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"I'm baddy bad bad, does it make you horny?": playing evil for laughs

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  • "I'm baddy bad bad, does it make you horny?": playing evil for laughs

    This notion has come up a few times recently, in different threads. While discussing whether Buffy killing Anya in Selfless is fair, we talked about the way that her evilness is often treated as a joke, so the move to a serious treatment (and punishment) might come as a shock. Then, in the "raping the dog" thread (best title ever?), we were discussing Spike's comic violence ("We killed a homeless man on that bench. Good times.").

    What do you make of the mix of comedy and seriousness when it comes to evil in the Buffyverse? When does something stop being funny and start being scary or upsetting? Do you think sometimes evil is played too much for laughs on BtVS? Do you ever find the shifts unsettling (in a good, narratively exciting way) or too abrubt (in a "they misjudged the tone" way)?

    What does the mixture of comedy evil and serious evil do to the character arcs of the evil people?

    I gave a paper on this a few years ago, so I must confess it's a bit of a personal obsession. My thesis was that some of the redemption arcs are not only from evil to good, but also from comic to serious - and in order for a character to achieve redemption, they must first be taken seriously. This is why, for Andrew, redemption is particularly hard.

    Spike is an interesting case, because he started off as a semi-serious villain (switching from comic to serious at various points), then moved into the comedy territory (season 4), but then became more serious (as a semi-good character) in seasons 5 and 6, but then in season 6, this seriousness intersected with his badness, provoking a moment of crisis (the AR) that forced him down the road to redemption (season 7/on Ats).

    The movement between comic and serious is always shifting on BtvS though, cos it's...well, often very funny, so even the most serious characters appear ridiculous at times. But I'm particularly interested in the evil characters, and the way in which their evilness is treated through comedy and seriousness.


    -- Robofrakkinawesome BANNER BY FRANCY --

  • #2
    We should make a careful distinction between humour introduced by an evil character and humour introduced by the writers. The former can coincide with the latter, but it doesn't have to.

    On the one hand, we have a villain who honestly enjoys being and doing evil, so much so that he jokes about it. Depending on whether the jokes are tasteful or tasteless, this can have completely different effects on the audience, from establishing the character as a Magnificent Bastard (the Mayor is a good example for this) to creating a Rape The Dog moment in its own right (see The_Narrator's post).

    On the other hand, we have the writers using violence (mostly; other aspects of evil such as suffering and loss are not impossible but a lot more difficult to make fun of) as comic relief. Unless this is done badly, it always has the same effect in making us like a character who isn't at all likable on an objective level. The Vengeance Demons are probably the best example of this in the Buffyverse, although in the very beginning (pre-Angelus arc) pretty much all of the bad guys were given this treatment in some degree to keep the tone of the series light.

    As has been said, one of the interesting things about the series is that it doesn't hesitate to flip one character from funny to truly evil to tragic, and back again, from one episode to the next, or in some cases even from one scene to the next. The fact that this completely works (in the sense of not being perceived as discontinuity by us) in almost all cases - "Selfless" being the big exception in my book - is a huge credit to the writers. It means that both the characters and the series as a whole are robust enough to not lose any of their identity when being put through such a change.
    the "raping the dog" thread (best title ever?)
    Thanks, darlin', I wish I could take credit.
    Last edited by kassyopeia; 07-08-08, 02:57 PM.

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    • #3
      First post for me here...

      As time goes by it bothers me more that the actions of the main (good) characters are sometimes treated so flippantly. Like in "Doppelgangland" where, amidst all the funniness, we know of at least one innocent character Sandy who got killed and turned into a vampire. Of course it wasn't Willow of the main reality herself who did it but it was indeed her irresponsible action in getting involved with a spell which caused that chain of events. And then in OMWF Xander's irresponsible use of the talisman caused some innocent people to get incinerated, a fact that nobody seemed to regret.

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      • #4
        Evil and absurdity are never far apart, so Chaplin could make a joke out of Hitler in The Great Dictator. This is connected to the discrepancy between pretension and reality which we see when Caleb blows up the Watchers HQ right after Quentin Travers' speech about how they were all "the captains of our souls." I laughed like a drain.

        Incidentally I regret that we can never hope to see Carry On Buffy with Barbara Windsor as the Slayer, Sid James as Spike, and Frankie Howerd as Giles.

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        • #5
          Good topic

          Originally posted by Wolfie Gilmore View Post
          What do you make of the mix of comedy and seriousness when it comes to evil in the Buffyverse? When does something stop being funny and start being scary or upsetting? Do you think sometimes evil is played too much for laughs on BtVS? Do you ever find the shifts unsettling (in a good, narratively exciting way) or too abrubt (in a "they misjudged the tone" way)?
          Sometimes I think the actions of the evil characters, at times, can be played too much for laughs. Not so much because it ruins the show but because I think it creates divides in the fandom as to how we're supposed to view the character's actions and a lot of confusion between fans. Recently over on darkhorse forums I was having a debate with another fan on how serious we were supposed to view some of Spike's actions and it was clear we both took very different things out of the show. This fan believes we were never meant to view Spike as a murderer because a lot of the time they played it for comedy, whereas I believed we were but that the comedy was there so we weren't just repulsed by all our villains.

          What it appears we did in some respects agree on, is that ultimately the comedic aspects of a villain's actions is there so we can endure those characters and so that as an audience we don't just hate them. BtVS is all about the characters and if we are utterly repulsed by each new villain that comes on the show, given how much screen time they often get, we wouldn't enjoy the viewing as much. (In saying that though there's some villains you love to hate, the Joker from 'The Dark Knight' being one of them.)

          What does the mixture of comedy evil and serious evil do to the character arcs of the evil people?
          I don't think it really harms the arcs in anyway. Like the characters, their actions can be presented in different ways throughout the show when they're needed to be, the same way a character can be shown as funny one moment then terribly bad the next. 'Lovers Walk' is a pretty big example of this with Spike threatening to smash a broken bottle through Willow's face which is pretty brutal, then the next moment he's very funny about the homeless man. And if your keeping a character at a distance, they can make humorous jokes with Spike feeling nostalgic about a murder but if Buffy becomes involved with him then it got more serious because she was involved with a guy who could joke about that.

          I think Anya gets off too easily in how she's presented though, whereas both Spike and Angel were held more accountable for their actions. I think it's a little unfair. Anya was basically always played for laughs when she'd done just as many horrible things as Spike and Angel had, albeit far more given how long she was alive for, and she joked about them throughout the series but was supposed to be a 'good guy.' 'Selfless' touched on the gravity of her crimes more, but interestingly displayed it as her moment of remorse for an evil deed, kind of implying before becoming a vengeance demon again she still didn't care as a human about all the things she'd done as Anayanka.

          I'd say on a ranking it'd be;

          Most played for laughs- Anya

          Somewhere in the middle- Spike

          Hardly ever played for laughs- Angel

          Whilst Anya's nearly always played for laughs, and probably escapes a lot of scrutiny from fans, Angel's actions are very rarely, if ever played for laughs probably given the darker tone of Btvs, and thus gets scrutinised far more.

          ~ Banner by Nina ~

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          • #6
            Originally posted by kassyopeia View Post
            We should make a careful distinction between humour introduced by an evil character and humour introduced by the writers. The former can coincide with the latter, but it doesn't have to.
            Ooh, that'll be a tricky one to call. The line between a character making a joke and a joke being made through a character (eg where they're the butt of a joke, though that's probably not the only example ? as in Andrew's "I hate my free will", where is evilness/total lack of moral fibre that leads to mushroom-like absorbance of evil becomes a joke at his expense) is a blurry one, but definitely worth bearing in mind.

            I was just watching Smallville (the shame) last night, and enjoying Lionel a lot, so you bringing up the "magnificent bastard" trope is excellent timing.

            On the one hand, we have a villain who honestly enjoys being and doing evil, so much so that he jokes about it.
            I wonder if there's something in the idea that pleasure often elicits a positive response, even if the pleasure is taken in something bad? And that miserable evil people (eg Warren) are less appealing, not just because they're worse people, but because they're not even really enjoying it, so it all seems futile? Like?happy people jolly us along in their course of action, even if those actions are rotten to the core? As per the Mayor.

            Though I'm sure there are other reasons people don't like Warren other than his lack of joy!



            On the other hand, we have the writers using violence (mostly; other aspects of evil such as suffering and loss are not impossible but a lot more difficult to make fun of) as comic relief.
            This example is, for me, part way between an evil character enjoying his evilness and joking around, and the writers making a joke that Spike isn't entirely in on. In Pangs or possibly Something Blue, he talks about how starving vampires look like famine victims, only not as funny.

            Now, I see this as partly Spike making a joke, but also the writers playing with his lack of moral compass to make a joke about how we view suffering. Spike might find famine victims funny, but the joke is also that we find him finding famine victims funny, funny. He's breaking taboos and it's not that he's mocking suffering per se, but that he's mocking the sanctity and sentimentality surrounding our views of poor ickle children. I wish he'd been there in Gingerbread, actually. I bet he would've sussed out what was going on. Not because he's smart, just because he is very quick to get to the cynical point of view (and point out the bleeding obvious), which was what was needed in Gingerbread.


            The Vengeance Demons are probably the best example of this in the Buffyverse, although in the very beginning (pre-Angelus arc) pretty much all of the bad guys were given this treatment in some degree to keep the tone of the series light.
            I think the funny of the evil characters often comes from the fact that they have a skewed value system?not that they're just evil by their standards, but that they go with the "evil be thou my good" approach, and make doing evil, or vengeance, sort of a positive goal in life. For Anyanka, vengeance is a satisfying career path ? and she thinks it's a good thing, because men deserve to be gutted if they piss off women from her point of view.

            This doesn't apply to all the evil characters, though I think the funniest evil characters tend to be the ones who see themselves as having moral standards of some kind. EG the Mayor being a good family man who wouldn't have sex with Faith. Perhaps that taps into our own sense that the pious people in society, the do-gooders, might be cloaking some deep-down evil underneath that mask?


            -- Robofrakkinawesome BANNER BY FRANCY --

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            • #7
              Originally posted by vampmogs View Post
              I think Anya gets off too easily in how she's presented though, whereas both Spike and Angel were held more accountable for their actions.
              Why "too easily"? Isn't the whole point of this use of humour to allow us to view objectively similar crimes in a completely different light? The Mayor eating Snyder isn't really any more funny than trying to snuff unconscious Buffy in the hospital, but by framing it differently it has a very different impact. Which is a good thing, as it allows the writers to set a scene's atmosphere independent from its content, to some extent.
              Originally posted by Wolfie Gilmore View Post
              Ooh, that’ll be a tricky one to call.
              Yep, that's the point.
              I wonder if there’s something in the idea that pleasure often elicits a positive response, even if the pleasure is taken in something bad? And that miserable evil people (eg Warren) are less appealing, not just because they’re worse people, but because they’re not even really enjoying it, so it all seems futile? Like…happy people jolly us along in their course of action, even if those actions are rotten to the core? As per the Mayor.
              No, I don't think that's it, it really depends on whether we can empathize with what the character is after. The Mayor gets excited by the prospects of playing minigolf and becoming a demi-god. We can relate, even if we might not like minigolf and don't think it's right to eat people. Warren gets excited by the prospects of raping his ex-girlfriend and tearing Xander's face off. We can't relate at all, unless we happen to be a bit deranged ourselves.
              Now, I see this as partly Spike making a joke, but also the writers playing with his lack of moral compass to make a joke about how we view suffering. Spike might find famine victims funny, but the joke is also that we find him finding famine victims funny, funny. He’s breaking taboos and it’s not that he’s mocking suffering per se, but that he’s mocking the sanctity and sentimentality surrounding our views of poor ickle children.
              Yes, nicely put. It's probably got a lot to do with a character's coolness factor how we react to this sort of tasteless humour. If Andrew tried that line, we'd roll our eyes and want to slap him. But since it's Spike, we not only let him get away with it but actually find it refreshing.
              This doesn’t apply to all the evil characters, though I think the funniest evil characters tend to be the ones who see themselves as having moral standards of some kind. EG the Mayor being a good family man who wouldn’t have sex with Faith.
              An inverted value system can be a great source of humour, in the same way that a caricature or an absurd situation is. Though probably only in as far as we can relate at some level, I'm thinking. Anya does vengeance, and we sort of agree with vengeance, even if we know we shouldn't. The absurdity comes from the disproportionate measures she takes, so - funny. Would we still find the St. Petersburg banquet hall scene funny if the corpses were those of children in rags rather than aristocrats in fancy dress? Doubtful.
              Perhaps that taps into our own sense that the pious people in society, the do-gooders, might be cloaking some deep-down evil underneath that mask?
              Whatnow? I don't recall ever having seen this sort of bigotry used humourously, except of course by humiliating the bigots and laughing at them. I think you lost me somewhere there.

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              • #8
                I definitely think Any'a evil is played for laughs, and while necessary within the show, should not have been done to the extent that it has. I mean, she has killed people. Thousands upon thousands, possibly even millions, and she doesn't feel remorse (excluding 'Selfless'). She doesn't get punished in any way. What really gets me, is that throughout it all, she had a soul. As far as I'm aare, becoming a vengeance demon doesn't alter your soul or who you are or anything, it just gives you powers. In my eyes, Anya is pretty much a glorified hitman, and it's played up way too much.

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                • #9
                  We should make a careful distinction between humour introduced by an evil character and humour introduced by the writers. The former can coincide with the latter, but it doesn't have to.
                  Good distinction. I think Spike falls into the latter. Spike is on the whole written to be a comic character, so it's not just his evil moments that are treated as comic, it's all of his moments. (I think his few moments of sincerity are seriously cheese-worthy ... Touched, c'mon! ... the only one I really like is at the end of Damage). For example, Angelus' crimes were always described as being horrific, and are never treated as comic generally, but as soon as Spike describes in one of the flashbacks what Angelus got up to, he turns it into an amusing crime - beating the groom to death with his own arm. Those few times where Spike's crimes are very much 'rape the dog', it's pointed out to the audience with flashing neon signs (e.g. setting Spike up as the Big Bad in early Season 2, the AR).

                  One thing I thought was never truly dealt with was when Wesley stabbed the druggy girl for information about Angelus in Angel S4. Due to the flow of the season, it was never really mentioned again as the Gang were too busy dealing with other things. But really, Wesley stabbed an innocent girl. That's pretty extreme. That's more the opposite end of the scale, where it wasn't downplayed due to comicness, but it was downplayed because other things were going on, a lot of which were on a bigger scale (e.g. Angelus came back, the Beast, Lilah died etc). For similar reasons, I think people forget about a lot of evil things Wesley did in Angel S5, such as stabbing Gunn and shooting Knox during the Illyria crisis.

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                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Retrograde View Post
                    What really gets me, is that throughout it all, she had a soul. As far as I'm aare, becoming a vengeance demon doesn't alter your soul or who you are or anything, it just gives you powers. In my eyes, Anya is pretty much a glorified hitman, and it's played up way too much.
                    I had never thought about it that way before myself either, but, as someone pointed out to me in another thread, it's not that simple. Anya wasn't just a demon, she was also a viking. If history is a judge, it's quite possible to have a soul and not be evil and still kill lots of people. Seeing killing in itself as wrong is a relatively modern achievement. The Mongol hordes butchered entire cities with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. They weren't any more evil, on average, than we are, and yet they probably just regarded this as a hard day's work and slept well at night. Scary, huh?
                    Originally posted by The_Narrator View Post
                    For example, Angelus' crimes were always described as being horrific, and are never treated as comic generally
                    Except nailing puppies to things, which somehow turned into a bit of a running gag. Both the writers and the audience must be a bit sick.
                    But really, Wesley stabbed an innocent girl. That's pretty extreme. [...] For similar reasons, I think people forget about a lot of evil things Wesley did in Angel S5, such as stabbing Gunn and shooting Knox during the Illyria crisis.
                    Wesley is deliberately turned into the closest thing to an anti-hero the Buffyverse has. I think the decision not to dwell too much on his actions is because the writers want him measured with a different moral scale than the others. He's less knight-in-shining-armor and more clint-eastwood-in-a-poncho. It doesn't quite get to the point where he feels out of place in the series, but it's moving in that direction.

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                    • #11
                      I agree about Wesley getting away too easily. But nobody laughs about Wesley's bad deeds, the characters and the viewers are shocked when something happens. Also Wesley is seen as the last man, when nobody stands anymore ... Wesley deals with it. Angel said it himself, Wesley is doing the things that the other characters can't do. Viewers feel for Wesley, know why he did it and know that a Wesley is needed. I think that he is getting away with it, because nobody wants to take his place.

                      Now to the actual topic, funny bad guys;

                      I'm interested in the reactions of the fandom. It's funny how easily people are influenced by the show and how the writers deal with the characters.

                      If you want a likable but serious character with an evil past, he needs to feel guilt. And *tadaa* there is Angel. If Angel would joke about his victims in BtVS season 1, nobody would like him because how can you like a good character who jokes about victims. So Angel is the ex-bad guy who feels guilty.

                      Anya could never be a serious character because they didn't want her to be Angel version 2.0. Instead the writers made Anya so weird and funny that the fandom forgets how wrong Anya is as a person.

                      Spike was evil until season 7, so he could enjoy his evilness without being unlikable. The problems came after het got his soul, the writers had to choose a path for Spike ... would he be an Anya or an Angel? I think that they picked the way in between. And that is only possible because people were used to a more evil Spike. If Spike was introduced with a soul and he would act like he did in LMPTM, less people would accept it I guess.

                      And now the fandom;
                      There is a topic about 'who is the better man?', and Spike is taking the lead by far. Is he really a much better man than Angel? Vampmogs made a comment on how Angel's flaws and faults are highlighted while Spike's flaws are glossed over. People see more faults made by Angel, because Angel is the character with the faults and the guilt. Spike is much lighter, and to keep it that way ... Spike's bad sides are hidden or they joke about it. (*) You see the same with Anya; If you ask who the better person is, Anya or Angel ... and you wouldn't think about it like we do now ... people will probably vote for Anya because her faults are funny and not mentioned while Angel's faults are all over our screens.

                      Angel and Spike are done well, the difference between their views on their past has a lot to do with who they are. You can think about them and their views without calling them characters without a conscience. You can agree with one, or with both. Anya can't be taken serious as a serious character, because if you do ... it's unpleasant. I love Selfless, but if you see what they did with her character before and after the episode, I can't get why they made Selfless.

                      (*) I don't want to dismiss the votes for Spike in that poll, just mention a factor that is probably part of some votes for Spike (if you see the reactions).
                      Last edited by Nina; 10-08-08, 08:50 PM.

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Nina View Post
                        People see more faults made by Angel, because Angel is the character with the faults and the guilt. Spike is much lighter, and to keep it that way ... Spike's bad sides are hidden or they joke about it.
                        For me, the main difference between Angel and Spike is that Angel is quite a nice guy, while Spike, with or without soul, is a bit of a bastard. He has a lot of good qualities, but "nice" is just something that he's not.
                        And, ironically, that is what makes Spike so likeable. The Scoobies are, for the most part, nice to each other and to others, so Angel doesn't really add anything to the mix. Spike, on the other hand, spices things up even when he isn't being evil.

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by kassyopeia View Post
                          Why "too easily"? Isn't the whole point of this use of humour to allow us to view objectively similar crimes in a completely different light? The Mayor eating Snyder isn't really any more funny than trying to snuff unconscious Buffy in the hospital, but by framing it differently it has a very different impact. Which is a good thing, as it allows the writers to set a scene's atmosphere independent from its content, to some extent.
                          What I meant by too easy is that the writers kinda make idiots of themselves sometimes in my opinion. Having all the characters mouth off about their horrible crimes whilst Anya's just standing around in the room, no fingers pointed at her. It seems silly, I think there's a healthy balance and there certainly wasn't one with her character.

                          ~ Banner by Nina ~

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by kassyopeia View Post
                            I had never thought about it that way before myself either, but, as someone pointed out to me in another thread, it's not that simple. Anya wasn't just a demon, she was also a viking. If history is a judge, it's quite possible to have a soul and not be evil and still kill lots of people. Seeing killing in itself as wrong is a relatively modern achievement. The Mongol hordes butchered entire cities with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. They weren't any more evil, on average, than we are, and yet they probably just regarded this as a hard day's work and slept well at night. Scary, huh?
                            I hadn't accounted in terms of history. Good point! Plus there is the added 'job-like' quality that being a vengeance demon is viewed by many to be a way to pay the bills - Halfrek certainly sees it like that.

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                            • #15
                              Originally posted by kassyopeia View Post
                              Yep, that's the point.
                              Meanie!

                              No, I don't think that's it, it really depends on whether we can empathize with what the character is after. The Mayor gets excited by the prospects of playing minigolf and becoming a demi-god.
                              I can't empathise with mini golf! It's worse than eating people! (see end of post...it's EVIL). But it is a human interest, yes... but I think it's the glee he takes in it that makes me warm to it. It's not that I can relate to his interests so much as that his enthusiasm for them is infectious. He even manages to get cynical Faith to crack a smile when he gets all giddy.

                              Warren gets excited by the prospects of raping his ex-girlfriend and tearing Xander's face off. We can't relate at all, unless we happen to be a bit deranged ourselves.
                              But, say...Spike. Spike enjoys violence, and I CAN empathise with that, because of the way he enjoys it, and the way his enjoyment is presented. "It's been so long since I've had a decent spot of violence." - now, I've never had a decent spot of violence (pace an almost-fight with a girl called deborah when I was eleven over a boy called Ben...my fighting career was ruined by a teacher arriving) but the way he put that made me rather want some. I see what you mean about Warren, though...but I'm trying to work out why it's not just about what he wants. I think that perhaps it's difficult to enjoy his evil in the way we might enjoy, say, Angelus's, because it's too real? Perhaps because we can imagine someone we know doing it? The fact that it's human is the problem?

                              But that's not about the funny, agreed.

                              Yes, nicely put. It's probably got a lot to do with a character's coolness factor how we react to this sort of tasteless humour. If Andrew tried that line, we'd roll our eyes and want to slap him. But since it's Spike, we not only let him get away with it but actually find it refreshing.
                              Slapping Andrew must be so much fun. Though, I think Andrew can get away with things in an entirely different way - because he's so oblivious and a bit pathetic. So, it's easier to laugh at him than judge him somehow. I love how pathetic his lies are (pretending he's in love with a vampire girl in Mexico).

                              An inverted value system can be a great source of humour, in the same way that a caricature or an absurd situation is. Though probably only in as far as we can relate at some level, I'm thinking.
                              Yes, perhaps it's as we were discussing in another thread re truly alien characters (that was with you, wasn't it?)... if a character is too far away from human experience, they become incomprehensible, even boring. I guess how far one can relate depends on the person. And how evil you are.


                              Would we still find the St. Petersburg banquet hall scene funny if the corpses were those of children in rags rather than aristocrats in fancy dress? Doubtful.
                              True - as it is, her "justice demon" tag seems more appropriate when it's the obscenely wealthy who are getting slaughtered. But also funnier, given her commie leanings at the time.


                              Whatnow? I don't recall ever having seen this sort of bigotry used humourously, except of course by humiliating the bigots and laughing at them. I think you lost me somewhere there.
                              I meant the Mayor's "two face" nature - he represents the type of the grinning politician who seems to be the nice family guy but actually has young ladyboys chained up in a sex dungeon. Or some similarly un-voter-friendly leisure activity (there was that MP with the rent boy a while back...forget his name...perhaps it doesn't matter, it's just a type. Mark Oten, something like that...anyway).

                              But the Mayor a twist on that concept. He has no sex skeletons, he doesn't sleep with Faith. But on the downside, giant snake.

                              Also, mini golf is evil. We should know this by now. First Ted, then the Mayor...omg! Doesn't Xander suggest mini golf at the end of season 7? He's clearly going to turn evil at some point.


                              -- Robofrakkinawesome BANNER BY FRANCY --

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                              • #16
                                Maybe in some ways Anya's deeds were played or laughs because of what the show was about. Powerful women in an evil environment. Anya was a woman taking vengence on mainly cheating men who'd hurt the woman in question (I know she often twisted the ''wish'' but the man had always done something in advance for her to hear the cry from the woman in question), if she'd been a man taking vengence on women I suspect it wouldn't have been played for laughs as much.

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                                • #17
                                  As far as I know, the woman who made the wish died the most of the time as well. Cordelia in 'The Wish', Dawn would die if they couldn't get out the house, the girl in Selfless was almost killed ... it's not just the boyfriend ... also the person who makes the bad wish. Of course you can say that somebody who does wish something like that, is a bad person as well. But I don't know, a lot of innocent people have died by the hands of a vengence demon, I never thought it was funny, but it was not until I really started thinking about the shows that Anya left my 'favourite characters' list.

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