Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:
Humor in American Film Comedy
It would be easy to bypass Blues Brothers altogether as simply its own genius.
The sociological and political dynamics in America in the late ‘70’s and early ’80’s which informed Blues Brothers’ original audience had been assessed by its president as a “malaise.”
Awed remembrances of chase scenes and organized mayhem are comickedic reactions. They depend on no comedic patterning and no comedic understanding.
The comedic pattern of Blues Brothers is remarkably undisguised: the Blues Brothers are "on a mission from God."
The question for Everyman is simple: “Do you see the light?”
Everyman turns out to be Jake.
The rest of the movie is a highly patterned recounting of how the mission from God works.
The pattern of success in Blues Brothers is a pattern of living up to a calling, of knowing one’s mission.
Success isn’t easy. It isn’t reasonable. And it doesn’t “make sense.”
The Blues Brothers' success is the success of the mission, not the material prosperity of the missionaries.
The fact of mission seems inevitably to attract the forces of anti-mission.
Perhaps mission success is easiest if one just doesn’t think much.
The general mission needs specific embodiment—in the band.
Maybe the $5,000 was just God’s pretext.
Mission success can’t be stopped because it is the will of God.
Did Blues Brothers speak to American concerns in the early ’80s?
Blues Brothers was a comedy with a highly relevant comedic assertion of successful mission living.
Considering Humor of the Mind, what can be mental about the unthinking violence and destruction which so dominate the film?
If Gotcha is a necessary lead element, Word Play humor is a very distant, almost non-existent fourth.
We are left with the possibilities of Crusader (Gotcha and Incongruity) or Bridgebuilder (Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain).
The comic wonders of Blues Brothers' Incongruities will not go away.
Blues Brothers demonstrates the dynamic growth or decline of a type of humor in the course of an artistic work.
Sympathetic Pain in the Penguin scene starts from nowhere, emerges from Gotcha, and eventually challenges the Gotcha joke itself.
Gotchas on the Mystery Woman turn into Sympathetic Pain as her failures compound. And to fail on such a low life, too!
For those willing to admit Sympathetic Pain as a second lead, the movie will have a Bridgebuilder texture.
Perhaps there will remain contrasting schools of thought if The Blues Brothers is seriously studied for centuries.
Blues Brothers is either Bridgebuilder-leaning Crusader or Crusader-leaning Bridgebuilder in humor texture.
Does such a humor identification make sense?
If the film has a Crusader personality, it is likely to have a pretty hard finish.
The means by which God delivers His gifts to mankind are sacraments.
Bridgebuilder texture is practical, objective, and passionate.
The Music Man and The Blues Brothers have close to antipodal humor texture.
God has a definite penchant for choosing unlikely vehicles.
Blues Brothers is sombre comedy, or what has commonly been called dark comedy, with glaring difference in comedic texture from light comedy.
All the textures, of humor and otherwise, are made to harmonize.
The combination of Sympathetic Pain and Gotcha humor in Blues Brothers creates a very large bias toward ambiguous response.
Without the clash of justice and mercy, the humor can be much less ambiguous.
Music Man is backed up with Intellectual humor clarity; Blues Brothers is backed up with Bridgebuilder humor ambiguity.
Chapter 7: The Blues Brothers
On a Mission from God
As we turn to The Blues Brothers, we turn to one of the most puzzling comedic film discussions of recent times. The Dan Aykroyd script at approximately 325 page length was two to three times the size of a normal Hollywood release. When the film came out, it was clear that the number of big names in the cast made this a special movie indeed, and yet the movie did not necessarily draw critical approval. In fact, a dazed public seemed to stand in awe of the cast, of the mayhem of the mall chase scene, and the gargantuan humor of the City in the Garden, Chicago, doing what it does best, standing for Law and Order with absolute intensity—resulting of course in some of the most bizarrely extravagant crash scenes ever filmed. What can possibly be said about The Blues Brothers other than that it is unprecedented as musically-choreographed, unthinking violence and destruction let loose upon the earth?
And yet, the movie has endured as few others. It is widely available for home viewing in virtually any American city today, better than 20 years after its release. Its perpetrators are more than happy to claim that it has spawned its own urban “mythology,” a claim that they can easily back. And Blues Brothers memorabilia—the brothers’ black suits, for example—are simply household images in America.
So it would be easy to bypass Blues Brothers altogether as simply its own genius, much as Pope defended Shakespeare. And of course it is its own genius, one of the most original pieces of art in American history. And “making something” of Blues Brothers—elucidating it as a particular comedic assertion and moreover assigning it a specific humor texture—will to many seem somewhat sacrilegious. Having no desire to commit sacrilege, we move forward then in fear and trembling, not trying to anatomize Blues Brothers as a great living artistic reality, but trying to get some better grasp on its achievement.
And in fear and trembling, it may be best to start away from the central issues of our argument.
All art comes in the context of its times and its original audience. We can try to appreciate art for itself, but good art is originally designed for a known audience. We cannot best appreciate Shakespeare without some attempt to understand what Shakespeare was working with in an audience.
So it is reasonable to review the sociological and political dynamics in America in the late ‘70’s and early ’80’s which informed Blues Brothers’ original audience. We here highlight four as major reference points for Blues Brothers. First, America at the time was in crisis. President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970’s had had the temerity to honestly assess a “malaise” in America. The country was no longer young and optimistic. She was tired from 60 years of battle beginning no later than the First World War. Double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment prompted the coining of “the misery index.” By some estimations, America’s best days were behind her. And yet in 1980 the majority elected as President an Eternal Optimist, Ronald Reagan, a living if aged symbol of the belief that America’s best days were still ahead. America was deeply divided in its outlook on itself.
Second, the central symbol of this internal, philosophical polarity was the forty-year-long Cold War. Many saw no possible end to a growing threat of senseless mayhem of a world bent on mutual ideological destruction. While President Reagan confidently asserted we could win the Cold War, a great majority of the press and academe and a significantly large minority of the public thought he was insane, that “accommodation” was not only the best possible alternative left but in fact was the right and only course for human history.
A third great feature of America was religious, and there again, ambiguity reigned. In contrast to European state churches, the Church in America had historically been alive yet divided. At the time of Blues Brothers’ release, ecumenicism in the form of denominational and institutional cooperation had been popular since at least the 1950’s, and it was accompanied by mergers and talks of church mergers. At the same time, many church members feared that the church had become yet another responsible corporate citizen, having drifted away from the essentials of its spiritual world view. But in the ‘70’s, a second kind of American ecumenicism, lay ecumenicism, was emerging. Lay ecumenicism side-stepped denominational theological differences, asserting Christian unity in personal Christian faith. If the laity “turned back to the basics,” faith basics, they might find that all the trappings of seeming division, diversity, and even anarchy in the American Church were simply enriching variations on a centrally unified theme.
And fourth but not least was a Civil Rights Movement growing directly out of the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the work and martyrdom of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 had come 100 years after the war that freed the slaves. In the next 20 years after the Civil Rights Act, America moved beyond Lincoln’s wildest dreams toward becoming one nation with liberty and equality for all. Black American art and culture were granted a distinguished place in American self-understanding. American Christianity had taken a stand for human equality—important branches of the Church had been leading in that since the Abolitionist Movement. Now the American Church was confronted by the vast social, intellectual, and textural differences of Black Americans’ Christianity. Accepting Black Christianity for all its differences as of the same spirit, as a brotherly alternative, would be an incredibly powerful testimony to the potential reality of lay ecumenicism.
With these “serious” American concerns in mind, we turn to the choreographed mayhem of The Blues Brothers. Perhaps the most pressing question is simply whether Blues Brothers is a comedy at all or is it simply mayhem-derived comickedy? The question itself as applied to Blues Brothers is one of the strongest arguments for a clear intellectual distinction between comedy and comickedy.
There will no doubt be many who feel that Blues Brothers is destroyed if we move beyond an awed remembrance of the chase scenes, with of course special mention of the mall chase as one of the most creative moments in Hollywood chase literature. There will be those who simply luxuriate in the “hut” routine of repelling guardsmen, the organized insanity of parked squad cars, fire trucks, and armored personnel carriers beneath the Picasso statue at City Hall, or the unexplained overkill intensity of the girl from Curl Up and Dye Beauty Salon.
These are comickedic reactions. They depend on no comedic patterning and no comedic understanding. And if people want to enjoy Blues Brothers simply for these delights, they might want to quit reading now before their experience is “spoiled” by consideration of a comedic pattern before us.
Comedic patterning, as already heavily emphasized in this volume, is primarily dependent on repetition with variation. As also previously emphasized, comedic patterning is most typically disguised to eliminate monotony and boredom. The comedic pattern of Blues Brothers is, contrastively, remarkably undisguised. It is a single sentence, typically given to Elwood Blues (played by Dan Aykroyd)—“We’re on a mission from God.”
But before we hear Elwood monotonously repeating this phrase, it has been dramatically demonstrated to us. The action opens with Jake Elwood being released from incarceration for three years at Joliet. (In Illinois, “Joliet” has one meaning, and that meaning is not a city at commuting distance from downtown Chicago.) He is picked up by his brother, Elwood, in a souped-up if antiquated police car, the new “Bluesmobile,” with an obvious allusion to the Batmobile of the super comics and taken to see the Penguin—another Batman allusion. But the Penguin in this case turns out to be a nun, the mother superior who runs the orphanage/school where the boys grew up. The Penguin poses a problem for the brothers. The orphanage/school needs $5,000 for property assessments, and the archdiocese would rather close the mission and sell the property to the Board of Education than pay the assessment. The Penguin charges the Blues brothers with raising the assessment.
Jake finds all this no problem—presumably, he is thinking of simply stealing $5,000 for this worthy purpose. The Penguin, however, reads his mind and categorically rejects any possibility of stolen money as a solution. It must be honestly gained. At this point, Jake having lost all vision, lapses into indecorous language which leads to a ruler slap from the Penguin which leads to more indecorous language, leading to more slaps until both boys are slapped out of the office and down the stairs, Jake still stuck in the seat of a school desk. It is one of the great “mythological” moments, and it should be, because it defines the comedic plot, a quest for $5000 legitimate dollars.
The Penguin has defined the quest. The boys have not undertaken the quest. But they are pointed by the school janitor to the next station on the journey, a Black Baptist church service. In the early ‘80’s, most American Christians would probably have thought of a white Catholic mission in a predominantly black neighborhood as virtually a polar opposite of a “holy roller,” Pentecostal Black Baptist church. The Blues brothers move from one to the other naturally and with an inarticulately stoic sense of inevitability.
The Baptist Church scene is another of the great mythology cal moments, a completely over-the-top performance that confirms the entirely surrealistic farce conventions inherent in the Batman references. We will not presume to analyze the farcical elements of The Blues Brothers. Readers desiring a careful study of farce and its relationship to other forms such as slapstick, satire, parody, and comedy might consult Jessica Milner Davis’ Farce. Quite arguably Blues Brothers shares many of the traditions of farce. And yet, for all the excess, for all the surrealistic gymnastics, there is also in this scene a sense of the absolute reality of the fervent, musical, kinesthetic texture within American Black Christianity. And there is nothing over-the-top in the centrality of a message measured in repeated clauses rather than paragraphs. There is the din of lost souls. There is the reality of Christian faith and light. And the question for Everyman is simple: “Do you see the light?”
Everyman turns out to be Jake, who has demurred from Elwood’s more compliant stoic sense of inevitability. Jake is suddenly bathed in a spotlight emanating from the sky, a light so intense that his black outfit turns blue. And we see him puzzled as the minister points directly at him and asks repeatedly, “Do you see the light.” Gropingly, Jake moves toward a recognition that he does indeed see the light—yet another mythological moment, one of high hilarity given that objectively he has been in the most uncanny light for quite a while. And the simple light for Jake is that “the band” is “the answer,” for carrying out God’s direct mission for Jake to deposit $5,000—legitimate dollars—at the County Assessor’s Office..
The rest of the movie is a highly patterned recounting of how the mission from God works through in its own mysterious and invincible ways. Jake in church recalls Paul on the Road to Damascus, but perhaps is more to be compared with Paul in Acts 21, journeying to Jerusalem with everyone telling him it can’t possibly work out well. Paul (whose name means “humble”) is very like Jake, “the greatest of sinners.” And like Jake, despite his total unworthiness he is called out for a mission which only he can fulfill and which has nothing to do with reasonableness or likely outcome.
We won’t recount the wonders of Blues Brothers step by step from there. We jump instead simply to ask if the pattern has meaning. Is it a clear statement of some believable success?
The pattern of success in Blues Brothers, through all the wonders and blunders, is a pattern of living up to a calling, of knowing one’s mission, of wholeheartedly putting oneself to the fulfillment of the mission given.
And from the comedic pattern of the movie, what do we see characterizes such a successful life?
First, success isn’t easy. It isn’t reasonable. And it doesn’t “make sense.” Aretha Franklin playing Mrs. Murphy, a restaurateur, in another mythological moment sings “Think!” Maybe that’s pretty good advice to musicians working in a diner. Maybe it is only her reasonable right as wife and employer. But of course, in the end, even after the Blues Brothers themselves have joined hilariously in the dance, thinking has nothing to do with the result. In the Gospel model the Apostles were called, left their nets, and followed Him. The Blues Brothers depicts band members being called, leaving the kitchen, and following the mission.
Second, success is the success of the mission, not the material prosperity of the missionaries. In the denouement, all the missionaries have been consigned to Joliet. But success of the mission means peace, harmony, and wholeness. And all the missionaries in Joliet enjoy a peace and harmony—however loud—which, ironically, is extended to the entire cell block.
Third, the fact of mission seems inevitably to attract the forces of anti-mission, often as mindless as the missionaries. The mission is opposed first by the girl from Curl Up and Dye, a figure at first perplexing and growing ever richer humorously throughout the film. The mission is secondarily opposed by the metropolitan police of northeast Illinois, an antagonism originating in the Blues Brothers’ perhaps traversing an intersection on a marginally red rather than yellow traffic light at an hour of low traffic and no likely practical consequence for the split-second infraction. From there the circle of opposition quickly widens to the state patrol, to Chicago’s Finest, and ultimately to National Guard, SWAT teams and Special Forces capabilities that can only be imagined. That doesn’t count the opposition of one put-out bartender; of the Good Old Boys from Nashville who, smiling broadly, are bent on revenge for nothing in particular; or of the American Nazi Party. The Blues Brothers accept this opposition in stoic oblivion. Perhaps mission success is easiest if one just doesn’t think much.
Fourth, the general mission needs specific embodiment. The Penguin defined the general mission. Jake gropes for the light, the vision of specific embodiment. And that embodiment is “the band” and its own peculiar Memphis-New York rhythm-and-blues virtuosity. Arguably, it is this embodiment in the band which was the true mission. The reuniting of “the band” brings the people of Chicago to energized, choreographed unity in front of Ray’s Music (Ray Charles, that is). At Bob’s Country Bunker it transforms Country and Western beer-bottle-throwing organized violence into humble contemplation of the profundity of standing by your man. At the Palace Hotel Ballroom, it unites the crowd and symbolically all Americans, including all law enforcement, in a sense of relationship and the importance of “you.” At the end of the movie, that musical virtuosity is turning time-warped, in-the-cooler, isolated cons into an energized, choreographed whole that has the authorities running. Maybe the $5,000 was just God’s pretext, and the mission was really the music itself, vibrant, uniting sound growing largely from the African American musical tradition.
And fifth, inevitably, mission success can’t be stopped because it is the will of God. It is perfectly at home in the surrealistic because reality is truly beyond the real material world. And it is perfectly at home in farce because “neither height nor depth” nor any created thing is going to successfully interpose against it, the laws of physics itself notwithstanding.
All these points are repetitiously made in the pattern of The Blues Brothers. It is all there, just as the light is there for Jake at the Baptist Church. But the question remains whether we have been enlightened to the pattern.
Briefly then, as almost an aside, did Blues Brothers speak to American concerns in the early ’80s? In a time of inner political polarities, oppositions, and anarchy, Blues Brothers spoke to and dramatically exhibited the possibility of enormously synchronized common American energies, rising above malaise, energies ultimately centered in music and performance. In a time when a Third World War loomed as obvious sequel to the Second and the First, Blues Brothers spoke to the possibility of a simple mission which could not be successfully opposed. In a time of seeming religious fragmentation in America and dubious church ecumenicism, Blues Brothers spoke to a sense of fundamental unity in mission defined across the widest denominational chasms and executed by people who were absolutely indifferent to superficial religious denominational definitions. In a time of unprecedented idealistic commitment to the idea that all Americans are just that, Blues Brothers demonstrated the enormous depth of American debt to African-American influences and Black-white association in mission and music without the slightest sense of racial barrier.
All these things Blues Brothers could and did do using comickedic techniques. All of it Blues Brothers did intensely better because Blues Brothers itself was not only in a comic (humorous) tradition; it was also a comedy with a highly relevant comedic assertion of successful mission living.
There is of course considerably more to be said about Blues Brothers than we can say here. But since we are using Blues Brothers for our own purposes of demonstrating the separate but symbiotic realities of comedy and humor, we move on to a specific consideration of Blues Brothers’ mental humor. Such consideration may originally seem to some sacrilegious and a contradiction in terms. What can be mental about the unthinking violence and destruction which so dominate the movie? Yet the question itself points us to the first answer in Quadrilateral analysis. It is virtually impossible to imagine a humor-of-the-mind analysis of Blues Brothers that does not recognize Gotcha humor as a lead element.
The Girl from Curl Up and Dye is got from beginning to end of the movie through her own plotting and execution of unimaginable violence against the Blues Brothers to no particular effect. Law enforcement and the taxpayers of Illinois are got in the gargantuan chase that started in an academically debatable running of a red light. The Good Old Boys are good old got along with their bartender buddy. And the American Nazi Party seems to be dropped the whole length of the Sears Tower and run over by itself. Even the missionaries themselves are got, straight back to Joliet. We might argue, admittedly tongue-in-cheek, that the American commercial establishment is got for having invented malls with the thought that mall shopping avoided the unpleasantness of street shops.
If Gotcha is a necessary lead element, Word Play humor is a very distant, almost non-existent fourth, despite an admittedly clever commercialism of “curl up and dye.” By and large, the Blues Brothers are anything but articulate or masters of verbal gamesmanship. Much more typical is their deadpan repetition of being “on a mission from God.”
Gotcha’s centrality limits Blues Brothers to one of three mental humor textures: Crusader, Advocate, or Bridgebuilder. Word Play’s marginality eliminates the possibility of Blues Brothers having an Advocate texture. There are only two possibilities left: Crusader and Bridgebuilder.
The elimination of Advocate as a possible humor personality seems at first a palpable loss. From what we have already said, it might seem that Blues Brothers is advocating mission living big time. But then, all comedy is assertive. Blues Brothers’ assertion concerns mission. But unless all comedies are Advocate, Blues Brothers’ assertion doesn’t make it particularly Advocate.
We’ve eliminated as well Intellectual, (that’s a relief—Blues Brothers is the opposite of heady stuff), Reconciler (maybe less of a relief—Elwood and Jake seem reconciled throughout to a life of jeopardy, pain, and final reincarceration with mission accomplished), and Consoler (perhaps also less of a relief in that music is obviously a great consolation to everyone in the film, especially to the re-ensconced band at Joliet).
We are left with the possibilities of Crusader (Gotcha and Incongruity) or Bridgebuilder (Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain). There is much reason to nominate Incongruity as the second humor lead in Blues Brothers. It seems incongruous of God to choose Jake to be the “called out one.” As long as we assume a realistic world, there are repeated incongruities of the world falling in on Jake and Elwood only for them to walk away unscathed. There is the incongruity of a hundred squad cars all incongruously in pursuit and incongruously slamming into one another in pursuit of two musicians. This Incongruity is eloquently captured in the elevator scene as Elwood and Jake listen tacitly to interminable Muzak as their elevator crawls toward the 11th floor (at the 11th hour symbolically), all the while the gargantuan powers of the City and State are converging in loud, energetic pursuit.
These are very strong arguments for Incongruity humor. The comic wonders of Blues Brothers’ Incongruities will not go away with fancy argumentation. Some of them however deserve minor caveats. For example, Elwood’s and Jake’s incongruous escapes from mayhem are within the conventions of farce, the equivalent of Road Runner not being got by Coyote. As such, their incongruous force diminishes quickly throughout the movie. As watchers of farce, it is eventually our duty to take them for granted, conventions within a surrealistic world rather than incongruities within a realistic one.
The hugely successful Incongruity humor of Blues Brothers remains unassailable. But our caveat does introduce an important additional concept: the dynamic growth or decline of a type of humor in the course of an artistic work. This humor dynamic becomes critical as we consider the possibility of Sympathetic Pain as second lead element.
Recalling the Penguin scene, and specifically the Penguin’s first whap of Jake with a ruler, we find Punch-and-Judy humor, and it is clearly Gotcha. Jake hasn’t wanted to come back to see the Penguin. He is much more aloof than Elwood, and his carnal mind has a clear carnally superior solution. This leads him to a sense of superiority which leads him to indecorous language when the Penguin scotches illicit gains. In other words, he thought he was smart. He forgot that he was in a disciplined Catholic institution and thereby had accepted the Penguin’s disciplinary authority. And he is got exactly the way he would have been got in the fourth grade.
His getting got of course leads to more foul language and more blows. The Gotcha is building; the joke is getting bigger and bigger, particularly as the Penguin breaks her ruler and moves on to a yardstick that swishes a great deal like a rapier. In other words, the joke builds, and it is the build that gives the joke prominence and a better right to be called “lead humor.”
But something happens about the point that the ruler is replaced by the rapier/yard stick. Something new is building inside us, at least potentially. At least potentially, we start to see this joke from Jake and Elwood’s point of view. Hey, they were only being obedient. Hey, they were only offering to help. Hey, they were only being realistic. Hey, how can you hold them to ideals of conduct that epitomize the Savior, not frail humanity?
And with each whap from there, we have more a sense of Sympathetic Pain. We know exactly how you feel, buddy. Sometimes, the harder you try, the more you get hit. The more you try to rise above yourself, the more you are humiliatingly thrown down the stairs. The more you are realistically honest, the more you are religiously taken out to the woodshed. Guess we’d rather laugh with you than cry about it. Sympathetic Pain in the Penguin scene starts from nowhere, emerges from Gotcha, and eventually challenges the Gotcha joke itself. It ends up all by itself at the bottom of the stairs. And it is immensely funny.
This potential for Sympathetic Pain humor to grow out of Gotcha is epitomized in the Penguin scene. It is repetitiously built into humor structures throughout the movie. For example, the first time we see Carrie Fisher (the Mystery Woman from the Curl Up and Dye shop), she is aiming a four-tube rocket launcher at Jake’s head. She misses of course, and Jake and Elwood calmly pick their way around a blasted doorway to proceed into the hotel. At the time, we don’t understand what is happening or why it is happening. We still don’t understand when Fisher tries to kill the brothers by blowing up the hotel. But as she continues to fail, a large Gotcha joke on her is building. She obviously thinks she is smart and violent enough to eliminate Jake. She is got with repeated total failure.
Yet as the structure continues to be built, and as we become more fully acquainted with Jake’s less than admirable character, the potential for a Sympathetic Pain response emerges. For whatever reason the girl from Curl Up and Dye is out after Jake (it turns out he left her at the altar with a large wedding bill), we know exactly how she feels in repeated failure. And to fail on such a low life, too! At the same time, a potential Sympathetic Pain humor response begins to develop for the Blues brothers, particularly for Elwood ,who is just always in the wrong company. We know exactly how he feels, too. And it’s all greatly amusing.
Similarly, the cops and state patrol are indubitably got. But by the time they notice that their watches are busted, we typically have had time to feel Sympathetic Pain humor for them and with them. John Candy can’t be successfully cast as an outright villain-police commissioner solely to be got. When he calls in to report that Car 55 is now moving by truck, we aren’t just laughing at him; we are largely laughing with him.
All these considerations finally raise the question, what humor personality should be assigned to The Blues Brothers? For those who find Blues Brothers’ Incongruity humor overwhelmingly compelling, the movie will have a Gotcha plus Incongruity or Crusader texture. For those who are willing to admit Sympathetic Pain as second and constantly growing lead, the movie will have a Gotcha plus Sympathetic Pain or Bridgebuilder texture. There is enough truth in either to be the base of a whole critical tradition of interpretation of this film. Perhaps there will be such contrasting schools of thought if The Blues Brothers is seriously studied for centuries.
There is in fact a great analog to this possible critical future. For the last four centuries, there have been two contrasting critical traditions interpreting Don Quixote. Everyone agrees that Cervantes’ work is replete with incongruity humor—the emaciated and dilapidated hidalgo of the 16th century delusionally interpreting the world in light of high medieval romance. But from here criticism divides One school of criticism, mainly European, essentially sees Cervantes applying the broad whip of Gotcha humor to the Don’s lean and Sancho’s broad shoulders. Another school, mainly American, sees the sympathetic Man of La Mancha, the man of the Impossible Dream, essentially the butt of Sympathetic Pain humor. Elizabeth and Paul Grawe discussed this long-standing critical division over Don Quixote in such quadrilateral terms at the Luzo-Hispanic Humor Conference in Sudbury Ontario in 1999. This volume expands on the pioneering effort made there.
In the case of Quixote, readers may choose to be part of the American school, recognizing the Reconciler personality, or join the European school, adopting a Crusader interpretation of Cervantes’ masterpiece. Our own feeling is that doing one or the other is a simplification. The greatness of Quixote resides in good part in its double texture and double view.
We should probably come to something of the same compromising view of The Blues Brothers. It does have Crusader texture. And it does have Bridgebuilder texture. It is either Bridgebuilder-leaning Crusader or Crusader-leaning Bridgebuilder. For our purposes here, we adopt the latter formulation and adopt Blues Brothers as a representative Bridgebuilder film.
But then we must ask, does such a humor identification make sense?
Let’s consider Crusader personality first. Clearly, the Blues Brothers’ mission can be seen as a crusade. As suggested earlier, it is either a crusade to secure $5,000 legitimate dollars for the orphanage or a crusade for the band to play, uniting people in its particular musical expression. Either definition of the crusade makes sense with the comedic assertion. And furthermore, Crusader humor texture seems to be a perfect fit with the comedic action.
If the film has a Crusader personality, it is likely to have a pretty hard finish. This is certainly true for Blues Brothers. And that hard finish represents among other things a crusader-like refusal to contemplate empathetically the human costs of particular lines of action. Crusaders count the cost in advance. They tend to ignore the costs as they pile up because the costs are in fact all hurdles to ultimate success. Just as a hurdler does not concentrate on each hurdle but instead concentrates on form and tempo to clear the hurdle, so the crusader typically ignores pain in favor of concentration on overcoming obstacles and moving on toward the final quest. And certainly, the Blues Brothers undertake and execute their mission with a stoicism befitting people who’ve been in the slammer long enough to develop a profoundly stoic and mechanically regimented view of life.
But texture is felt by the audience, not by the characters, and it is precisely here that we may discern the inadequacy of a Crusader analysis. Blues Brothers does not quash our feelings for the brothers, for the jilted restaurateur (Aretha Franklin) for the Girl from Curl Up and Dye (Carrie Fisher), for the chief of state patrol (John Candy), or for the members of the band (all superb real-life musicians). We are aware of many of the costs even if Jake and Elwood seem impervious to such considerations.
These qualifications aside, like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Blues Brothers has a hard finish; Blues Brothers has a sense of always moving on to the next battle, even the battle of making music in Joliet; Blues Brothers does have a sense of inner rightness and rectitude—all Crusader-texture attributes.
Let us then consider the Bridgebuilder texture of Blues Brothers. The brothers are clearly in some sense crusaders. But they are also bridgebuilders—building a future for the Penguin’s institution, however tenuous, building a band out of their constant repetition that they are on a mission from God, building urban community, building audience solidarity, themselves bridging religious denominational chasms.
In orthodox theology, particularly Catholic theology, Grace, free giftiness, is a fundamental characteristic of God. But God needs means to deliver His free gifts. The means by which God delivers His gifts to mankind are sacraments and of course notably include the formal sacraments of the Church. But God’s giftiness is by no means limited to gifts like baptism, communion, and marriage. In the world, God is constantly finding vehicles for his grace, bridges if you will, by which His gifts are brought down to people in individual times, places, and needs. In American literature, Flannery O’Connor focuses on comic, even vulgar, vehicles of God’s grace. In recent British literature, Graham Greene has developed similar thematic interests. In Blues Brothers, Elwood and Jake exist within a comic sacramental literary tradition. In many ways, they themselves are the bridge; in other ways, they are simply the instrumentalities creating the bridge.
Assuming a Bridgebuilder humor personality, what kind of humor texture would we expect to find? Bridgebuilder texture is likely to have several characteristics. First, it is a texture of practicality, of getting the job done. Bridges aren’t built in ivory towers or by dreamers. Jake and Elwood are of course enormously practical in their own highly ironic, unconventional way. Once Jake has seen the light, they simply set about doing what it takes, though all the forces of hell be loosed against them.
Second, Bridgebulder texture is likely to be highly objective. In Minnesota recently, we have been shocked by the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis and the accompanying loss of life. There’s objectivity about getting a bridge built, and there isn’t much room for subjectivism if the bridge doesn’t stand. Jake and Elwood’s deadpan fits with this objective texture. There is a mission. Get on with it.
Third, Bridgebuilder texture is almost by definition an act of union. Bridges bring separated people together. While Bridgebuilders can be both practical and objective, the building of unity gives a passionate character to Bridgebuilder texture. For example, the pounding of the Golden Spike that joined the trans-continental railroad in Utah is one of those epitomizing moments of American history, a high-passion moment of recognizing that the American dream of spanning a continent had become a reality.
Comically and ironically, as well as seriously through the energizing character of music, Blues Brothers brings people together on a massive scale, symbolized by the crowd solidarity at the Palace Hotel Ballroom and ironically magnified by the climactic convergence on the Picasso plaza area. For all these reasons, we are very comfortable in submitting that Blues Brothers has a strongly Crusader-influenced Bridgebuilder humor texture.
◄►◄ Some Complications for Humor Texture within Comedy ►◄►
For a more sophisticated understanding of the Bridgebuilder texture of The Blues Brothers, it is helpful to contrast it to that of The Music Man, it’s humorous opposite on the Natural Order Circle. We began our study with Music Man illustrating Intellectual humor personality and texture. We then considered Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and its Crusader humor, which in the Natural Order Circle lies just to the right of Intellectual. That was followed by My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its Reconciler humor texture, Reconciler lying just to the left of Intellectual. With consideration of The Blues Brothers, we have moved around the Natural Order Circle to a position exactly opposite Intellectual humor personality. (See Figure 3.)
The Natural Order Circle has a great deal of heuristic simplicity about it. The regularity of the circle as a representation of individual humor personalities is somewhat misleading. From both subjective impressions and objective data in the Winona State testing program, we are quite sure that opposite humor personalities are not equally far apart in their real-life embodiments. Specifically, Intellectual and Bridgebuilder humor personalities seem in our experience to be polar opposites to an extent not matched by other humor opposites. In fact, people testing as either Bridgebuilders or Intellectuals often express close to contempt for those in the opposite category. And certain types of people occupationally heavily lean to one or the other extreme. For example, we were fortunate to have a very substantial number of social work majors taking the Humor Quotient Test. As a group, they virtually always scored much more as Bridgebuilders than their classmates, who tended to be liberal arts majors.
It is not our purpose to express contempt for any of the six personality types we have defined. But we are very aware of the strain existing on the Intellectual/Bridgebuilder axis and the much greater psychic distance implied by that polarity, compared to Reconciler-Advocate, or even Crusader-Consoler.
In our experience, the Advocate-Reconciler axis differs markedly from the Intellectual-Bridgebuilder axis in having little psychic distance dividing Advocates from Reconcilers. In fact many people have a hard time intellectually separating one definition from the other. Paul once, while playing golf with a retired army officer with two tours in Vietnam, explained five of the six personality types, reserving Reconciler as the hardest to explain and understand. The army officer was incredulous—this was by far the simplest of all the categories. It was to him in fact simply the military code in disguise. Paul’s friend could have added that Reconciler is also the police and firefighter code. (Think of the famous poster of the 9-11 firefighter with the caption, “They rushed in when others rushed out,” as practical a definition of Reconciler as one is likely to find.) But if that is the case, many people will insist on adding, “But those people are Advocates for their nation, their city, their community.” Thus, in our experience of interpreting the Humor Quotient Test to participants, we have found that the psychic and practical distance between Reconcilers and Advocates is considerably less than the distance between Intellectual and Bridgebuilder.
Somewhere in the middle is the distance between Crusaders and Consolers. Crusaders and Consolers are clearly intellectually distinct, perhaps even strongly contrasting, ideas. And yet, the two are often highly compatible. In a test of the relationship between political preference and humor personality, for example, we found that self-identified liberal men tend heavily toward Crusader humor and self-identified liberal women tend heavily toward Consoler humor. Presumably this does not breed gender discord but rather emotional and functional complementarity in liberal communities.
Reducing these subtle variations in psychic distance between opposite humor personalities to an accurate visualization results in a diagram resembling not a regular circle but an ugly and misshapen peanut. We recoil from presenting such a visualization here and retreat back to the geometric simplicity of the Natural Order Circle. However, remembering that opposite humor personalities are at different removes from their axis partners, we return to our observation that The Music Man and The Blues Brothers have close to antipodal humor texture. The films are both musical, though Blues Brothers is not normally recognized as a musical. They are both about mid-American values. But in texture, they are starkly opposite. And it wouldn’t surprise us if most of the people who are the greatest admirers of The Music Man would have considerable trouble appreciating The Blues Brothers and vice versa.
Recalling the Natural Order Circle, we also notice that Music Man, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Big Fat Greek Wedding are all united in having Incongruity as a lead humor element. We have admitted the possibility of arguing for Incongruity as a lead element in Blues Brothers. But, if we assign Bridgebuilder as the texture of Blues Brothers, then Blues Brothers does not share this common trait of the other three. Hopefully the reader can review the centrality of Incongruity in those three—the incongruous strain of being a second-generation Greek marrying an Anglo, the constant incongruous difference of the con versus the reality in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the incongruity of the fly-by-night salesman who has really considered how music is made in America and is the prophet of one of its greatest musical traditions in Music Man—and recognize that the Blues Brothers’ being given a mission by God is not really in the same league of incongruity. God has a definite penchant for choosing unlikely vehicles (consider Samuel’s anointing of David, the least and last of Jesse’s sons, as emblematic). To insist on the incongruousness of Jake and Elwood for their mission is simply to insist on what the entire tradition, not to mention the Penguin and the Baptist minister, consider reasonable.
So the great contrast that we can consider here, again, is the antipodal contrast between Intellectual humor texture in Music Man and Bridgebuilder humor texture in Blues Brothers. It is important in both cases to emphasize the “humor” modifier on texture.
Music Man and Blues Brothers are opposites in many textures, not just in humor texture. One for example has an urban, one a rural texture. (We could call this “sociological texture.”) One’s texture is definitely “grungy” centering on inner city aging neighborhoods and sleazy night spots. The other’s texture is self-respecting and spotless (primarily a difference in materialistic textures). The cinematography of Blues Brothers is relatively murky whether the brothers are falling down stairs before the Penguin, standing in the back of the Baptist church, waiting for Elwood at Joliet, or traversing the border counties of northeastern Illinois. In contrast, Music Man’s cinematography is characteristically bright even when the scene is nighttime in front of Harold Hill’s hotel, outside Marian’s house, in the square abutting Mayor Shinn’s billiard parlor, at Madison Park, or on its famous footbridge (in other words, antipodal differences in visual texture.). Moreover, as we will consider in more detail in the second half of this book, Music Man is a fairly conventional, light comedy. Blues Brothers is fundamentally what we will call sombre comedy or what has often commonly been called dark comedy, with corresponding glaring difference in comedic texture.
None of these is humor texture, but as one might expect of any significant work of art, all the textures, of humor and otherwise, are made to harmonize in significant works like The Music Man and The Blues Brothers. So let us exemplify this harmonization with one aspect of the humor textural difference. Blues Brothers’ humor texture supports ambiguity; Music Man’s humor supports clarity. We often think of intellectuals as being able to handle ambiguity. Of course, we are then typically thinking of intellectuals as very smart people, whereas our technical definition is that Intellectual humor deals in words, things, and ideas—things of the intellect—in sharp contrast to Bridgebuilder which deals with pain and people. The long-term aim of intellectualization is to make the world understandable, to establish laws and principles, to make sense of what otherwise looks chaotic and arbitrary. And in that sense, intellect tries to make things black and white.
Now in Blues Brothers, some things are black and white—the Penguin, for example, the Bluesmobile, and the Blues Brothers’ outfits. But that’s about where black and white ends. As an art work employing humor texture, Blues Brothers majors in ambiguity and comparatively Music Man majors in Intellectual clarity. How does this work out of the humor preferences of the two movies?
Bridgebuilder humor is a combination of Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain. At the base of Gotcha humor lies our sense of justice—someone thinks he is talented and gets got (justice is inflicted) for this lack of proper self-knowledge. At the base of Sympathetic Pain humor lies our sense of mercy. Someone gets hurt, and we refuse to enter into judgment. We recognize that they are undeserving victims, and we enter into a sympathetic attitude of fellow-feeling.
The combination of Sympathetic Pain and Gotcha humor in Blues Brothers, creates a very large bias toward ambiguous response. Do we treat any particular moment—let’s say the moment when the Girl from Curl Up and Dye fires the rocket launcher at Jake’s head—either as Sympathetic Pain or as Gotcha? As based in justice or as based in mercy?
Contrastingly, Intellectual humor stays away from human pain and justice/mercy issues altogether. It restricts itself to working with words through Word Play and things and ideas through Incongruity. Without the clash of justice and mercy, the humor can be much less ambiguous, much more clarifying. Consider the climactic scene in Madison gymnasium when Harold Hill is on trial before the townspeople of River City. There is no ambiguity in this scene. We as audience are not a bit inclined to have Harold tarred and feathered. Plot complication, yes; suspense, yes; plot ambiguity, no.
The ambiguous Bridgebuilder humor texture of Blues Brothers is of course reinforced by the sociological texture of old neighborhoods—should we view them with respect and even a certain reverence for all the life they’ve seen or should we be considering how they can be urban-renewed? Similarly the dirty texture—should we clean it up, leave it alone, or eradicate it? And, just as strongly, the Intellectual clarity of Music Man is reinforced by its clean and tidy cinematographic textures. Mayor Shinn may be perfectly capable of thinking in terms of horse manure, but the set of Music Man will never allow the reality of horse manure on Main Street to disrupt its consistent clear texture.
Music Man teaches a great lesson—that the true visionary, the true evangelist of a new life must always seem flighty and unsound to the common-sense world that hasn’t caught the vision. Blues Brothers teaches a very old lesson about God’s calling of frail humanity for ultimately mysterious purposes of vision and mission. The one thing seemingly sure is that all hell will break loose between the calling and the completion. These lessons are integral to their respective film’s comedic forms. But Music Man is backed up with Intellectual humor clarity; Blues Brothers is backed up with Bridgebuilder humor ambiguity. The lesson in Music Man has a sharp clarity provided by many harmonized textures. The lesson of Blues Brothers has a fuzzy, touchy-feely, almost out-of-focus and certainly surrealistic feel provided by very different but equally harmonized textures.
 A condensed version of this paper, “The Split Humor Personality of Don Quixote," appeared in the Humor Quotient Newsletter 5-1 (1999).