Although I had heard about Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camps’s stop-motion video, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” over a year ago, it was only after the sequel, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Two,” premiered on YouTube that I finally decided to watch it. Then I watched it again. Then I played it for my kids. Then I sent the video to friends. Then I began to quote it obsessively to myself. Of the two videos, the sequel is the superior text (due to it’s exploration of shell hardship), but both should be watched.
The first thing that grabbed me about this video series is its format. Much like popular single-camera television comedies such as Arrested Development, The Office, Parks & Recreation, and Modern Family, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is filmed as if Marcel is the subject of a documentary. Marcel addresses the camera directly, answering questions and pointing out items that appear in his home, such as a pet made out of lint. And like the subjects of The Office and Parks & Recreation, Marcel’s world is profoundly mundane. Nevertheless, Marcel immediately ingratiates himself with the audience because 1. he is an adorable shell wearing tiny adorable shoes and a single googly-eye and 2. Marcel has a nasaly, childlike (or should I say shell-like?) voice, courtesy of Jenny Slate. The fragility of Marcel’s shell body and single eye, combined with Slate’s spot-on voice work, make Marcel into an ideal subject for the smallness of the new comedy verité” genre. Like Parks & Recreation‘s Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), Marcel is both aware of his inconsequentiality and yet, is still proud of who he is and how he lives his life. He is an eternal optimist.
Most of the humor of the series is based on Marcel’s smallness and the way that smallness impacts his ability to function in a world built for large, resilient humans, not tiny shells. He often asks his off-screen interviewer questions that resemble the kind of jokes one five year old tells to another: “Guess what I use for a beanbag chair? A raisin” and “Guess what I do for adventure? I hang glide on a Dorito.” These jokes, silly as they are, paint a picture of Marcel’s tiny world. Furthermore, Marcel is usually filmed in such a way that we see the world from his small perspective. The camera films him at eye-level when he stands on a laptop or book and sits on the floor when Marcel scurries under the leg of chair to avoid his new puppy. This cinematography gives us a sense of how large the world must look to a small shell like Marcel.
However, Marcel seems gleeful, not discouraged, by the limitations of his smallness. His size forces him to be inventive, to tinker with the objects he finds around him and put them to new uses. For example, my favorite bit in the entire series revolves around Marcel’s primary mode of transportation — a bug:
“If you do drive a bug you have to be pretty easy-going because you’re only going to get to go where the bug wants to go. One week there was a maple sugar syrup spill in the kitchen and every time I would ride the bug, no matter where I wanted to go, I would just end up back in the kitchen.”
This anecdote reminds me of a Shel Silverstein poem I read often as a child:
One Inch Tall
If you were only one inch tall, you’d ride a worm to school.
The teardrop of a crying ant would be your swimming pool.
A crumb of cake would be a feast
And last you seven days at least,
A flea would be a frightening beast
If you were one inch tall.
If you were only one inch tall, you’d walk beneath the door,
And it would take about a month to get down to the store.
A bit of fluff would be your bed,
You’d swing upon a spider’s thread,
And wear a thimble on your head
If you were one inch tall.
You’d surf across the kitchen sink upon a stick of gum.
You couldn’t hug your mama, you’d just have to hug her thumb.
You’d run from people’s feet in fright,
To move a pen would take all night,
(This poem took fourteen years to write–
‘Cause I’m just one inch tall).
As I child I loved Shel Silverstein’s poetry because he managed to capture, in equal parts, the profound joy and the profound terror of being child. Silverstein understood that the child’s imagination is a gift and a burden. Imagination allows children to transport themselves to places that are exciting and wonderful and yet, because of the boundlessness of the imagination, these places can easily become scary. Sure, if you were one inch tall you could surf on a stick of chewing gum. But you would also find full-sized feet terrifying. As a child I always despaired over the line “You couldn’t hug your mama, you’d just have to hug her thumb.” One wonders if Marcel possesses the ability to hug: he has no arms and he’s a shell.
Marcel offers the same mixture of joy, terror, and sadness as any good Silverstein poem. For example, after the aforementioned bug anecdote, Marcel concludes “Really, what you just have to want to do is take a ride.” Here Marcel takes a situation that should be infuriating — a mode of locomotion that cannot be controlled — and makes it into something liberating. Riding a bug is about a willingness to have an adventure — not about reaching a predetermined destination. Likewise, Part Two concludes with the following exchange:
“Guess why I smile a lot?”
“Uh, ’cause it’s worth it.”
This statement would sound hokey in a different context (though I think Leslie Knope could also pull it off). But it is preceded by a shot of Marcel standing on a white countertop, looking offscreen towards a window, as chimes tinkle softly. He takes a deep breath and sighs, then turns to face the camera with this insight. Afterwards, he turns back to face the window, enjoying existence, mundane as it is.
Of course, life for a small shell isn’t all fun and games — it is also plagued with hazards. In Part One Marcel explains how he longs for a dog. In Part Two he gets his wish, though clearly even a small dog is too much for Marcel. In one scene Marcel runs off camera, screaming, after the dog jumps us to bark at the door. And in Part Two, Marcel explains that he once had a sister named Marissa. “What happened to her?” the interviewer asks. “Someone asked her to hold a balloon.” Marcel doesn’t elaborate on what happened after his sister took the balloon. Instead the camera cuts to a new scene in which Marcel discusses his dog’s proclivities (“Look at him: treats and snoozin’, snoozin’ and treats. That’s it”). The subject of Marissa comes up again later in the video, thus making it clear that her loss was not trivial: “It was pretty hard at the time but now I just think ‘Ohhh, you know, she’s travelling.'” Marcel is still mourning the loss of his sister. But he also understands that life is filled with difficulties and tragedies, especially when one is a shell, so it’s best to focus on the small things that bring us happiness. Like wearing lentil hats and having friends over for salad.
Life is hard for a shell. It’s easy to get carried away by a helium balloon, trampled by your own pet dog, or worst of all, ignored. But Marcel enjoys living his life — sleeping “eight to the muffin” in a fancy hotel and reading receipts for pleasure — despite it’s obvious complications. After I showed this video to my daughter this morning I asked her:
“Did you like it?”
“Was it funny?”
“Yes. But it was also sad.”
“Why was it sad?”
“It just was. But it was funny.”
I think this is why I am so captivated by “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” It’s difficult to make humor sad and sadness humorous. But Marcel walks that line perfectly. While wearing perfectly tiny pink shoes.
“Andy, Cornell called, they think you suck.”
-Michael Scott (Steve Carrell)
I am an alumna of Cornell, class of 1999. I regard those four years of college as some of the greatest in my life. I received a top-notch education, met an array of smart, interesting, and hilarious people, and drank a lot of alcohol. I also met my husband at Cornell and so the two of us often wax poetic about our times there: about getting beers at Ruloff’s, hiking through the gorges (“Ithaca is gorges!”), and heading to the Commons for a great meal. Our daughter has been informed that she, too, will attend Cornell (a move ensuring that she most certainly will not attend Cornell), and we have been dressing the baby in Cornell gear in the hopes that he will get Big Red fever by osmosis. In short, we love Cornell.
So of course we were both delighted when one of our favorite comedies, The Office, gave Cornell a big shout out in the Season 3 premiere “Gay Witch Hunt.” It is in this episode that we first meet Andy Bernard (Ed Helms), Jim’s (Jon Krasinski) new co-worker at the Stamford, CT branch of Dunder Mifflin. During one of the show’s signature “talking head” interviews Andy tells us “I went to Cornell, ever heard of it?” This reference is used to provide the viewer with key information about this addition to The Office’s cast: Andy is threatened by his new co-worker, Jim, and believes that mentioning his prestigious alma mater will make him appear more impressive to the show’s fictional documentary crew. It doesn’t. Nevertheless, I gushed to my husband: “I can’t believe they’re talking about Cornell!”
Over time, however, my enthusiasm for The Office‘s Cornell obsession began to wane. You see, Andy, like Michael, is both incredibly insecure and yet has an inflated sense of self. He is a fool. A boob. The running joke about Andy’s Cornell name-checking is that it reveals his need to brag while at the same time demonstrating that he doesn’t have much to brag about at all. He thinks his Cornell degree is impressive but no one else does.
The series’ most extended Cornell reference occurs in “Employee Transfer,” when Dwight (Rainn Wilson) decks himself out in Cornell gear and proclaims that he will be applying to Cornell, all as a way to get under Andy’s skin. Andy decides to interview Dwight as part of the application process and the scene culminates with Dwight deciding to apply to Dartmouth instead since it is a “vastly superior school.” Indeed, Dartmouth is frequently ranked higher than Cornell, a fact which rankles many a Cornell undergrad. Things are starting to get personal, people.
All of this joking at Cornell’s expense got me wondering: did someone on The Office‘s writing staff know a Cornell graduate who was a total douchebag? Or was one of the show’s writers rejected from Cornell? [Note: a reader just informed me that the character of Andy Bernard is a tribute to former NBC president Kevin Reilly, class of 1984]. Or, is it possible that a Cornell degree has come to be a signifier for a particular kind of character? For example, the holy trinity of Harvard, Princeton and Yale are referenced when we are supposed to see a character as being particularly smart. MIT is used if that person is a science or math geek. If you’re smart but also a free-thinker? Then you went to Brown. And if your character loves to party? Then it’s Arizona State, Ole Miss, or any school with a good football team.
So does The Office have a bone to pick with Cornell? Or are they simply playing off of well-known Cornell stereotypes? Is Cornell synonymous with self-important fools who are not nearly as smart as they think they are? Let’s take a look at some of the other famous, fictional, Big Red alums:
1. The Simpson‘s Sideshow Mel
Mel first appears in the episode “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge ” as a replacement for the murderous Sideshow Bob. At some point it is revealed that Sideshow Mel is a graduate of Cornell University. Sure, he wears a bone in his hair and communicates via a slide whistle, but offstage he speaks in a lovely British accent (which means he’s smart, y’all!) and once played the role of Biff in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. He is also lactose-intolerant. Advantage: Cornell.
2. Up in the Air‘s Natalie Keener
One of the first things we learn about young, ambitious Natalie (Anna Kendrick), is that she is a recent graduate of Cornell University. By citing Cornell, the movie is not necessarily highlighting Natalie’s intellectual pedigree; that is what references to Harvard, Yale and Princeton are for. Instead, Cornell is meant to show us that Natalie is a hard worker, a striver, even. She is like a yappy dog that won’t shut up until you crouch down and pet it. Luckily, Natalie becomes more likable as the film progresses and we learn more about her life. In a way, Natalie needs to get past her life at Cornell (and the rigid blueprint she had for her life) in order to embrace what she wants. Advantage: Haters.
3. Ugly Betty’s Nick Pepper
I do not watch Ugly Betty. Or rather, I should say that I watched it once, thought it was awful, and have never attempted to watch it again. But from what I have read, the character of Nick Pepper (Max Greenfield) is a Cornell alum. And from what I have read about him, he is quite similar to The Office‘s Andy: he has an inflated sense of self, annoys his co-workers, and dresses in what he believes to be the trendiest of clothes. Normally, I would give this point to the Haters, but given that Ugly Betty is a terrible show, I am going to go ahead and call it a Draw.
4. Made of Honor‘s Tom Bailey
I don’t even need to describe this character, played by Patrick Dempsey, or his relationship with Cornell. The movie is called Made of Honor. Get it? Nope, I don’t either. Why substitute “Made” for “Maid”? Poor use of puns means Advantage: Haters.
5. American Pie‘s Vicky
Vicky (Tara Reid), one of the horny teenagers in this classic teen sex comedy, is headed to Cornell after graduation. Vicky is actually pretty likable: not too uptight, not too arrogant. Yes, she’s played by Tara Reid, but it’s pre-Taradise Tara Reid, so it’s Advantage: Cornell.
In conclusion, it’s difficult to determine exactly what Cornell’s screen image is. Certainly the Cornell screen image is not as solidified as Harvard’s or Penn State’s screen image. So for now, I’ll take the Andy Bernards and the Sideshow Mels as evidence that Cornell has some significance in popular culture. And that’s all we self-important, type A Cornell grads want in the end — a little recognition.
Cornell grads: can you think of any other prominent fictional Cornell alumni? If so, discuss below. And, of course, Go Big Red!