I’m working on a larger project/essay about comedy, how it works, and the art and politics of it, all primarily inspired by this 7 second scene from Airplane!, but I’d like to take a moment or two to write off the cuff about it, just to get the thoughts out there and maybe develop new ones.
Years ago, I came across a very bare bones explanation of comedy and how it works that I liked because it was so bare bones, so simple and blunt. Straight to the point, and its simplicity allowed for greater complexity. I wish I could remember where. I want to say I remember reading it from comedy comics legend Sergio Aragonés of Groo and MAD Magazine fame. I feel like this is an accurate guess, but who knows.
Getting to the point, the explanation was something to the tune of “Comedy is about playing with expectations.” Setting them up, then subverting them. Making people expect one thing, whether consciously or not, then giving them something else. Or giving them exactly what they expect is not what they expect. Or so on. The variations are endless.
Later, just within this year in fact, a friend described how comedy works in a much, much shorter fashion, a single word, which I like even better.
“Incongruity”. Things being different than what you expect, in one fashion or another. Same idea, but expressed differently, and more quickly.
In this scene, Rex Kramer, played incredibly by Robert Stack - who was the serious, unflappable FBI detective Elliot Ness in the 1959-1963 Untouchables TV series - does something simple, and does it incredibly, and everything that’s going on with the context of the movie, the characters, the actors, everything, makes it all the better and funnier. If you haven’t watched it yet, do so before reading on. It’s seriously less than 10 seconds and is worth your while.
Back yet? Great.
Stack does so much, and also, so little here. Ultimately, this is the basic summation of what Stack does as Kramer: “Pulls off a pair of sunglasses. Briefly talks about his military history.” But, and the punchline here, so to speak, the joke is that Kramer is wearing a second pair of sunglasses underneath his sunglasses.
That’s fucking hilarious. It’s dead simple, one of the easiest visual gags possible, and it’s fucking hilarious.
But in understanding comedy, in wanting to figure out how it works the way it does, why it makes us laugh, and why execution is just as important as concept, and also that even the simplest jokes can have a million things going on, we have to ask: Why is Rex Kramer wearing two sunglasses funny at all?
Playing with expectations. Incongruity.
At its core, the reason why this scene is funny is simple: You don’t expect anyone to wear two sunglasses. There’s no reason for it, especially while in a well lit room indoors. One does not expect a pair of sunglasses to be underneath a pair of sunglasses, and when Stack dramatically pulls them off, only to still be wearing some, we laugh. On first viewing of Airplane!, we never, ever expected that. Even on multiple viewings, it’s still funny, even while knowing exactly what’s going to happen.
The joke works at its most basic, at its simplest, because we do not expect people to wear more than one pair of sunglasses. Nothing in our society or raising makes us expect such a thing, so when something breaks that simple, but utterly specific and bizarre expectation, we laugh. Or, at least we laugh if it’s done right.
Which leads into the next part: What makes this specific double-sunglasses bit so goddamn funny, and why is it funny on repeat viewings when we know what’s going to happen?
Execution. Atmosphere. Tone. Context. A whole lot of other things that are happening in order to set up and enhance jokes, even if we aren’t paying attention to them.
The core atmosphere of Airplane! is that of “ridiculous comedy, played completely straight”. After Airplane!, Leslie Nielsen became more well known for his comedy acting than anything else, appearing in The Naked Gun and a billion other movies. But before Airplane!? Nielsen was very much a dramatic, serious actor, appearing in all kinds of dead serious TV series or movies, with a penchant for detective and cop media. Almost the entire cast of Airplane! is like this. Actors who were known mostly if not entirely for their dramatic acting chops, with often little to no experience or exposure in comedy. This was completely, utterly intentional. Because Airplane!, and the vast majority of the comedy in it, is not funny if people act like it’s funny. It’s not a good comedy if the actors act like they’re in a comedy.
Let’s consider everything that’s happening in this sub-10 second scene, as well as the context of the movie itself surrounding it, and how it sets up and enhances the dead simple joke of “someone is wearing two pairs of sunglasses”.
Ted Striker, played by Robert Hays, is a former military pilot who ends up an airplane where the crew rapidly become sick and unable to fly, forcing an emergency situation where he must get over his fears of flying again, and freezing up in a critical situation, in order to save everyone on the plane, including Elaine, played by Julie Hagerty, whose love he is trying to win back. Not to mention the life of a little girl on the plane who needs to get a heart transplant immediately. Quickly, both tower supervisor Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) and Striker’s former commanding officer Rex Kramer (aforementioned Robert Stack) get involved in desperately trying to get the plane landed safely and quickly.
There is nothing about this basic premise, this concept, that is funny.
And that is why Airplane! is so funny.
Just about everyone in the cast of Airplane! plays their roles out as if they’re in the most serious of dramas, no matter what is actually happening or who is saying what, and that is absolutely core to its comedy and how it executes it. Nothing that happens in Airplane! would be as funny if the cast treated what they said or did or happened as actually jokes. They react to everything with dead seriousness. Anything ridiculous that happens, they approach it still in mind with the tone and behavior one would expect of a bunch of people on a plane that might crash at any minute.
So we have all this very, very serious plot as context by the time this scene crops up. We know who Ted Striker is, and we know who Rex Kramer is, and that he is important, dignified, and experienced. We know both Kramer and McCroskey are fighting and struggling to save the lives of everyone on that plane. And with all this in mind, we come into this small scene, where Kramer sighs, grimly throws aside some papers, and turns to McCroskey, and with no humor in his voice whatsoever, turns to face McCroskey and says “Alright, Steve, let’s face a few facts.”
Then, with that same total lack of humor, he dramatically pulls off his sunglasses to reveal another, different pair of sunglasses. Then continues on with his sentence as if this was completely normal and utterly unworthy of commentary. What’s important now is “As you know I flew with this man Striker, during the war.” Even using his first pair of sunglasses to point at McCroskey.
There’s no comedic energy here. There’s no self-awareness. No wink towards the camera, no smiles, no laugh track, no nothing. Just point blank completely serious dramatic acting.
And a high ranking military man wearing two pairs of sunglasses.
Even this far into the movie, knowing it’s a comedy movie, Airplane! never drops the dramatic pretense or tone, and so, we keep going with it, despite the barrage of jokes all before this one. Rex Kramer pulls off a pair of sunglasses, wearing another pair, and neither McCroskey nor Kramer himself react to this as if its unexpected at all. But it’s unexpected for us, and so, we laugh.
Or, in that other important word, everything that is going on at this moment, that has been built up to and is happening in the scene and around them, is incongruous. It’s completely serious, yet filled with jokes. The movie treats it seriously. The actors treat it seriously. That creates an even greater incongruity to the audience, and so, we laugh more. Stack’s delivery here is particularly important, with his unwavering voice, serious body language and utter straight facedness in the face of such ridiculousness. The concept alone is funny, but Stack delivers it in a way to make sure the joke not only doesn’t fail, but absolutely kills it.
In one seven second scene where the joke is that a serious man is wearing two pairs of sunglasses, there are so many things going on at once to make that joke work, and make it as funny as possible. It’s subtly, stunningly complex in the amount of work going into it, and yet, it comes back to the core of comedy that is utterly simple.
“Playing with expectations”.
We do not expect someone to wear two sunglasses, and so, we laugh. They say explaining the joke kills it, but I do not think this is always true, or even mostly true. Even knowing everything going into this joke, into how jokes work in general, and having watched this scene what feels like hundreds of times, I’m still fucking laughing.
(Final) Show Diary of Stuff Noteworthy Only to Me, Day 28 (End of Daves)...
It is Sunday, around 1:30 pm, as I write this. If you must know, my boss of 24 years, Dave Letterman, is where he always is on this day, somewhere on Pit Row at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His driver, Graham Rahal, is currently running ninth with 132 laps to go. Maybe by the time I finish this, he’ll be further up on the others. And so will you people….
If you must know, I feel relieved and extremely proud. But that’s all I can give you right now. Mercifully, for the purposes of this exercise, how I feel is not important. You saw it, you know how it made you feel. That’s all that is relevant, practical and real. But I can take you through the last day and maybe they will be something there. Something else. Something else, like that last 78 minutes we all had together.
THE MORNING: I am not a superstitious man, but I do love subtle symbolic gestures. So, I decided to wear the same grey glen plaid suit I had worn to the last show at NBC 22 years ago. I didn’t think of it until Chris Albers posted that photo of me on Twitter at my desk. I knew I still had the suit, and I hoped it still fit. In the spirit of rigorous honesty, I could have worn it as is, all zipped up and buttoned, but I might have passed out somewhere during the Taco Bell remote. So, I had my dry cleaners take out the pants an inch. I got a lot of compliments, and when I would tell people the significance of the suit, they would look skeptically until I produced a photo or two from my pocket.
THE WORK DAY: The final show had been lovingly built brick by brick by Barbara Gaines over the last six months. Her title was Executive Producer. Her everlasting credit will be my best friend. By the time we all turned up for work Wednesday, there’s was almost nothing to do. Almost. The four tape pieces (Kids, Taco Bell, Day In The Life and the final montage) had gone through their last incarnations and had been signed off on by Dave. The guests for the Top Ten had been booked. We knew there may be some final changes to the list, but that wouldn’t happen until rehearsal, which was five hours away….which is like a generation on a strip (nightly) show. So, for most of the morning, everyone was kinda antsy. Antsy like Alan Shepard in the cockpit of Freedom 7 (”Let’s light this candle!”). We just wanted the show to start.
The monologue, my main responsibility (along with Steve Young), had been put together the night before. We never do it this far in advance, but because there were no jokes based on topical material and Dave wanted no distractions on the final day, we compiled it just after the Tuesday night taping and just before a 7 pm technical rehearsal. We settled on 11 straight jokes and five enhancements (one live element – the giant print on the cue card, and four short tape pieces) for 16 total jokes, which is the number we usually shoot for. We knew if we got anything on Wednesday that we really liked, we could slot it and replace what we had. We monkeyed with the order a bit, but the Tonight Show joke (written by Mulholland and Barrie, aka “The Boys” even though they’re Dave’s age) was always going to be first out of the chute. In 24 years, I remember a handful of times when the opening remarks had been set a few hours before the taping (Anniversary shows, the first show at CBS, the first show after his heart surgery), but never the day before.
For those of you who really want the complete monologue deconstruction, we started with 22 jokes under consideration (on cue cards) and we quickly got down to 12, then 10. The last two jokes cut were a mini-run, I now enter a new phase of life: Moping…. I now enter a new phase of life: Shouting out answers while I watch game shows…. They were cut because he had done a joke that day, I now enter a new phase of life: Googling “foods that help your prostate…” which he felt was the best version of that premise and it didn’t make sense to revisit. So, we had 10. We were one short. I pitched a joke to him written by Steve Young that he had passed on: My son is not clear on what’s going on. He keeps asking, “Why does Daddy have to go to prison?” He remembered it and laughed and realized we had nothing in the monologue on his family. So, it went in. Over the years, I have pitched a lot of jokes in the eleventh hour and I would say he’ll take one for every 20 I offer up. It was especially gratifying because it was a Steve Young joke, and it didn’t sound like anything before or after. The final breakdown of jokes was also pleasing in its numerology: 3 for The Boys, 3 from Chris Belair, 2 from me, 2 from Steve Young, and one from Chris Albers, who wrote jokes at the old show when he was Paul’s assistant before moving on to a 18-year career running Conan’s.monologue. Chris was one of a half dozen former writers I invited to contribute to the final opening remarks: Gerard Mulligan, Adam Resnick, Larry Jacobson, Frank Sebastiano and Jeff Stilson. They were all touched and grateful to have the chance, and I loved that one of them scored.
Even though we had a monologue, the main opening remarks writers (me, The Boys and Belair) pretended it was just another day and turned in our submissions at the regular time, along with the freelance guys. Dave considered a couple, but nothing made it through. My last effort looked no different in format than my first, which I typed on an IBM Wheelwriter and turned in Monday, October 21, 1991, except that just under Opening Remarks Scheft 5/20, I wrote the last line of Catullus poem #101 (Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.). In the makeup room, he asked me to translate the Latin, and I managed to not choke up when I said, “And into eternity, brother, hail and farewell….”). Truth be told, there was one joke of mine I would have loved him to slot in under the wire: 35 years ago, I stopped drinking. I think that’s long enough, don’t you?
The three of us (Dave, Me and Todd Seda) ran through the cards three times, just like always. We ended up replacing one of the taped elements (”Me in 2 Weeks”) with a Steve Young piece called “Comedy We Would Have Done Tomorrow,” a beautiful last deep wink and nod to the notion that we were cluelessly continuing as if the show was not ending. We kept the hologram of Dave saying goodbye to the staff and the cultural impact moments from “The Simpsons” and “Wheel of Fortune.” For once and at last, everything was in the right order.
Rehearsal, which I only attend if I’m in a sketch, was noteworthy for two moments, neither of which I witnessed. After the Foo Fighters had run through “Everlong” live for the first time to accompany Barbara Gaines’ epic montage, she leaped onto the stage and hugged Dave Grohl.
Six months she had worked on this, her singular swansong after 35 Dave years, with Randi Grossack, Mark Spada and a battalion of self-doubt. Can you blame her for lunging?
The other moment happened during the Top Ten rehearsal. 8 of the 10 celebrities were happy with the lines we had written for them. Tina Fey and Julia Louis-Dreyfus wanted to consider other takes. Julia settled on a line written by Mike Leech (”Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale….”) which the next day was proclaimed the “winner” of the Top Ten. Tina took something a little more subtle and much more pointed (”Thanks for finally proving men can be funny….”) That line, ladies and gentlemen, ladies and ladies, was written by Caroline, whose last name I don’t know. I don’t know because she was the writer’s intern and we never got that formal. But on the last day of the last show, she scored the final two entries on the final Top Ten. Oh yeah, she already had Bill Murray’s line (”Dave, I’ll never have the money I owe you….”) We were all genuinely thrilled for her. This 21-year-old has all the resume she needs going forward. I will be happy to help her in any way I can. But I’ll need her last name. (UPDATE 6:30: My pal Brian Koppleman found her on Twitter. Caroline Schaper @carolimeschaper)
Our final day together in the dressing room preparing for the taping was remarkably similar to all that preceded it. Dave, Me, Nancy, Barbara, Jude and Matt laughing about something from another show, another year. Jane with the makeup. The only difference was Les Moonves stopping by to say hello, and at 4:26, many people yelling “Biff is coming!!!!” for the last time instead of just wardrobe person Natalie Fowles. Dave walked slowly down the stairs to the stage door, as he always does.
THE AUDIENCE WARMUP: I don’t remember much. I looked out and saw Regina and Harry, both beaming, and I had to look somewhere else. So, I looked to their right and saw Donna Reilly Roboto, who was Dave’s nurse during his heart surgery and then came to visit Adrianne half a million times when she was in the Cornell Weill Cardiac-Thoracic ICU with chemo poisoning, in Sloan-Kettering after successful esophageal cancer surgery and in our living room during the long slow recovery. So, you’ll understand if all I remember was Dave’s very last line: “This is the most important show of my life….”
THE TAPING: You’re gonna have to believe me, there’s nothing to report. Zero. Move along. Nothing to see here. Show’s over… The taping ran 20 minutes long, which means nothing was edited out. Nothing was redone (5/27 UPDATE: Nothing EXCEPT the intro to the Taco Bell remote, when Dave mistakenly said “1976″ instead of “1996,” which is why in the redo it got a knowing inside laugh from the audience). You saw what everyone else saw. So… I’ll leave you with this incredible photo by Pulitzer Prize winner John Filo, snapped seconds before the end of the final commercial break:
It was a long long last break as they set up for the Foo Fighters. The band must have played Ian Hunter’s “Central Park and West,” Dave’s favorite New York City song, for ten minutes. Around minute ten, Paul looked at Nancy Agostini and pointed to his watch. That is where we are here. Nancy is staring at stage manager Eddie Valk, waiting for him to give the 30-second cue. Todd is holding the last cue card, THANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT, which Dave will utter at the end of his final remarks. Me? I’ve already said the last thing I will say to my boss: “You know how to do this….” I cannot tell you exactly what I’m thinking here, except I can see he’s happy. Hell, anyone can. I know he’s okay. I know he’ll be okay. So, if I had to write something in a thought bubble for me, and I’ve made my living with words, the best I could come up with is “What now?”
(Seriously, though, can we give it up for the suit?)
You want to know if I got emotional? Just once. In the middle of the Final Montage, in the middle of that masterpiece, I looked over at the podium just as Nancy Agostini grabbed Barbara Gaines and threw her behind the podium so she could observe what she had so lovingly wrought on the podium monitor. That elegant, beyond affectionate gesture was not lost on me. Three years ago, Gaines had chosen Nancy to replace her after nine years running the show from the floor. In the 33 years between NBC and CBS, Barbara Gaines had been behind the podium longer than anyone. Barry Sand, Robert Morton, Rob Burnett, Jude Brennan and Maria Pope had toiled before her. Then Nancy, the very first writers intern at NBC who I have know since she was 20 and living in an all-women’s hotel, and who, like I have to tell you, is not from this Earth. For Barbara, giving up the tiller was not easy, but necessary and an act of supreme humility. And now, she got one last moment at the podium. The last moments of the last show. That got me. Good Christ, that got me.
Enough. Race is over. Rahal finished 5th. Didn’t get the podium. Thanks for indulging me these last 28 days. As College Boy would say, “Some guys just live right.”
My time is up. You’ve been great. Enjoy The Truants….
Namjoon: Namjoon would find it to be really cute and special, and he would laugh softly as he nudged your shoulder gently to point at the small butterfly sticking to your sleeve. You two would both fawn over it, and you’d even nickname it “Buddy” and pretend as though he were your son. You would walk around a bit more afterwards, careful to take care of Buddy until he made the decision to leave on his own. Namjoon would probably enhance the joke by dropping to his knees and dramatically mourning the loss of your butterfly together, and it would make you two closer.
Suga: Suga would literally turn into a child in front of your eyes, he would get so excited that his entire face would just light up with happiness and his mouth would widen to form a broad smile. He would be so happy that a little butterfly had decided to rest its wings right on your hand, and he would be taking selfies and pictures of it which would leave you laughing hysterically. He would find it to be really special for some reason, and he would fall in love with how endearing you and the aspect of a butterfly landing on you was. His enthusiasm would crack you up.
Jin: Your situation with Jin would be another story because the two of you would first find the butterfly to be adorable and special, however the little thing would refuse to get off your hand and neither of you would have the heart to force it to leave. You would take it around with you all day, and despite how careful you had to be not to harm it, you would both grow so attatched and it would truly be a crazy and wonderful time. Jin would even want to take a picture of you two together to comemorate that afternoon, and he would be a little jealous because he would be the one who wanted to hold your hand.
J-Hope: J-Hope would get excited just because now the two of you had another friend! you guys would be at a wedding together in the summer, having decided to play hide and seek with the other members. You and him would have paired up and chosed to take a stroll in a garden, hiding behind the multiple and thick bushes when suddenly, a little butterfly attatched itself to your shoulder. He would gasp and step away, shaking his hands as he exclaimed that it was a sign of good luck and that you two had a high chance of winning.
Jimin: When you two went to the zoo together and visited the butterfly garden, Jimin would be so excited as he described that he couldn’t wait to hold some butterflies close and examine them. He would have been talking about it all day, yet when the two of you entered, an entire flock of the insects would fly right on you and he would be bare of the multicolored wings. You two would be hysterically laughing at how rejected he was, and you would offer him a few which would make him feel better and realize how sweet you were.
V: I think that V would be the only one a little afraid of the insect just because of the position that it was in and the fact that it just freaked him out. It would be more of a brown moth, and the thing is that it would attatch itself to your face and he would shudder at the sight and be torn between helping you because you were also scared and running away. He would gently shoo the insect away with shaking hands as he yelped from fright and grabbed your hand, leading you away at a full sprint as he whined about the experience of touching the fluffy creature.
Jungkook: You and Jungkook would be on a date at the park, and you would be wearing a very pretty orange and black top. You would have done a lot of things outdoors, but when it was time to stop at a cafe to have some lunch and refreshments, he would be closely inspecting the fabric to realize with a confused expression that there had been a butterfly hanging on to your shirt the entire time! He would bring it up and laugh softly, telling you that you two hadn’t been alone on your date after all, and while holding hands, you guys would release it outside.