Friday, May 30, 2014

Everyone is funny and most jokes have been told

You know that old saying about how there are only a few plots in the world? And every story falls into one of those seven--or twelve--or twenty plots?

If you ever doubted that, you should look on Twitter when someone sets up a game for people to play. For instance, when the show @midnight asks people to come up with "dirty songs"; or when the Barnes & Noble Book Blog asks people to come up with "useless prequels"; or--whatever it is, just keep an eye on that game and that hashtag and you will see definite patterns forming.

I was reminded of this because the BN Book Blog did ask for #UselessPrequels and if you look now at Twitter (or on my Facebook page), you'll notice there are some definite patterns that form. And, frankly, there are some repetitions. So far, I've noticed

  • Number-related jokes: 
    • Fahrenheit 451 -> Fahrenheit 450
    • 1984 -> 1983
    • Slaugherhouse-5 -> Slaughterhouse-4
  • Time-/Age-related jokes:
    • Midsummer Night's Dream -> Midsummer Day's Nap
    • No Country for Old Men -> No Country for Middle-Aged Men
    • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil -> 11 PM in the Garden of Good and Evil
  • Backstory-related jokes:
    • Romeo & Juliet -> Romeo & Rosaline
    • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -> The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Planet
    • Dr. No -> Pre-med Student No
  • and so on.

To be clear, I'm not immune from this; and there's not a lot of mystery here. Of course, when playing a game like this, you would (a) want to choose a well-known work, hence the overwhelming presence of high school classics and bestsellers (and, to a lesser extent, children's books); and (b) want the joke to be clear enough for the reader to recognize what you're joking about.

That not only limits your raw materials: Shakespeare is in, but Thomas Middleton is out--and if you have to look him up, then you're both proving my point and shouldn't feel bad since I had to look him up too. It also limits how far afield you can go: "Romeo & Rosaline" only works because (a) people read it in high school English and (b) people may have some memory that Romeo starts off the play being heartbroken about a different woman.

So, yes, the game is somewhat limited by these two, er, limits. But still, I was surprised not just by the patterns that formed, but by the duplicates that popped up. Which means... what, exactly?

Only that, as you'll notice with @midnight's games, some of the funniest entries are by both comedians and civilians; that the ability to turn a clever phrase or come up with some comparison or other is actually pretty widespread through the population (of Twitter users).

And that, if you want to make a living being funny or (cough cough) writing interesting things, you have to work a little harder than your average Twitterer. That you'll need to stretch your mind a little further and not just settle on the first joke you make; and that,  if you're trying to do some longer piece of writing, keep in mind that these sort of clever ideas are cheap. Everyone can and will come up with 1983 as a joke; if you want to make it mean something, you're going to have to sit down and put in the work to make it.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Comedy and the fantastic and the unexpected

I just reread Connie Willis's essay "Learning to Write Comedy or Why It's Impossible and How to Do It" from Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, and while I love all her examples--Shakespeare, Wodehouse, Jerome K. Jerome, Twain--her overall point is that comedy is about turning things on their head, setting up and knocking over assumptions, ending up someplace different than expected.

So we have a camel eating Twain's overcoat, described as a several course meal; we have Jerome's Three Men in a Boat trying to open a tin can that ends up nearly breaking all of the them, as well as a tea cup; and we have a salesman in Heinlein describing soap as made of finer ingredients, improving your chance of Heaven, and refusing to take the Fifth Amendment.

Which is all very well and good, since you can describe things in a silly manner when the reader knows what you're talking about. You can leave things out (such as any joke that ends with "that's not my leg" never tells us what it is); or add things in (Wooster talking about his aunt's chef as the most important person in the world is only funny because we know how narrow Wooster's worldview is)--as long as you have a shared frame of reference.

But what if you're on a spaceship dealing with aliens that are sentient clouds? (As is inevitable.) How do you get a shared frame of reference so that you can make something unexpected into something funny?

It seems that a lot of science fiction/fantasy humor relies on the frame of reference provided by other sf/fantasy stories. Example: Howard Waldrop's "Night of the Cooters" is a version of Wells's War of the Worlds if some Martians landed in Texas, playing on the shared references we have for alien invasion stories and for Texans.

There's also, I would argue, a larger shared frame of reference for the logical and the absurd. For instance, Douglas Adams's discussion of the Babel Fish in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe largely relies on piling absurdity on absurdity: fish don't go in the ear; a telepathic fish used as a communication device is a little odd; and the inset story of how Man uses the Babel Fish to disprove God's existence by proving God's existence caps the absurd proposition of the Babel Fish with a discussion of logical absurdities. But still, we have to share some frame of "common sense" and "logic" for that to be funny.

I sort of hate to discuss humor in so serious a manner (oh, who am I kidding, I love it), but it seems that every comic story has to set up its assumption in order to frustrate them by going somewhere unexpected. Still, it seems the writer of sf/f comedy faces the double whammy of explaining the situation (alien worlds, aliens, quests!) and adding the punchline, without the punchline accidentally being taken for a serious statement.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 228: Stephen Crane, The Price of the Harness (#228)

Stephen Crane, "The Price of the Harness" (1898) from Stephen Crane: Prose & Poetry:

Here's the short version: Stephen Crane reported on the Cuban theater in the Spanish-American War. This story came out of it; and Crane helpfully glossed the title/wrote your paper for you with his last war dispatch--
The public doesn’t seem to care very much for the regular soldier. The public wants to learn of the gallantry of Reginald Marmaduke Maurice Montmorenci Sturtevant [...]. Just plain Private Nolan, blast him—he is of no consequence. He will get his name in the paper—oh, yes, when he is “killed.” Or when he is “wounded.” Or when he is “missing.”
--and in a letter complaining about an editor who changed the title of the story--
The name of the story is ‘The Price of the Harness’ because it is the price of the harness, the price men paid for wearing the military harness, Uncle Sam’s military harness; and they paid blood, hunger and fever.
And that's what this story is, for 17 pages: a bunch of regular soldiers doing regular soldier activities and getting shot at (or shot) (or catching fever) (and maybe dying). We hear how all the digging is necessary but doesn't earn any medals; and how, even when they are digging like gardeners (p1), they have this air of doing things like soldiers (also p1); there's the trouble that people during war have of whether knowing this particular battle is of great national importance or will be totally forgotten.

There's other stuff here that I know will interest some people--there's the machine-like nature of the army; and the presence of horses (and their death) as necessary parts of war; and the crowd-like connection of the army.

But I'll end today's post--after a long drive through some bad rain from Austin--with some questions about war reporting and fiction. I listened to this episode of the Dissolve podcast where they asked about how pro- or anti-war war films are, and it got me thinking about war literature. Crane doesn't ever tell us anything about the politics of this war. Is it a good war, a just war of defense? Or is it a war that the regular people were tricked into fighting? Crane isn't at all interested in that; but in its own way, divorced from politics, I find this sort of story to be pretty anti-war in its own way: for the regular people, down on the ground, whatever friendships they might find, the experience of war is boredom and terror and violence and death. It's not exactly anti-war, but it makes it clear that war should be for a good reason since this is the price that's paid.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Why aren't you writing (#5) ... Icelandic Saga Westerns?

A town is menaced. An outsider comes to town. The outsider may be wild, but he's the only hope the town has for dealing with the menace. And the outsider ends up beating the menace and saving the town.

Now: have I just told you the plot to Beowulf or the plot to a standard Western story? And you should probably say "Both!"

This might sound familiar to you since I said almost the exact same thing a little over a year ago. But I think it bears repeating: You could easily make Beowulf a western where a group of gunslingers comes to an isolated long hall/town and needs to fight off a monstrous enemy--who might have an even more monstrous mother.

In fact, these two stories are so obviously related that combining them might not give you too much pleasure. I mean, you can give Beowulf a six-shooter and make a fun comic book, but you're probably not going to get out any of the dark inspiration that keeps you going as an artist.

But still--why aren't you writing... Icelandic Saga Westerns?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Why aren't you writing (#4) ... Zombie Early Gothics?

I want to be clear that when I say "Early Gothics," I mean more like The Castle of Otranto (1764) than Underworld (2003). Maybe we could even expand that circle to include the early novels that have strong Gothic tendencies; I'm thinking of stuff like Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748)--so let's start by giving this zombie novel a woman's name (probably).

The reason why I think Pamela has a Gothic edge is because there's a shared sense of dread and uncertainty to a lot of these novels; and in many of them--like Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)--there's a sense of isolation and imprisonment for the heroine. These are women who are usually protecting their virtue from dangerous men, while being unable to leave the manor-house/castle for a variety of reasons.

So let's add one more reason they can't leave: zombies!

Sure, zombies are usually more related to a non-Gothic horror tradition--the tradition of splatter rather than shudder horror. Zombies tend to be messy eaters and also to often have a messy end. (See, for instance, the hero with lawnmower scene of Dead Alive. Or better yet--don't.) But maybe we can re-enliven (wah-wah!) the zombie story by taking it a little away from its roots.

In Gothics, we often have worries about possible ghosts and secrets of the past that come to haunt the living. (In Otranto, it's the fact that the ruler is a murderous usurper, which comes back to haunt his family.) Why not take those skeletons-in-the-closet and add some rotting flesh to it. In fact, let's lean into the whole "zombie as horde" issue: instead of just being haunted by the past, maybe the people are haunted by their class structure--all the poor people that are needed to keep this sort of rich house running.

A house you can't leave (or, as in many zombie stories, a prison, an apartment complex, a boarded-up high school); a terrible threat from inside the house; and the return of the past and of exploitation.

Why aren't you writing... Zombie Early Gothics?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 227: Walt Whitman, One Wicked Impulse! (#227)

Walt Whitman, "One Wicked Impulse!" (1845/1882) from Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose:

Much like Whitman's "Wild Frank's Return," this story is the semi-true tale of bad ends. In this case, a crooked lawyer gets himself in charge of the property of a young brother and sister; and he tries to marry the sister (to more firmly get the property), only to end up insulting her so badly, that the brother (drunkenly) kills the lawyer. And he gets away with it! So far, so true crime.

But Walt's story goes beyond true crime, into the realm of criminal philosophy. Er, I guess I mean "ethics"--though how much more popular a subject would it be if it was called "criminal philosophy"? See, the murder was witnessed by only one person. This person decides not to come forward when he sees the remorse and horror on the murderer's face.

In fact, thanks to Walt's all-seeing, semi-Transcendental eye, he tells us that the murderer goes through such a hell of remorse afterwards, that the death penalty hardly seems necessary:
O, if those who clamor so much for the halter and the scaffold to punish crime, could have seen that sight, they might have learn’d a lesson then!
But he recovers and realizes that the world is still good. In his earlier versions of the story, Walt went on to record how the murderer atones by taking care of the sick, even sacrificing himself to heal the children of the original crooked lawyer. Still, even if this later version pulls back on that melodramatic end, there's some gestures towards that end, as in the above quote: maybe our notion of justice isn't perfect. Maybe "one wicked impulse" does not make a man worthless or totally dangerous.

From a craft perspective, this story starts in a way that seems very 19th-century to me: with a long paragraph introducing the antagonist--and introducing him first by mentioning the wider geography of the city. How many modern stories start with a street in the first line and only mention the protagonist (the murderer and son) in the second paragraph.

Or is the son/murderer the protagonist? In some ways, the question the story (literally) asks--the position that the story puts us in--is about the witness and his actions. We hear little of that character--only that he belongs to a "scorn'd race" (which probably means black, but not necessarily). That somewhat interrupts most readers' identification back in the day, but still: whereas the murderer is driven by impulse and the lawyer by evil and greed, only the witness makes a clear choice.

Friday, May 16, 2014

My sugar-free (-lite) week (isn't over yet)

You know those things that seem like good ideas at the time? Yeah, taking a week off from sugary foods never seemed like that. But at least when Sarah and I decided to take a week off sugar, I didn't know that it would quite be like this.

And it's not even like I'm a big sugar snacker--I thought. Sure, sometimes we'll get a treat at the store. Sure, sometimes I'll throw chocolate chips into my already-sugary yogurt. Sure, sometimes I'll have sweetened almond/coconut milk for my smoothies, and then put in a pound of frozen fruit, and then top it off with chocolate chips, and then, while I'm walking past the kitchen, I'll take a few more chocolate chips. And sure, my vitamins are gummy. But I don't eat that much sugar, right?

Then I spent last Monday dragging my feet, my mouth flooding with saliva at the idea of a pie, wanting to claw my face off.

Which kind of tells me that maybe this experiment is worthwhile, since we only stopped eating sugar on Sunday, and we didn't really go cold turkey. I may not be a big candy eater, but there's clearly a lot of added sugar in my life.

And what's crazy is that I'm not avoiding all sorts of sugar. I've got a kitchen full of my favorite fruits. Or near favorite: granny smith rather than pink lady or honey crisp apples. The fruit is fine--oh man, but those apples dipped in just a little bit of honey...--but it's clearly still a struggle.

Some of this must be psychological: I can't have it, therefore I want it. I'm not a stranger to this sort of self-torture, building up the suspense for when I finally do that thing I want to do. (For instance: scratch the mosquito bite.) But how much of this feeling is actually physiological? On Sunday when I eat chocolate chips again and can think clearly, I'll try to figure out.

Man, I'm glad I never got into drugs. Other than sugar.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Why aren't you writing (#3) ... Werewolf Gatsby?

Imagine how excited high schoolers would be to read this! Gatsby is a guy with a secret: on certain nights, he turns into a wolf-monster. (If you were to write the modern-day satire of this--and yes, I have--Gatsby would turn into a working class guy. How horrific for his rich twit guests to discover that their host had turned into their waiter!)

And though this mix obviously came to me when thinking about Gatsby, we could expand it to the wider genre of Roaring Twenties/Gilded Age fiction: anything where we have rich people going around, ignoring or exploiting the poor or trying desperately to escape the ranks of the poor.

You might argue that vampires are the perfect monster to talk about the rich, which, well, you're not wrong about. With compound interest and some safe investing, most long-lived vampires should be rich. But Great Gatsby isn't about rich people only: it's about people who may (or may not) be rich who are very insecure about their status.

Which is why I think werewolves are the perfect monster-metaphor to explore this issue. Also, wouldn't it be amazing to see a werewolf rampage through some decadent 1920s speakeasy? Imagine what Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby would be like with werewolves.

Why aren't you writing werewolf Gatsby?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 226: Herman Melville, The Armies of the Wilderness (#226)

Herman Melville, "The Armies of the Wilderness" (1866) from The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

In my book, Kafka still has the best writerly response to war, when he noted in his diary on August 2nd, 1914 that, “Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon." But Melville has a pretty good response too in a letter to his cousin about how much he enjoyed his visit to the Wilderness/Spotsylvania area, when that would be and was one of the bloodiest encounters of the Civil War.

(Also, he goes on to express his hopes for cousin Gansevoort" "May your sword be a terror to the despicable foe, & your name in after ages be used by Southern matrons to frighten their children by." Maybe that's a bit of war-time humor, but feel free to bring that up anytime someone laments the lack of politeness and human decency these days. How often do we hear people saying "I hope you haunt their nightmares"? Maybe we should bring that back...)

Melville's poem here tells all about the war and the battle, through some scenes (e.g., a prisoner of war being asked to point out the enemy encampments) and some bird's eye commentary on the war (e.g., so terrible that only Biblical analogies of terror suffice). Frankly, the poem doesn't do much for me, largely because of Melville's almost trance-like rhythm.

But it is an interesting historical artifact. Think of it: back in the 19th century, a man could write a poem about a war and about a battle and about blood and death. I know that the Library of American has some other collections about poetry from other wars (WWI, WWII); and that if you Google "Iraq War poetry," you'll get some hits. But really, it feels like the great moment for poetry has passed by for now; these days it is relegated to high school's tragic love affairs or elementary school's cards for Mother's Day. Let's call this the infantilization of poetry.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The brilliance and boringness of Hawkeye

Matt Fraction's Hawkeye is the sort of comic book that everyone in comics is talking about. It's a superhero comic book--sort of. As the opening lines to each issue tells us, Hawkeye is the non-powered, sharpshooter for the Avengers, and this is what he does when he's not doing Avenger-y things.

As people have pointed out, Hawkeye is less about the wish fulfillment that goes with superheroes, than he is about something like wish bafflement. He's a normal guy, who happens to have a barely epic skill--sharpshooting--whose weapon of choice is the bow and arrow, and who has some trick arrows. (But not like the really awesome toys and gadgets of Batman. Hawkeye is a working-class or low-class character, without any of the Richie Rich fantasies of a Batman or even a Green Arrow.) Who would ever want to be Hawkeye?

Hawkeye may be a hero when he's with the Avengers, but when he's off the clock, we see him as a guy with problems, both emotional and physical. It's the kind of side-story that gains resonance and is only possible as a side story to other stories going on elsewhere. It's like the first "Blink" episode of Doctor Who, where the Doctor is involved in other adventures just on the periphery of the episode; or "The Zeppo" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: because we know what sort of stories are going on off-page, this comic can feel free to go off the usual path.

And it really does, in some great ways. The first issue, for instance, shows Hawkeye dealing with some unscrupulous landlords, who happen to be Eastern European gangsters who wear tracksuits all the time and say "bro" most of the time. (In an interview, Fraction notes that the "bro" joke came out of the fact that we don't really care what the mooks say in a gang fight: we know they're just going to threaten Hawkeye and we know that they're not going to win.) Fraction plays with time here, flipping back and forth between the aftermath of the adventure and how Hawkeye gets involved, which is mostly interesting for how great the transitions are.

For another example of the fireworks brilliance of Hawkeye, there's issue #11, which tells the whole story from the POV of the dog that Hawkeye has adopted. There's a Far Side-level joke where the dog can't understand anything people say except for certain words: "bad dog," "pizza," etc. There's a Chris Ware-esque iconography as the dog smells certain things in certain places. And there's even some advancement of the plot as we see Hawkeye and his brother and Hawkeye's young partner/replacement (also known as Hawkeye).

But for all the critical acclaim of this comic and of issue #11--it's up for and I think will win the 2014 Eisner for best single issue--there's something a little too clever, sometimes, particularly when it comes to time games. I've already mentioned how #1 jumps back and forth, which is fun, and a nice statement of how Fraction will do things differently here. But does it add much? Similarly, issue #6 plays with time, covering several out-of-order days in the lackluster life of a guy with issues; but that out-of-orderness feels like a dodge, a way to gussy up something that isn't very interesting. I can kind of stretch and say that Clint Barton has trouble with cause-and-effect--he hovers between loveable rogue and ne'er-do-well, making people's lives more complicated rather than better--and so that's why the story is told out-of-order. But it feels like a stretch.

And while "Blink" and "The Zeppo" were fun single issue stories parallel to a whole other story, Hawkeye has some trouble as an ongoing comic--which is probably why several of the later issues ditch Clint entirely and follow his protege as she makes a way for herself in L.A.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Why aren't you writing (#2) ... Hollow Earth noir?

A lot of genres get defined by their trappings rather than by the real skeleton going on underneath: it's like defining birds as "things with feathers" and then freaking out over dinosaurs with feathers. Sure the feathers--or ray guns--serve some purpose, but you can't entirely divorce that surface trope from the purpose. So all those cyberpunk stories were people wear leather and chrome for the simple fact of wearing leather and chrome--that's like gluing feathers to your dog. It's kind of pointless and kind of gross.

So: noir. Dark streets. Trenchcoats. PIs with shadowy pasts and hearts of gold. Sure, absolutely, but underneath those feathers, noir is about an uncertain and largely untrustworthy world. The conspiracy goes all the way to the top. The police are in on it. The love of your life will betray you. The noir world is one where the ground under you is uncertain, metaphorically.

So let's make that metaphor real, yay! (I love making metaphors real. If someone says, "Her world exploded," I want to see chunks of world flying off into space.) We don't see a lot of Hollow Earth stories these days, stories that aren't just "Let's go underground," but "Let's go underground and find a whole civilization there." In the past, we had Edward Bulwer-Lytton had The Coming Race in 1871; and Edgar Rice Burroughs had At the Earth's Core in 1914; and most famously(?) Richard Sharpe Shaver had the Shaver Mystery starting in 1943, which hovered uncomfortably between fiction and non-fiction, since he claimed the evil underground civilization was real. (Also, you could reach this world through several secret elevators, though considering the underground "dero" liked to rape and murder people, I'm not sure why you would want to go there.) But that's all old; it's well worth revisiting this subgenre of Hollow Earth stories (or "subterranean fiction").

Ergo: hollow world noir is a world where the ground under your feet is uncertain--because under the ground are a group of people who have a hidden agenda. (Plus: you get the fun of having someone say "This goes all the way to the top!" and then having to go all the way to the bottom.) Now there are a lot of ways to approach this: perhaps a noir LA detective discovers a murder that eventually leads him to the underground conspiracy. Or some people in your town are collaborating with the Hollow Earth gangsters. Or a man without options starts working for a mysterious man who just might not be from the Surface World.

Why aren't you writing... Hollow Earth noir?

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 225: Thornton Wilder, The Drunken Sisters (#225)

Thornton Wilder, "The Drunken Sisters" (1957) from Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays & Writings on Theater:

If all you know of Thornton Wilder is Our Town--which is all I know of him, besides the other LoA pieces of his I've read--"The Drunken Sisters" may seem a little odd: it's a Greek tragedy about Apollo trying to save the life of King Admetus, mostly (it seems) because of his affection for Queen Alcestis. He tricks the Fates by getting them drunk and then tricks them into a riddle contest, which is itself a trick since the riddle's answer is impossible without knowing who the riddler is.

There's some echo of the Wilder "just a stage" writing: the Fates throw invisible strings to lasso Apollo, in a scene that might be funny; while Apollo comments to the audience directly.

It's a fine short play, but I wonder more about the background here, as hinted at by the headnote: Wilder was always interested in Greek mythology and wanted to write a satyr play (the short play that followed the longer tragedy, often playing for laughs the earlier tragedy). Which means that this is Wilder's idea of comedy? Clearly not, but it's interesting to imagine him starting out comedic and ending up tragic, if that's what happened. (It happens to all of us at some time.)

Friday, May 2, 2014

Get Shorty vs. Wanted

By now I hope you'd have faith that I could use enough tortured logic to connect these two films: one, a mobbed-up showbiz comedy about a loan shark following the money when he really would rather be in the movie business; the other about a sad-sack office drone who discovers he's really one of the secret masters/caretakers of the world and then discovers that the group is really villainous. One is from a book by Elmore Leonard, one of the masters of the underworld comedy; the other is from a comic book written by Mark Miller, an author who has rapidly fallen down the hole of self-parody and empty spectacle at the best of times. (At the worst of times, his spectacle is actually reprehensible rather than empty.)

So, two radically different films that are connected by... the fact that I watched them both this week. Sure, we could notice other similarities and telling differences: both Chili Palmer (Get Shorty) and Wesley Gibson (Wanted) are people in new worlds, with Chili learning about the high life and low-lives of Hollywood and Wesley learning about the secret assassin conspiracy that keeps the world balanced. And maybe each has some bit of moral ambiguity, with bad people who might be good.

But really, what sets them apart is more interesting and more instructive. Get Shorty is fun and funny, with well-structured transitions between scenes; Wanted is an adenoidal mess, that revels in disconnected and dumb set-pieces--train crash, car flipping assassination, naked Angelina Jolie--rather than giving us any character or reason to care. The humor of Wanted is spiteful in those few scenes that could actually be said to be funny, which results in that oddest of combinations: the popcorn spectacle that takes itself too seriously.

And worse than all that: it's boring.

Part of that boredom is baked into the premise, if you're a nihilistic jerkoff: Wesley Gibson is a sad-sack loser who has to learn that he matters and also where he comes from--which means that his triumph looks a lot like beating up other people and getting awesome revenge, bro, because he matters. And so the movie moves predictably through the numbers: Wesley is victimized, Wesley learns the truth, Wesley won't take it anymore, blah blah blah. It's the cinematic equivalent of a toddler throwing a tantrum: I MATTER! Sure, fine, but you're not the only one.

Whereas Get Shorty particularly excels because everyone is given their moment in the spotlight. Sure, some people are dumb, some are venal, some are violent--but they all come across like real people. In fact, Chili Palmer's secret weapon is that he cares about people: he'll get a tip from a "widow" because he's a good guy, he'll get extra help from a stuntman-turned-enforcer-and-dad by treating him like a human being, etc.

So in a way, Chili Palmer succeeds for the same reason that Get Shorty succeeds: because he and it accepts that other people matter, too.