Bloggin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo

Published on October 3rd, 2011

James gets to the bottom of the infamous Electric Boogaloo joke and what it means about the way we discuss movies.

For those of you who haven’t read my biography, I had a brief stint as a supply teacher.  My last day in this role was spent teaching French, a subject that was never my best as a student. I’d say my French teaching style had a certain…je ne c’est quoi. I don’t mean I had some kind of intangible aptitude for it; I just mean I often felt like saying, “Je ne c’est quoi I’m doing,” while teaching.

Learning a new language is a tricky thing. While English seems pretty logical to those who grew up speaking it, a closer analysis shows that it doesn’t have a lot of rules, and where those rules exist, they are often broken. Even when someone learning English figures out the meaning of individual words, and the proper use of syntax and grammar, there are still obstacles to overcome. Slang and idioms, or turns of phrase, have to be learned piece by piece as the student encounters them. They usually have complicated or convoluted meanings that are hard to figure out on your own. Most frustrating for students is struggling with the meaning of a phrase only to find out that even fluent English speakers don’t fully understand it.

What does the phrase ‘the whole nine yards’ mean? Well, it means to go all the way on something, to give it your all, to not to hold anything back, sure, but what does this have to do with yards, and why nine of them? There are conflicting theories about the origin of the phrase, with some suggesting a belt of ammunition for a certain gun in World War II was 9 yards long, and to go the whole 9 yards on a target was to use an entire belt. Others argue it comes from the world of boating, that a certain sail is 9 yards tall, or that there were 9 shipyards that the phrase comes from.

I try not to use phrases that I don’t understand, just so that I avoid misusing one or being asked to explain it and not being able to. However, I recently learned of one phrase that I use, related to film, that I’ve used more than once and never understood it: Electric Boogaloo. I was watching Mr. Show recently and while talking about a director, the narrator stated he was “the best thing to come out of Hollywood since sliced bread, or its sequel, Sliced Bread II: Electric Boogaloo.” I found myself laughing at the joke and slowly realizing I had heard jokes like this many times and never understood them. The joke from Mr. Show works without ‘Electric Boogaloo’ on the end, but it’s much funnier the other way. So where does this phrase come from, and how did it become such a popular joke?

Short answer: The 1984 movie Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, sometimes known as Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo. It is (unsurprisingly) a sequel, released the same year as its predecessor, which was simply called Breakin’. The plot of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo involves a group of dancers who are trying to stop real estate developers from bulldozing their community rec centre (which for South Park fans, seems to be where they got the plot for the Aspen/Stan Darsh episode). I have not seen either Breakin’ or Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, but I understand they both feature the thespian skills of Ice-T as a character named Rap Talker. (I’m guessing if he reboots this it will be called Are We Broken Yet?) And Breakin’ 2 is a movie aimed at an urban market that received a favourable, three-star review from Roger Ebert, which probably means it totally fucking blows. Both movies from the Breakin’ franchise seem to be somewhat memorable among dance movie fans, but the Electric Boogaloo subtitle has transcended all genres and become a joke in itself.

Similar to my whole nine yards example, this phrase has become divorced from its origin and has a meaning, or at least power, of its own. In fact, the IMDB trivia page for Breakin’ 2 states that, “The phrase ‘Electric Boogaloo’ has passed into common usage as the sub-title for any facetious sequel.” While the Electric Boogaloo is a real dance that appears in the movie, it works well as a joke because it does make the sequel sound facetious, as something so ridiculous sounding has now become part of the canon of the films. The first concern whenever you hear about a sequel is whether they can make it realistic and Electric Boogaloo always sounds like it’s out of left field and goofy. Also, the juxtaposition of how silly the subtitle sounds can be used for great effect with ultra-serious titles and movies like Schindler’s List 2: Electric Boogaloo. Another common use of the joke highlights how unnecessary a sequel is, such as Titanic 2: Electric Boogaloo. The sequel is not regarded as extremely inferior to its predecessor, so it’s not the movie itself that gave the phrase such power. It is simply the way the phrase sounds that makes it perfect for being used this way.

This sort of phrase, which can be applied to many different subjects, has recently been coined as a ‘snowclone.’ The name comes from a similar phrase, “If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.” The speaker is free to add whatever words into this template to make a statement (usually comical) about the subject. Another example would be, “It’s X on Y” as in, when referring to the Jason Statham movie Crank you can describe it like, “It’s the Transporter on Steroids.” In a more cinema-centric way, we speak in phrases like this when we describe movies to people. In this week’s upcoming podcast about Die Hard (!!!) we discuss how that movie gave us a lot of awesome things but the most relevant for this article being the shorthand of a subgenre of action movies. If someone asks us what Speed is about, we could give a brief synopsis and explain the mechanics of the bus bomb and the hostage taker, or we can just say, “It’s Die Hard on a bus.” It’s less descriptive, but it gets to the point quickly and gives you just as much of an idea about whether or not you’d like the movie.

I’ve always been a bit of a nerd for linguistics and I find it interesting when people develop this shorthand. I used variations of the Electric Boogaloo joke many times without understanding the origin of it, and people found those jokes funny, despite the fact they likely didn’t understand it either. This is because, at some point, our desire to make Electric Boogaloo jokes became more important than remembering the movie itself. Its definition as the sequel of Breakin’ faded because who gives a fuck about Breakin’ or Breakin’ 2, and it became more of a placeholder; the title provided a way to talk about movies that was more important than the actual movie.

This way of speaking about movies is not just something English speakers do. There are examples of it in numerous languages, but it does not always come from the same place. During my research I found out that the moviegoers of Brazil have a similar joke about goofy sequels but from a different source. When Rambo: First Blood Part 2 was released there, the title was translated to Rambo 2: A Mission, or in Portuguese Rambo 2 – A Missão. For some reason, viewers there latched onto A Missão the way we have latched onto Electric Boogaloo, and adding that subtitle to movies has become a punchline. While it seems odd to pick that movie of all movies, I’m sure our selection of Electric Boogaloo would be pretty perplexing to them as well. While I tried to suggest some reasons a few paragraphs ago why we chose that one, part of it just comes down to luck and things about our society and language we don’t really control. So next time you’re in the theatre watching something, and you’re slowly discovering that it’s painfully mediocre, you can at least hope that even if it doesn’t change the way we make movies, it might help change the way we talk about them.

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