Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:
Humor in American Film Comedy
Formal dramatic and cinematic comedy is developing as a genre at a faster rate than at any time since Shakespeare.
Conclusions about humor texture depend on whether the comedy in question partakes of recent experiments in dark comedy.
We can not exclude works from comedy simply because they no longer share comedic propensities of former times.
The comedic key to Rain Man is that it is a dark comedy rather than a light comedy.
Light and dark comedies are not separated by the severity of threats portrayed during the work nor by the number of casualties that a comedic structure portrays.
Dark comedy is a sub-genre of comedy and therefore fully resides within our definition of comedy.
In dark comedy, survival comes at definite on-going costs in the virtual future after the final curtain.
The virtual future of a comedy is the projected future of the characters and/or their society, rarely explicitly stated but implied by the patterning of the work.
Artistic comedy typically uses its redundant patterning to project a virtual future.
For most comedy, some typically hazy virtual future is generated out of the basic comedic patterning.
Dark comedy makes a clear, patterned assertion of significant on-going cost extending throughout that virtual future.
Rain Man deserves acknowledgement in humor studies precisely for recognizing that the sharing of a laugh is the critical breakthrough moment in human communication.
Rain Man climaxes in a communicational revolution. But what will the virtual future be like?
Raymond will not escape autistic non-functionality. And that will be painful to Charlie, and the pain will not be run-of-the-mill pain.
The film demonstrates redundantly the costs of Raymond, Charlie, and Susanna living with the tearing strains of limited abilities to move past autism’s relational barriers.
But there are other costs, and they too are patterned.
Living without relationship has made Charlie a congenital, self-seeking liar, virtually guarantying significant problems for his staying on any relational course.
And we also know through consistent patterning at Wallbrook that Raymond is returning to a world that will not reinforce the relational breakthroughs made on the California trip.
Rain Man and Forrest Gump share the primary tones of comedy discussed in Chapter 6. They also share some primary tones of sombre comedy.
How are we supposed to respond to the comedic assertion of Forrest Gump?
A host of technical literary devices are telling us how to respond.
Moment-by-moment patterned control leads us to a patterned and controlled tone for the work as a whole. We will call this authorial tone.
For dark comedy, the tone is complicated and often pessimistic, deeply qualified, even confusingly jarring.
The dual assertion of sombre comedy—of survival with significant on-going costs—raises the logical question whether the success is worth the cookie.
To traditional Western survival values, Rain Main adds an American proclivity, a willingness to break the molds of convention.
Is the success of Rain Man vitiated by its on-going costs? Is the success of Forrest Gump still worth calling success?
Both Rain Man and Forrest Gump maintain an essentially light comedic optimism and vibrancy even as they stridently present patterns of necessarily substantial on-going costs.
Yet they add the central tones of sombre comedy: depth, complexity, and jarringness.
Light comedy typically leaves the audience feeling united in a common authorially-led evaluation. Sombre comedy typically leaves audience members feeling a sense of themselves.
Sombre comedy tends to make us aware of a tone of ambiguity, personal involvement, and personal responsibility for summation.
The play hasn’t ended until we reach our own personal judgment.
The main plot line of Rain Man is a long Gotcha joke.
The segmented, seemingly infinite Gotcha joke is growing as a Sympathetic Pain joke as well.
Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain of course make the screenplay Bridgebuilder in humor texture.
Raymond and Charlie both begin without bridges to anywhere.
The screenplay starts out in Crusader texture.
After the Cincinnati airport scene, Incongruity subsides while Sympathetic Pain constantly grows.
In Rain Man the question of whether the on-going costs are worth the cookie is answered through humor texture.
Chapter 13: Rain Man:
The Recent Rapid Development of Comedy
If Forrest Gump was daring to treat a hero two and a half standard deviations below normal intelligence, it had been prepared for by Barry Morrow’s Rain Man, with its focus on Raymond who is at once more mentally challenged than Forrest and also certifiably a genius in selected autistic concentrations, a true “idiot savant,” politically incorrect as that very old phrase has become. Our purpose, however, in this chapter is not to directly consider the important thematic development of certifiably challenged central figures. Instead, we would like to use Rain Man as the chief exemplar and Forrest Gump as a supporting exemplar of a third caveat for the future development of comedy and humor texture studies.
Formal dramatic and cinematic comedy in the 20th century, that is since Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw, is developing as a genre at a faster rate than at any time since Shakespeare, and formal comedy developed in Shakespeare’s brief career further than it had developed in the almost 1900 years between Plautus and the Elizabethan period. Preconceptions about such a rapidly developing genre are dangerous. And thus, our third caveat is that no conclusions about the humor texture of comedy are likely to be on target for recent film comedy unless the critic is willing to be carefully aware whether the comedy in question partakes of recent experiments in developing a dark comedic sub-genre with starkly contrastive techniques and import when compared to traditional notions of normal or light comedy.
Inherent in the statement is that we can no longer be on solid ground simply concluding that a work is formal comedy by appealing to the rules of thumb of the ages for that certainty. Nor can we exclude works from comedy simply because they no longer share comedic propensities of former times. Comedy is supposed to be, by traditional rule of thumb, light and airy, yet a great deal of modern comedy, whether of French existential playwrights or Hollywood commercialism, is anything but light and airy, as both Rain Man and Forrest Gump exemplify. Comedy is supposed to be unphilosophic, yet recent comedy has been a convenient vehicle for artistic philosophic exploration. Comedy is supposed to be cheap, centered on sex, violence, and excrement to the exclusion of sense. Comedy is supposed to be uplifting. Comedy is supposed to support the young against the old. Comedy is supposed to be about romantic love. Comedy is supposed to be hero-centered. Comedy is supposed to laugh suicidal behavior off-stage. Comedy is supposed to end with a lived-happily-ever-after ending. The list goes on and on and on, all requiring substantial modification for drama and film in the 20th Century and beyond.
None of these rules of thumb is borne out in modern, experimental comedic forms and none of them are inherent in the definition of formal comedy. In the context of a rapidly developing, experimentally-inclined genre, all these rules of thumb can become reasons for turning off thought and demanding that comedy be senseless entertainment for couch- potato escapism. Comedy, however, at least in its higher forms, whether on the European legitimate stage or in commercial Hollywood film, has not been willing to oblige. There is, of course, a low-brow and fairly mindless comedic tradition which Hollywood keeps well supplied with Class B material and increasingly vacuous television sit-coms. The Class B movies are open to a Quadrilateral analysis, but typically it is not a humor-of-the-mind quadrilateral. It is possible to construct one or more humor-of-the-body quadrilaterals, and doing so is an interesting exercise even with Class B comedic material (but perhaps more interesting and much more rewarding in the work of Chekhov or Anouilh, and inevitably, in Shakespeare, Rabelais, and Cervantes.).
If we are going to have any sensitive appreciation of a work like Rain Man, we need to be willing to do sensitive genre work as well as sensitive humor texture analysis.
The comedic key to Rain Man is that it is a dark comedy rather than a light comedy.
What then, we must ask, makes a comedy dark? Light and dark comedies are not separated by the severity of threats portrayed during the work nor by the number of casualties that a comedic structure portrays. Many light comedies, war comedies for example, are set against absolutely catastrophic backgrounds in which it is perfectly obvious that there are enormous losses for mankind. And many comedies face up to the fact of death, even very violent death, and yet remain light comedies.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific exemplifies both of these attributes. The scene is set somewhere in the South Pacific not very far from Guadalcanal and the “Slot,” when these were the do-or-die central theatres of operation for both the Japanese and the Allies. Lieutenant Cable’s death is violent, ominously prepared for, and fully emphasized by our sympathy for him and our growing interest in him as a romantic lead. The poignancy of his death gives depth to the romance between his scouting partner, the French planter, Emile, and the American navy nurse, Nellie. These tragic elements within a light comedy are not at all unique to South Pacific or even to Rodgers and Hammerstein.
To understand what makes a dark comedy dark, we must start from our definition of comedy, the redundantly-patterned assertion of faith in man’s survival and/or success and the qualifications thereon. Dark comedy is a sub-genre of comedy and therefore fully resides within this definition. However, dark comedy adds something to the definition as darkening agent. In dark comedy, there is not only an asserted, patterned faith in success and/or survival, there is also a clear assertion that such survival comes at definite on-going costs in the virtual future after the final curtain. The greater those asserted on-going costs to the characters or society, the darker the tone of the comedy.
When Paul proposed this definition of sombre comedy forty years ago, virtuality was not a well-known concept outside physics. Since then, through electronic developments, we have become accustomed to thinking in terms of virtual realities of all kinds. The virtual future of a comedy is the projected future of the characters and/or their society, rarely explicitly stated but implied by the patterning of the work.
Not all drama has a virtual future. Tragedy typically has little need for virtual future. In Hamlet, for example, what we “know” beyond the final curtain is that Fortinbras will take over Denmark. This is not to argue that tragedy never has a virtual future. In Macbeth, the virtual future extends down from generation of generation in a kingly line and extending into a hazy future beyond Shakespeare’s own day. But the virtual future in Macbeth is nevertheless pretty simple. It is, first of all, historical, at least within the king lists of Scotland. And second, it is directly prophesied by the witches. This kind of virtual future is simply foreshadowing pushed out beyond the final curtain.
Moving over to equally simple comedic technique, in “Cinderella” and a host of fairy tales, the coda ending, “And they lived happily ever after,” is an equivalent foreshadowing.
Adult, sophisticated comedy however typically eschews such simple devices. In place of explicit foreshadowing, artistic comedy typically uses its redundant patterning to project a virtual future. South Pacific does not end with a “happy-ever-after” statement. But who would believe that Emile and Nellie get married, only for Emile to die on some second scouting mission up the Slot? Or that Nellie dies in childbirth before the war ends? Or that Nellie and Emile find that in fact they do come from different worlds and get a divorce? All of these are preposterous to us. The reason they are preposterous can be analyzed in terms of how they contradict some powerful patterning within the work. And if many things are preposterously impossible, then by an interesting and under-utilized logical corollary, there must be at least some shadowy or cloudy sense of what acceptable possibilities do remain.
Will Nellie and Emile have cultural difference difficulties? Almost certainly. Will they work through them in love? Yes. How will they work through them? Will they marry before the war ends? Will the plantation continue to provide a good living? Will they ever visit the States and Arkansas? Anybody’s guess at least for the last, but maybe some hazy arguments for the start of virtual answers for the earlier questions. Knowing the virtual future is a tricky thing—some things we’re quite sure of; other things we are surprised if anyone asks. But for most comedy, some typically hazy virtual future is generated out of the basic comedic patterning.
Dark comedy, like all comedy, normally projects a virtual future. However, dark comedy, not only creates a virtual future. Beyond simply creating a virtual future, dark comedy makes a clear, patterned assertion of significant on-going cost extending throughout that virtual future.
“Significant ongoing cost” can be a duck phrase. It shouldn’t be. Normal, expectable cost in the virtual future doesn’t make a comedy dark, and only sensitive, honest criticism can determine where normal, reasonable cost changes into significant on-going cost. For example, will Nellie and Emile have any fights as a married couple? Given the pattern and given some realism about Americans in marital relationships, we’d say that real conjugal disagreement is a virtual certainty. But that wouldn’t make Nellie and Emile anything different from the general run of American marriages. The costs of such virtual disagreements, in other words, are no more than normal and reasonable—and in fact the play in no way calls attention to the issue beyond both lovers’ concern for their difference in background.
For a firmer grasp on virtual future and significant ongoing cost, let us now turn to Rain Main and the character of and qualifications on the very great comedic success asserted by the end of the movie for Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise) and his brother, Raymond (played by Dustin Hoffman). .
Charlie started the movie estranged from his father and with no knowledge that he had a brother. By the end of the movie, he has reconciled himself to his father’s justice in substantially disinheriting him and has learned to revel in having a brother, even a very autistic brother. And Raymond has gone from autistic isolation, dependent on a “main man,” Vern, as attendant guardian back at Wallbrook to accepting and giving love to Charlie, naming him as now main man replacing Vern, learning to appreciate a joke told by Charlie, learning that Abbott and Costello are being funny in their “Who’s on First?” routine, and telling and knowing he’s telling a joke himself—“K-Mart sucks.” (Rain Man deserves acknowledgement in humor studies precisely for recognizing that the sharing of a laugh is the critical breakthrough moment in human communication. Raymond’s achievement parallels the communicational breakthrough between adult and infant the first time the adult makes the infant laugh.)
So the climactic scenes in Rain Man are an immense comedic triumph, a communicational revolution. They are also a moral revolution, Charlie having gone from total self-absorption and total self-seeking to a life in which others matter, in which caring for his brother and making the small breakthroughs that can only be made by loving sacrifice create not only meaning but also wholeness and a new start toward relationally-honest success for Charlie.
This list of patterned successes goes a long way toward defining Rain Man as formal comedy. But the successes, however numerous and however patterned arenot the whole story. Let’s not stop as Charlie steps back from the train and the screen goes black. That’s the final curtain, but what will the virtual future be like?
Again, we shouldn’t expect entirely clear answers. Will Charlie be in Cincinnati two weeks hence? Almost certainly (because the final scene explicitly shows Charlie planning that reunion). Will he bring Susanna with him? Susanna would obviously be a tremendous help, having built her own very special relationship with Raymond. But who will pay the airfare? We know enough about Charlie’s finances to know that even Charlie’s way back to Cincinnati needs some subsidy. Will Raymond remember Charlie? Raymond doesn’t forget anything that gets into his consciousness in the first place. So again, the pattern of the movie creates a certain answer: yes, Raymond will remember. Will their relationship grow? Yes, they both have all the right answers already demonstrated before or at the train platform.
But now, the important dark comedic questions: Will Raymond move back out to Los Angeles? Certainly not. Will Charlie move to Cincinnati? Hardly likely. And however much Charlie tries to remain connected and building, will Raymond substantially escape autistic non-functionality? In most senses of this question, certainly not. And will that be painful to Charlie? Most certainly it will, and the pain will not be run-of-the-mill pain like the normal amount of conjugal jostling expectable for Nellie and Emile.
We are answering these questions with a great deal of certainty because there is ample evidence for our answers in the film before the final curtain. Most of that evidence is highly redundant and easy to find. For example, we know that Raymond will not rejoin Charlie because Charlie could not possibly care for Raymond and protect him without being his round-the-clock guardian. The evidence for that has been demonstrated across more than half the continent as Raymond walks away from the car on a superhighway, enforces a regimen that can only be met by the efforts of competent full-time adults, and almost beats his brains out when he inadvertently sets off a smoke detector. This is highly redundant patterning with clear implication for the virtual future.
So the comedic victories at the end of Rain Man are very real and very substantial. But neither the realness nor the substantiality of the victories vitiates the reality of a virtual future of very substantial and on-going costs for Raymond and Charlie, (and we hope for Susanna because the comedic pattern is strong enough to at least suggest that she and Charlie can be a permanent item).
It might be well to notice that in discussing on-going costs, we’ve so far limited ourselves merely to the ontological costs of Raymond living within his autism and Raymond, Charlie, and Susanna living with the tearing strains of limited abilities to move past autism’s relational barriers. As a movie, Rain Man’s patterning heavily emphasizes these.
But there are other costs, and they too are patterned. Charlie, for example, has been presented to us as a man who has hardly known relationship throughout life. Specifically, Charlie lost his mother before age three and his brother to the sanitarium within weeks thereafter. Living without relationship has made him a congenital, self-seeking liar. But it also has made him something like autistic, for example, in going off for a weekend with his girlfriend so absorbed that he doesn’t speak at all to her for hours as they drive down the highway. As Susanna says, he might try to talk a little and “consider it foreplay.” Charlie and his father never learned to communicate, his father evidently withdrawing, almost autistically, into his hybrid rose bushes and his 1949 Buick convertible. When Charlie was in high school, his father had him arrested for “stealing” this car, and Charlie retaliated by leaving home and refusing to resume communication at any time with his father. We may not have a full sense of how this past will play in the virtual future, but the pattern virtually guarantees significant problems for staying on any relational course.
Moreover, Charlie’s father ultimately gave up on his son, wrote him a despairing letter, left him the car and the rose bushes by will, and disinherited him entirely from the rest of a $3 million estate. There is no pattern within the movie suggesting that any significant modification of these draconian solutions will be forthcoming any time in the virtual future. One has to have quite an escapist approach to literary appreciation not to believe that such disinheritance will be a source of at least highly recurrent pain in Charlie’s virtual future, especially since at the final curtain his net worth is evidently zero or less. We know as well that Charlie’s business has been destroyed, that he and Susanna are both unemployed.
And we also know through consistent patterning at Wallbrook that Raymond is returning to a world that will provide for his safety but will not reinforce the relational breakthroughs made on the California trip. It is hard to know how frustrating this will be to Raymond; it is easy to infer how difficult this will be for Charlie. It will probably be deeply disturbing to Vern and to the director of Wallbrook as well.
The dark virtual future and the inferential pattern of many substantial, significant costs going definitely forward into that virtual future, then, justifies giving Rain Man a special place in the history of dark comedy. It rests comfortably beside Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard and Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors. We could, were dark comedy our major interest, proceed from there to many additional similarities between Rain Man and great classics of sombre comedy.
In order to appreciate the relationship between experimentally dark comedy and humor, however, we need to emphasize two comedic realities: 1) dark comedy has its own tone and light comedy has its own tone, and 2) dark comedy can only be properly understood with a sophisticated understanding of the temporal steps necessary to dramatic appreciation.
Ran Man’s humorous texture is easily overshadowed by its comedic and dark comedic tone, tones derived from, but also separate from its comedic and sombre comedic formal analysis. The comedic and sombre comedic tones are also separate from humor texture.
In our discussion of My Big Fat Greek Wedding in Chapter 6, we pressed the need to recognize primary tones of comedy, tones which exist almost definitionally within comedy. Specifically, comedy has a hopeful tone, a faithful tone, and a tone of celebration. In a highly experimental genre, these must not be seen as absolutely certain. They are nevertheless overwhelmingly present in the overwhelming majority of comedies. We went beyond this absolute centrality to claim a social tone for My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This tone is very prominent. It is not a definitionally central tone, however, and in fact it suggests a major subdivision of comedy, social comedy, down through the ages. Rain Man and Forrest Gump share the primary tones of comedy discussed in Chapter 6. They also share some primary tones of sombre comedy.
We have also emphasized at several points in earlier discussions that literature and drama being temporally-perceived arts, good criticism needs to pay attention to critical questions as they develop step-by-step through the temporal art-perception process and beyond that through a period of critical reflection. These comments become all the more important as we look carefully at modern comedic experiment. Let us then proceed carefully along already established lines of thought to establish central sombre comedic tone in Forrest Gump and Rain Man.
The comedic import of Forrest Gump counters the popular belief in America that intelligence and educational attainment provide success. Instead in Gump, overwhelming success is a gift of God, grace, bestowed when, how, and on whom in ways that are to us mysterious and ironically inappropriate. While grace is entirely at God’s pleasure, on the human side of the equation, perseverance, humility, loyalty, trustworthiness, and love allow one to wear life gracefully, to perform up to one’s full abilities, and to wear grace well where grace is given. From this rough formulation of the import created by comedic patterning in Forrest Gump, how are we supposed to respond to such an assertion?
In the final analysis, individuals in the audience will of course respond as they personally choose. People who have accepted the main, long-term social tenets of Western society will typically easily rejoice in such a comedic assertion. Committed atheists who are sensitized to the slightest suggestion of God’s presence (suggestions like the steeple we see being erected as part of Forrest’s philanthropy) will probably not enjoy the movie as a whole because they will turn away from the comedic import no matter how cleverly disguised.
But these are ultimate responses. Before we get to ultimate responses, we have patterned, technical responses provided by the artwork. Moment by moment in any good piece of literature, a host of technical literary devices are telling us how to respond to what is just then happening. For example, all kinds of technical devices are used to establish our sympathy for certain characters and our antipathy to others. So when something bad happens to a sympathetic character, as good literary audience we are flowing emotionally in certain directions and when good things happen to antipathetic characters, we emotionally flow in equally controlled, but very different directions.
Moment-by-moment patterned control leads us to a patterned and controlled tone for the work as a whole. We will call this authorial tone in order to recognize that it is not the ultimate subjective tone for us personally which only the individual audience member can supply. Good literary audiences admit the authorial tone tentatively as the emotional meaning of the work. It is only after we have tentatively considered authorial tone that we can move on to our personal, final reaction as good literary audience. When we speak of a typical tone for comedy or dark comedy, therefore, we are talking about typical authorial tones, not about subjective final tonal impressions which we as audience have more than a right to supply for ourselves.
In that sense, the authorial tone of almost all straight comedy is positive, uplifting, and reassuring as a direct consequence of the comedic import. The import asserts in faith that humanity can succeed or survive. That’s not supposed to be bad news, and fundamentally it is not bad news unless we are on our way to jump off a bridge and commit suicide. (Note that a suicidal audience may move from the positive authorial tone to a much different subjective sense based in personal values, in this case suicidal values.) So for light comedy, the basic comedic tone is simple and positive.
For dark comedy, however, the tone is complicated and often pessimistic, deeply qualified, even confusingly jarring or the like. The reason for the change in tone is again directly an outgrowth of comedic import, in this case an import darkened by a patterned insistence on future on-going costs. Sombre comedy’s import is double: yes, humanity can succeed or survive; no, humanity cannot succeed or survive without the success itself entailing significant, typically gnashingly painful, on-going cost.
The dual assertion of sombre comedy raises the logical question whether the success is worth the cookie. Ultimately, again, each member of the audience must decide that question for him or herself. But before that final judgment, we again have to consider the authorial tone, the authorial judgment of whether the success is worth the on-going costs. And again, the entire literary tradition gives authors and directors a storehouse of technical weapons to employ in establishing that tone of implied judgment.
The comedic import of Rain Man is just about as standard to Western culture as is Forrest Gump’s. Humanity will survive on the basis of caring relationship (which in Rain Man comes in distinct male and female forms—Susanna is just as necessary to the pattern and import as is Charlie). It survives on love and determination, on a willingness to get hurt and to keep on trying, and on intelligence and sensitivity. To these traditional Western values, Rain Main adds an American proclivity, a willingness to break the molds of convention, to do what everyone knows to be improper in order to achieve a success which establishment rules do not allow.
But the darkening agent is the realization that human success and survival cannot be achieved without long-term costs beyond the final curtain. As already noted, the costs in Rain Man, as well as in Forrest Gump, are formidable. Is the success of Rain Man vitiated by the on-going costs of that success? Is the success of Forrest Gump still worth calling success?
Before we make that calculation one last time for ourselves, as literary audience we are obliged to consider tentatively the authorial tone. Taking a small part of that tone in Rain Man to stand for the whole, as Tom Cruise as Charlie steps back from the train just before the curtain, what do we see? A very handsome actor, who is considerably more attractive to us than the equally handsome actor who was somewhat repulsive in the opening scene. He is standing tall. He is in his element, Southern California, wearing the emblematic sunglasses to prove it. He is in bright sunshine. He is silent and contemplative but basically at ease. All these elements of authorial tone can be seen even in a snapshot. And they add up to an authorial tone that is quite upbeat, confident, undismayed by the costs that have already been fully demonstrated and that are waiting for Charlie when he leaves the station. Changes in weather and in Charlie’s posture, expression, and mien could project a very different cost-benefit analysis.
The comedic tone of Rain Man, in other words, is finally similar in many respects to the tone of Forrest Gump. Both maintain an essentially light comedic optimism and vibrancy even as they stridently present patterns of necessarily substantial on-going costs indefinitely into the virtual future. In a well-wrought work, authorial tone interpreting comedic import is quite compelling. Its strength, like a bright light, may throw much else into the shadows. That both Forrest Gump and Rain Man are dark comedies does not lessen the intensity of their comedic assertions and tones. Simultaneously, the fact that Forrest Gump and Rain Man are also dark comedies adds to comedic tones the central tones of sombre comedy: depth, complexity, and jarringness.
And such strong and numerous comedic and sombre comedic tones can easily upstage humor texture in both light and dark comedy. While humor itself may jump out at us, humor texture is almost inevitably far more subtle than comedic tone. And the addition of sombre comedic tone only pushes humor texture further away from the critical spotlight.
Perhaps nothing is more central to sombre comedic tone than the need inherent in the structure of dark comedy itself for individual members of the audience to determine for themselves the great question whether the success has been worth the on-going cost. For dark comedy, which partakes of the good news of comedy but also by inferential pattern emphasizes the bad news of substantial, significant on-going costs indefinitely extended in the virtual future, there is necessarily some ambiguity as individuals in the audience do try to add it up, following authorial leading wherever it may have been provided, but having to consult their own value systems as well in order to make the final calculation. As a result, audiences of dark comedy are likely to feel a sense of their own necessary participation as individuals in the final summation. Light comedy typically leaves the audience feeling united in a common authorially-led evaluation. Sombre comedy typically leaves audience members feeling a sense of themselves as distinct from the audience as a whole as each audience member struggles to find a personally acceptable final summation.
There is a famous story about a theatrical troop taking the dark comedy Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett to one of the maximum-security U.S. federal prisons. Godot starts with two figures on a blasted heath “waiting for Godot,” a person they don’t really know anything about, not even why they are waiting for him. Two hours later, when the play closes, they have met someone that might be Godot, but they aren’t sure; they have considered suicide, but they are still on the same blasted heath, still waiting for Godot. (The name, Godot, may be considered an international pun combining English ‘God” and French diminutive ending ‘-ot,’ thus, “little God.”
The troop felt that certainly inmates would feel all the modern angst and despair that had made the play so celebrated in Europe. European, civilian audiences, in other words, had seen the play as authorially-led to metaphysical angst, which was an easy summation for the audience.
Amazingly, the inmates didn’t get it. They loved the play. But they weren’t filled with despair and angst. Instead, the general feeling seemed to be exhilaration and excitement. Perhaps their being Americans had something to do with this response. But probably it was more their situation. In their own lives, they were used to days without meaning in grim surroundings. And however Samuel Beckett had tried to lead them in artistically impeccable ways, what the inmates saw was the basic comedic import that the two bums on stage had survived and in that sense had succeeded and were destined to keep on succeeding. Life-sentence inmates could feel in Godot their personal involvement in the final evaluation, their right to judge for themselves in light of their own experience and value systems.
In other words, the ultimate response to literature, after the tentative following of authorial intent, remains with the individual member of the audience. Sombre comedy tends strongly to enforce this general fact and to make us aware of a tone of ambiguity, personal involvement, and personal responsibility for summation. Nothing we have written about comedic import and tone and nothing we have written about humor texture should ever be taken to exclude this fundamental reality of all dramatic art to rest its case before the audience’s personal judgment. Sombre comedy typically goes much further, almost demanding that we realize that the play hasn’t ended until we reach our own personal judgment.
For most comedy and most sombre comedy, it is easy to leave the theatre fully satisfied digesting comedic import and with it comedic authorial tone. Comedic import and authorial tone make a delightful dinner together. Somehow in the process—at least in the critical process—few leave room for the dessert, the piece de resistance in an appreciation of the humor texture that caps the experience.
Having considered comedic tone, and the differences between light and dark comedic tone as molded by the author, let us not finish without dessert—an examination of the specific humor texture of Rain Main.
The main plot line of Rain Man is a long Gotcha joke. Charlie has abducted his brother from Wallbrook, essentially holding him for ransom from his father’s estate. But almost immediately, it becomes apparent that smart aleck Charlie is actually Raymond’s prisoner, prisoner to Raymond’s fixed rituals and Raymond’s uncompromising demands. Charlie’s captivity is most graphically enforced by numerous takes of Raymond and Charlie stuck in a motel room in Missouri because Raymond does not go out in the rain. Charlie tries logic—showers are water just like rain. Raymond takes showers. Therefore. . . . Raymond’s conclusion is that showers are in the bathroom.
Not only is Rain Man one long Gotcha, that Gotcha also is segmented into many smaller gotcha jokes, which may even be segmented themselves. Perhaps the most instantaneous is the picture of Charlie looking out of the motel room’s open door at the Missouri countryside in rain. Trapped in Missouri equals trapped in misery.
If we hated Charlie, the long Gotcha would probably remain just that. The problem is that Charlie is changing, and our repulsion is being replaced by sympathy. And that means that the segmented, seemingly infinite Gotcha joke is growing as a Sympathetic Pain joke as well. Buddy, I know exactly how you feel. Do something you believe you have to do, and just watch how many ways you can be got without the slightest possibility of calling it quits!
There is some Word Play around the edges; (remember Susanna’s “consider it foreplay.”) And there is considerably more Incongruity humor in Raymond’s being so beneath us in normal human abilities and so far beyond us in his own autistic abilities—his memorizing the telephone book through the middle of G, for example. But these are dwarfed by the gigantic Robber-robbed, Captor-Captive Gotcha joke and its concomitant Sympathetic Pain joke.
Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain of course make the screenplay Bridgebuilder in humor texture. If we insist that Incongruity is one of the leads, Gotcha and Incongruity would create Crusader texture.
There is something to say for both interpretations. Any Crusader feel would back up Charlie’s original attitude toward life. The problem is that the comedy moves away from, not toward his Crusader solution to life.
Bridgebuilder, on the other hand, symbolizes the entire movement of the screenplay. Raymond and Charlie both begin without bridges to anywhere. Even their father was evidently bridgeless in familial relationships, absorbed in his car and roses with at most professional friends. But at the final curtain both Charlie and Raymond have a bridge. They have a bridge of love, of accommodation, of commitment. And that bridged structure has been crowned with an ultimate communicational success, the communicational success of a shared joke.
If we had to call it, we’d call it Bridgebuilder.
But good criticism doesn’t necessarily have to call it. We’ve suggested several times already compromise solutions, in this case a Crusader-influenced Bridgebuilder tone.
This seems like a mechanized compromise, but we would argue for it as sensitive, non-mechanical criticism. From the beginning of the movie through the scene in the Cincinnati airport at least, Incongruity is in the lead with Gotcha. The screenplay in other words does start out in Crusader texture. And our gut agrees with that texture, senses its hard-finish, its intense drive, its discounting of costs in favor of results. After the airport scene, Incongruity subsides, though it is not eliminated, while Sympathetic Pain constantly grows. And at some point our gut responds to the new texture of Bridgebuilder, a much more fuzzy and typically warm feeling, typically also a feeling of hope that the bridge will eventually span the chasm.
And as the final credits role, with Charlie’s practical world in ruins, it is nevertheless that warm, fuzzy, hopeful feeling that abides.
At least in Rain Man, the question that necessarily arises out of the dark comedic structure—are the on-going costs worth the cookie?—is answered through humor texture. We would argue that the humor texture, added to the contrasting tones of the dark comedic structure, provides the final authorial say on how to add up the success against the necessary on-going costs. Add it up fuzzy, hopeful, and warm.
 For a more in-depth discussion of dark or sombre comedy, see Paul’s, Sombre Comedy: Comedy in a New Mood, and Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination.)
 This is not to say that there isn’t a need for personal final sense of tone in light comedy. In light comedy, it is normally easy to avoid this final step, simply refusing to emerge from the positive tonal qualities uniting a typical audience. We notice the need for a personal tone judgment in light comedy typically only when that comedy strongly asserts a comedic import which our own judgment refuses to abide much less approve. A comedy, for example, which celebrates the glories of free sex, of which there were a substantial number both in the Flower Child-Era and the succeeding decades, may be quite appealing in a dark theater with complaisant audience, but it may force some in the audience—perhaps those considered most “straight-laced” by their peers—to note that their personal summation does not coincide with authorially-guided tone.)