A reversal of expectations makes visual comedy work.
You expect the pilot near the beginning of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove to read a manual. Instead, when the camera pans down from his face, we see he’s reading a Playboy.
In Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers portrays three of the principal characters. In each of his three roles, he either downplays the character’s tics, or exaggerates them, forcing his character’s actions to transition from plausibility into absurdity. Men fidget in their seats. They pretend to walk one way, and instead hurry in another. A trapdoor hits a man on his head as he disappears into a plane’s hull. Fools work well for physical and visual comedy, but these are military men; these are political figures. They aren’t fools, right? Kubrick thinks otherwise. The actors portraying these men think otherwise. We, as the audience, think otherwise.
When the credits rolled on Dr. Strangelove, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, the movie’s dated. It’s black and white, it stars Peter Sellers (at the top of his game), and it satirizes the Cold War, yet many of its jokes, most obviously thePlayboy reveal, seem straight out of a Will Ferrell movie, right down to the crazy facial expressions, background gags, and the way the characters carry themselves, much of which stems from the actors playing the characters as seriously as possible. The characters in the film don’t think they look ridiculous. This helps the comedy.
It’s also what helped remind me of Anchorman. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell satirized the 1970s’ news teams and workplaces by mixing absurdity and (near) fact, just like Kubrick and Sellers. All that’s left to make a visual satire successful is the audience.
It doesn’t take much for us as the audience to understand a visual joke as long as there’s context. Both movies I mentioned provide this in their titles. All we know is the films are comedies, and that one is about the nuclear power and Cold War relations, and the other is about old-fashioned news anchors. These movies are exactly 40 years apart and yet they employ the same kinds of jokes.
I wonder why nothing’s changed. Jokes driven by dialogue have changed. Pace has quickened. There’s arguably cleverer wordplay. I think it’s because visuals don’t have syntax. They are what they are. Reversals of expectations are simple. We understand a person’s job, and what that job entails, so when they do something that’s incongruous with their job, it’s funny.
I certainly don’t think Dr. Strangelove perfected visual comedy, although I’m sure some would argue it did. I also don’t think Anchorman perfected it. Perfection is unattainable, especially for something as subjective as comedy, but there are general parameters, and these creators play around them.
This is just a simple, short case study, a topic on which I wanted to comment.
On the one hand, I don’t believe visual comedy has evolved. On the other, I wonder why it should.
This article was written by Alex Southey, a writer for dusk magazine.