Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What we can learn from DR. STRANGELOVE

I screened DR. STRANGELOVE for my USC comedy class recently. It’s maybe the greatest black comedy ever. If you haven’t seen it, treat yourself. If you have seen it, treat yourself again.

The movie also serves as a great lesson in comedy.  

Things are funnier if you play them straight.

What do I mean by that?

Nobody in this film knew they were in a comedy. The subject matter was somewhat dramatic – the possible destruction of the entire planet, and yet you laughed at how absurd they acted. But they didn’t know they were acting absurd. They were dead serious in everything they said and did. When Peter Sellers as the president of the United States breaks up a tussle between a Russian ambassador and American general and says, “You can't fight in here.  This is the War Room!” there’s no trace of irony in his delivery. Were there, the joke wouldn’t have been funny.

Too often feature comedies and sitcoms these days are very self-conscious. Characters are trying to be funny or are aware they’re being funny. Lines are delivered with irony; with a wink to the audience that they know they’re spoofing pop culture or the form or themselves. “Yeah, I know I’m in a stupid sitcom and you know I’m in a stupid sitcom, but let’s just goof on it and share the laugh together.”

My personal preference is for comedy that’s underplayed rather than overplayed. I’m smart enough. You don’t have to put someone in a chicken suit for me to know I’m watching a comedy. Actors don’t have to be loud or frantic or mocking an entertainment genre for me to laugh.

Ground your comedy in reality. Create interesting characters. Give them strong attitudes. Not just make them glib or hip. Put them in real crisis situations and see how they react. The point is for you the audience to find their behavior funny, not them.


Anonymous said...

Agreed, that's why I miss the old parody days.
Airplane/Police Squad worked due to most people playing it straight (RIP Leslie Neilson).
Spinal Tap worked because all through the stupidity the characters were believable and human, not someone constantly joking or pointing out the jokes.

Question Mark said...

It also helped that one of the primary cast members (Slim Pickens) literally didn't realize he was in a comedy and played the whole thing straight.

There's only one Peter Sellers, but there are some good comic actors out there today who would definitely handle the "multiple major parts" gimmick well. I wonder why this isn't experimented with outside of very broad Eddie Murphy/Adam Sandler movies.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Tell your students to read everything there is by Terry Southern, or at least "Flash & Filigree".
Then tell your students to get off their goddam I-phones.

gottacook said...

I think it helped Dr. Strangelove enormously that Sellers had just worked with Kubrick a year or two earlier on another movie where he played several roles: Lolita. Sellers played Clare Quilty the libertine playwright, who in turn took on different guises to taunt poor Humbert (James Mason) during the long flashback that takes up the last 85% of the picture - one of the few aspects of Nabokov's screenplay that was preserved by Kubrick.

Michael said...

Sellers also wanted to do The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, in which Tony Randall proved to be masterful. Sellers apparently was to play the Slim Pickens role but had had an injury and couldn't do the physical parts of the role.

If you think of the greatest screen comedians ever, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, they were serious, nice people who just happened to be a tad moronic. That made their comedy even better.

Emmett Flatus said...

Slim Pickens' review of the contents of the survival kit was hilarious.

McAlvie said...

I've heard often enough that comedy is hard work. That might be why many writers settle for crude and dumb.

VincentS said...

Yes! Neil Simon said when he casts a play he looks for the best ACTORS not the best comedians because actors will play the reality

Daniel said...

Lines are delivered with irony; with a wink to the audience that they know they’re spoofing pop culture or the form or themselves. “Yeah, I know I’m in a stupid sitcom and you know I’m in a stupid sitcom, but let’s just goof on it and share the laugh together.”

And that's why I don't like David Letterman.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Ken... why do you have ads on your blog now? It's kind of annoying trying to read your thoughts, and then be interrupted by a video telling me why I should come back to Myspace.

And I have more than one adblocking program, so I shouldn't even be seeing these things at all.

Aaron Sheckley said...

You've described precisely why I don't watch network sitcoms.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

...never thought about it before. Cool. I suppose that's why I find such delight in listening to Sarah Palin, George Bush and other beacons of blather.

Blanche Davidian said...

I remember seeing or reading somewhere in the last five or so years (sorry for the lack of specificity) that George C. Scott wanted to play Gen. Turgidson much more straight than what Kubrick wanted, and which we ultimately saw in the movie. It would have been interesting to see it played as Scott wanted to do. Sterling Hayden was deadly serious as Gen. Ripper and as a result is frighteningly funny.

By Ken Levine said...


That is the first I've heard of any pop up ads on my blog. It's nothing I'm doing on my end, and it's never happened to me. Perhaps it's your server. Or a virus. I dunno, but honestly, I'm not involved in the practice at all.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Paul Duca said...

Emmett...the survival kit was originally supposed to let a fellow "have a pretty good weekend in Dallas", but the line was re-dubbed after JFK's death.

Brian Phillips said...

Regarding the "chicken suit" line and your brush with improv comedy, another pointer along those lines are character names.

If your character is wearing a bathrobe, has wads of Kleenex, and is speaking as if they are plugged up, they needn't be named I. M. Coffin or Iva Flu. You're sick, I get it. Plus, the name may only get you one laff.

Also, to the first poster, Ann Noymous (anybody? Har Har Har? Nothin'.) "The Old Parody Days" had plenty of misfires and widely-played parodies. To look at one of the better movies of that era and imply that ALL parody was better then is slightly misleading, if "Last of the Secret Agents" or "The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman" are any indication.

Jason said...

I have no ad-blocking programs, and the only ads I see are for Ken's book.

Might be a virus of some sort.

Anonymous said...

So... I'm guessing "2 Broke Girls" isn't high on your list of sitcoms played subtle.

Eric J said...

That explains why Harry Morgan was so funny in MASH. He played sidekick to the greatest straight comedian of the 50/60's, Jack Webb.

Mike Doran said...

What I understood to have happened:

Slin Pickens was a very late arrival to the production (he'd never worked outside the US before,and so didn't have a passport); when he got to Shepperton, he asked Kubrick just how broadly he wanted the performance to be - a natural enough question given that Pickens specialized in broad comic relief.
Kubrick simply told Pickens to play it straight - which he did, and there you are.
Apparently, Kubrick didn't give such direction to George C. Scott, who puts on a mugging display that would have embarrassed Jim Varney - which is one main reason that I find Dr. Strangelove to be an overrated movie.

I've also read that when Sellers bugged out from playing Maj. Kong, that the part was offered to Dan Blocker, who supposedly turned it down for "political reasons", i.e., offense to conservative thought. If you should read this, be advised that Dan Blocker was a very active liberal Democrat; if he had been offered Strangelove, he would most likely have turned it down because he couldn't shake a scheduling conflict with Bonanza (he missed several possible film opportunities because of this).

blinky said...

All true, but the one thing I notice when watching old movies like Dr Strangelove is that the pacing is soooooo slow. We have become used to the fast paced editing and constant action of almost everything today.

E. Yarber said...

A note on the acting in Strangelove from John Baxter's biography of Kubrick:

"...Peter Bull's entire role as Ambassador DeSadesky was taped by a Russian-speaker in both Russian and heavily accented english. Bull was required to learn both. He also complained that in his characterization Kubrick encouraged the most extravagant overacting. 'The rest of my perf[formance},' he said, 'was, in my opinion, amateur, heavy-handed and plain ham.'

George C. Scott made the same complaint. From dozens of takes, Kubrick selected only the most manic moments of each, often cutting away at th moment of maximum emotional output. As a result, Scott comes over like a gibbering idiot, spasmodically chewing gum, interjecting, frowning, grimacing, miming a B52 in low-level flight so that he resembles a gangling buzzard hovering over the War Room Table."

This gives the impression that the actors tried to preform their roles with credibility, while Kubrick was manipulating the footage into comedy, just as the actual figures in world politics would take themselves totally seriously despite the absurdity of their behavior.

Duncan Randall said...

Any thoughts about this Variety review of Sarah Silverman?

Joseph Laredo said...

Ken –
Today’s post reminded me of a question I have for you (forgive the length, but it needs context!):
I was listening to an “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio program from the ‘40s that had the Kingfish masquerading as a big shot from France. At one point he boasted “I’m the Champ of the Champs Elysees!” and the audience roared.
Just a cute throwaway quip, but it shows that a writer of mainstream comedy in that era could safely assume that the audience would know the Champs Elysees was a major Parisian thoroughfare, and would probably also be aware that the French word “Champs” and the slang expression “Champ” were spelled similarly and pronounced the same.
A frame of reference like that can’t be taken for granted anymore, although you’ve made memorable contributions to shows like “Frasier” and “MASH” that always seemed confident their audiences would respond to intelligent material. Do you ever self-regulate against going over a viewer’s head, or do you just go with what you find funny and trust it will find its proper audience?

Unknown said...

There was a period when I told people the funniest show on TV was LAW AND ORDER. Orbach and Noth/Bratt/Martin often displayed great comic chemistry without breaking character. I found myself laughing out loud far more often than I did at, say, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.

Side note: Bugs me on sitcoms when characters tell jokes as if they are on a comedy stage. I can forgive one character who has lots of zingers but not all.

John Mansfield said...

The actors playing General Jack D. Ripper, General Buck Turgidson, Colonel Bat Guano, and Ambassador de Sadesky alongside Peter Sellers in the triple roles of President Merkin Muffley, Dr. Stranglove, and Capt. Mandrake didn't know they were making a comedy? I don't buy it.

E. Yarber said...

The actors were aware the film was a satire, but Kubrick manipulated their performances on screen through psychology on the set and editing after the fact, leaving many (particularly Scott) feeling that what was on screen was a complete distortion of the work they thought they had been doing.

A darker variant of this approach might be seen in the ordeal Kubrick put Shelley Duvall through in The Shning.

It's part of every director's job to help an actor form an interpretation that fits within the work as a whole, but Kubrick could go to devious extremes in that regard.

Hamid said...

Kubrick is king. As Martin Scorsese put it perfectly: "One of his films is the equivalent of ten of somebody else's".

vicernie said...

my two favorite chicken suit jokes: first was Paul Simon on Saturday night Live - played completely straight. second the scene in Start the Revolution Without Me (Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder play two sets of twins)when the King is at the top of the stairs in a court ball dressed in a chicken suit. as he walks among his bowing subjects he says, "I thought it was a costume party". very funny.

thomas tucker said...

@blinky: that is very true. It seems like all of the old comedies from the 60's and even the 70's were very slow paced. The Pink Pnather movies are a prime example, but even those that were "madcap" comedies.

404 said...

For the record--it's not a virus. I've been getting these video popup ads too. I assumed you had nothing to do with it, Ken. for the record, they don't pop up every time, so when they do show up, I hit refresh and that takes care of the problem.

Anonymous said...

Two comments regarding Dr. Strangelove:

1. One of the things in the film that consistently cracks me up is the dramatic underscored music of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" after the B-52 heads to Russia. It's ludicrous, appropriate and hilarious.

2. The on-set still photographer was the famous (Infamous?) NYC crime scene photographer Weegee.

D. McEwan said...

Slim Pickens was not an idiot. He knew perfectly well he was in a comedy, as did everyone else in the movie. Ken meant THE CHARACTERS didn't know they were in a comedy. They did, after all, shoot a climactic pie fight in the War Room, from which many stills exist, which was cut because it was too broad and over the top for this movie.

In 1974, I worked with Slim Pickens and had a chance to sit and talk with him, one-on-one, about Dr. Strangelove, a movie I've had an obssessive love for ever since it came out. (I must know it by heart.) Slim told me this story:

When Sellers injured his leg and had to pass on playing Major Kong, Kubrick called Slim in Hollywood and offered it to him. Slim lept at the chance to work with Kubrick without even asking what the movie was about, but as a previous poster noted, he had never before left America and had no passport, so there was a few days delay while his passport was rushed through the state department.

He arrived in London on a Friday afternoon and went directly to the studio. Kubrick handed him the script and said that he could take it back to the hotel and read it over the weekend OR he could put on the costume (His measurements had already been sent to the costumers days earlier and his outfit was all ready), go right to the set, and start shooting now. Slim said: "Why waste more time? Let's get a- shootin'." So he worked one half day on the film without knowing what it was about, just told to act the scene straight.

He told me: "Then I took the script to the hotel and read it and thought: 'What the hell have I gotten myself into? This was the God-damnest screwiest script I ever read.'"

Slim remained proud of the movie to his dying day, as he rightly should. I find it impossible to believe that Sellers would have been as good in the role as Slim was. (I might add that when I worked with Slim it was for a radio comedy bit with "Sweet Dick" Whittington that also required him to ad-lib a very comic performance very, very straight-faced. He completely got what we were doing also, and was total perfection in the piece.)

Kubrick said of Peter Sellers: "I got three actors for the price of four."

Mike said...

So can someone explain how the serious version Fail safe comes out at the same time? Did they just copy the movie?

Michael said...

I have read that someone asked George C. Scott whether Patton was the best movie he ever made and he said, oh, no, Strangelove.

Stephen Robinson, I'd add that Orbach and his partners had great chemistry, and since he had three of them, that says something about Orbach. Also, Steven Hill got a lot of classic lines, including describing a defense attorney, played by Sandy Duncan: She could convince a jury that Jeffrey Dahmer had an eating disorder.

Johnny Walker said...

Great post and comments as usual. Fantastic to hear Pickens's version.

Nobody mentioned that the original book is actually a serious thriller. Talk about playing it straight -- the story was, at it's core, supposed to terrify.

The US version opens with a disclaimer that there are fail safes in place to prevent such things actually happening in real life. I'm sure Kubrick hated that, as it kind of takes the sting out of the black comedy a bit (plus it probably wasn't true). International versions don't have that disclaimer.

Also, I'm sure I heard that Pickens had heard stories about Kubrick and so had a clause about the number is takes he would do in his contract. Or that he refused to work with Kubrick again. Or something like that. Probably getting my facts mixed up.

One thing that's only hinted at is that Sellers and Kubrick had a falling out. The "hurt my leg" thing seems to be completely true or Sellers coming up with an excuse not to work, depending on who's telling the story. Worked great for the film, though.

Storm said...

Man, I love Slim Pickens, for as long as I can remember. Every time I walk in on a situation that's gone all to hell, I cannot stop myself from hollering "WHAT IN THE WIDE, WIDE WORLD O' SPORTS IS A-GOIN' ON HERE?!?"

I completely agree that comedy is somehow funnier when the people delivering it are serious; that's why I can not get enough of either "Raising Arizona" or "The Big Lebowski". Yes, there are some zany deliveries in both, but for the most part, people say the most hysterical shit with a completely straight face ("Son, you got a panty on your head"). And I laugh myself goofy EVERY TIME.

Cheers, thanks a lot,


Jeffro said...

Johnny Walker, it's a bit of dark humor that despite the so-called fail-safes in place throughout the Cold War, that we almost had an accidental World War III back in 1983:
Wikipedia: 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident

If it wasn't for one Soviet soldier with a good dose of common sense, we wouldn't be here to talk about it. There wouldn't even be a By Ken Levine blog to talk about.


Storm, you're so right about The Big Lebowski. No one would ever think that for one moment Walter Sobchak was trying to get a laugh with his antics.


Lastly, I recall that Slim Pickens mimicked his survival kit description in Spielberg's 1941 and that part, along with most of the movie, failed miserably. It's because he knew he was mimicking it. It seemed Spielberg wanted the movie to be like another Animal House, but I think he would have done a better job if he followed Kubrick's example.

Another movie that also came out in 1979, the coming-of-age film Breaking Away worked so much better. Even though it was supposed to be a drama with funny moments, the comedic parts worked so well because they were dramatic actors portraying funny situations, and that mirrors most people's real-life situations.

Well, maybe the "Refund?! Refund?!" part was a little over the top.

D. McEwan said...

"Johnny Walker said...
Also, I'm sure I heard that Pickens had heard stories about Kubrick and so had a clause about the number is takes he would do in his contract. Or that he refused to work with Kubrick again. Or something like that. Probably getting my facts mixed up."

Slim's empoyment on the film was far too rapidly initiated for nit-picky contract clauses. In any event, what I got from Slim was that he'd have sold his mother to the gypsies to work with Kubrick, and was not about to tell a master how to make his movie. He had nothing but rapturous praise for Kubrick when we discussed the movie.

Mike said...
So can someone explain how the serious version Fail safe comes out at the same time? Did they just copy the movie?"

Did they just copy a movie that was being shot at the same time theirs was being shot? No, they didn't. Fail-Safe was based on a very popular novel of the same title. I had read it when it was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, before the movie came out. The movie follows the novel very, very closely.

And, of course,there's one huge difference between the two movies besides one being serious and the other a black comedy: Dr. Strangelove is totally nihilistic. All life on earth is wiped out at the end. It's about how Man's stupidity can destroy the entire human race, how we're all too stupid to live. In Fail-Safe, only two cities, Moscow and New York, are destroyed, but humanity is saved. It's an essentially-optomistic movie about how people on both sides working together, and making some huge sacrifices, are able to save humaity from oblivion.

Why in 1964 did these two highly-similar (Yet with opposite messages) movies come out? Because in 1962, during the Cuban Missle Crisis, we very nearly did wipe ourselves out. In the riveting documentary The Dogs of War MacNamara tells of how, years later, Fidel Castro made it clear to him that he had been fully ready and willing to go ahead and bring down extinction on us all.

Mankind survived because Kennedy and Kruschev were not the idiot nihilists that Castro was. (How ironic that here Castro still is, having long survived both Kennedy and Krushev, the men who stopped him from killing everyone on earth. Further proof that "Karma" is bullshit.) Kennedy and Kruschev were doing Fail-Safe while Castro was doing Dr. Strangelove.

It is not a coincidence that we nearly nuked ourselves out of existence in 1962, and then in 1963, two movies about this same subject were made in reaction to it, and both came out in 1964.

D. McEwan said...

One other point about the dis-similarities between Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove.: In Fail-Safe, a machine's short circuit causes the crisis, man's technology screws upo and two cities die, but Mankind is not to blame. Again, it's an optomistic tragedy. (And the film is a pure classical tragedy. Aristotle would have loved it.)

In Dr. Strangelove, a mad general (Who is all-too-clearly a realistic portrait of real generals with no exaggeration whatsoever, like the insane asshole General Curtis LeMay, who wanted to nuke Cuba in 1962, adn later was George Wallace's running mate) intentionally intitates the nuclear war for nutjob right-wing reasons. In keeping with Kubrick's theme of "Man's Folly Will Kill Us All," Mankind gets the blame. All the machines work just fine, especially The Doomsaday Machine.

MikeN said...

D McEwan, so it is just a coincidence, and not one script stealing from the other?
I thought there was a time gap of one from the other.

D. McEwan said...

No time gap. They were made at the same time, and both were based on published novels, with Burdick & Wheeler's Fail-Safe having been a best-seller. No stealing, though Sidney Lumet and Walter Bernstein thank you for thinkng them to be story theives.

Mike Doran said...

Strangelove v. Fail-Safe:

When the novel Fail-Safe became a best-seller, someone remembered that there had been another novel released not too long before, titled Red Alert.

This was a straightforward novel about a fanatical General who sends a bomber wing to take out Moscow : completely serious.

The two books were released in paperback almost simultaneously.
The Red Alert cover stressed that it was the first novel to deal with the subject; the bidding war for movie rights to both books began in earnest.
Columbia won Fail-Safe, which had been the bigger-selling book, while Kubrick picked up Red Alert at a bargain price.
The two films started production - again, almost simultaneously.
Early on, Kubrick decided to make his film a broad comedy - even to the point of engaging the Red Alert novelist, Peter Bryant (or Peter George; I never figured which was his real name), to rewrite his serious novel in the same farcical mode.
The two films were ready for the market, again simultaneously, and Columbia and Kubrick sued each other over which one would come out first. Jubrick won that one, but part of the deal was that Strangelove had to cme out first. In exchange for this, Columbia got to be the releasing studio for Strangelove.
Result: Strangelove got to be the critical darling, while Fail-Safe got lost in the shuffle (The fact that Kubrick's film had better-known stars was another factor).

... and now you know - The Rest Of The Story ...

Johnny Walker said...

D. McEwan:

Bah, it's a bit late now, but I remembered where I heard about Slim Pickens and Kubrick. Apparently Kubrick wanted him for the role that went to Scatman Crothers in The Shining. The legend goes that Pickens would have happily worked with Kubrick again, but only if Kubrick promised to limit his number of takes on any of Pickens’ shots (some say to under 100). Kubrick refused.

Sooke said...

My favorite scene in Dr. Strangelove is when Peter Sellers (as Strangelove) is in his wheelchair, struggling to control his arm, which seems to have a mind of its own.

Peter Bull, who plays the Russian Ambassador, is standing behind Sellers, and he starts to break up laughing at Sellers antics. It looks like Kubrick had to cut the scene there, or it would have ruined the moment.


Great post!
The wonderful MASH was a satire of course - and indeed, so is Dr Strangelove (as someone also notes above...) One of my favourite satires is `American Psycho'; so darkly funny! Bale also plays it straight; satires don't really work unless the actors play straight.

Also, a great Kubrick quote here:

cynosurer said...

Getting the actors to play the characters straight is in the hands of the director. The difficult part is writing it so that a reader reads it straight. Hiding a joke in plain sight is tough to do in a spec script. Any suggestions?

Alan H. said...

Very nice and deep discussion here, but I just want to know...where I can find this movie?
I am not living in the USA so, it's quite difficult to get it!

Sooke said...