Comedy in a New Mood
Box Office Dark Comedy: Rain Man
Presented at the Eighth International Conference on Humor
Sheffield, England 1990
Edited for web publication
Despite the fact that Barry Morrow’s Rain Man (United Artists, 1988) is the story of profound mental disability, few Americans watching the movie could deny its close-to-continuous humorousness from the time Charlie Babbitt steals his brother from Walbrook until they arrive in California and face the real-world demands of a psychological hearing.
There is, for example, the hilarious scene in which Raymond, having just taken control of the car from the passenger seat and having been reprimanded never to do so again, answers in a seeming non-sequitur, “Of course, I don’t have my underwear.” From that point on, virtually every line of Raymond’s with respect to the need for boxer shorts rather than briefs, the need for boxer shorts to be bought at K-Mart, and the need for the K-Mart to be at 400 Oak Street in Cincinnati, Ohio drives Charlie closer and closer to the brink of insanity. Finally, in utter frustration, Charlie stops the car in mid-highway, walks down the road, and tries to reason with Raymond, still sitting passively in the car, that boxer shorts after all are boxer shorts and that it doesn’t make any difference which K-mart they’re bought at. The scene ends with Charlie, defeated, getting back into the car, throwing his own briefs onto the highway, and Raymond’s laconic comment, “Uh oh, your underwear is on the highway.” The greater joke of the scene, the joke constantly repeated through the middle third of the movie, is that Charlie has kidnapped Raymond but it is increasingly clear that Raymond has captured Charlie into his own world of tightly-held ritual. This joke, technically called the Robber Robbed, or the Captive Captor, is one of the centuries-old staples of humor and is prominently mentioned by theorists like Bergson, Meredith, and Freud as central to comedic practice.
Similarly funny is the scene in which Charlie locks himself and Raymond in a small telephone booth in order to call home to his failing business without Raymond wandering off. Again, Raymond’s laconic comment, “Uh oh, fart” plays the Robber Robbed joke to the hilt, this time blending the scatological humor of Swift with the traditional Robber/Captor motif.
Or we could consider the Charlie-Raymond odd couple locked in a motel in Missouri because it is raining out and Raymond does not go out when it rains. Charlie points out that this is a joke in his first line in the scene, “this is a real good one.” But other than the basic Captor/Captive joke, it is not immediately apparent what is so particularly a good joke here. Late in the scene, Charlie tries to reason with Raymond and argues that Raymond takes showers. Thus he gets wet. Rain also gets Raymond wet. So, there is no difference between rain and showers and thus no need to be locked up in a Missouri motel. It all seems like a lesson in basic academic logic, Philosophy 102 material. Then Raymond answers with usual calm and lack of intensity, “Of course, showers are in the bathroom.” QED. The joke which Charlie announced at the beginning of the scene has been totally and artfully spring upon us, and the fact that it was all announced ahead of time makes it all the more humorous.
In America in the late 1980’s, with Congress passing new acts for handicapped access without real debate-- only encomiums to heroes of disability-- it goes without saying that the humor I have just alluded to is very heavily qualified, and there may be some very well-meaning members of any actual audience who refuse to see the humor alluded to and who profess shock when others smile or laugh at these aspects of the movie. That qualification on the humor of Rain Man is an intrinsic part of the thesis of this paper, that Rain Man represents a dark, black, or sombre kind of humor and equally a dark, black or sombre variant of comedy.
Despite the qualification, I expect that my audience of humor specialists will quickly admit the humor of Rain Man and even be quick to recognize the various formal thematic patterns of jokes, like the Robber Robbed, which are most typical of that design. I do not expect, however, that all or even most humor specialists would readily consent to calling Rain Man a comedy, whether regular or sombre.
Nor do I expect the educated public to make such an identification. As a matter of fact, I had the opportunity to test these assumptions out a few weeks ago on a very literate friend of mine who works at the Israel desk in the U.S. State Department. While my friend seemed to have no trouble at all with the idea of humor in Rain Man, he immediately balked when I told him my thesis would be that Rain Man is quintessentially dark comedy. Perhaps working in the U.S. State Department and particularly working at the Israel desk ruins something of one’s sense of humor. But please note, it was not the humorousness of Rain Man that got challenged; it was the audacity of calling it comedy.
Now this challenge is somewhat odd in that most people (if asked out of context) see no difference between humor and jokes on the one hand and comedy on the other. Nor do they see a difference between calling something comic and calling it comedic—they just think you don’t know the proper adjectival form and said it wrong. But with Rain Man, you can get people to admit—or at least most people to admit—that there was something humorous and funny about it at the same time that they adamantly refuse to consider the movie as a whole a comedy. After all (I suppose they are thinking), there’s a funny grave scene in Hamlet and a funnier drunken porter scene in Macbeth, yet neither Hamlet nor Macbeth is remotely a comedy. And here in Rain Man, where we are treating the ultimately serious subject of profound disability, how can anyone with an ounce of the milk of human kindness in his veins consider such a play comedy?
Because our contemporary sensitivities are so much on the line in Rain Man, let me approach the problem of its interrelated comedy and humor somewhat indirectly starting with another very great drama now almost one hundred years old, Anton Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard (1903), which I have argued in several publications is also a sombre comedy and whose stuttered-rhythm humor has been carefully analyzed at book length by David Magarshack in Chekhov the Dramatist.
Cherry Orchard came out about forty years after the emancipation of the serfs in Russia. It looked back on a Russian rural world in which that emancipation was clearly the most sensitive political and social issue of the times. And it looked back on a very slow success in emancipation making any real difference in the lot of the former serf. This monumental slowness turned out to be the great and finally fatal thorn in the side of imperial Russia. It would be hard for Russians to laugh at such realities. Yet it was particularly Chekhov’s strategy to present these realities with humor so that Russians could in fact get in touch with reality. And Chekhov adamantly argued that Cherry Orchard was not tragedy—even though his directors, Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko, insisted on presenting it as such. Instead, Chekhov steadfastly maintained it was comedy.
How could Chekhov be so insensitive as to see his Cherry Orchard with all its attention to the centuries of serf misery and to aristocratic impracticality as comedy? It is really the same question we might ask about my thesis for Rain Man today. The key to understanding Chekhov is quite simple. The fact is that comedy and humor have no intrinsic connection. Comedy is a single entity, a form of narrative, which by an accident of critical history starting with Aristotle has mainly been identified with dramatic narrative.
Humor, on the other hand, is a multiplicity of techniques from satire to slapstick, from wit to irony, from puns to practical jokes which legitimately bring us together in international conferences like the present one to explore and define.
If formal comedy is a single form and if humor is a range of techniques, then there is no inherent necessity for comedy to include humor. Of course, comedic practice regularly does rely on humor, and success at the box office may rely as much or more on humorous technique as on comedic form. But we only confuse ourselves if we insist that the two must be found simultaneously. Only by clearly dissociating the two can we sensitively understand how they reinforce each other in great dramatic or narrative works.
So then, returning to Chekhov and thus to Rain Man—it should be clear how indirect I am trying to be—what Chekhov was saying was that his plays, particularly Cherry Orchard, had a comedic form. Within that form, they relied on extensive humor. And he was more than upset with Stanislavski and Danchenko for refusing to play for the comedy.
What then is comedic form? For lack of time here, let me simply summarize what I have argued at great length in Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination: comedy is an action patterned throughout to demonstrate on-going life. Put even more simply, comedy’s form is that of the patterned success story: its central assertion through a patterned action is that a certain kind of living can survive and succeed.
Now in Cherry Orchard, we find a grand dramatic design that shows precisely that the basic units of rural Russian society will survive and with some very deep qualifications, will succeed. That assertion is the comedic assertion of Cherry Orchard, and in its own day such an assertion was an intensely serious and politically challengeable one, what with nihilists, Bolsheviks, and other assorted radicals proclaiming the failure of Russia and demanding an end to the world that was.
In this climate, Chekhov presents a dramatic pattern which clearly indicates, first, that the aristocrats will survive. This is in fact the central assertion of the play, even though the whole play seems to center around the aristocratic attachment to the estate as a necessary umbilical cord. Yet in the final act, Lyubov and her family move out of the cherished home, even as the sound of axes cutting in the cherry orchard is heard off stage. The umbilical cord is being cut, but the dispossessed aristocrats seem strangely unaffected or even energized. As Lyubov’s brother, Gayev, says,
Yes, indeed, every thing is fine now. Before the sale of the cherry orchard, we all were troubled, distressed, and then when the question was settled definitely, irrevocably, we all calmed down and were even cheerful—I’m a bank official. I am a financier now—Yellow ball into the side pocket, anyway, Lyuba, you look better, no doubt about that.
Second, Chekhov’s design shows that the meek will inherit the earth, or rather the descendants of the meek serfs who have worked the land for centuries and become organically bound to it. Lopatkin, the son of serfs, has bought the land, not because he has schemed for it. Rather, in true serf-master relationship, he has tried to act as Lyubov’s representative to buy back the estate as it is being auctioned off. Only when the first bid is greater than everything Lyubov can raise does Lopatkin wake up to the financial realities which normally dominate his life and thought. Only when his former masters cannot possibly buy the estate themselves does he bid for himself, buy the estate his forefathers worked for centuries, and acquire it to be turned to efficient agricultural production and subdivision.
So from Chekhov’s point of view, the aristocrats will survive, though in a strange twilit new world outside the womb of the estate. His design has proved that they can live above and beyond estate and financial realities, at least for some time yet. Similarly, his design of action has proved that the land will ultimately go to some representative of the serfs who have worked it for immemorial ages, though again there are deep qualifications: Lopatkin is boorish, he finds himself emotionally caught between a serf past and an entrepreneurial present, and finally he is isolated by his past from his true love, Lyubov’s adopted niece, Varya. Chekhov is consistently using a downplayed humor, more to point out these deep qualifications on survival than to point to survival itself. This new kind of humor often ends scenes on a totally incongruous and suddenly disrupted note, as Magarshack has argued in his discussion of Chekhov’s stuttered dramatic rhythm.
As a result, audiences are “balked” by Chekhov’s dramaturgy. As in Rain Man, most audiences can be forced to admit that Lopatkin is boorishly funny, that Yepikhodov and his thousand troubles is a sad-sack figure with long antecedents in humor, that Lyubov is ridiculously pretentious and her brother even more so. But like Danchenko and Stanislavski, most audiences fail to see that emphasizing that humor is natural and appropriate because humor is normally appropriate to comedy and comedic meaning. The balking defined by Magarshack is precisely that the humor is qualified: that is that we are forced to laugh at the same time that we recognize the qualification on the laughter, the dark side of the humorous reality. Throughout the twentieth century, great writers like George Bernard Shaw, Jean Anouilh, Thornton Wilder, and Samuel Beckett have all made international reputations by developing Chekhov’s humor techniques within ultimately serious comedies.
Recognizing the Chekhovian precedent, then, we can consider Barry Morrow as the latest major talent to emerge in this dark comedic tradition of humorous attention to the most sensitively serious issues.
From a comedic perspective, the success formula of Rain Man is as old as First Corinthians: These abide: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.
As the movie opens, we are shown Charlie Babbitt at an extreme from learning or knowing this central lesson of successful living. Instead, comically, the action opens with Charlie at work in the midst of three simultaneous telephone conversations all keeping the wolves at bay while Charlie figures out how to get his Lamborghinis to pass EPA standards in California. The resulting cacophony in two languages is full of humorous juxtapositions and ironies, the ultimate irony being the recreation of the Tower of Babel. Charlie has put nothing beyond himself. He is capable of reaching to heaven itself to pull down the fast buck. And with a series of deft lies, he defeats his phone antagonists, wipes off his hands, and heads for a Palm Springs fast-track weekend with his secretary, Susanna. Asked if he still wants to go, Charlie’s response is an assured Why not?—a few phone calls and $75,000 profit, not bad. Charlie has faith and hope, all right, but they are faith and hope in his own egocentrism. The world is his oyster to be opened with whatever convenient lie is at hand. It’s all in a day’s work.
As is typical throughout the history of comedy, the proof of this characterization is summed up in a key joke. Humor in good comedy is like that: it is typically near the center of artistic meaning rather than the tack-on meaninglessness associated with the flow of the stand-up comic.
In this case, the key humor comes in the next scene in which we see Charlie and Susanna driving through a field of state-of-the-art windmill generators. These of course symbolize Charlie’s whole lifestyle—high-tech, fast-track, and blowing in the wind. Susanna is sitting patiently in the car while Charlie’s mind is out to lunch. Finally, in kind exasperation, Susanna asks, “Do you think you could say ten or twelve words to me before we get to the hotel. Consider it foreplay.” Her attempt to get Charlie into conversation leads directly into fairly ugly bickering that evidently has characterized the whole relationship, a bickering which is only interrupted by Lennie’s phone call to tell Charlie his father has died.
This scene is a worthy successor to the best of Chekhov’s stuttered rhythms, with its foreplay joke immediately bent out of shape by the serious bickering and then obliterated by the message of Sanford Babbitt’s death. It is of the utmost importance to strongly assert two realities here: first the strong reality of Susanna’s joke as a highlighting and defining of Charlie’s egocentrism and the second, the immediate balking and baffling of our humor instincts.
Before we go further, Charlie Babbitt’s name is another character-defining joke. He is first of all Charles—the Man—Everyman. And second, he is Babbitt, the automatically humorous name for the self-bewildered business eager beaver made immortal by the great American satirist Sinclair Lewis. Like Lewis’ Babbitt, Charlie has learned the simple lessons of capitalism—how to get ahead with a few lies, and a few more, and few more. Also like Lewis’ character, Charlie hasn’t learned what makes himself tick. He is really at a loss what to say between business lies and the hotel bedroom. Both find themselves after a visit to the American wilderness—in Charlie Babbitt’s case, the fly-over states of mid-America.
Just as Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard opens with the aristocrats not having the foggiest notion how they could possibly survive off the estate, in Rain Man the action opens with Charlie as far away from knowing the lesson of love as it seems possible to get. When he gets to Cincinnati and finds that his father has virtually disinherited him—except for prize rosebushes and a classic 1949 Buick Roadmaster—he seems if anything pushed even further from any lesson of love. His father’s bequeathing letter to Charlie calls him hard-hearted and points to his mother’s untimely and sudden death as the obvious cause of this deficiency. Like great comedies through the ages—Menaechmi, Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Twelfth Night—Rain Man is thoroughly set up to lead Charlie Babbitt through an education of hard knocks to a great formula for survival and success. For the moment, Charlie is not learning. He simply resorts to his tried-and-true techniques: taking things into his own hands, doing things himself, and lying his way from one complication to the next. He is a slow learner, and we as audience get to laugh at his slowness for most of the film
In short, the humor of Charlie’s troubles is the script’s steady guide to comedic meaning about survival and success.
Charlie’s instincts, of course, lead him to kidnapping his brother and holding him for ransom—half the family fortune, which is from Charlie’s viewpoint “only right.” This introduces a theme of jokes in which Charlie obtusely refuses to see any wrong in taking what is not his, just as he obtusely failed to recognize the problem of taking his father’s car without permission. Most of the time, this joke is submerged in high emotion, but we should recognize that it is a joke. When Charlie challenges Susanna in the bathtub and asks her “just what is my crime here?” his challenge is technically laughable. It is all too obvious what his crime here is—his kidnapped brother is sitting in the next room and moreover that brother his just walked in on his brother’s love-making and imitated Charlie’s and Susanna’s love moans while paying autistic attention to late-night television. Again, in these two scenes we see how the joke is built and then just as deftly bent out of its original shape. By the time Charlie asks what his crime is, the emotional intensity is so high that the incongruity is not laughable. If we didn’t get the joke that far, Morrow is smart enough to give it a reprise so that the point cannot be in question. Susanna rushes out of the bathtub in disgust at Charlie’s self-delusion, does a sensuously comic job of getting some semblance of clothes around her thoroughly wet body and leaves the hotel room. As she is going, Charlie is still arguing. Finally, to prove his point, he asks Raymond, who is memorizing the Cincinnati telephone book in his bedroom, “Raymond, am I using you?” In monotone Raymond answers “yeah,” and Charlie roars “shut up, he’s answering a question I asked half an hour ago.” The joke absolutely proves Susanna’s case, “You use everybody.”
After Susanna’s exit, the basic Robber Robbed theme already discussed takes over the movie. Charlie has indeed captured Raymond, but he soon finds out that he is himself confined to Raymond’s autistic universe. That joke is repeated in tour-de-force style every time Raymond looks at his watch and says, “Uh oh, so many minutes to Wapner.” Even in the middle of Kansas, Charlie finds that minutes to Wapner has become the ultimate reality which bends and directs his life. He also finds at the Kansas farm house where he seeks to let Raymond have his way that his lying doesn’t work. He tries to present himself as an A. C. Nielsen district representative in order to get himself and Raymond into the farm house to watch "People’s Court." The fraud doesn’t work, and as a result, Charlie apologizes and tries the truth.
What he finds is that even a house of five feverish and screaming children will be reshaped to watch Wapner with Raymond and to bear with him while he records the verdict in favor of the defendant.
So Charlie has learned, slowly, lesson number one: Egocentric lies don’t necessarily work on Kansas farms while an appeal to human sympathy for Raymond’s condition works miracles.
Even earlier, Charlie has learned another lesson: no one is good at everything, and love isn’t based on such ability. Newly desperate to establish a relationship with Susanna, Charlie finally gets her on the phone But the joke is that this always-connectedness, the product of the space age and state-of-the-art fast-track living is so repeatedly shown to exist side by side with Charlie’s vast isolation in his egocentrism—the standard humor of total incongruity in close juxtaposition.
In any case, Charlie on the phone with Susanna becomes newly human and vulnerable as he admits, “I’m scared it’s all over.” Susanna answers tiredly, “Let it sit.” Charlie shows greater self awareness than ever before as he says, “That’s something I’m not good at,” and Susanna (who is so often the litmus test of truth in the script) answers, “There’s a lot you’re not good at.” Charlie is growing in that he is able to take such honesty, and at least some of us in the audience can smile at the suddenness of the insight. As Charlie learns, his chances of survival grow. As in all romantic comedy, this growth is symbolized by his movement toward marriage.
Great comedy like Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard normally considers more than one side of the survival issue. In Rain Man, of course, Morrow is also considering how Raymond survives. From Dr. Bruner’s introductory remarks on autism, we know that Raymond has lived in a tightly controlled world of rituals. This works for Raymond, but we also know that this cannot be described as normal. As Bruner says, he probably can’t “understand his own emotions in a traditional way.” Bruner’s comments raise the great question, can Raymond be disabled without also being non-human. Put another way, can Raymond’s humanity survive his disability?
So as Charlie Babbitt is learning to love, Raymond is learning to feel “in a tradition way.” Like Charlie, he is a slow learner. But he does learn.
By the time Charlie gets the great idea to use Raymond’s autistic genius in Las Vegas, Raymond is starting to learn to laugh. Charlie has told him that he is doing the Abbott and Costello routine wrong: “It’s not a riddle. Who is on first base. That’s the joke. It’s comedy. It’s comedy, man. You’re the team of Abbott and Abbott. If you understood it was funny, you might get better.”
Shortly after Charlie tries to teach this lesson, he learns that Raymond was sent away from home in order to keep him, Charlie, safe from being burned or otherwise injured by Raymond. He also sees that Raymond totally learned this lesson—that even now, thirty years later, it is at his deepest levels of consciousness, “Never hurt Charlie Babbitt.” Raymond in other words has learned that greatest of human lessons early, “ No greater love than this that he lay down his life for his friend.” Raymond has always loved Charlie totally. Now Charlie is learning slowly to love in return.
And thus we get to Las Vegas and Raymond meets the dream girl in black with spangles. Can he understand his own emotions in a traditional way? Well, he may not understand that Iris is a hooker, but he reacts like any normal high school male to a pretty girl. And that leads immediately to the most touching scene in the movie. Rain Man is indebted throughout to two of the hottest present talents in Hollywood—Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise—but nowhere more than in the learning-to-dance scene. And in that scene, we see that both brothers have learned. Charlie has learned to love even though as he admits, “I don’t know about you, man, but I feel a little sick.” And Hoffman’s Raymond has learned that you have to want to get out of your routine; you have to want to learn because the girl in spangles is important in herself and has to be felt about in the traditional way.
It is one of the great moments in modern cinematic theatre.
Like much great comedy, the denouement is anti-climactic: with only occasional humor the lessons that needed to be learned for success and survival have been long-since learned and need only to be demonstrated. Thus, we find Charlie giving back the check he has fought to win from Bruner as Raymond’s trustee. And we find him voluntarily losing the psychological hearing in order that Raymond have no more questions and no more humiliations as the real and full human being he has proved himself to be.
In this anti-climactic context, Raymond gets the main laughs as he proves triumphantly that he has learned his lessons. He proves this first with maple syrup. Early in the play, Raymond has run Charlie Babbitt up a wall demanding maple syrup be on the table even before pancakes are ordered. Now Charlie takes him to a final celebration breakfast, and Raymond is urged to order pancakes. He notes that syrup is not present, and Charlie pulls syrup into view. Raymond smiles and responds, “Charlie Babbitt made a joke.” It is the most sentimentally powerful joke of the movie. And then after the psychological hearing, in order to reassure Raymond, Bruner suggests that he will be happy getting his clothes at the now-infamous Cincinnati K-Mart. On Charlie’s instigation, Raymond responds, “K-Mart sucks.” Scatological humor has returned with a vengeance.
So by the same definition that makes Merchant of Venice, Cherry Orchard, Skin of Our Teeth, and Waiting for Godot comedy, Rain Man is comedy. Like all its great predecessors, it asserts how human survival is possible, in this case Raymond’s human survival despite clinically-defined autism, and in Charlie’s case human survival over the disabilities of a fractured family, hard-heartedness, and a Babbittian faith in one’s fast-track self.
Like all its classic predecessors too, Rain Man has a darkened humor appropriate for a dark comedic message. We can, and yes, we should laugh at the many humorous elements of Rain Man which this paper has been at pains to highlight. But we must also react to our own laughter.
That means that as a sensitive audience, we must pull ourselves up short when we find ourselves laughing at Raymond, the disabled autistic. By the same token, we must pull ourselves up short when we find ourselves laughing at Charlie. For he too has been disabled, by his mother’s death, by his father’s rough-and-ready teaching, by American approval of the almighty dollar. Like Raymond, he has memorized things by rote—how to evade creditors along with the specs on 1949 Buicks. Like Raymond, Charlie is “high functioning” and is entranced with things mechanical and modern for themselves. Like Raymond he lives in numbers—in Charlie’s case, the numbers of the telephone. And like Raymond, he has never learned to feel in the traditional way.
As in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, the brothers are complementary personalities, and they find themselves precisely in finding each other. But even as we recognize this basic “happy ending” of traditional comedy, we are pulled up short to recognize that Raymond must return to Cincinnati, and we are reminded by minute calculations just how many seconds it will be before Charlie and Raymond see each other again.
At the same time, we are forced to accept Dr. Bruner’s assessment that Walbrook is necessary for Ray’s safety even while we have been totally convinced of Charlie’s argument that Raymond has learned more in two weeks on the road than in twenty years at Walbrook. In short, we the audience—here a great joke—have become autistic ourselves, highly functioning and unable to deal with practical reality. Take our sense of Ray at the psychological hearing. We think he should stay with Charlie, and we think he should go back to Walbrook. What a wonderful irony embodying the dark comedic reality of the entire script!
This tense holding of opposites in a united artistic vision is one of the hallmarks of great literature. In the twentieth century, that dense complexity has been more and more dominated by a dark kind of comedy and by sombre, stuttered humor pioneered by Chekhov. And behind Chekhov, we can find antecedents three centuries earlier in Shakespeare’s problem comedies and in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
Barry Morrow has had the exceeding good fortune to find in Barry Levinson a director who understands Morrow’s complex comedy and sudden shifts of emotion-charged humor as Chekhov’s directors clearly did not understand Chekhov. In Rain Man, Morrow and Levinson have brought us a worthy successor in the Chekhovian sombre comedic tradition.
 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960.)
 Rpt. Best Plays by Chekhov, trans Stark Young (New York: Random House, 1956,) p. 388.