Yesterday, I talked about the mathematical component embodying the comedic structure of a joke. That was fun, wasn’t it? There is, however, another way of getting a laugh, which, though carefully set up, depends hardly at all on mathematical calculation but almost exclusively on emotion. Such situations invariably elicit reverberating peals of laughter, evoked, not by formula, but by the audience’s awareness of what a character is feeling.
I happen to be partial to physical comedy – Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati – and comedy wrapped in music – Naked Gun’s Leslie Nielsen singing “The Star Spangled Banner”, making up the words as he goes along. But my favorite laugh of all, the laugh that reaches the deepest inside my innards and resides there the longest, is the laugh generated by what I call (and maybe other people also call)…
My favorite example of my favorite movie “moment”? A “moment” that arrives late in the highly praised 1982 comedy, Tootsie. Tootsie is not a movie I’d watch again and again – the jokes are now familiar, and the surprises surprised me in 1982 – but when it’s on TV, I make sure that I catch the “moment.” It’s not a long sequence – maybe ten seconds long – but it never fails to tickle me with delight.
There are three problems with what I’m about to do. That’s a lot. One, I’m going to try and reproduce with words a “moment” that was executed in the movie without words. I may not be artful enough to pull that off. Two, the power of the “moment” relies on a gradual build-up, which evolved through a considerable portion of the movie. I don’t have that going for me either. Third, no matter how accurately I describe it, you may not think it’s funny.
You know what? I’m not going to do it.
No, wait, that’s cowardly. I at least have to try. Okay, I will.
The best way to enjoy the “moment” is to watch the entire movie. Not just the “moment” itself; it’s the context that makes the “moment” work. Barring that, however, I offer the following:
Tootsie is a farce, so the story gets crazy. Basically, you have Dustin Hoffman playing Michael Dorsey, a “difficult” unemployed actor who, out of desperation, disguises himself as “Dorothy Michaels” and auditions for a female role in an ongoing soap opera, and gets the part, ultimately blossoming into a popular sensation.
At one point, “Dorothy” is introduced to Michael’s co-worker’s widowed father, Les (Charles Durning), who is immediately smitten. After spending time together, Les proposes, giving “Dorothy” an engagement ring.
In the climactic scene, Michael reveals his true gender identity during a “live” broadcast of the soap opera. Consequences ensue, one of which is the necessity of Michael having to return the engagement ring to Les.
We’re in a local bar-type hangout, somewhere not big city. Michael enters, maybe orders a drink, I don’t remember, it doesn’t matter.
Les nurses a drink further down the bar. Apparently, they had arranged to meet, so Michael could return the ring. Les inadvertently glances down the bar, and spots a guy he at first doesn’t recognize. We then see the dawning realization. Les is now aware that the guy he’s staring at is the male, and actual, incarnation of the woman he loved.
Which brings us to the “moment.”
Les unleashes a glare of lip-curling hatred towards the oblivious Michael.
We’re talking thermonuclear disgust, fueled by humiliation, shame and hurt. His face turns red, his eyes betray murderous intentions, and it appears as if his head might actually explode. As Les continues to hold that look, deepening in its intensity…
…your humble blogger is “chaka-ing” (read “ch” the Jewish way) with uncontrollable laughter.
A brilliant “moment” (courtesy of the writer), exquisitely executed (by the actor).
Timeless because its human, and hilarious because it’s real.