Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:
Humor in American Film Comedy
If it is a comedy, then critical analysis of Music Man is likely to be vague or even highly erroneous if it doesn’t bother to be clear about the movie’s comedic import.
Intel and Microsoft would not need Harold’s services.
Formal comedic meaning or import, as we have already emphasized, is hardly ever precise.
Minimal as negative statements of formal meaning are, the fact that they are possible at all is its own major proof that formal meaning exists.
Allowing Music Man to have a musical humor texture or feel in itself accepts the major thrust of this study: that comedic form and humor texture are different realities.
A cultural inferiority complex has characterized American literature for centuries.
Simultaneously, there is a very strong American literary tradition of the American bumbler abroad.
Americans are people who lack not only culture but also a king, queen, or aristocracy.
Lawrence’s industrious and industrially specialized coterie can thus manufacture a convincing, virtual Prince.
All this industrial production of high pleasure is interrupted by Freddie.
Enter Daisy Miller.
Out-to-lunch is their middle name.
Janet makes a quick agreement for industrial cooperation.
The comedic patterning creates a veritable celebration of the con as a way of life.
It would be a fabulous con to suggest that comedic practice in the United States is unsophisticated or incapable of convoluted or involuted cleverness.
Keep your wits, go with the flow and know what your shoulders can bear, improvise as needed and make difficult adjustments as circumstances require.
Scoundrels reveals several different levels of the conning industry.
It makes little difference if in our dark room we first attempt to identify the looming bulk of large furniture or the vacuity of empty space.
As in Music Man, in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: Sympathetic Pain humor is almost entirely absent.
Steve Martin has triumphed remarkably in making audiences pay to be made uncomfortable.
Gotcha must be one of the two lead elements in Scoundrels.
The American con victims think they are not only astute but highly moral.
Scoundrels is structured as one Gotcha enveloping another till the entire film emerges as a single Gotcha.
We laugh at Lawrence's quick wit and unassailable alibi, but that too is not Word Play.
The demise of Word Play as a contender fundamentally differentiates Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in its humor texture from Music Man.
It is an incompetent American who wins the big prize.
Why try to impress people with fatuous preliminaries when the conclusion almost goes without saying?
Perhaps what we are saying is that our eyes have grown somewhat accustomed to the dark.
Its humor personality formula is simplicity itself without a hint of complexity.
So a very first conclusion about Scoundrel’s humor texture is that it is simple, while Music Man’s is complexly rich in texture.
Critical distinctions need to be made with respect to stages of our literary perception and appreciation.
A book or movie must be apprehended in a fixed order, moment by moment, and to a certain extent appreciated moment by moment.
Moreover, doesn’t it seem like a rather unrealistic stage convention for a con artist to sign him or herself anything at all, something of a Scarlet Pimpernel Complex?
If an audience feels that there are enough loose ends, on reflection, the audience will think less of the movie.
In a less crafted film dramatic ineptitude can lead to doubt about the comedic import.
There still remain final reflective judgments.
Theatre people are magicians. So we have a responsibility to ourselves not to be taken in.
More than one man has approved a whole show for the short skirt of the maid who reminded him of things altogether nonartistic.
In this list of stages of literary appreciation, apprehension of comedic import occurs rather late.
Much to the contrary, apprehension of the humor texture takes little reflection.
The humorous feel of a comedy is felt, not thought.
Crusaders, as humor personalities, value truth and justice.
Our moment-by-moment feel of the comedy is almost exclusively a feel dominated by Lawrence and Co.
And that feel is of inevitable rectitude and rightness.
Freddie has “fake” written all over him
Scoundrels has an on-going purposiveness that characterizes Crusader feel.
The humor texture and feel throughout Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has been one of purposeiveness and unshakeable rectitude, class, and even practical artistry.
Chapter 5: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels:
Let’s Go Get ‘Em
Before delving into our second film, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it is useful to reiterate our conclusions about the comedic import of The Music Man, a film sharing with Scoundrels the central character of the con man. It is not possible to accurately critique The Music Man without accepting that it is a comedy. And if it is a comedy, then critical analysis of Music Man is likely to be vague or even highly erroneous if it doesn’t bother to be clear about the movie’s comedic import. Music Man has a comedic form about patterned success and/or survival. We need to be clear what is and isn’t implied in that form.
That patterned success is not the success of being a con man or even the success of being a salesman. If it were a con-man success story, Hill would have to at least succeed in the con, would have to escape on the last brakeman’s wave of the hand as we saw him escape in the opening scene in Illinois. If Music Man were based in the success of being a salesman, Charlie Cowell would not routinely get got—that would ruin the pattern of repeated successful salesmanship. If Music Man were instead based in the success of extraordinary salesmanship, spell-binding salesmanship, then we could maybe eliminate the embarrassment of Cowell—though he is right to suggest that it takes superlative salesmanship to be a long-term successful anvil salesman. But it is difficult to argue that Hill is repeatedly successful given that he is repeatedly threatened with tar-and-feathering and evidently has a legal record as thick as Cowell’s fist. An action-packed life, maybe, but not a successful sales career. Intel and Microsoft would not need Harold’s services.
If the comedy of Music Man is not an encomium of either the con or of great salesmanship, it is a strongly patterned action in praise of a democratic community building itself, not without a great deal of friction, ill-will, and pettiness, and capable of accepting visionary direction toward high cultural achievement even in a society only recently emerging from territorial frontier status. Happily, Meredith Wilson’s genius allows such a heavy import to be carried by a delightfully light, entertaining, and humorous spectacular.
We emphasize this reasoning at the start of a new chapter because it illustrates a basic point about formal meaning. Formal comedic meaning or import, as we have already emphasized, is hardly ever precise and is typically at least vague around the edges. In extreme cases, not like Music Man, the vagueness is so substantial that only negative statements about formal meaning are definitively clear. All positive statements become approximations. Thus we can exclude the possibility of Music Man’s comedic import being an encomium of the con. But we can only approximate the actual comedic import which includes both societal elements of democracy, emergent culture, and acceptance of a musical vision along with personal elements of love conquering all in a boringly sober society centered in family, children, and education, and somehow well on the way to producing an idealized, advanced culture taking an active part in world history.
So, as we enter a new chapter, let it be recognized that minimal as negative statements of formal meaning are, the fact that they are possible at all is its own major proof that formal meaning exists. If it is possible to say that such-and-such definitely isn’t part of the Republican platform or that something-else is definitely not part of the Democratic agenda, then such statements inherently affirm that there is a Republican platform and that there is a Democratic agenda. If in Music Man we can say that the comedic import definitely doesn’t include X, then there must be a comedic import, however hazy its positive definition must remain. In the case of Music Man, we can say much beyond the negatives of it being neither a con- nor a salesman-success comedy.
Beyond that formal meaning, Music Man also has a texture provided by its preferences for particular forms of Humor of the Mind. That texture is primarily Intellectual, but arguably Advocate. Music Man takes a backed-off, non-judgmental, lightly amused, perceptive view of Iowa at the end of the frontier-generation effort, certainly a legitimate Intellectual endeavor.
We now turn our attention to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels which shares many characteristics with Music Man—a stellar cast, talented scripting, and a similar fascination with the con. We might suspect that such similarities would likely result in great similarities of formal meaning (comedic import) and in humor texture. Of course, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is not a musical, so the special feature of musical joking will not challenge us here as it did in Music Man, and certainly that difference alone suggests a substantial difference in texture, but that by no means accounts for the sum of the textural differences. (It should be noted in this last consideration that allowing Music Man to have a musical humor texture or feel in itself accepts the major thrust of this study: that comedic form and humor texture are different realities that nevertheless cry out for simultaneous analysis.)
Next to Music Man, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels may seem not even American. Scoundrels may star Americans Steve Martin and Glenne Headly, but its setting is certainly cosmopolitan and European. The film represents a recent strong establishmentarian sense that nationalism is passé, that cultural concerns know no national boundaries, and the like. If Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is part of American literature, the most superficial evidence thereof is that the victims of con artist Lawrence Jamieson (played by Michael Caine) seem to be invariably American women of gargantuan fortune.
As we have already noted in Music Man, a cultural inferiority complex has characterized American literature for centuries. Americans enjoy thinking they are inferior. In the 19th century, American literature featured Washington Irving, who left the Catskills for the Alhambra royal palace in Spain; Hawthorne, who served diplomatically in Europe and devised a theory of romance in light of European trends; Poe, whose tales of horror needed appropriately gothic European settings; and Henry James, who could write about Americans but seemingly only when they were in Europe. Early 20th Century American literature was dominated by figures like Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, all of whom depended heavily on European interests. So it is not much of an exaggeration to say that American culture, thrusting aside Emerson’s advice in “The American Scholar” (1836), has consistently derided or dismissed itself for much of its existence.
Simultaneously, there is a very strong American literary tradition of the American bumbler abroad. Twain’s Innocents Abroad and Connecticut Yankee, James’ Daisy Miller, Fitzgerald’s personal failures, Mitchner’s Ugly American, vie with Auntie Mame, the unsinkable Molly Brown, and the duped women of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in defining Americans as people of wealth but no culture, trying to find themselves, usually unsuccessfully, amidst older cultures that know what they’re about.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels proposes—not for the first time—a particular vision of the American inferiority complex. Americans are people who lack not only culture but also a king, queen, or aristocracy. They therefore have a virtually unquenchable need to desert their superficial democratic principles in favor of a fawning desire for intimacy with titled persons. Politically they embrace democracy, all the while emotionally and psychologically they crave royalty.
And if there is a need, there is an appropriate con to meet that need.
Lawrence Jameson has identified and met that need for a generation of gargantuanly rich, and probably sexually repressed, royalty-addicted American women. He has done it with refinement and culture, which are his true talents. Jameson recognizes his own limitations, which means recognizing that he wanted to be in the fine arts but hadn’t the talent, only the appreciation to be an artist. He does it so naturally, with such refinement, that we may miss perhaps the higher point. He has lived and conned gracefully by establishing an industry, by gathering together at least a small coterie of skilled fellow-players with appropriate rank and position for their supporting roles. These include the police chief in Beaumont-sur-Mer and employees of the poshest hotel in town. Evidently through the police chief, Lawrence can avail himself of special forces as needed, for example the attractive young woman who meets Freddie and Lawrence on the train and lures Freddie with her to the Italian Riviera.
Lawrence’s industrious and industrially specialized coterie can thus manufacture a convincing, virtual Prince played by Lawrence, with an appropriately Americanized and idealized agenda which can always use any excess wealth the American women are willing to contribute. Lawrence insists that he limits the women he plays with to those who can easily afford what they give and who moreover are “corrupt.” We never get any particular dramatic proof of this corruption, unless their routine desertion of American political ideals is to be counted so. But it is repeatedly emphasized, the emphasis making Lawrence less than a villain and eliminating the possibility of an audience feeling any serious sympathetic pain for his victims. Lawrence need not formally argue that the Americans are getting fair value for their contributions. They are never forced—indeed in typical con fashion, Lawrence repeatedly protests that he cannot accept their generosity—and they certainly get their hearts’ desires of intimacy with royalty and the opportunity to influence the course of world history in a poor benighted state fighting tyranny through its idealistic, exiled Prince.
All this industrial production of high pleasure is interrupted by Freddie, whom Lawrence encounters on his way back from depositing the season’s earnings at Zurich. Freddie is anything but cultured—he is an American, after all—poorly and obnoxiously dressed, conducting a minor con on the train back to France, a con whose highest object is a free lunch and pocket change.
Freddie’s intention to test the illicit affairs of Beaumont-sur-Mer forces Lawrence into action, proposing the Italian Riviera as more appropriate con territory and eventually arranging for the attractive young woman to guide Freddie thither. As Lawrence explains to the police inspector, there is no room for a second con game in Beaumont-sur-Mer. Secure in his superiority to Freddie in all things—intellect, taste, culture, and established con—Lawrence is dismayed when Freddie shows up back in town. This leads Lawrence eventually to accept Freddie as a protégé, to learn the Beaumont con from the master. Freddie agrees to work his apprenticeship without pay, given the opportunity to move enormously upscale from his small-potatoes, sad-sack con routine.
Freddie’s role is that of the Young Prince who is belatedly made known to the gargantuan fortunes, just when they believe they have snared a royal husband. The appallingly obnoxious Young Prince is an ideal role for Freddie and sends the millionairesses screaming home to the United States, sadder but wiser girls, and perhaps still willing to make contributions to the Good Cause, at least as nostalgic reminders of what might have been.
Enter Daisy Miller—that is, enter Janet Colgate—an incredibly naïve American, even by American standards, a woman who can’t keep her belongings from falling out of her purse and looks about to expose everything on what the French would call her balcony while picking up her things. Lawrence is immediately informed that she is a “soap queen” from the States. Indubitably a promising target! Janet is as simple in manner as she is naïve. One could hardly imagine her being rich. That’s Americans again. Out-to-lunch is their middle name. No doubt Janet has been fed a diet of democratic ideology which has her thoroughly confused that people after all are just people. (In this context, the context of American inferiority-complex, bumbling, aw-shucks democratic fraternity, it is probably useful to compare a variety of our remarks in these chapters to the entirely non-literary observations of Robert Kagan’s feature article in the October 23, 2006 issue of The New Republic, “Cowboy Nation: Against the Myth of American Innocence” and his book Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World from its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century.) If Lawrence’s con is based in an American need for royalty, there would seem to be an international need, a need to see Americans as bumblers, naives, born saps, soft touches waiting to be relieved of excessive resource which have been showered on them entirely without reference to their inherent unworthiness.
Freddie sees special opportunity in Janet. Fed up with his minor support role and no pay, he challenges Lawrence to see whose con works better on Janet. Lawrence reluctantly accepts and that evening begins his routine con at the roulette wheel. He is interrupted by Freddie in less-than-authentic American military garb, who grabs attention losing his last mite at the roulette wheel and getting Janet interested in his sob story of a grandmother dying for lack of an operation. The war of cons surges back and forth from there, Freddie’s American sad sack seeming to appeal more directly to Janet’s American soft-touch character and Lawrence’s royalty seeming a bit incomprehensible at such depths of American naiveté.
In the movie’s penultimate scenes, however, Janet first relieves Freddie of pocket change and clothes—about. the typical stakes of Freddie’s con game. She then relieves Lawrence of $50,000—poetically-just, higher stakes which reflect Lawrence’s higher life style and business standard. (And of course because Lawrence is corrupt, his comeuppance follows his own chivalric rule.) Freddie, low-class that he is, is fit to be tied. Lawrence, aristocrat that he is by nature, watches Janet’s departing plane in pure professional admiration.
In the final scene, as Freddie is saying his goodbyes to Lawrence at his villa overlooking the sea, suddenly a crowd of tourists makes its way up from the dock, with a loud American tour guide shouting directions. The guide detaches herself, makes her way over to Lawrence and Freddie, and introduces one of her tourists as a rich Greek with an interest in Australian investment. By this time, Freddie and Lawrence have recognized Janet under a garish red wig, but they are dumbfounded to be introduced as savants on Australian affairs. After an awkward silence, Lawrence responds in a perfectly incomprehensible Australian accent, Janet introduces Freddie as a mute, and the entourage moves off to investigate the villa. Janet hangs back, makes a quick agreement for industrial cooperation, and then moves back toward her tour group with the words, “Then let’s go get ‘em.”
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is con comedy. In Music Man, conning is subject matter but not the comedic import of what makes a successful life; conning is not a successful way of life. In contrast, the reverse is true of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, where the comedic patterning creates a veritable celebration of the con as a way of life. In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the comedic import is essentially that success lies in a certain conning attitude toward life—improvisational, willing to learn, rolling with punches, admiring the greater con talents, and accepting the con as a business with all the accoutrements including merger and buyout.
Even in these fundamental distinctions between two justly famous American films, it should be obvious that art takes anything but a simple-minded approach to comedic form. Aristotle said that the trivially-minded follow the route of comedy. That makes comedy a natural form for self-deprecating, inferiority-complexed Americans. It would be a fabulous con to suggest that comedic practice in the United States is unsophisticated or incapable of convoluted or involuted cleverness.
All cons rely on wits and improvisation, and Scoundrels weaves a patterned repetition of all that that entails. What makes for a successful con game? Keep your wits, go with the flow and know what your shoulders can bear, improvise as needed and make difficult adjustments as circumstances require. Be a good loser—for the moment. And most of all, love playing the game for the game. It’s love of the game that makes for good players. This is the success formula for a whole genre of con comedies, and it is the comedic faith and comedic assertion thereof.
If Dirty Rotten Scoundrels moves beyond this beloved American genre of con comedy, it is in its clear delineation of the industry. The development in Scoundrels, reveals several different levels of the conning industry. There are people with bit parts and people with minor percentages. There are also people with big parts in bigger cons, whose life success can stagger the imagination. Conning begins in the small potatoes loner and works its way up to the specialized work force of Lawrence’s villa industry. And pursuing the business point, Scoundrels suggests that the industry moves toward monopoly—Lawrence wants no part of Freddie’s nickel and dime competition—and thus moves to absorb the small, inefficient producer. And at the end of the movie, this pattern moves to its logical extension. If Lawrence is about buying Freddie out, Janet is about buying Lawrence and Freddie out.
While the plot moves from one level of complexity and involution to the next, the con industrial comedic import grows but doesn’t change from level to level and is finally clearly defined, not at all in need of the negative definitions we considered at the beginning of this chapter.
Before moving to a humor-of-the-mind analysis of Scoundrels, we should note that as Music Man adds musical humor to the mix, which is beyond full discussion in this study, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels adds ironic humor—the ironies of the philanthropic thief, the conned con man, the naïve European, the sophisticated American—which also is beyond the scope of Humor of the Mind and thus of this chapter. This is not to say that a study of the ironic humor of Scoundrels would not be profitable, merely that our focus in this segment of the study is Humor of the Mind. We will return to ironic comedy with special attention in our chapter on Forrest Gump.
With a firm sense of Scoundrels’ comedic import and a recognition that irony provides a humor layer in Scoundrels beyond our present analysis, we can then move on to the separate questions of humor personality and humor texture in Dirty rotten Scoundrels.
For Music Man, we first argued for a preferred, lead element of humor and then moved to a neglected humor element. Let us reverse that procedure here, if only to suggest that the order of the first two steps of quadrilateral analysis can indeed be reversed. In either case, we are accustoming ourselves to a dark room. It makes little difference if we first attempt to identify the looming bulk of large furniture or the vacuity of empty space.
In Music Man, we argued that Sympathetic Pain humor is remarkably absent from the film. Even though there is a great deal of sympathetic pain for many characters in the movie, sympathetic pain isn’t typically made into material for our humorous response. We argue the same conclusion for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: Sympathetic Pain humor is almost entirely absent. But the techniques that make up that conclusion’s validity are quite different. In Scoundrels, as already noted, real sympathy for Lawrence’s victims is eliminated before they are ever introduced. Moreover, their fawning to royalty leaves them in an ideological no-man’s-land that precludes real sympathy, from either a European or an American mindset. And ultimately, none of Lawrence’s victims are fully got, they are merely entertained with a virtual reality they have largely manufactured in their own minds with a little technical assistance from Lawrence and Co.
Sympathy for the various con men is precluded simply because it is counter to their professionalism. They reject sympathy in favor of quick wits and adaptability. We needn’t waste sympathy or even its sympathetic pain laughter alternative on any of them.
It might seem that Freddie’s con, which plays on soft-touch sympathy, must automatically mean that we laugh sympathetically. A review of the scenes in the railroad diner and with Janet at the roulette wheel shows how false such assumptions prove to be. We laugh in pain at Steve Martin, not just in these scenes or in this film but throughout his cinematic career. While Martin is extraordinarily capable of evoking Sympathetic Pain laugher, as we shall see in Father of the Bride, he has triumphed remarkably in making audiences pay to be made uncomfortable in his presence and to laugh—not in sympathy—but largely to relieve their discomfort. In this sense, Martin is one of the truly great because truly unusual comedians of the 20th century. Charlie Chaplin had some of the same knack, as did Laurel of Laurel and Hardy, but it is a rare talent and a rare comedic texture, again based in a humor not covered in Humor of the Mind.
Rejection of Sympathetic Pain as one of the humor leads excludes for Scoundrels as it did for Music Man the possibility of its being Bridgebuilder, Consoler, or Reconciler in character. By the same token, the rejection of Sympathetic Pain leaves only three possible humor personalities for Scoundrels: Intellectual, Crusader, and Advocate.
If we then turn our attention to the lead element of mental humor in this film, we would argue that inevitably Gotcha must be one of the two lead elements. This is centrally characteristic of the con comedy sub-genre as a whole. (As we have noted, Music Man though focusing on a con, is not a con comedy.) Cons are inherently Gotchas. In Gotcha, someone thinks he or she is smart or other wise talented and acts on that assumption. Successful cons rely on people believing in their competence in pursuing purposes of their own. They act on that presumed competence and are got. It is therefore difficult to impossible for a true con comedy not to focus on at least one overwhelming Gotcha.
In Scoundrels, the American women are butts of Gotcha jokes. Typically they don’t have the foggiest idea of what distinguishes Zaire from Zambia from Zimbabwe. And they would have been mortified to have paid enough attention in high school or any time since to become so informed. Yet, that stops none of them from feeling that they are competent to put in their oar and their millions to altering the course of world history. They go about it gladly, generously, determinedly, and most important, self-righteously. They think they are not only astute but highly moral.
And they are got. But of course, the ultimate in this kind of con is precisely that they never know that they were got. (The fact that a Gotcha butt may never know that he or she has been got is one of the things that distinguishes Gotcha from satire, which either in its Horatian or its Juvenilain form depends on the butt knowing that he or she has been satirically wounded.)
At the same time, Lawrence and Freddie are repeated victims of Gotchas. Like the American women, Lawrence and Freddie are self-confident about their abilities of mind and heart. They act on their confidence and act moreover for sheer pleasure of being players and acting on their confidence. Beyond the con, they have a testosterone-influenced desire to outshine one another, which is ultimately responsible for their becoming competitors over Janet’s assumed millions. And in that competition, they repeatedly top one another, thereby getting one another, and putting one another’s abilities down—only, of course, to be ultimately topped themselves on the next round.
At the level of the film’s comedic structure, the Robber Robbed is one of the longest-running motifs of European-derived comedy. In Scoundrels, as in a great deal of con comedy, the Robber Robbed is altered to the Con Man Conned and is played for ever-increasing stakes throughout a feature-length entertainment. “Let’s go get ‘em” is not only the film’s last line; it is also its guiding star throughout. So if the con is conned, he is conned indeed. Thus Scoundrels is more than a string of Gotchas; it is structured as one Gotcha enveloping another till the entire film emerges as a single Gotcha.
Acceptance of Gotcha as one of the two lead humors narrows the field of potential humor textures, just as it did for Music Man. But in this case, the acceptance of Gotcha as a lead humor eliminates Intellectual as a possible humor personality. In Music Man, a grand potential Gotcha keeps Gotcha in the running almost to the end of the movie, only for the Gotcha to be firmly rejected. The absence of more minor-league Gotchas solidifies the conclusion that Gotcha was never a real contender. So, in Music Man, we were left with Intellectual and Advocate as possible humor personalities. In Scoundrels, we are left with Advocate and Crusader as potential humor personalities for the film.
As with Music Man, we do well to pause here and to recognize the plausibility of both the remaining contenders. Con men are always looking for something to advocate, something its public needs or thinks it needs. That is what gives the con the edge. So there seems something entirely reasonable about Scoundrels having an Advocate texture. If the comedic import is transparently in line with the con techniques demonstrated in the film, why shouldn’t the humor structure be transparently in line as well?
The second possibility, Crusader, certainly isn’t as transparently in line. And yet, Lawrence and Freddie, each in his own way certainly goes about conning with a Crusader-like zeal.
So with two plausible contenders, we move on to the perhaps more difficult discrimination between the two remaining humors of the mind, Word Play and Incongruity. Most well-scripted movies have a great deal of verbal virtuosity. Scoundrels derives from a well-crafted script. It is almost tautological then that Scoundrels displays verbal virtuosity. But verbal virtuosity isn’t automatically Word Play. Verbal virtuosity may in fact represent a host of alternative humors to the one defined as a Humor of the Mind for our humor quotient experiments. Word Play humor must be based in the clash of two word clusters, one of which may need to be supplied by the audience.
As already mentioned, Steve Martin is a master of words that pain. That is a major comic talent. But in itself, it is not Word Play. And in Scoundrels, Lawrence and Co. play their cons with an earnest seriousness which seldom has time for double entendre or more complex word clashes. The American women are equally earnest and equally beyond the frivolities of verbal clashes. Janet seems below a lot of things, certainly beneath intentional or unintentional word complexities.
There is, on the other hand, extraordinary wit—as for example Lawrence escaping from an inadvertent meeting with one of his Prince-admiring marks by saying immediately after that she is a pathetic creature, a former patient who lives in incurable delusion. We laugh at the quick wit and unassailable alibi, but that too is not Word Play.
Word Play is not entirely absent. The police inspector’s typically French interjections of pretended insult are worth an automatic and quick laugh, simply because we instinctively compare it to a French expressive stereotype. Lawrence’s incomprehensible Australianese deserves its own applause of laughter, for very similar Word Play reasons. And Lawrence’s polite reference to “the genital cup” sends not only Freddie skipping lightly back to his bed but also the audience into stitches, largely of course at the sexual entendre, but surely with a bow to the English upper-class style of its verbal execution.
But all told and extending Word Play to reference stereotypical national linguistic traits, Word Play is almost as good a nominee for absence in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as is Sympathetic Pain. The demise of Word Play as a contender fundamentally differentiates Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in its humor texture from Music Man, which not only has scintillating verbal scripting but also has shimmering Word Play humor throughout, even as it stretches what is possibly allowable within a Word Play definition. The demise of Word Play destroys the possibility of Scoundrels being Intellectual (Word Play and Incongruity) in humor personality and equally destroys the possibility of Scoundrels being Advocate (Word Play and Gotcha). Thus, we are left by process of elimination with the humor texture of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels being Crusader.
And tautologically we are left with Incongruity as the only nominee left for second lead. It isn’t hard to substantiate its claims. There are, first of all, the humorous Incongruities of national stereotypes which have pervaded our entire discussion of the film. Additionally, Robber Robbed is laughably Incongruous in itself in that robbers are supposed to know how to guard against robbery, and cons are supposed to know how to guard against being conned. The parallels between legitimate business practice and the tendencies toward size and monopoly in the conning trade create a humorously Incongruous backdrop that comes to the fore in the closing scene when we see that the big fish eats smaller fish epitomized in Lawrence and Freddie is being repeated in Janet, the shark, swallowing her lesser competitors. And the Incongruity of Martin’s lamentably overplayed sad sack is both funny in itself and instrumental in Martin’s special brand of humor.
And since American literature so loves its inferiority complex and its certainty of American bumbling, as an audience to a piece of American literature, we must find it Incongruous that it is an incompetent American who wins the big prize. Lawrence laughs as he watches Janet depart, mostly in admiration and somewhat at the Incongruity of his being the victim. If we are sophisticated, we should be laughing with him at the Incongruity that we too have been masterfully conned.
Earlier, by process of elimination of Word Play and Sympathetic Pain, we had concluded that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels must be Crusader in personality. The assertion that Scoundrels is full of Incongruity and Gotcha to the exclusion of other Humors of the Mind comes to exactly the same Crusader conclusion from positive statement.
In the humor-of-the-mind analysis of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the careful step-by-step process we have proposed for quadrilateral investigation seems unnecessarily complex. Scoundrels is obviously full of Gotcha humor. It is obviously full of Incongruity humor. Why try to impress people with fatuous preliminaries when the conclusion almost goes without saying?
To the extent that we can feel this way, perhaps what we are saying is that our eyes have grown somewhat accustomed to the dark. What a few short chapters ago seemed like a gobbledygook of meaningless distinctions—isn’t humor just humor, just a bunch of undifferentiated laughs derived in the same single mental activity?—has evidently now turned into such obvious discriminating certainty that no second conclusion deserves serious consideration.
Less complimentary to ourselves is the simple idea that Scoundrels doesn’t go for a complex humor personality. Its comedic success formula is transparently in line with con techniques. Its humor personality formula is simplicity itself without a hint of complexity. Complexity is left to the intricacies of plot, and the intricacies of Scoundrels’ plot should keep the average audience fully occupied. Know what is within your capabilities and play within your game: these are believably a success formula for both conning and life. It is certainly a success formula for comedic art and amply illustrated in the artistic design of Scoundrels. (The comedic formula especially as a success formula for art is heavily anticipated in Horace.).
So a very first conclusion about Scoundrel’s humor texture is that it is simple, while Music Man’s is complexly rich in texture. Scoundrel’s humor texture has a hard finish. So does Music Man’s. The difference in richness remains.
But before we do too much cross referencing, is there any sense to Scoundrel’s humor personality being Crusader? We admitted its plausibility earlier. But now, we are confronted not with its plausibility but with its certainty, and moreover its certainty that robustly excludes any other humor of-the-mind personality option.
A few critical distinctions need to be made lest we too easily settle for plausibility in the assignment of humor personality. These distinctions have to do with the stages of our literary perception and appreciation of a complex literary work, particularly a feature-length film. When we watch a movie or read a book, we are involved with temporal art. In Aristotelian terms, it has a definite beginning, middle, and end, which is also true of music but not true of the non-temporal arts like architecture, sculpture, and painting, though those arts characteristically suggest artistic guidance from point to point in our artistic responses. We have already spoken to this temporal processing of literary art in recognizing that a final stage in comedy appreciation is a reflective step of the individual audience member deciding whether the comedic import is acceptable within that audience member’s life understanding. We will have repeated reason to return to the temporal processing theme in later chapters.
As temporal art, a book or movie must be apprehended in a fixed order, moment by moment, and to a certain extent appreciated moment by moment. Among other things, this allows for short jokes to be included in the script and to be appreciated in and for themselves. Harold Hill’s memorable imitation of stem-winder political oratory in “Ya Got Trouble” is a good example. There are many one liners in the space of this one song, not to mention the visual joke of boys gawking in the pool hall, parents finding copies of “Cap'n Billy's Whizbang” in their sons’ pockets, and forcing their children to rebuckle knickers above the knee. Miss any of these or be inattentive and you’ve missed something as Hill warns, “Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock, and the Golden Rule.” In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, not appreciating the momentary cameo of Freddie the Young Prince holding his trident at dinner or the butler politely asking Freddie if he may remove the trident must be momentarily appreciated. Humorous texture is normally composed of large numbers of momentary appreciations.
But when we finish the comedy, we can begin to appreciate its oneness—its consistency of texture and vision, for example, and other qualities. And through such considerations, owe can hope to arrive at some settled sense of what we have been calling comedic import or comedic meaning. That is, we have had time to reflectively appreciate the repetitions of pattern and to come to reasonable conclusions therefrom of what comedic faith has been demonstrated for success or survival. Having a settled sense of comedic formal meaning allows us to reconsider how effective a demonstration of such comedic faith is embodied in the comedy. There are many comedies that move fast, hold our attention, and get through to a comedic assertion. As we review such a comedy reflectively, however, we may notice that there is a real sense that the whole hasn’t held together and hasn’t made its point convincingly. There are too many loose ends, too many cheats, too many seeming logical gaps, or the like.
In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a minor part of the movie is concerned with information that a certain con artist is rampant in Europe with a signature of “The Jackal.” It is assumed by Lawrence and evidently by the police inspector that the Jackal is male. In a fast moving plot, this goes by rather unnoticed and unchallenged and provides the basis for Janet signing herself “The Jackal” near the film’s end. That The Jackal turns out to be a woman, creates rich irony, Incongruity humor, and arguably a Gotcha on the men from a female perspective. Yet, on reflection does it not seem at least odd that the police inspector who is privy to national police reports does not know that The Jackal is a woman? Moreover, doesn’t it seem like a rather unrealistic stage convention for a con artist to sign him or herself anything at all, something of a Scarlet Pimpernel Complex?
Movies can’t work out every detail, and carping at the insertion of “the Jackal” in an otherwise exquisitely orchestrated film may be carping criticism indeed. But the issue nevertheless exemplifies the point. If an audience feels that there are enough loose ends, on reflection, the audience will think less of the movie in ways that can be articulated and accepted as valid. In particular, too many loose ends or too many dramatic sleight-of-hands and an audience on reflection will have more and more doubts about the comedic import as a whole. If the author really believes in a pattern for successful living, why is that author not able to present the pattern without recourse to dramatic cheats or descent into dramatic sloppiness? In a less crafted film dramatic ineptitude can lead to doubt about the comedic import and that can lead back to further distain for the artistic ineptitude. It is a vicious circle, and it can destroy any sense of reflective satisfaction with the piece of art.
On the other hand, artistic craftsmanship certified by reflection often covers a multitude of sins. Ezra Pound once received a highly controversial prize. The controversy raged not over his technical accomplishments as a poet but over his political sympathies which have often been characterized as anti-Semitic and Nazi. The prize was defended on its recognition of craftsmanship.
Craftsmanship issues are typically deeply involved in preliminary reflective judgment. There still remain final reflective judgments.
First, do we agree with the comedic assertion? Do we agree that in real life the comedic formula for success and survival can work and can be recommended as working for success and survival? Theatre people are magicians. They can make fairytales seem to be our shared history. They can make lousy formulas that only work for suicide look successful. So we have a responsibility to ourselves not to just be taken in.
In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, do we as audience agree that a businesslike sophisticated appreciation of and adeptness in conning is the way to a successful life? Each of us is entitled to his or her own answer to this question concerning Dirty Rotten Scoundrel’s comedic import. And because it is a question each of us has a right and perhaps an obligation as intelligent audience to ask, we will not prejudice the answer with our own opinions. You, dear reader, can only decide this question for yourself.
And ultimately, on the basis of all these other prior steps, a self-respecting audience reserves to itself the right of personal appreciation. In the personal appreciation step, we may discount artistic gaffs perceived earlier because we so appreciate the comedic import as a legitimate success formula. Conversely, we may, as in the example of the negative reaction to Ezra Pound, refuse to grant laurels to someone whose ultimate politics we find abhorrent. For that matter, we can choose to dislike a whole movie because one of the bit parts reminded us too much of our late, unlamented maiden Aunt Etheline. And more than one man has approved a whole show for the short skirt of the maid who reminded him of things altogether nonartistic.
Personal appreciative response, for the most part, is better left personal. It can be articulated, but it cannot be proven valid for anyone but the appreciator. And those next to us rather jealously guard their own personal preferences. Sadly, much of what masquerades as criticism is actually in the business of brow-beating to enforce particular personal preferences.
In this list of stages of literary appreciation, apprehension of comedic import occurs rather late, though it has been growing starting from the moment -by-moment apprehension of the film.
However, much to the contrary, apprehension of the humor texture takes little reflection. The feel we have about a movie, its textures rather than its meaning, is far closer to moment-by- moment perception. If there is no feel for the movie as it progresses, there’s not much point in trying to find the feel thereafter. Establishing comedic import takes reflective judgment and presumably is subject to some amount of training. The humorous feel of a comedy is felt, not thought. Academic comedic criticism can try to get its arms around comedic feel, to understand what has already been felt. But trying to argue oneself into feeling is at best a stage in artistic education, something of a classroom exercise.
With these distinctions in mind, how is the feel, the humorous texture, rather than the comedic thought of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels appropriately Crusader? As we explained earlier in Chapter 2, Gotcha embodies a sense of justice. When someone thinks of him or herself more highly than he or she ought and insists on acting out that overestimation, we lose sympathy and laughingly we assent to the justice of the Gotcha consequence. In colloquial language, we often consider people to be victims of Gotcha who were simply the unwitting butts of some practical joke. The technical, humor-of-the-mind definition of Gotcha is more restricted, and the restriction brings in the element of justice. Incongruity similarly embodies a sense of, and value for, truth. One can hardly undertake to note Incongruity if one refuses to recognize two contrastive realities and to recognize them honestly. True Incongruity perception puts its own preconceptions aside to see things for what they truly are. These analytically distinct embodiments of Gotcha and Incongruity come together in what we have chosen to call Crusader. Crusaders, as humor personalities, value truth and justice.
Now in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, we are focused on Lawrence Jameson’s establishment, what we have called Lawrence and Co. We have only a brief glimpse of Freddie’s modus operendi as a free lancer. And while we have seen a great deal of Janet, we haven’t been aware that we are watching her operation. Our moment-by-moment feel of the comedy is almost exclusively a feel dominated by Lawrence and Co.
And that feel is of inevitable rectitude and rightness. The American women feel this rectitude and rightness and instinctively react to it. We do not find ourselves in disagreement with their perception. Moreover, the American women virtually manufacture for themselves that Lawrence is one of the Great Souls of history, fighting on against no doubt totalitarian evil, the emblem of man’s unending search for justice. Lawrence couldn’t possibly have such a successful business if it didn’t have a justice feel written all over it.
Freddie has “fake” written all over him. He is a two-bit grifter. And he’d remain that way, except that Lawrence and Co. cannot afford his messing up the business ambience in Beaumont-sur-Mer, an ambience of class, culture, and rectitude. And thus, Freddie is taken in as a student. Here feel and meaning come close together. The plot asserts that Lawrence tries to educate Freddie out of his con philistinism. He not only lifts Freddie up from his rather mean-spirited, low-life cons, he ultimately tries to endue Freddie with higher purposes, like endowing museums and financing elaborate formal gardens. The Lawrence and Co. establishment, in other words, is true, true to values, true to the motives and impulses of the Prince that Lawrence plays. And the feel throughout is that Freddie is quite rightly the student, and a miserable student at that. We feel the righteousness and the truth when Lawrence divides the take—and Freddie gets nothing.
And of course Lawrence plays his role with utter seriousness befitting a knight in shining armor. He is principles and standards incarnate, and in many ways he is hardly distinguishable from Robin Hood except in Lawrence’s rejection of force to win his noble ends. In the end, of course, Lawrence and Co. is swallowed up in Janet and Co., much as we have felt the rectitude of Lawrence and Co. It is only right that the bigger fish swallows the littler fish and right that the littler fish recognize themselves for what they are.
Crusader, we argue, is the right feel for Scoundrels. Does it seem antithetical that scoundrels can be seen as Crusaders? In an American context, not necessarily so. Americans are fond of political crusades. They have within the last century crusaded for Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush. And for each of these, there have been counter- crusaders who have seen the winning crusades as the embodiment of evil, the epitome of unreality, the epicenter of economic irresponsibility. Crusaders typically crusade, that is do battle. And as they do battle, they can only expect their opponents to think badly of them, especially in terms of justice and truth. But they can still be seen as crusading. That we can have a feeling of justice and truth in watching Lawrence and Co. carry out a stupendous con is in part a feel provided by appropriate humor texture.
Beyond a sense of rectitude, there is a sense of on-going purposiveness that characterizes Crusader feel. Crusaders are in-process people. Crusaders are on crusade, moving on, fighting the good fight, probably looking forward to the next dragon even as they know that their current challenge is to slay the dragon breathing down their necks.
Lawrence & Co. is nothing if not purposive. And if the art of the businesslike con is the art of successful living, then a purposive humor texture is centrally appropriate to such a comedic assertion.
The purposiveness of Crusader feel contrasts both with Advocate and Intellectual feel, the humorous personalities adjoining Crusader in the Natural Order Circle. Intellectual typically has a laid-back feel about it, which comes from a sense of intellectual perception rather than active involvement. Advocate typically includes a sense of sealing the bargain, getting the advocacy accomplished and the verdict recorded, moving toward accomplished fact rather than rejoicing in extended process.
In short, the comedic import of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is that the principles of the businesslike con are the formula for success and survival. The humor personality of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is Crusader. The humor texture and feel throughout Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has been one of purposiveness and unshakeable rectitude, class, and even practical artistry from almost the highest of motives. And the plot complexity—the complexity which is so dazzling in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels—is dominated by the dog-eat-dog, fish-eat-fish realities of a demanding business profession.