Sitcom Aliens

The bedrock of comedy is an aberration of the normal. There's a reason we say "that's funny..." when something is odd, even if it's not really comical. The fish-out-of-water scenario is an easy platform for a TV comedy series, and who could be more out of their element than an alien? They come from far away, knowing as much English as they need to communicate, but can see the absurdities in our culture because it's foreign to them. And they are so foreign to us that anything they do fits into the format.

My Favorite Martian

My Favorite Martian was the first regular TV sitcom featuring an alien from outer space, in 1963. Tim O'Hara (Bill Bixby) took in a stranded Martian (Ray Walston) as his roommate. "Uncle Martin," as the Martian was called, had all kinds of super powers. He was telepathic, he could turn himself invisible, he could rearrange molecules to change objects, he could levitate at will. He even built a time machine! But he couldn't repair his ship and go back home -at least not during the three-year run of the show. You can see the pilot eppisode in five parts on YouTube.

Mork and Mindy
Mork and Mindy had the same setup, with alien Mork (Robin Williams) rooming with Mindy (Pam Dawber), while trying to keep his alien identity secret from everyone but her. The comedy revolved around Mork trying to understand human behavior and explain his findings to his boss back at the home planet, Ork. It was a breakout role for Williams, tailor-made for his trademark improvised comedic riffs. The series was a Happy Days spinoff, airing from 1978 to 1982. Mork and Mindy eventually married and had a child (Jonathan Winters). Yeah, it was that silly. See the show intro on YouTube.

More funny aliens, after the jump.

ALF was an acronym for Alien Life Form. It was also the title character of the sitcom which ran from 1986 to 1990. ALF was the sole survivor of the doomed planet Melmac, who crash-landed on Earth and moved in with the suburban Tanner family. ALF was played by a puppet controlled by three people, except for rare scenes where a dwarf actor walked through the set in an ALF costume. In addition to the alien trying to make sense of Earth culture, the comedy came from ALF's smart-alec attitude. He was difficult to live with, but funny to watch once a week. A rundown of episodes (each named for a song) can be found here. See the show intro on YouTube.

3rd Rock from the Sun
In 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996-2001), an entire crew of an alien spaceship came to earth to study our planet. The four scientists (led by John Lithgow) took human form and posed as a family, without the help of a live-in Earthling confidant. The comedy was derived from their attempts to seem human when they had no real understanding of how to do it. There were also conflicts between each character's normal alien identity and the human form they inhabited. Bonus: William Shatner played the aliens' supervisor. Get a taste of the show in this YouTube clip.

The character of Latka Gravas on the series Taxi (1978-1983) was not from outer space, but he was an alien, in the immigrant sense. Latka was from a unnamed island in the Caspian Sea, with a distinctive but unrecognizable accent actor Andy Kaufman used as "the Foreign Man" in his standup comedy routine. However, he suffered from multiple-personalilty disorder and would sometimes appear as a cowboy, and Englishman, or the womanizer Vic Ferrari. These characters were included in the show to satisfy Kaufman, who feared being typecast as Latka. You can see the character in this clip at YouTube.

Perfect Strangers
Balki Bartokomous was the resident alien in Perfect Strangers (1986-1993). Like Latka, he was a stranger in a strange land, but unlike Taxi, this was the entire premise for the series. Actor Bronson Pinchot was able to carry the schtick for several years. Balki traveled from his rural home on the fictional island of Mypos (which seemed Greek, but was never pinpointed) to Chicago to live with his distant cousin Larry (Mark Linn-Baker). See the show intro here.

Since 3rd Rock from the Sun was discontinued in 2001, the closest thing we have to comedy aliens is the animated series Futurama, which is set in the future when aliens from other planets are not so unusual. Although discontinued in 2003, Futurama will return to TV in 2008 on Comedy Central.

John P. Johnson, HBO
10 Wild Facts About Westworld
John P. Johnson, HBO
John P. Johnson, HBO

The hit HBO show about an android farm girl finding sentience in a fake version of the old West set in a sci-fi future is back for a second season. So grab your magnifying glass, study up on Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare, and get ready for your brain to turn to scrambled eggs. 

The first season saw Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and her robotic compatriots strive to escape bondage as the puppet playthings of a bored society that kills and brutalizes them every day, then repairs them each night to repeat the process for paying customers. The Maze. The Man in Black. The mysteries lurking in cold storage and cantinas. Wood described the first season as a prequel, which means the show can really get on the dusty trail now. 

Before you board the train and head back into the park, here are 10 wild facts about the cerebral, sci-fi hit. (Just beware of season one spoilers!)


Though Westworld, the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton, was a hit, its 1976 sequel Futureworld was a flop. Still, the name and concept had enough cachet for CBS to move forward with a television concept in 1980. Beyond Westworld featured Delos head of security John Moore (Jim McMullan) battling against the villainous mad scientist Simon Quaid (James Wainwright), who wants to use the park’s robots to, what else, take over the whole world. It would be a little like if the HBO show focused largely on Luke Hemsworth’s Ashley Stubbs, which just might be the spinoff the world is waiting for.


Ed Harris and Eddie Rouse in 'Westworld'

The HBO series pays homage to the original film in a variety of ways, including echoing elements from the score to create that dread-inducing soundscape. It also tipped its ten-gallon hat to Yul Brynner’s relentless gunslinger from the original film by including him in the storage basement with the rest of the creaky old models.


Speaking of Brynner’s steely, murderous resolve: His performance as the robo-cowboy was one of the foundations for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn as the Terminator. Nearly 20 years later, in 2002, Schwarzenegger signed on to produce and star in a reboot of the sci-fi film from which he took his early acting cues. Schwarzenegger never took over the role from Brynner because he served as Governor of California instead, and the reboot languished in development hell.

Warner Bros. tried to get Quentin Tarantino on board, but he passed. They also signed The Cell director Tarsem Singh (whose old West would have been unbelievably lush and colorful, no doubt), but it fell through. A few years later, J.J. Abrams—who had met with Crichton about a reboot back in 1996—pitched eventual co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy on doing it as a television series. HBO bought it, and the violent delights finally made it to our screens.


Thandie Newton and Angela Sarafyan in 'Westworld'

In season one, Logan (Ben Barnes) revealed that he’s spending $40,000 a day to experience Westworld. That’s in line with the 1973 movie, where park visitors spent $1000 a day, which lands near $38,000 once adjusted for inflation. Then again, we’re talking about 2052 dollars, so it might still be pricey, but not exorbitant in 2018 terms. But a clever Redditor spotted that $40,000 is the minimum you’d pay; according to the show’s website, the Gold Package will set you back $200,000 a day.


Once Upon a Time’s Eion Bailey was originally cast as Logan but had to quit due to a scheduling conflict, so Ben Barnes stepped in … then he broke his foot. The actor hid the injury for fear he’d lose the job, which is why he added a limp as a character detail. “I’m sort of hobbling along with this kind of cowboy-ish limp, which I then tried to maintain for the next year just so I could pretend it was a character choice,” Barnes said. “But really I had a very purple foot … So walking was the hardest part of shooting this for me.”


Eagle-eyed fans (particularly on Reddit) uncovered just about every major spoiler from the first season early on, which is why Nolan and Joy promised a spoiler video for anyone who wanted to know the entire plot of season two ahead of its premiere. They delivered, but instead of show secrets, the 25-minute video only offered a classy rendition of Rick Astley’s internet-infamous “Never Gonna Give You Up,” sung by Evan Rachel Wood with Angela Sarafyan on piano, followed by 20 minutes of a dog. It was a pitch-perfect response to a fanbase desperate for answers.


Amid the alternative rock tunes hammered out on the player piano and hat tips to classic western films, Westworld also referenced something from 5th century BCE Greece. Westworld, which is run by Delos Incorporated, is designed so that guests cannot die. Delos is also the name of the island where ancient Greeks made it illegal for anyone to die (or be born for that matter) on religious grounds. That’s not the only bit of wordplay with Greek either: Sweetwater’s main ruffian, Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro), gets his last name from the Greek eschaton, meaning the final event in the divine design of the world. Fitting for a potentially sentient robot helping to bring about humanity’s destruction.


Evan Rachel Wood and Jimmi Simpson in 'Westworld'

In season one, the show’s many secrets were kept even from the main cast until the time they absolutely needed to know. Jimmi Simpson, who plays timid theme park neophyte William, had a hunch something was funny with his role because of a cosmetic change.

“I was with an amazing makeup artist, Christian, and he was looking at my face too much,” Simpson told Vanity Fair. “He had me in his chair, and he was just looking at my face, and then he said something about my eyebrows. ‘Would you be cool if we just took a couple hairs out of your eyebrows, made them not quite as arched?’” Guessing that they were making him look more like The Man in Black, Simpson said something to Joy, and she confirmed his hunch. “She looked kind of surprised I’d worked it out,” he said.


One of the show’s most iconic elements is its soundtrack of alternative rock songs from the likes of Radiohead, The Cure, and Soundgarden redone in a jaunty, old West style. In addition to adding a creepy sonic flavor to the sadistic vacation, they also may wink toward Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, which deals with a dystopia of automation where machines do everything for humans, leading to an entrenched class struggle. The show’s resonant elements are clear, but Westworld also mentions that the world outside the theme park is one where there’s no unemployment and humans have little purpose. Like The Man In Black (Ed Harris), the protagonist of Player Piano also longs for real stakes in the struggle of life.


Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright in 'Westworld'

Anthony Hopkins’s character Dr. Robert Ford is an invention for the new series, and he shares a name with the man who assassinated infamous outlaw Jesse James (a fact you may remember from the aptly named movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The final episode of the first season flips the allusion when Ford is shot in the back of the head, which is exactly how the real-life Ford killed James.

Pop Culture
The ‘Scully Effect’ Is Real: Female X-Files Fans More Likely to Go Into STEM

FBI agent Dana Scully is more than just a role model for remaining professional when a colleague won't stop talking about his vast governmental conspiracy theories. The skeptical doctor played by Gillian Anderson on The X-Files helped inspire women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, according to a new report [PDF] from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which we spotted at Fast Company.

“In the world of entertainment media, where scientists are often portrayed as white men wearing white coats and working alone in labs, Scully stood out in the 1990s as the only female STEM character in a prominent, prime-time television role,” the report explains. Previously, anecdotal evidence has pointed to the existence of a “Scully effect,” in which the measured TV scientist—with her detailed note-taking, evidence-based approach, and desire to autopsy everything—inspired women to seek out their own science careers. This report provides the hard data.

The Geena Davis Institute surveyed more than 2000 women in the U.S. above the age of 25, a significant portion of whom were viewers of The X-Files (68 percent) and women who had studied for or were in STEM careers (49 percent). While the survey didn’t ask women whether watching Dana Scully on The X-Files directly influenced their decision to be a scientist, the results hint that seeing a character like her on TV regularly did affect them. Women who watched more of the show were more likely to say they were interested in STEM, more likely to have studied a STEM field in college, and more likely to have worked in a STEM field after college.

While it’s hard to draw a direct line of causation there—women who are interested in science might just be more inclined to watch a sci-fi show like The X-Files than women who grow up to be historians—viewers also tended to say Scully gave them positive impressions of women in science. More than half of respondents who were familiar with Scully’s character said she increased their confidence in succeeding in a male-dominated profession. More than 60 percent of the respondents said she increased their belief in the importance of STEM. And when asked to describe her, they were most likely to say she was “smart” and “intelligent” before any other adjective.

STEM fields are still overwhelmingly male, and governments, nonprofits, schools, activists, and some tech companies have been pushing to make the field more diverse by recruiting and retaining more female talent. While the desire to become a doctor or an engineer isn’t the only thing keeping STEM a boy’s club, women also need more role models in the fields whose success and accomplishments they can look up to. Even if some of those role models are fictional.

Now that The X-Files has returned to Fox, perhaps Dana Scully will have an opportunity to shepherd a whole new generation of women into the sciences.

[h/t Fast Company]


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