Dr Horrible and Commentary! The Musical!

The writer’s strike of 2007 was one of the odder labor events of the past few years, and had a distinct effect on a lot of pop culture products. NBC’s The Office had a shortened fourth season, for example, and fans of late-night talk shows were treated to the rare sight of hosts writing their own material. Joss Whedon, who had actually directed an episode of The Office that season (“Branch Wars”, featuring Rainn Wilson in one of his best performances) was obliged to cease and desist all paid writing-related activity for the duration of the strike. This he dutifully did, channelling his energy into blog pieces about why writing is actually work, and something for which people are paid, and musing about his upcoming Dollhouse TV series. (Another project at the time was Buffy Season 8, which led Whedon into comics in a serious way.)

The strike’s most culturally enduring project might well be Joss Whedon’s elaborate “home movie”, paid for mostly by himself and carefully marketed as a “blog” to avoid any hint of scabbing: Dr Horrible’s Singalong Blog. Featuring Neil Patrick Harris, fresh from Harold and Kumar, alongside Whedon veterans Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion, this musical in three acts told the story of a self-proclaimed Supervillain and his attempts to earn a place in the Evil League of Evil by committing appropriately villain-y deeds. The villain, “Dr Horrible”, is matched by his media-star counterpart, Captain Hammer (Fillion), a walking cartoon of masculine bluster, and they both compete for the affection of good-hearted social worker Penny (Day).

The blog had deep roots in the Whedon universe. The Evil League of Evil, and their horrendous leader, “Bad Horse”, was originally pitched for an episode of Angel by Tick creator Ben Edlund. Whedon had previously written an entire musical himself for Buffy (“Once More, With Feeling”) as well as the theme song for Firefly and an additional song for Buffy Season 7 (the devastating “I’ll Be Mrs”). So, many of the ideas here were already in play. One major difference is that, although Joss wrote the script and directed the actors, the songs were co-written with his brother Jed and his wife and writing partner Maurissa Tancharoen.

Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen have musical sensibilities that are a lot more mainstream and modern than Joss’s more formal stage musical inclinations. Joss, for example, would relish the idea of writing a soft-shoe “book number”, whereas Jed and Maurissa would come up with something like “Can You Lend a Helping Hand?”, much more in the Lennon/Alicia Keys mold. The music on Dr Horrible therefore strikes a balance between the two, with Captain Hammer entering with straight-ahead musical bluster, and Dr Horrible in the end stepping into traditional “stompy” villain music, but there are also beautiful moments like the delicate synthesizer intro to “A Man’s Gotta Do” and all the music Penny sings, expressing an earnest, delicate heart. (Some fans might recognize Jed and Maurissa from the current show Agents of SHIELD.)

Longtime Whedon fans weren’t surprised at the terrible twist of fate that befell one major character at the end of the short film. Joss, like George R. R. Martin, seems to take pleasure in reminding his audience of the arbitrary, and final, nature of death. Whedon is one of those dramatists who loves to turn a laugh into a heartbreak on a dime. Buffy is replete with such moments. (Who can forget poor Giles ascending the stairs of his apartment in Season 2, expecting to see the woman he loves waiting for him?) Suffice to say that by the end of Dr Horrible’s scant 30 minutes, comedy has turned to tragedy and back to a deeper tragedy.

Dr Horrible was enthusiastically received by the public. Part of the reason was that we Whedon fans hadn’t had a new product since 2005’s Serenity. Another reason was the Joss had found a creative way to circumvent all the issues related to the writer’s strike and still produce one of his strongest works. Hard-line unionists might grumble, but that grumbling fades in the face of what was ultimately produced, and becomes all the more subversive when one considers that a major issue for the Writer’s Guild in that strike was digital royalties. Joss went ahead and, prescient for the time, made a product to be distributed entirely digitally. Bandwidth considerations forced them to break it up into three, ten-minute “webisodes”, but they did it.

The complete short was, of course, later released on DVD, which necessitated a DVD commentary track. Joss, Jed, Maurissa and some members of the cast dutifully recorded a straight-ahead track, but also had a creative idea. Working in Jed’s home studio, they came up with enough songs about the making of the short, and about commentary tracks in general, to make a parallel commentary track consisting of a musical commenting on another musical.

As the eminent Canadian Philosopher Prof Reeves would say, “Woah.” It’ a rather bold meta-thing to do, and while the songs on the commentary musical aren’t quite as strong as the musical itself, and the whole affair sounds decidedly lower budget, there’s a playful energy about it that’s the fun, whimsical side of Whedon.

The commentary even has a title, “Commentary! The Musical!” (exclamation points in the original) and begins with a flourish of high-school musical-type singing of the word “Com-ent-ary!” That pretty much sets the tone for the whole piece. The second song is a traditional marching labour dispute song titled “Strike”, in which the participants re-tell the story of the 2007 writer’s strike and how it led to the musical blog. Most of the rest of the songs consist of actors cutting each other up (Nathan Fillion’s awesome “I’m Better Than Neil” is a highlight), recalling boding over a silly early iPhone game during filming (“Ninja Ropes”, probably the best song here) and commenting on the nature of commentaries. Maurissa gets a wonderful solo on the catchy critique of racial casting, “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies”, and third Whedon brother Zack, known best to comics fans as the writer of the Serenity comics, drops by for a rap about how much he hates musicals.

The “top” level of meta-analysis comes in the form of the songs “It’s All About Me” sung by various members of the cast who played smaller roles, and “Heart Broken”, the only song here written entirely by Joss and sung by Whedon himself. “All About Me” is one of the several tunes here that focuses on a character ignored by main action, but in a project like this, cast with wall-to-wall friends and family, even the small roles are played by people with stories to tell. “Heart Broken”, sung by Joss in his endearingly limited voice, is a typical Whedon joke, first expressing how much he hates people picking his work apart and how pointless commentary tracks are, but then being reminded by his brothers and sister-in-law that they need to “sell some DVD’s” and he wouldn’t want to be “ignored at comic-con”, after which Joss picks up and sings the virtues of fandom by the last verse.

Once again, Joss Whedon was far ahead of his time with Dr Horrible and Commentary! the Musical. This was a few years before “Glee”, which didn’t premiere until 2009, and it was also during an era when “webisodes” and “podcasting” were still in their relative infancy. It’s interesting to consider whether, in the event of a strike today, writing an elaborate musical for a blog and producing it with a six-figure budget, privately financed or not, would constitute scabbing. Back then, the stodgy old timers in the industry still hadn’t quite caught on to what the internet could be. Joss saw it, and today everyone sees it, with streaming services and cable-cutters.

Joss Whedon, of course, is now one of the reigning Kings of Geekdom, but he balanced his huge billion-dollar budget Avengers films with another clever “friends-and-family” production, 2013’s Much Ado About Nothing, shot at his house, on cheap video cameras. This is Dr Horrible approach, and it’s doubtful that without the earlier precedent, Whedon would have had the boldness to make a home-movie version of Shakespeare. In the years since, fans have been clamouring for more Dr Horrible, which itself is kept alive through live singalong screenings and extensive cosplay. Whedon has repeatedly said that he wants to make Dr Horrible 2 and that songs are written, a story is in mind, and it’s just a matter of finding time for all the actors to get together. Since there’s very little pay involved in a project like this, they have to wait until Whedon, Fillion, Harris and all the others become available at the same time, something akin to waiting for the planets to align. But the fact that this silly little project captivated, and continues to captivate, so many is a tribute to the diversity of the talent in the Whedon family.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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