Drop Dead Fred and Polysemy: A Podcast Contends with Multiple Readings of a Film

Curator's Note

Popular podcast How Did This Get Made? is no stranger to courting controversy with the films the hosts pick to mock on their show (full disclosure: this writer will go to bat for Fast Five and Demolition Man any day). Even special guests have disagreed fully with designating a film as worthy of the program, like director and producer Evan Goldberg beginning the episode (#106) on Renny Harlin’s 1999 sci-fi killer shark feature Deep Blue Sea by stating that he has seen the film twenty-one times and “I know this is all to make fun of shit, but it’s the best movie ever.”

Recently, in the show’s 219th episode on Ate de Jong’s 1991 black comedy Drop Dead Fred, the hosts as well as the audience (it was a live taping) strongly disagreed as to the merits of the film as a whole, as well as the merits of the psychoanalytic argument promoted by hosts June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas (the film features an imaginary friend returning to a young woman from her childhood). Host Paul Scheer and guest host Casey Wilson maintained that the film is in fact bad and all contents therein should be regarded as such. Scheer in his introduction declared Drop Dead Fred to be “like Fight Club, but for kids!” and “A movie that has caused the most controversy we’ve ever had in the How Did This Get Made universe.” This controversy most strongly presented later in the show on the topic of childhood and emotional abuse between June and Paul, who are married and have two children.

While there is not enough space to piece together all of the for and against arguments, it is important to discuss polysemy and popular deconstruction, both inside the format of the podcast as well as the place of a “bad movie” podcast in the broader public narrative. Fiske wrote about polysemic readings of television and popular media in 1986, stating “A more reader-centered critical theory leads us to investigate the extent to which the textual discourses may, or may not, correspond to the discursive practices of the wide variety of audiences that will have viewed the program...” (399) The complication of having a “bad movie” podcast that caters so heavily to its listeners is that every film popular enough to have detractors, even if they are the majority, will still have fans. This is actually accounted for in the show itself, in the Second Opinions segment, where Paul reads five-star reviews of the films after the hosts have finished discussing them. This is largely to further mock the films, but in this case, Second Opinions were well represented on the stage.

Fiske, John. "Television: Polysemy and Popularity." Critical Studies in Media Communication 3.4 (1986): 391-408.


And I'm glad that someone is taking it seriously. It is probably one of the few films that has a very honest (albeit sinister) reading of the "imaginary friend" and really set my understanding of what an imaginary friend meant. I was an only child (with an overbearing single mom...); it was also one of the few popular narratives that feature only children, implying this weird reliance on fake (although he was very real to me and to the main character) support. Now that I have my own child, I am skeptical of the "imaginary friend" trope, and I think much of this is due to the influence of DDF on my nascent psyche.

PS: I also LOVE Fast Five and the entire F&F Franchinse. Bob Thompson and I unpacked it for our first season of Critical and Curious: http://criticalandcurious.com/s1

PPS: Thanks for putting together a great week!!

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