denial” where [LAUGHS] the denial is so specific that it’s clearly a lie.
The one that I remember from my childhood is from the movie Spaceballs, which is a Star Wars parody. Rick Moranis’ character — he’s sort of the Darth Vader figure — he’s playing with his dolls in his office. Someone interrupts him.
[CLIP FROM SPACEBALLS]:
RICK MORANIS AS DARK HELMET: [SHOUTING] Knock next time!
GEORGE WYNER AS COLONEL SANDURZ: Yes, sir.
RICK MORANIS AS DARK HELMET: Did you see anything?
GEORGE WYNER AS COLONEL SANDURZ: No, sir. I didn’t see you playing with your dolls again.
RICK MORANIS AS DARK HELMET: Good!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: And what I think is very amusing about [LAUGHS] the page on TVTropes for suspiciously specific denial is they list tropes from all media. So it can range from anime to film to movies to theater to professional wrestling. [LAUGHS] One of the examples is also the lyrics from the Kanye West song, Now I Ain't Saying She’s a Gold Digger.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That is also a very suspiciously specific denial.
KANYE WEST RAPPING: Now, I ain't saying she a gold digger. But she ain't messin’ with no broke –
[SOUND TRAILS OFF]
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: And that somehow a Kanye West song can relate to Spaceballs I think is one of the great things about the site.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you sifted through this, this incredible avalanche, what was your favorite trope?
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: It’s called “I'll take offense at that last one” –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Uh-huh.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: - which is a comedy trope where person A lists a series of flaws of person B, and then person B says, I am not, and they name one of the flaws, therefore implying that all of the other ones are, in fact, true. The famous one is in The Empire Strikes Back. Princess Leia says to Hans Solo -
[CLIP FROM THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK]:
CARRIE FISHER AS PRINCESS LEIA: Why, you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder!
HARRISON FORD AS HANS SOLO: Who’s scruffy-lookin’?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So you find it in such frothy entertainments as The Empire Strikes Back and Pirates of the Caribbean, but also Citizen Kane.
[CLIP FROM CITIZEN KANE]:
ORSON WELLES AS CHARLES FOSTER KANE: You long-faced, overdressed anarchist!
JOSEPH COTTEN AS JED LELAND: I am not overdressed.
ORSON WELLES AS CHARLES FOSTER KANE: You are, too!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mention that there was a rift among the contributors, dividing them into the “lumpers” and the “splitters”?
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: Yeah. Basically, lumpers are people who like to lump tropes together, and splitters are people who like to take a larger trope and break it down into its component parts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me an example of lumping and splitting.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: There’s a bunch of hair tropes. You could lump them together into sort of, you know, hair changes, but they're actually broken down into multiple different tropes. For instance, there’s the difference between the important haircut, the expository hairstyle change and the hair reboot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, in Shanghai Noon, when Jackie Chan’s ponytail gets chopped off by his nemesis, I guess that means he must reconcile himself to staying in the West.
[CLIP FROM SHANGHAI NOON]:
ROGER YUAN AS LO FONG: Now you can never go back to China.
OWEN WILSON AS ROY O’BANNON: Whoo, you blew it, man. You do not want to cut his hair off. Trust me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that an expository haircut?
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: That would actually be the important haircut
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh! [LAUGHS]
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: - when a character cuts off their hair to symbolize something or to show character growth. The expository hairstyle change is more like in a movie like Cast Away, where you see a character with like a long, scruffy beard and their hair’s much longer and it just sort of shows the [LAUGHS] passage of time –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm –
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: - to sort of save them from showing exposition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another whole set of tropes have to do with dialog. One of them that they note is, “If you will excuse me, I have a noun to verb.”
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: Yeah, that one is usually after a villain has finished explaining his evil plan –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - and is about to go [LAUGHS] execute that plan.
[CLIP FROM BATMAN BEGINS]:
KEN WATANABE AS RA’S AL GHUL: Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a city to destroy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another one of those rhetorical tropes is “one-liner, name, one-liner. You know, in Babe, Farmer Hoggett says:
[CLIP FROM BABE]:
[SOUNDTRACK UP AND UNDER]
JAMES CROMWELL AS FARMER HOGGETT: That’ll do, pig. That'll do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there are actually dozens and dozens of them.
[CLIP FROM FORREST GUMP]:
HANNA HALL AS JENNY CURRAN: Run, Forrest, run!
[CLIP FROM ALIENS]:
BILL PAXTON AS PVT. HUDSON: Game over, man. Game over!
[CLIP FROM PULP FICTION]:
BRUCE WILLIS AS BUTCH COOLIDGE: Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.
[SOUND OF CAR ENGINE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that tropes are instructive? Do they tell us something about how we see the world? Or is it part of a private joke that the writers have with every single member of its audience?
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: There is sort of a question about whether tropes are things that appeal to an audience or things that just writers like to do. But sometimes things do show up in people’s real lives, and actually on this website there is a section called Troper Tales where people talk about where tropes have shown up in their own life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of the examples involve anime, a lot of science fiction citations, comics, and so forth. Do you think this website could ever go mainstream, when it’s got such clearly nerdy contributors?
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: I think the site is becoming more mainstream, and there are growing examples of, you know, classic films and theater and other media. And I think it would be great [LAUGHS] if it did go mainstream and become more comprehensive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think it already is. It’s already hugely comprehensive and just enormously witty.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: Yeah, no, definitely, witty and snarky, and [LAUGHS] makes fun of these tropes but also, in many ways, loves them. It’s a very entertaining site.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Zachary, thank you for bringing it to our attention.
ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Zachary Pincus-Roth is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. He wrote his article on TVTropes for The Los Angeles Times.