Superman 1.88: Toward a General Theory of the Ding-Dong

Consider Otis: sidekick, lickspittle, punching bag, emotional support animal — and, most importantly, a ding-dong.

The ding-dong is the guy who sets off the alarm during the break-in, the one who forgot he couldn’t swim. When someone asks, “Why are we whispering?”, he’s the guy that says “I thought you knew.” His purpose in life is to stand next to a smarter character, and make them wince.

Strangely, ding-dongs still show up, even with network sitcoms on the decline. You would think that the race would die out; he seems like exactly the kind of thing that natural selection was organized to prevent.

The question of whether Otis is enjoyable or irritating has puzzled Superman scholars for decades, and I don’t expect to untie that knot by myself. All I can do is present my findings, and draw together some threads that may be of assistance to future scholarship.

The first thing that you have to reckon with when assessing Otis is the way that he says “Mister Luthor“, because he says it all the time and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. At my count, he says it 19.5 times during the movie, at an average of 2.8 Luthors per scene. He says the name five times in the ladder scene, but on a per-line basis, the most Luthor-heavy scene is Superman’s entrance into the lair, in which Otis has three lines:

I think he’s coming, Mr. Luthor.

He’s definitely coming, Mr. Luthor.

I don’t think he wants me to, Mr. Luthor.

It’s hard to account for Otis’ difficulty in saying his boss’ name, considering that Lex talks about himself constantly, often in the third person, so Otis hears it a lot, and he’s certainly had enough practice to master the skill.

Interestingly, Lex doesn’t appear to object to this particular foible. In other cases when Otis makes mistakes, Lex responds with insults, violence, sarcasm or at least a sigh, but this particular error happens more often than any other, and Lex doesn’t respond to it. It’s possible that Lex is just gathering steam for a truly epic explosion of temper still to come.

Otis’ primary outlet for ding-dongery is getting instructions wrong, often through an over-eager desire to please.

In one scene, he grabs the ladder out from under Lex and ferries it over to the opposite end of the room, without realizing that he’s left his passenger behind. In a similar moment, he’s so excited about bringing Lex his robe that he puts it on while his boss is still in the pool.

And then there’s the core ding-dong moment of the film, which expresses the paradoxical nature of the species: Otis is bright enough to open the control panel of a nuclear warhead and reprogram the launch codes, but dumb enough to get the numbers wrong, because he wrote them on his arm. Otis gets blamed and punched in the eye for this mixup, although it feels like the situation could have been avoided with a more effective pre-heist checklist.

Another key trait for Otis is that he doesn’t seem to be aware of his own limitations, and tries to imitate the stronger characters in the scene. This is mostly expressed in the way that he looks at Lex, often squinting closely at him as if Otis could understand Lex’s train of thought if he just looks at him harder.

His greatest challenge comes when Lex shouts, “Now, think, people, think! Deductive reasoning, that’s the name of the game.” Otis attempts to snap like Lex does, and then screws up his face in desperate concentration, trying to make deductive reasoning happen in a brain that doesn’t know what deductive means.

There’s also a moment in the map room when Otis looks at Superman’s chest, and tries to make himself look bigger as well, suggesting that he imprints like a baby duck on whoever he’s standing next to. If that’s the case, then getting left behind in Superman II might be the best thing that could happen to Otis, giving him the opportunity to go follow somebody with a better track record.

But the best outcome for a ding-dong, in terms of retaining audience appeal, is for them to turn out to be the wise fool, whose childlike simplicity allows them to cut through complications and come to the correct answer without realizing it. This is regular practice among sitcom ding-dongs — your Andy Dwyers, your Woody Boyds, your Joey Tribbianis — but Otis is denied any moment of transcendence.

That’s a shame, because a good “Otis, that’s it! You’ve done it!” moment can win over the audience like you wouldn’t believe. There’s nothing we like more than a character who can help us over an obstacle that’s getting in the way of the plot. In fact, we’re going to see that principle at work in a couple minutes, when Eve helps Superman out of the pool, moving the story forward and securing her place in our affections.

Ultimately, the best thing that you can say about Otis is that he doesn’t speak with a Valley Girl accent, and there is no point in the film when he says, “Oh, wow, I’m breakdancin’!” No matter what you think of Otis, nephew Lenny is still several films away, and for that, if nothing else, we should be grateful.

Tomorrow:
Eve flirts with microredemption in
1.89: Bad Girl Goes Good

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

30 thoughts on “Superman 1.88: Toward a General Theory of the Ding-Dong

  1. The figure of the Ding-Dong, of course, has its roots in the Fool. Both are there for comic relief, but the Fool speaks truth to power, while the Ding-Dong only serves power. Comedy relies on pain, which we see in the disconnect between the Ding-Dong’s desire to please and their frequent inability to do so.

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  2. Maybe Otis once mispronounced Luthor, and in turn, Lex punished him in a way that left Otis with a tic that forced him to overpronounce it: Luth-OR

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  3. I imagine Ned Beatty and Gene Hackman switching roles. Ned Beatty can (and has) convincingly played evil masterminds. I don’t think Gene Hackman could convincingly play a dimwitted sidekick. Hackman’s natural intelligence would come through.

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    1. Roger Ebert said that one of the hardest things for an actor to play, or an audience to watch, is a character who is dumber than the performer is. The cognitive dissonance rings through no matter how technically skilled the person is.

      Of course, a lot of that depends on the *kind* of fool the character is. I can see Hackman playing, say, the Fool in King Lear, but he’s not a bumbler, not a pratfaller.

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      1. Yes! All the villains on that show had a group of fumblers who had to dress in garish, look-alike costumes that should have aided in their easy capture.

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      2. Funny diversion to Batman’s campiness! Acilius: As evil overlords like to say, there’s no I in TEAM but there is an I in FAIL. The personalized shirts make it easier to see who to throw to the alligators for Disappointing Me This Time.

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  4. The thing about Otis and his ilk, and why they are so deeply familiar, isn’t just that their mannerisms and such are cliched and easily tracked. It’s that they’re a simple exaggeration of our own anxiety.

    Every single person on the planet has felt as sweaty palmed, two left footed, and empty headed as Otis, usually in front of someone we desperately want to impress. Anybody with anxiety disorder, especially, will watch him fighting his own natural impulses and think, yep. That’s me at work, giving that presentation, at the eighth grade dance.

    Some people deal with it by overcompensating like Lex does, some with a combination of physical prowess and intelligence like Tess. Otis, on the other hand, is the rest of us–moist, bouncing, hopeful that this time they’ll do it right and transform themselves.

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  5. Lex keeps Otis around like a dog whose only purpose is to fetch the slippers and get kicked, but where else is he gonna go? Otis can’t help it that he sometimes eats the slippers and gets kicked more than usual. A “good boy” pat on the head from Lex would break the running gag.

    Every powerful character needs weaknesses, so the story doesn’t end with them getting everything they want in Act One.

    Superman’s powers are his powers. His weaknesses are Kryptonite, lead, and excessive helpfulness. The helpfulness makes the other weaknesses become problems.

    Lex’s strength is his brilliance. But he can’t do everything by himself. His weakness is having to do some of the work through henchmen. Well, henchpersons including Miss Techmacher. But anyone really great wouldn’t be an accomplice to Luthor. He has to take what he can get.

    And what Lex can get is a loyal but bumbling buffoon like Otis. The audience is set up to think that if Lex’s plan fails for any reason but Superman, it will be because Otis screws it up. Ding-dongs still exist so that the rest of humanity stands a chance against the likes of Lex.

    It’s a surprise when unexpected kindness from Miss Techmacher is actually the downfall of Lex’s scheme.

    Lex’s other weakness is gloating before an enemy, while a plan isn’t yet finished. Before Superman, I bet Lex never had an enemy who could thwart a scheme. Until then, the gloating happened when Lex’s success was already guaranteed. But then, he’d probably also never seen any human kindness from Miss Techmacher either.

    Photos helped remind me that the Luthor Lair is an impressive set. Was it built at Pinewood?

    P.S. From the title, I thought that this installment was going to be about the history of Superman’s super-shorts, between upper and lower spandex. I was relieved to find out that wasn’t the subject after all. I guess Larry Niven’s infamous essay can wait until we get to Niagara Falls.

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      1. Thank you. As a kid I saw Superman I and II in the theater when they came out. I was really impressed with how they looked like BIG BIG MOVIES, the kind of spectacle you just couldn’t get on the TV at home back then. Krypton’s Glowing Robes, Kansas’s Endless Plains, Metropolis Streets, the Bustling News Room, Lois’s Penthouse, the Fortress of Solitude, Lex’s Lair. In II, The Moon, The Arrival Lake, Metropolis Fight & Flight Club, The White House….They all made a big impression on a little kid!

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    1. I didn’t think Eve was being kind. She was trying to save her mother. Lex’s downfall comes from being a sociopath who didn’t care about anyone but himself. We know his relationship with Dad was bad. I guess his relationship with his mother was too. He can’t imagine that Eve would care whether her mother lives or dies either. He is very wrong.

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      1. You’re right and I’m wrong about her. Not kindness, just being a little less of a sociopath than Lex. If Lex discovered his parents had a picnic at his Ground Zero site, he’d consider it a bonus. Eve isn’t that far gone, to not care if her mother’s blown up as the diversion for a real estate scam.
        I see Danny dives into this on his next installment.
        Happy birthday, Danny!

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  6. Otis was originally an English surname (example, Samuel Otis, the first US Secretary of the Senate) which then became a first name. Through the 19th century, it seems to have been a perfectly respectable if not overly common name. And in modern times, among living people, certainly accomplished and esteemed individuals have been named Otis (Redding, for example).

    But by the 1930s at least, in fiction, it had become a comedy name, typically given to idiots, hicks, and idiot hicks. Grouch’s Otis B. Driftwood in NIGHT OF THE OPERA doesn’t fit those and all Groucho characters have outlandish names anyway, and a suggestion that it’s just an alias (Otises must be born, not made).

    Ned Beatty’s Otis is in the same mold as Otis Campbell of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, minus the heavy drinking. Short, stout, roundfaced and childlike, bungling, inadvertently causes problems, wears a funny hat… Only one of them rode a cow, but it’s perfectly credible for either.

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    1. Also in modern times–and about as far away from Superman’s Otis as you can get–is Rob Zombie’s Otis B. Driftwood of the Firefly trilogy. Coincidentally, the first 2 movies are set in 1977 and 1978, about the same time as Superman.

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      1. Right, but see my NIGHT AT THE OPERA note above (I typoed Groucho as Grouch). In the first movie, it’s just Zombie’s joke that almost everyone has Marxist names (Driftwood, Captain Spalding, Firefly) and then becomes a deliberate motif by the gang, so they’re all aliases/movie in-jokes. So not a natural born Otis.

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  7. I love the Otisburg bit. The reason Lex want Otis to be his sidekick is the same reason that
    Matthew Henson was one of first two people to reach the North Pole. Robert E. Peary had him come along not because he was the best person to help him or a great friend. It was because he was black and since society wouldn’t count him as a person and Peary (who was not a very good person) wanted all the credit for himself. If Luther won with only Otis on his side, it would be very clear all the credit was Luthor’s.

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  8. Otis is the dog, ever eager to please but often stumbling over himself in doing so, and Eve is the cat, wily and fickle, preferring to watch from a distance rather than get involved.

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