Not All Movies Should Have Jokes, But All Movies Should Have a Sense of Humor

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There is a moment in Fargo (I’ll never stop talking about Fargo) that makes me die with laughter every single time I watch it. The movie is packed with black comedy and irony and brilliant deadpans (the license plate joke, holy shit) and some basic but perfect physical gags (Jean Lundegaard bursting out of the shower draped in its curtain like a kid in a homemade ghost costume), but I ain’t talking abaout all that stuff. I’m talking about the stills above. This moment seems to be more of an editorial in-joke than an actual written joke, but of course you never can tell with the Coen brothers. After Jean’s dad and Stan Grossman and Jerry discuss the plot’s central ransom over breakfast, Jerry is at the counter. The beaming cashier asks how Jerry’s meal was. After he answers rather shortly, he comes back with an affable “How you doin’” and when it cuts back to her, we see her cock her head to the side before it cuts again. All she does is cock her head to the side. No response, no change in expression, just a slight pitch. It’s hilarious. It’s insanely funny.

The Coen brothers stuff their movies full with this sort of thing. Their movies have jokes, and the jokes are funny, but even if you took the jokes out, their movies would still be funny. I think all movies should be funny. Not all movies should be comedies, but all movies should make you laugh now and then, or at least smile. Yes, even Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan should make you laugh and smile—and both do, because Spielberg gets it. Even the most ‘important’ and didactic and pedantic of movies should make you laugh and smile. Why exactly they should, I will leave for later. First I want to explain how they can. I call it Structural Humor, and only because I want to sound academic and haughty for once.

Structural Humor is, according to the definition I just made up right now, anything in a movie that makes you laugh that isn’t a Joke or in the service of a Joke.

Jokes in movies are a definite thing. And they aren’t easy to make successful. A lot goes into a good joke, from blocking to lighting to timing of cuts to perfectly-controlled facial expressions to choreography to etcetera. When a movie tells a Joke, you know it. But Structural Humor is easily overlooked. You could call it tacit humor, unspoken humor, whatever, but I like Structural Humor because I’m really talking about humor that is built into the very fabric of the movie itself. It doesn’t announce itself in the same way Jokes do, and it isn’t necessarily made to elicit the same sorts of responses. In fact, a lot of structural jokes are, I imagine, in-jokes by those behind the scenes. In the Fargo example, I picture the Coens and producers and Roderick Jaynes (who is, himself, an in-joke) sitting in the editing room, chuckling themselves to death as they slip in their sly little gags. I know this happens because I have edited many (terrible) things myself, and few things are as satisfying as amusing yourself by sneaking things in that you’re sure only a handful of people will ever notice. In fact, that practice has defined my own sense of humor.

I like Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 a lot. Yes, the first two are ‘real’ movies, are ‘better’ movies, but I laughed out loud in the theater watching Spider-Man 3 more than almost any other movie I’ve seen in a theater. And Raimi wanted me to. After Spidey’s chase scene with the Sandman, he swings up to sit on a skyscraper and empty the sand from his boots and such. He makes some quip like “What’s his deal?” and following that there is a jump cut shot of him spitting sand out of his mouth that cuts away again almost instantaneously. It’s hilarious. It’s like something outta Looney Tunes or whatever. Yes, the movie’s a total mess, it’s basically Raimi throwing his hands in the air and not giving a fuck, which is why he got away with it.

You might be thinking, given that example, that the reason I’m laughing is because it’s actually really bad. And yes, I would say ‘unintentional humor’, which gives rise to the wonderful ‘so bad it’s good’ phenomenon (which includes gems such as Andrew Nichol’s tragicomically bewildering In Time to classics like Troll 2 and The Room and Fight Club) is also Structural Humor. Movies that are structurally incompetent end up being funny. But I’m not laughing at intentional Structural Humor, but absolutely very much with it, and with the filmmakers. Because most of the time, you have to have faith that filmmakers are aware of what’s happening on the screen. And even if you don’t, you must understand that nothing gets by the editor(s). Nothing. If something about a cut’s timing or a pregnant pause makes you raise an eyebrow, the editor gets it. He/she knows. He/she meant for it to. Editors are the ultimate cinematic gatekeepers; the eyes in the sky. Even less experienced editors are nearly omniscient about how their movies move and flow and behave. In a competently made movie, nothing you see on the screen (or hear or whatever) is truly accidental or ‘out of place’. With the Coen brothers and Sam Raimi, this should be obvious, since they’re known experts in film language and comedy and such. I don’t mean that literally every single thing making up a misé-en-scene is ‘meaningful’ or symbolic or any bullshit like that—but somebody heavily-involved with crafting the movie knows it’s there.

But if it’s intentional, then, why do they do it? Well, I’m glad I asked. It’s all about tone. (Yes, I’m beating a dead Smug Film horse here, but tone is everything, and it’s also very elusive and hard to define, so the more we talk about it the better.)  As has been reiterated many times on this site (as in my Compliance and Life of Pi reviews) there are movies that can be taken seriously, and then there are movies that take themselves seriously. When a filmmaker sneaks in Structural Humor, they are throwing a little wink to the more attentive audience members that says “Hey, we aren’t taking this whole thing too seriously, so neither should you. You can relax.” At that moment, you can sit back and let come what may, knowing at the very least that the filmmakers are being up front about where they sit in relation to the audience. It reveals a lack of pretension. No movie is so deserving of your undivided intellectual commitment that it should get away with suffocating gravitas. Art is absurd, this is known (It is known, Khaleesi) and the most truth a movie can reveal is about movies themselves. So fuck off with your ‘lessons’, Compliance’s and Life of Pi’s of the world.

Yes, you can know within the first few scenes/minutes/shots/frames what a movie has in store for you. There are different tests you can perform when you press play to ascertain this, such as Greg’s 50/50 rule and Cody’s 15 Minute Rule. For me, it’s Structural Humor: are the filmmakers mindful enough to send me understated clues early on that let me know that they get it. I can’t tell where the plot will take me, or what some character might end up doing, but I can tell whether the movie itself has a sense of humor about itself or not—even without knowing whether or not it will have any Jokes. Raimi and the Coens get it. David Lynch also gets it. There is a bloated, overlong shot near the beginning of Wild At Heart, in which Lula’s wicked witch of a mother downs a martini (or something in a martini glass) in one overblown dramatic gulp after hanging up on Lula’s just-out-of-prison boyfriend Sailor. It’s an odd little moment; it makes me chuckle. And it loosens me up and puts me in the mood to endure a Lynchian road trip. Structural Humor is a way to subtly lighten the mood, using the tricks of the trade of film, rather than overt comedy.

My examples so far just include editing tricks, but Structural Humor goes way beyond that, practically into the cinematic aether itself, where the myriad filmic elements nebulously coalesce and idiosyncratic tonal effects emerge. Twin Peaks‘ obsession with coffee and pie is Structural Humor, and may be my favorite example of it. (In fact all David Lynch stuff has it, which is why his weirdness is so bearable. Even Inland Empire, that wreathing nightmare slog, is chock full of little hilarious Lynchian winks. Lynch is the least serious serious filmmaker in Hollywood.) In Ki-duk Kim’s ethereal Buddhist masterpiece Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, two cops go from watching a murderer on the lamb scratching repentant messages into some floorboards with a knife, their guns drawn, to being on their knees helping him paint in the engravings, all within a few quick shots. It’s not hilarious, but it almost makes you laugh with its absurdity and good nature, and it’s accomplished with a jump cut. Ki-duk’s movies tackle issues ranging from realms of the spirit to Capitalism to identity—better than any American or European contemporary I can think of—and they are funny. They don’t have Jokes, but they are funny, and they are better and more interesting and more effective because they are funny.

Not all movies need Structural Humor to be successful. P.T. Anderson and Kubrick construct their tones with such nano-scale precision that I guess there isn’t much room to goof around (unless I’m missing something in their movies that’s even more subtle). But I hazard to say no movie would be worse without it. It can’t save a shitty movie, but it can make otherwise middling movies rather enjoyable. For instance, nobody understands why I like Premium Rush, but it’s precisely because it screams nonpretention, and accomplishes such because it bleeds Structural Humor out of every orifice and pore. In its case, much of it comes from light-hearted nuances in the performances and some good-humored editing. The Lords of Salem is a very similar case.

And further, going in the face of all the sullen pretentious didactic propagandic shit out there, I would argue that movies About Things You Should Take Seriously (read that with a rumpled brow and a pouty frown for full effect) need Structural Humor even more. Nobody likes a humorless protagonist. It’s hard to be sympathetic with their personality and their motivations if they take everything seriously and somberly all the time. It’s easier to sense what makes them tick if they act like a human being, and every actual human being has a sense of humor—yes, even in the direst and bleakest of situations, since humor is, after all, a coping mechanism (a theme explored beautifully and humorously in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful). If the protagonist is selling a message, it’s important that they don’t act like a robot.

Analogously, a movie that Has Something To Say hurts itself (and by extension, its message) by insisting on a mechanical, stilted, self-serious tone. Humor helps the medicine go down. We let our mental guard down if we’re enjoying ourselves, and we are more likely to accept an intellectual message if we are emotionally compromised. And nothing compromises your state of mind like a good laugh. Structural Humor is thusly important because some movies can’t lighten the mood with Jokes. And even if you don’t notice a structural gag, your brain will (to borrow a phrase from the wonderful Mike Stoklasa), and your brain understands tone better than you do. It would not be tasteful or thematically coherent for United 93 to throw in a dick joke or a banana peel slip to lube up our temperament. But it would help if the movie didn’t feel so fucking inhuman. It pummels you with desaturated shakycam and provides no narrative anchor or any differentiable characters, so while you might be exhausted at the end, you certainly won’t recommend the movie to anyone. It’s about as unlikeable as movies come. It takes itself too seriously. It has no sense of humor. And again, if you think some subjects ‘shouldn’t’ be approached with humor, watch Life is Beautiful, or listen to Louis CK defend ‘offensive’ humor (he’ll give the same reasons).

Herein lies the magic of my favorite genre, the horror-comedy. Horror movies that lack humor lack humanity, which renders their shocks flaccid. The shock treadmill the horror industry is currently on necessitates ever increasing dependence on the visceral impact of kills, so we’ve gone from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the Saw movies to Hostel and beyond. Most straight horror genre exercises are mind-bendingly tedious, because they don’t understand how to relate their scares to the audience. The best horror-comedies do understand. It’s all about a built-in sense of humor that entertains you while simultaneously keeping you off your guard—not to scare you, but to surprise you. Kills in horror-comedies are orders of magnitude more fun than kills in horror movies that play it straight. This is why the best horror-comedies accomplish perfect tone better than 99.9% of all other movies: The ‘Burbs, Tremors (Hi, Greg!), Night of the Comet, Stir of Echoes, Fright Night (1985), Shaun of the Dead, From Dusk Till Dawn, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, The Evil Dead (1981), Slither, and the crown jewel of them all, one of the most tonally exquisite movies ever crafted, An American Werewolf in London. These movies are perfect entertainment because they get it.

The worst tonal offenders of all are comedies that lack a sense of humor. The Hangover is the worst of all. It is a movie full of puerile, witless, grating Jokes, but is also blunderingly oblivious to its own rigidity and blandness (also see Greg’s brilliant piece on Jokes). Pacific Rim could have been saved if it had a sense of humor, but del Toro approaches it like an adult playing with toys for the benefit of children, when he should have approached it like an actual child. The movie has Jokes (plenty of lame Jokes) but it has no Structural Humor, so it just lumbers along with dull characters and a dull story, without offering the little things that truly matter. The devil is in the details. The Dark Knight trilogy has no sense of humor. The Iron Man trilogy does. Oblivion has no sense of humor. Moon does. Source Code does not. Airplane does. Get Him To The Greek doesn’t. See a pattern yet? People don’t understand why I cannot stand Breaking Bad. Well, now ya do.

15 thoughts on “Not All Movies Should Have Jokes, But All Movies Should Have a Sense of Humor”

  1. Hey Alex, I feel bad saying this is my favorite thing on our site because it is so aligned with what I believe. My point being that I don’t want to just be a champion of my own ideas and I love many of the pieces that I don’t agree with at all.

    However, I had no idea our intrinsic ideas about movies and how they work were so aligned. I’m almost in shock because you even use many examples I would use, namely The burbs and The Hangover.

    I always say this, there is literally only one movie ever made that I truly love and would easily make my top 50 that doesn’t make me laugh. It’s Wall Street. It’s a drama through and through but I think it’s the lack of attempts at any jokes that make it work. It just does a good enough job telling the story on its own.

    I also agree with you (and I say this constantly!) that many movies would be saved or improved with a sense of humor makeover. Especially the ever forgettable Dark Night series.

    Movies need a sense of humor to sully the insane suspension of disbelief required to even watch them in the first place. And I was delighted to hear you reference Lynch as a guy that gets this. I’ve been trying to understand why I like him for a while despite his intense abstraction (I wasn’t like screaming into an abyss whyyy whyyy) but your essay helped put it in perspective.

    I can’t tell you how glad I am that you note that most comedies have no sense of humor…

    fuck, I could go on forever. I love this fucking thing.

    1. Thanks, bro! I sorta think of it as my big personal thesis statement.

      Interestingly there are so many movies I love that don’t necessarily fit this model at all, kinda like ur Wall Street (which I still ain’t seen). Kes tears me to pieces every time, but it’s only “lighthearted” once or twice and is mostly horribly sad and “flat” and it’s all done in a documentary-esque way that’s really really impersonal.

      And yeah Lynch is kinda the fulcrum to this whole thing for me. I watched Inland Empire with my 15 year old brother earlier this year, and he was laughing as often as me. If there are people who watch Lynch and don’t laugh, I feel sorry for ’em. But then his funny little touches are probably more universal than I imagine.

  2. I loved this article too!

    However, I’ve always found Kubrick to have a great sense of humor in his movies… Clockwork Orange I would say is a fantastic example. The crazy set designs, the use of close up expressions, weird intonations, characters’ movements… that like five second scene where they march Alex into the Ludovico Center, or the scene in the end where he’s chewing obnoxiously always make me laugh out loud. Absolutely creepy and still chilling movie, but I always find myself laughing.

    And then 2001 has Howard Johnson’s Earthlight Room at the Hilton Spacestation….

    1. Thanks Jenna!

      I probably am just not paying enough attention with Kubrick. I love him but my eyes kinda glaze over in most his movies so I miss a lot. Though yes A Clockwork Orange is rather funny, mostly just cuz McDowell is a boss in it.

    2. Spot on, Jenna! I literally came to comment on how Alex’s ludicrous chewing at the end is one of my favorite bits in all of film, but you beat me to it! (My friends and I used to always pull that at dinner and drive our folks nuts.) And I can’t remember anything about it in the book. Also everything Peter Sellers does in Dr. Strangelove, especially when he’s not saying a word.

      Really great article.

  3. Perfect call on Lynch. Eraserhead is such a disturbing film that people often forget that it’s got a lot of really funny moments in it. Like when Henry meets his girlfriend’s dad. All of Lynch’s work is chock full of this. I don’t even know why you singled on Wild at Heart because it’s not about the subtle humor, it’s full-out comedy.

    1. Haha yeah it’s the least useful example, really, but I only did that because I happened to watch it this week and it was fresh in my head

  4. Thinking more about it, this is why I really don’t like Man of Steel but liked Getaway (the new one with Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez) quite a bit. Man of Steel’s hour long fight scene is terrible and just leaves you feeling like you’ve been beaten with a 2×4 for the past 2 and a half hours, because everything is too serious. But Getaway, despite being 90% car chase, is pretty fun because it’s rolls with it’s concept and has fun with it. Man of Steel (and most Snyder films in general) seems to hate fun and thinks that action in itself is entertaining.

    I disagree on the Dark Knight trilogy being humorless or too self-serious though. I feel like those movies are about how bad of an idea Batman is (and how much of a fascist he is). His whole schtick is that he wants to be a symbol for Gotham but it never works out that way. By trying to be Mr. Vigilante he just makes everything worse. The villains in every movie (especially Bane) are hysterical counterbalances to the self-serious Bruce Wayne.

    But I digress. Thinking about it, there’s not a lot of movies I’d call my favorite that are entirely humorless. I love Werner Herzog but his films are almost always filled with hilarious moments. Taxi Driver is a damn funny film. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey has moments like the toilet sign.

    The only movie I can think of that I love that lacks humor is The Passion of Joan of Arc. But there’s an honesty in it and power and beauty to it’s images that floors me when I watch it.

    1. As far as the Dark Knight trilogy, Batman Begins is probably the least funny, and most boring. The Dark Knight has Ledger, whose performance is rather one-note but I gotta admit both enthralling and funny. But he’s the only time I ever laughed in those movies, and that ain’t quite enough. Otherwise they are heaavvvvvvvy. Bane may be unintentionally funny? Or intentional. Either way I enjoyed his voice as well. He and the Jokes are the only things going for those movies at all, for me.

      I should note I don’t particularly care for the Iron Man movies either (except 2, I kinda like the laid back pacing and the middle section where Stark just mopes around), but they’re movies that realize their own stupidity and they milk it.

        1. Tom Hardy was totally delivering a comedic performance. There are so many little moments, like that head nod he gives the stock broker during the attack on the stock market. Don’t get the impression that I’m in love with these films either, they’re alright but they’re heavily flawed. Still, I wouldn’t say they’re humorless, especially not Rises.

          And I think Iron Man 3 is the best Iron Man because it makes me laugh the most. You’re right though, those movies are the best when Stark is just kind of laying low, which is why the best parts of IM3 are when he’s in the small town hanging out with the boy.

    2. One caveat (or two): while Christopher Nolan may not have any structural humor in him, Michael Caine sure as hell does. His Alfred kicks ass. I thought Ledger had a lot of that going to, though I am well aware I’m a sheep amidst the wolves here.

      Sorry, just watched Devil’s Advocate.

      1. You’re right, I think certain actors can bring a sort of structural humor to a film, even if it’s not there in the script, just through their delivery. Christopher Walken definitely brings that to certain roles.

  5. I love this article. It articulates a neat thing really well that I happen to agree with, although I think there’s a time and a place for it (Breaking Bad has it in the right places, in my opinion)

  6. One more thing: I saw Ethan Coen’s off-broadway play Happy Hour, and it was chock full of this shit. Even his poetry has sorta shadow jokes between the jokes. The dude is made of “structural humor.”

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