COMEDY: Dialogue vs. Delivery
There’s this notorious quote from Mark Twain that goes, “Explaining humour is a lot like dissecting a frog – you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.” I’ve had my fair share of arguments with comedians and writers about what makes something funny or whether or not there is such a thing as “smart” comedy. Right now, though, I’d like to talk about comedy in film and the difference between humorous lines in the script and a funny delivery on screen.
DR. STRANGELOVE by Stanley Kubrick is often considered one of the best comedies of all time. As many of you may already know, it is based off of the novel, Red Alert, by Peter George. If you were to pick up the novel and read it, you may be surprised to discover that the novel is serious and dramatic, though it follows much of the same over-arching plot (save for the absence of the titular Strangelove character). Kubrick read the novel and found it hysterical – the perfect material for a dark comedy. One could argue, which I plan on doing, that the important difference between the two versions of the story that separates them so much is the delivery.
The events that take place in both Red Alert and DR. STRANGELOVE are terrifying and at the same time a little absurd. Kubrick decided to lean on the absurd side and therefore turns the characters in the film into caricatures. Take, for example, this scene from the film:
The dialogue on paper could be read in a number of different ways. Is it eerie, where we as the audience feel like serious discussions like this could be happening in our government? Is it patriotic, with President Muffley confronting the insane doctor with his allegations? On screen, the scene is hilarious. This is partially because of the subtle reactions from the surrounding men as they listen to what the doctor has to say with deeply selfish consideration, but it is mostly due to Peter Seller’s famous portrayal of the Nazi-loyalist Strangelove. His uncontrollable arm, his creepy inflections when talking about sex, and his ridiculous German accent all come together to display this character as mentally unsound and one the audience can laugh at.
While DR. STRANGELOVE’s writing is incredible, it relies much on the fairly exaggerated performances to help the comedy along. On the other side of that is dialogue that itself is hilarious, without needing a strong performance to land correctly. This can somewhat be seen in the deadpan deliveries of Leslie Nielsen in many of his later roles – particularly with AIRPLANE.
However, this is still funniest because of the serious delivery that Nielsen (along with the rest of the cast) gives of the lines. Instead, I’d like to use one of my favorite monologues from a comedy ever. The movie is THE JERK, and the scene is this one:
I’m always amazed at the choice to film this in one take, as I’m sure it wasn’t easy. As much as I love Steve Martin, this scene is wonderful not because of his delivery, but because of the dialogue. It’s a perfect example of dialogue that would be funny no matter who was saying it.
Now, you could argue that comedy does not form separately in this way – that it is a combination of the writing and the delivery. And you would be right! It is about both. It’s important as a writer, a director, and even an editor to recognize what it is about a humorous moment that makes it funny and whether that scene lends itself more to the writing or to the performance. This is where the feeling that some characters just couldn’t be played by anyone else (i.e. Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura, Bill Murray as Peter Venkman, or Eddie Griffin as Undercover Brother), but also that certain writing styles can be counted on to make a film entertaining (i.e. Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, or Judd Apatow).
In the end, comedy is an unruly beast. It is arguably the most subjective genre of film and television and one that is near impossible to fully dissect. After all, you can only learn so much from a frog after it’s dead.