Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:
Humor in American Film Comedy
One of the greatest truths of Hollywood is that one good comedy deserves a remake.
As early as New Comedy, the standard approach was to pit a young hero and heroine and their potential success against an older blocking figure, the senex.
For the ancient world one qualified for senex status shortly after one’s 30th birthday.
Abandoning the long tradition of youth-centered comedy, Father of the Bride would be compelling theater for older audiences with or without humor.
Father of the Bride has a double analysis, one strand of which is ultimately bogus.
If the film centered on financial success, George Banks would be one of the great losers of all times.
Buffoon comedy is a specialized form of comedy, in which the central figure is not a succeeder.
Typically buffoons are still survivors.
Yet a buffoon analysis ignores a great deal else in the movie and fails to account for what isn’t in the movie.
The Danes' heartily hugging and congratulating George suggest that George paid for their tickets, but maybe Danes are just very demonstrative at weddings.
The financial survival issue is in fact a red herring.
Fiction writers enjoy the enormous privilege of naming their characters.
“George” in Greek means “farmer”; “Nina” in Spanish means “little girl.”
Annie, John and Johanna, all mean "gift" or "God's gift," suggesting that the joining of these two families is actually intensely right.
George is a farmer, a manager, by nature; his wife is a little girl; and he ends up as an enormous winner with two Gifts added to his own daughter.
Annie has been a gift to her father for a long time before the film opens.
Nina is a blocking figure in herself.
Father of the Bride repeatedly demonstrates the survival qualities of self satire, humility, cooperation, and recollection of fundamental values.
What is left to George is to manage himself.
Father of the Bride explores how life is to successfully go on instead of ending well before physical death.
The list of what George must muddle through is simply ego-shattering.
George’s finest moments are in patching up the squabble between Annie and Bryan.
Ultimately he is dependent, for any real prosperity beyond mere survival, on a gift.
Despite George's "tendency to overreact," we sympathize with him throughout in humor.
And we laugh with him when he notices that he is now playing through with great skill and real maturity, all for his daughter’s and Bryan’s happiness and in total disregard for the costs to himself.
Sympathetic Pain is an overwhelming lead humor element.
Gotcha is reserved for people who think themselves smart. George doesn’t think that he is smart.
George’s perception about the multiple perspectives of parenting is not incongruous but profoundly honest.
Enter Martin Short as Franck Eggelhoffer.
Short's dynamic dominance from a supporting role is achieved by an incomparably audacious willingness to murder not only the King's English but all English.
Franck’s verbal style is style raised to the nonsensical nth degree.
The prominent voice-over is George Banks consoling himself into a new life.
Setting up a successful, happy family necessarily entailed sowing the seeds of its own destruction.
Acceptance is a mature response, but it doesn’t come easily or without cost.
Father of the Bride exhibits a powerful consonance between its comedic import and its Consoler humor texture.
Consoler as a humor texture sometimes is strongly at odds with perceived aspects of real-world consolation.
It is the articulation by two world-class funny talkers that makes Father of the Bride a Consoler movie.
That’s the theory anyway.
Literary criticism's discussion of the textural features of comedy and humor has been sensitive but abstract, without even a pretext of empirical verification.
We will be providing evidence from empirical studies which throw light on the abstract analysis and appreciation of humor personality and texture in works of literature.
Empirical studies have indicated a strong preference for Crusader among young men and a marked decrease among men over 30.
This decrease is mathematically identical to a marked increase in Consoler rank.
For women, Consoler scores make something of a hairpin, starting strong among young women, decreasing in the 30's and 40's, and returning in later years.
This late tendency toward Consoler continues into old age, even in the presence of partial dementia.
These empirical results suggest that George Banks has been moving away from Crusader and toward Consoler for quite a while.
The voice-over self-critical ambience of Father of the Bride is consonant with such a perception.
The good news for the Bankses, at least from empirical evidence, is that if they can hold on for a few more years, Nina will start to reverse course, becoming more of the caring Consoler as she and George move into retirement.
Chapter 8: Father of the Bride
A Long Line of Over-reactors
One of the greatest truths of Hollywood is that one good comedy deserves a remake, sequel, or knock-off. It is one of the great truths of any professional, on-going theater. Theater is an enormously expensive medium compared to any other form of literature. And when theater doesn’t pay off to its stakeholders, that theater is on its way into the dustbin of history. So finding a formula that works has always been important in theater, whether we are talking about the revenge tragedies of London theater in the 1590’s or High School Musical’s sequel in 2007.
Tragedies can produce winning formulas, but rarely. Comedy on the other hand naturally breeds sequels and remakes, not to mention formula look-alikes. We have already alluded to the fact that an ancient comedy, Menaechmi, was picked up by Shakespeare for perhaps his first great success on the London stage, Comedy of Errors. And four centuries after Shakespeare, Rogers and Hart, decided simply to do what Shakespeare had done and produced the musical The Boys from Syracuse.
The reason for this affinity is not hard to find. As we have defined comedy, it is a patterned action demonstrating a faith in a certain kind of success or survival, that kind of success or survival defined by a repetition of success-defining action. The practical world, which is the world of average play-goers, is constantly looking for ways to succeed and survive. Demonstrate that one can have a reasonable faith in a certain kind of survival, and many in the audience will be glad for another chance to ponder that success or survival either in a sequel, a formula look-alike, or a remake.
And so it is with Father of the Bride, which was an enormous success in the 1950’s version staring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. Today, we’d say that Father of the Bride considers the problem of the emptying nest. Father of the Bride is exceptional as comedy because it does not do what the enormous majority of comedy throughout theater history has done—to consider the challenge of the young making their way in the world against the established forces of society. As early as New Comedy, the standard approach for the comedic writer was to choose a young hero and heroine and to pit their potential success against an older blocking figure who very quickly was stereotypically named the senex—the “old man”—figure.
For the ancient world and even the Renaissance world, one qualified for senex status shortly after one’s 30th birthday—about the time one could have a routine expectation of grandchildren. It is normally a shocking readjustment for modern students to realize that in a Shakespearean-era play, the senex might be something over 35, having accumulated several dowries’ wealth from wives who died in childbirth. Such a figure would be a seriously towering rival to a typical 17-year-old Romeo hero and 13–year-old Juliet.
Father of the Bride abandons that long tradition of youth-centered comedy. Spencer Tracey’s Stanley was at least 45 or maybe even 50! And middle-aged audiences, who after all have their own problems of success and survival, gratefully applauded comedy which started to act their age. Later in this volume, we will consider the potential for comedy to move to topics that make Spencer Tracy look juvenile. But these preliminary reflections again point to the critical need to take comedy seriously as a formally meaningful genre (and a rapidly developing genre at that), whether we consider its humor or not. Father of the Bride would be compelling theater for older audiences with or without the addition of humor.
And of course, Father of the Bride was so compelling that Steve Martin remade what Tracy and Taylor had already made.
Remakes are constrained to something of the same plot; they are not constrained to the same humor texture (and minimally constrained to the same comedic import). So if you have seen the Spencer Tracy original, try not to think about it very directly as we consider the humor structure of the Steve Martin film. There is little reason to assume that the humor analysis has much in common between the two movies. Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors certainly has a very different texture, along with an ultimately different comedic import, from Menaechmi.
Father of the Bride is, however, also typical sophisticated comedy, at least in the sense that it has a double analysis, one strand of which is ultimately bogus, essentially a red herring that leads away rather than toward the true comedic design. That red herring is the superficial idea, taken from plot structure, that Father of the Bride is concerned with financial survival. Certainly George Banks spends most of the movie trying to save a buck here or there. He reels at all the component prices of a Franck Eggelhoffer-orchestrated wedding; he looks like an idiot wearing a blue (and thus less expensive) tuxedo; he gets thrown in jail for his rebellion against paying for a couple extra hot dog buns; and he misses seeing his daughter off on her honeymoon because he has unwisely saved the cost of two extra parking valets.
If the comedic design of Father of the Bride really centered on such issues, then we would have to conclude that, far from being a model of success and survival, George Banks is one of the great losers of all times, a man gifted at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and a general terror and torture to himself and to all those around him.
It is not that such sad-sack comedy is impossible. It is indeed possible as its own highly specialized branch of comedy, buffoon comedy, for which Steve Martin has particularly strong talents. In buffoon comedy, the central figure is not a succeeder who we can hope to emulate. Instead, the central figure is a repeated loser because of some particular tick of character. Through comedic repetition, buffoon comedy formally asserts that such a tick is certainly not a formula for success in the world and that one or more of its opposites is therefore the real success formula.
Buffoon comedy, again, is a specialized form of comedy away from the mainstream. And it typically is more complex than light comedy, first of all because there is more thinking involved in establishing what is really being commended as a success pattern for life. A second complexity, however, is that typically buffoons are still survivors. They may lose and lose and lose, but they keep coming back for more. And at that level, they become positive comedic leads with often mysterious staying power and often of a very dark type, as in Waiting for Godot. These qualities of buffoon comedy point to a deeper analysis of The Blues Brothers, Jake and Elwood being at one level buffoon losers (our first impression of Jake is of the man who does not know how to stand behind the line drawn on the floor while he reclaims the personal property taken from him upon his incarceration at Joliet and whose property largely consists of condoms, used and unused).
Buffoon comedy has a distinguished history, and there would be nothing pejorative in labeling Father of the Bride buffoon comedy centered on George Banks’ futile attempts at economic survival. The problem with a buffoon analysis is that it ignores a great deal else in the movie and it fails to account for what isn’t in the movie.
Let’s start with the latter. If economic survival is the great issue of Father of the Bride, it is surprising how little is really settled about that issue. We do not know, for example, how much or little whittling down of the guest list George is able to accomplish. (We do get to estimate his success or failure, if we are very quick-witted to estimate the attendance at the wedding, the number of people squeezed into George and Nina’s house for the reception or the number of automobiles that need to be cleared from the street.)
John and Johanna MacKenzie have graciously offered to help with the costs of the wedding, but we are never allowed to know whether their generosity has been accepted. (George’s revulsion at the idea suggests that he is not that seriously challenged with financial ruin). It would seem that if the MacKenzies should pay for anything, they should certainly pay the airfare for their Danish relatives, starting with the two extra seats needed by the most corpulent of the Danes. (The Danes' heartily hugging and congratulating George suggest that George ended up paying for their tickets, but then again maybe Danes are just very demonstrative at weddings.)
Nina is presented as a professional woman, and George is presented as owner and manager of a substantial manufacturing business. We are never allowed to consider the cost of the wedding against either the Banks’ net worth or their income stream. All these failures to follow through should suggest that the financial survival issue is in fact a red herring, a plot vehicle rather than the fundamental comedic pattern.
On the other side, treating George simply as buffoon ignores vast areas of the movie, all of which are tied together in a much deeper comedic pattern. In order to fully explicate that pattern, we need to address a seeming side issue, one that certainly doesn’t fit easily into any buffoon analysis. That issue is the characters’ names.
Fiction writers enjoy the enormous privilege of naming their characters. Choosing names randomly from a phone book is therefore an almost certain sign in fictional literature of authorial mediocrity. Father of the Bride’s production staff explicitly claims credit for George’s middle name being Stanley as a reference back to the Spencer Tracy film (Internet Movie Database, Father).
For our purposes, the name “George” is of central concern Nina’s name should also be considered. Of somewhat secondary interest is the fact that their daughter’s, Annie,” and the MacKenzies’ names, “John” and “Johanna,” are etymologically close to synonymous, literarily a very unusual device. “George” in Greek means “farmer,” a word whose meaning has changed much over the last 3,000 years or so. A farmer originally was an owner and manager, as in a “tax farmer” who had bought the right to manage and collect taxes. “Nina” in Spanish means “little girl” as “el Niño” means “little boy” and typically is used to refer to the Christ Child.
From a buffoon comedy perspective, this is all wrong. Nina, far from a child, is the level-headed one, the rationalist and meliorist with the maturity to meet a constantly changing world with poise and perspective. And certainly Diane Keaton is extraordinarily cast as just such a vibrantly put-together woman. If that is the sum of what can be said, then ‘”Nina” seems either an enormously inept name or a very ironic one. And of course “George,” the farmer/owner/manager, doesn’t seem particularly apt for a buffoon lead either, except possibly ironically.
“Annie,” as a form of “Ann” and ultimately of “Hannah,” means “gift” in Hebrew. “John” and “Johanna” are simply male and female synonyms, in Hebrew meaning “God’s gift.” The very unusual repetition of names suggests first that the joining of these two families is actually intensely right, not intensely wrong as George keeps trying to convince himself. Second it is almost a direct statement that there is a mutual exchange of gifts involved in the basic plot situation of the marriage of Bryan and Annie.
It is possible then that the “Gift” names are there to show just how big a loser George can be—except that he ends up with all three Gifts as his extended family.
So let’s start over. With all these etymologies in place, we can return to examination of Father of the Bride’s comedic assertion, recognizing that buffoon comedy is a very deliberate and artistic red-herring in Father of the Bride, drawing on extraordinary reserves of buffoon talent in Steve Martin.
We have already established several bases for that new examination. First, Father of the Bride defies conventional comedic tradition by making a conventional senex figure sympathetic, and turns the entire comedic pattern to consider how that senex will in fact negotiate his way through the senex transition from father to grandfather-in-waiting. Second, financial survival is not ever fundamentally at issue, no matter how hard Franck tries to make it so. Third, George is a farmer, a manager, by nature; his wife is a little girl; and he ends up as an enormous winner with two Gifts added to his own daughter.
If George is a manager, then it is best to assume that he is doing a managing job. What does he have to manage? In the virtual history before the beginning of the film, George has been managing as the father of two widely-spaced children. From a dad’s point of view, this has probably been complicated by the older being a daughter. George has dealt with that in part through basketball. He hasn’t been particularly able to interact with his daughter as the mistress of Barbie Dolls, but he has compensated, and he has been fortunate to have a daughter who cared enough about him to compensate with him and to become a rather fine basketball player in the process. Annie has been a gift to her father for a long time before the film opens.
But precisely because she has been such a large gift, as the film opens, George the manager is confronted with a vision of almost unbearable loss. George looks across the table at a daughter announcing her engagement and can only see an eleven-year-old child, can only stare in unbelief that so much has changed so quickly.
And this is where the red herring comes in to work so wondrous an enchantment. George the Buffoon—we laugh at what an idiot he is making of himself. But slowing down a little, we should ask why we feel that George is being an idiot. Is he idiotic to see the 11-year-old in the 23-year-old? If so, it is an everyday parental idiocy, hardly worth the noticing. Is he idiotic to recognize the potential for huge loss? Managers are supposed to be able to see losses coming and to act aggressively to avoid them. And if Annie is a great gift, her engagement entails certain loss. George is wrong at the dinner table not to accept a certain loss as a sunk cost, but he recovers from this error.
It is worth noticing that Nina does not allow herself to agree with her manager husband. She is a beautiful and vibrant woman, but she lives in a superiority to her husband that refuses to empathize with his real perceptions. And this makes her a kind of blocking figure in herself, an admittedly highly attractive and thus in many ways effective block.
And that leaves George alone in working through the problem of sunk costs. Accepting Nina’s solution of not seeing the problem is impossible. And that leaves George all the more alone.
It is not inevitable that a character will solve such a problem. George does. And it is centrally important to notice how he does it. First, he develops an introspective and self-satirizing inner dialogue, carried forward throughout the film in voice-over. Second, his self-satire gives expression to an inherent humility which recognizes his own tendencies to exaggerate and distort reality. Third, he makes a real attempt to cooperate with his wife’s “pragmatic” sense of right conduct. And fourth, he makes a real attempt to recall foundational principles and values, to remember that he and Nina were in the business of growing Annie up and allowing her to build her own life, and to reconstruct the perceptions of his own youth in order to properly deal with his children.
Father of the Bride demonstrates combinations of these essential survival qualities one time after another as George tries to manage his way through. In fairness to Nina, as a blocking figure she also comes to George’s rescue, and her blocking modus operendi may in fact come from having so often come to George’s rescue in the past. When George wallows too far into self-pity, distortion of reality, and egotism, Nina can be counted on to sternly pull him out of all these and more. Thus Nina’s finest moment comes at the jail cell where her dominance is beyond any possible dispute and where she dictates terms to George that seriously constrain his ability to manage anything.
What is left to George is to manage himself. And that is a mighty task indeed.
But giving Nina every credit for rescuing George, it must also be noticed that as the “little girl,” she does nothing to make his management easier in any more sympathetic way. The basic premise of the plot is that she in fact joins Annie in a thoroughly unrealistic, girlish fantasy of plotting the perfect wedding, joining Miss Best with Prince Charming. Enter Franck Eggelhoffer, and the final costs skyrocket with the addition of swans, bathtub accommodations for swans, remodeled house, van-transported furniture, rented other furniture, a cake (pronounced “kek”) which seems worth its weight in gold, hair-dryers to evaporate snow, negotiations with an incomprehensible chef, and just about anything else Franck or his assistant, Howard, can think of.
In short, George is left to come to terms with the sunk costs that were always sunk in his efforts to father a harmonious, beautiful, and gifted family. He is left to come to terms with the fact that time has passed and with it his time to be father to Annie in any of the ways he has become accustomed to. The magnificent costs of the wedding itself only add insult to injury or perhaps injury to insult.
Again, there is no reason to think that every character is capable of surviving such a transition as an effective human being any more than one can assume that all real-world fathers make successful transitions at similar points in their life cycles. And thus, Father of the Bride is extraordinarily interesting and extraordinarily important for people who wonder how such major transitions are to be surmounted, how life is to successfully go on instead of ending considerably earlier than physical death. And in this formulation, we can recall the Aristotelian tradition about comedy dealing with ludicrous people in trivial situations. Certainly George is not deciding the fate of nations, and in that Aristotelian sense he is certainly involved in some other kind of action which Aristotle would find trivial. But he is emblematic of the search to survive transition which is fundamentally important to individual life.
So George muddles through—muddles through accepting that Bryan is in fact an unimpeachable son-in-law replacing George in a host of practical ways; muddles through accepting a marriage of greatly unequal financial realities much to the detriment of George’s own ego; muddles through the incredible gaffe in the MacKenzie bedroom and swimming pool and the much harder moment of admitting the whole thing to Annie; muddles through the blue tuxedo; muddles through constant losses to Franck, Howard, and the incomprehensible chef; and muddles through missing his daughter’s exit. because he got held up reparking cars.
The list is simply ego-shattering. And the constant victories of psychic survival in the face of these roundhouse slams are redundantly premised in the same basic humility, the same basic willingness to satirize and condemn himself, the same willingness to face alone problems that Nina refuses to admit exist, the same recognition that as a father he is expendable and must expend himself for his child’s happiness.
In these senses, George’s finest moments are in patching up the squabble between Annie and Bryan. The expendable father is entirely self-consciously aware of his role throughout and plays every move with an adroit managerial dexterity.
Yet with all of this, there is still one success element missing, made poignantly obvious as the movie following the reception moves toward its close. George has sunk exhausted into a chair. And then the phone rings, and on the other end it’s Annie at the airport with Bryan behind her. George has a lot of transition-survival talents. But ultimately he is dependent for any real prosperity beyond mere survival on a gift, the gift of a loving daughter who draws him in rather than writing him off. George is finally dependent on giftiness, and it is probably right to recognize with the names of “John” and “Johanna” that his thrice giftedness is a gift of God..
By combining a tight wad theme with an emptying nest theme, Steve Martin’s Father of the Bride moves between two comedic principles: superficially it is a buffoon comedy in plot; at a deeper level it is a comedy of senex transition survival based in much more complex understandings of the film’s literary qualities, subtleties of personal relationships, and a serious understanding of adult challenges decades beyond puberty and its hormonal urges.
To what extent then does humor add important textural elements to an already complex film?
Quadrilateral analysis revolves around the obviously key point that Father of the Bride radically twists away from the traditional loyalties of romantic comedy in favor of the young and strongly against the old. And that twisting is heavily accomplished through Sympathetic Pain humor, almost all of it centering on George Banks. Despite George’s “tendency to overreact,” we sympathize with him throughout in humor.
But it is not only George that we sympathize with. We sympathize with Annie trying to be an adult 23-year-old announcing her engagement and having her dad look at her as a middle schooler. We sympathize with Nina having to remind George that she was in fact considerably younger than Annie when they were married. We even laugh in sympathy with Franck having to negotiate his way between bedazzled women and an enraged, cost-conscious father. We can sympathize with Matt, Annie’s little brother, trying to act enough the young man to calm down his passionately frenetic father. And all of these are laugh-filled moments.
That said, primarily we laugh with George and not at him virtually throughout the movie. We laugh with him in his quandary how to respond to a daughter who is suddenly someone’s bride. We laugh with him as he works himself into admittedly egotistic and delusional corners that after all are very like the egotistical corners we all get into. We laugh with him as he goes through “just my luck” thinking about the MacKenzies, only to be wrong on every point. And we laugh with him when he notices that he is now playing through with great skill and real maturity, all for his daughter’s and Bryan’s happiness and in total disregard for the costs to himself.
Most of all, we laugh with him when he can’t understand Franck and doesn’t want to try, when he reasons that after all a “kek” is flour and sugar, not a small down payment on Fort Knox, when he acquiesces to swans—and presumably if they are anything like geese, acquiesces to their excrement in his bathtub—when in desperation he turns to his son Matt as a suitable replacement parking valet, and when all ends well with Annie winging off to honeymoon with Prince Charming but remembering to say good bye to dear old dad. Martin’s Father of the Bride is made for dads with the humility to know that George is only them in Steve Martin disguise and for non-dads who can adopt similar responses to the slings and arrows of George’s outrageous fortune.
If Sympathetic Pain humor is an obvious lead element, then Father of the Bride is Bridgebuilder, Reconciler, or Consoler in humor personality and texture. Narrowing the field is straightforwardly a matter of following quadrilateral principles.
If Sympathetic Pain is a lead element, Gotcha is not a lead. True, George suffers the humiliation of having his marital tuxedo rip on him (it looks about big enough for a strapping teenager.) And he does submit to his wife getting him out of jail when he stood up for his rights on hot dog buns. He thinks he can save a few bucks on parking valets and ends up missing his daughter’s exit. Doesn’t that start to make the case for Gotcha as a lead element?
It might. But let’s remember that Gotcha is reserved for people who think themselves smart or otherwise talented and then get got for their false self-estimate. A careful look almost anywhere in Father of the Bride reveals that George doesn’t think that he is smart or otherwise talented. He generally thinks that he is out of control, that he needs Nina to steady his judgment, that he is an emotional basket case who needs the love and security of his family to get through life even with egregious ego loss.
This self-aware emotional instability creates the backdrop to what might appear to be the biggest Gotcha in the movie—George’s looking at the MacKenzie checkbook and ending falling into a swimming pool with statuesque German pinchers all but maiming him in the process. It would be a marvelous Gotcha—except that George is condemning himself with every step he takes toward the checkbook.
Throughout, George is motivated by a perhaps false sense of economy, and he is guided by a sense of intense personal inadequacy. Neither provides a base for true Gotcha humor. (It is well worth comparing these comments on George in Father of the Bride with comments already made on Steve Martin’s role as Freddie in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Freddie is more than self-satisfied; he is always daring Lawrence to duels of conning virtuosity. Many of Steve Martin’s moment-by-moment acting techniques remain unchanged between his portrayal of Freddie and his portrayal of George. But the jokes are poles apart, consistently Gotcha in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and virtually as consistently Sympathetic Pain in Father of the Bride.)
Incongruity is almost as easy as Gotcha to eliminate as a lead humor element. Yes, there is an incongruity between Annie’s 23-year-old reality and George’s 11-year-old perception at the dinner table. But that quickly passes, and George’s perception is also profoundly honest (not incongruous) about the multiple perspectives of parenting. Yes, Nina and George have contrasting reactions to the situation, but it is hard to imagine drama without differences in characters’ reactions. Admittedly, it is incongruous to risk jail, much less to be thrown in jail, over two hot dog buns. Swans in the bathtub are unusual, but is unusual a good definition of incongruous? To some extent, we may be quibbling in these observations.
Nevertheless, that leaves only Word Play. Enter Martin Short as Franck Eggelhoffer.
Martin Short comes close—and this is saying something almost impossible—to stealing Steve Martin’s show. If ever anyone deserved an Oscar for Best Humor-Texture-Defining Supporting Actor, Martin Short should certainly be that actor. We can think of almost no comedic equal for dynamic dominance of the scene by a supporting role. (Shakespeare’s first production of Henry IV may be cited, but they didn’t have Oscars back then.) And that dynamic dominance is achieved first and foremost by an incomparably audacious willingness to murder not only the King’s English but all English.
To this audacity, Short adds extravagantly flamboyant and outrageously affected body “language.” Humorous body language should be considered primarily within what can appropriately be called Humor of the Body as opposed to Humor of the Mind. However, language studies show us that language is in fact much more than articulation of words. Language itself includes dialect, voice quality and tone, stance, and gestures or lack thereof. Both Martin and Short are masters at using language in this expanded sense for humorous juxtapositions and combinations of words and gestures, words and facial expressions, words and voice quality. Word Play even in a limited sense abounds in Father of the Bride, and in the expanded sense, it overflows.
At the base of Word Play are values of fittingness, appropriateness, logos, and style. Franck’s style defies definition, other than to say that it is style raised to the nonsensical nth degree. Franck thrives on style. His personal frenetic enthusiasm combined with an incomprehensible dialect and affected gestures successfully overwhelm the most insistent of tight-wad dads. And he is in the business of producing weddings with style and fittingness. He is a master of the au courant, of protocol, of the sine-qua-non. George too has a style, an aw-shucks, regular-guy style, that envisions a casual backyard barbeque as the ideal wedding reception. The clash of styles between George and Franck creates an extended Word Play joke that runs throughout the movie.
With the elimination of Gotcha and Incongruity, we were left only with the possibilities that Father of the Bride lacked a clear second lead humor element or that Father of the Bride has a Consoler humor texture. Once Franck Eggelhoffer entered the scene, Consoler texture was entirely assured.
That Steve Martin’s Father of the Bride has a Consoler humor texture should seem entirely appropriate—at least as long as we reject the buffoon red herring comedic interpretation. The prominent voice-over of Father of the Bride is George Banks talking to himself, reflecting on himself, satirizing himself, condemning himself, reinterpreting himself, and ultimately, through all these, consoling himself into a new life.
Consoling himself is essentially what has been left to George from the opening scenes of the movie, though absolutely certified by the jail oath Nina exacts of him. George Banks has been in two businesses, one as shoe manufacturing executive and the other as father. As shoe manufacturer, Banks is presumably used to the vicissitudes of the market. He is presumably adaptive, and if circumstances required, presumably he could even end up not in shoes but in some other manufacture entirely. All of this would be a smooth competitive continuum.
As a father, he has run his life evidently the same way, setting things up in what he considered a healthy way for a healthy and happy household. There is every indication that despite his emotional quirks, he has admirably succeeded.
But that’s where the parallel to business ends. Setting up a successful, happy family necessarily entailed sowing the seeds of its own destruction. Happy families breed happy, independence-seeking and self-actualizing children. And that means that the children eventually leave, the nest empties, and the entire way of life that bred them comes to an often shockingly abrupt end. And since all this is inherent in the original structure, there’s not a darn thing that can be done about it, no competitive restructuring possible. The only successful possibility is acceptance.
Acceptance is a mature response, but it doesn’t come easily or without cost. And the process of accepting the cost and being mature is essentially Consoler in nature. Lord, give me the insight to know what things I can change and what things I can’t, and the mature consolation to accept what I can’t change.
It is in fact hard to imagine a comedic import that would more lend itself to a Consoler humor texture than the comedic import of Father of the Bride. Father of the Bride exhibits a powerful consonance between its comedic import and its Consoler humor texture.
What then does Consoler texture feel like? We’d suggest three possible characteristics: soft (as in a “soft landing”), feather-bedded, and soothing.
If the purpose of consolation is to make realities more bearable, then consolation will effectively be like foam spread on a runway before a plane in distress attempts to land. The more foam, the less likelihood of a crash or an explosion, the more chance of an anti-climactic skid into safety. In a more homey analogy, consolation will have the effect of falling into a feather bed with its sense of security and warmth. Emotionally, consolation will work against emotional jangle, heightened sensibility, and increased sensitivity in favor of soothingness.
These general principles of real-world consolation seem directly applicable to the feel of theatrical Consoler humor. It should be noted, however, that Consoler as a humor texture sometimes is strongly at odds with perceived aspects of real-world consolation. Foremost here, Consoler humor texture is likely to feel wordy, maybe overfilled with words. Real-world consolation is often dependent not on saying a lot but on saying the right few words at just the right time. So real-world consolation can often have almost the texture of silence.
But we’re looking at the movies. And a silence hardly characterizes Franck, a chatterbox extraordinaire, and incomprehensible to boot. It would leave out George Banks, too, at least in his talkative, self-examining, reflective, satirizing inner self. Amid the explosive chatter of Franck and the non-stop commentary of George, Nina’s few words and steady course create calm. Remarkably little happens in Father of the Bride—two people get married who were effectively married before the opening scene. It is the amount of articulation by two world-class funny talkative characters that makes Father of the Bride into a movie.
And perhaps theatrical Consoler humor personality, even though it moves toward soothingness, also moves through a moment-by-moment frenetic and frazzled texture—it certainly does in Father of the Bride. Both the constant emphasis on Word Play and the constant emphasis on Sympathetic Pain humor suggest that the world is severely out of joint and that constant attempts at verbal definitions imposed on unpleasant reality alternating with constant assertions of fellow feeling are needed to keep things from careening totally off course. (Again, effective real-world consolation is likely to have a very different texture of composure and assurance.)
We turn from Father of the Bride with great confidence in its Consoler humor texture, even as we recognize that there are great differences between the literary Consoler humor texture we are talking about and the texture most likely associated with real-world consolation.
►◄ Empirical Evidence versus Literary Theory ►◄
That’s the theory anyway,
Over the last five chapters, we have considered contrastive humor preferences and the textures they seem to create in highly successful comedies.
It is to be hoped that everything we have argued is very consistent with itself, consistency in an abstract line of thought being something of the ideal for literary criticism. But consistent abstraction may be no more and no less than just that, consistent abstraction. It may be no more than castles built in air. Literary criticism’s investigation of comedy has always been highly suggestive of textural features of comedy and humor, whether Aristotle’s suggestion of triviality, Northrop Frye’s suggested mythos of spring, Christopher Fry’s final page of hope, Harold Watts’ sense of regain, Albert Cook’s golden mean. Almost without exception, however, these are highly sensitive but abstract discussions without even a pretext of empirical verification. If they have been greatly appreciated, it is no doubt because students of literature have been able to subjectively confirm the sensitivity and perceptiveness of the insights.
In the present volume, however, we are essentially working at a different level from the abstract level of these admirable critics. Thanks to extraordinary help from thousands of respondents, we are in a position to compare our literary critical thoughts with actual empirical evidence. In earlier chapters there was enough challenge in perceiving humor differences without making matters more complicated by any consideration of empirical evidence. Starting with this chapter, we will be providing evidence from various empirical studies which throw some light on the abstract analysis and appreciation of humor personality and texture in works of literature.
Since 1991, we have been blessed not only by the help of thousands of respondents but also by the help of fellow researchers who could often access respondents unavailable to us directly. Such help has given our databases much wider frames of reference than we could otherwise offer. And thus, our first empirical example with respect to Consoler texture comes from both research at Winona State and an additional database gathered on the Atlantic Seaboard. Professor Dan Holt of Holy Family College, “a small (2500) private Catholic college in the northeast corner of Philadelphia,” (Holt, “Holy Family”) comes to humor from an education departmental and disciplinary background. Writing in March, 1995 in the Humor Quotient Newsletter, (HQN) Holt continued, “Money magazine recently described [Holy Family] as one of the top ten best buys in commuter college education in America.”
The differences between Holy Family College and Winona State made Professor Holt’s research cooperation all the more valuable. It was possible that our Winona results were somehow biased to represent some particular quirks of Upper Midwestern humor response or that the Winona results were unnecessarily biased toward traditional undergraduate education or even toward liberal arts perspectives. The Holt data when it came in was far more diverse in respondent age, and that gave us a real chance to consider what happens in humor preference as a population ages. In Dan Holt’s first HQN article, he addressed the age shift specifically for men and found that “for men over 30 (n = 30) the data indicated a marked decrease in Crusader rank compared to men under 30 (n = 122).”
Since Crusader and Consoler are mathematical opposites in the Humor Quotient Test, “a marked decrease in Crusader rank” is identical to a marked increase in Consoler rank. Combining Holy Family and Winona State respondents, Holt found that 62% of males under 30 were above the average in Crusader rank, while for males over 30, only 30% were above average in Crusader rank. In Consoler terms, the percentage rose from 38% for males under 30 to 70% for males over 30. These are spectacular results especially given the large sample size and the combination of results from American venues separated by 1,000 miles and the Appalachian Mountains.
In October 1995, Holt followed up with a second HQN article considering women’s humor development, again using combined data sets which by that time included retiree data from Winona and from Defiance, Ohio. We have been particularly grateful for the cooperation of associates and colleagues who have allowed us to extend empirical testing beyond the university classroom setting. As James Thorson as late as 1996 noted, the predominance of student participants in humor testing had left consideration of humor in the aging to anecdote and speculation. As Holt noted, his own data collection had heavily favored women, as had the Midwestern sets. So the total data set available was 278 usable female respondents. For this study, Holt combined respondents under 30 with respondents over 50 (n=228) and compared them with respondents between 30 and 50 (n=50). Holt concluded “a significantly (p<.04) higher percentage of those under 30 or over 50 had Consoler scores over 20 (approximately the median score)” (Holt, “Women”).
In other words, for women, Consoler scores make something of a hairpin as the population ages. Young women have a strong tendency toward Consoler. As they become middle-aged, their Consoler tendencies decrease. And after age 50, their Consoler scores reverse to the upside once again. This pattern, though based in different measurements, is not inconsistent with Thorson’s findings concerning how the use of humor as a coping mechanism varies with age.
There is evidence that this late tendency toward Consoler continues into old age, even in the presence of partial dementia. Twelve years after Holt’s HQN report, Robin and Paul had the opportunity to test residents of Lake Winona Manor, a nursing home facility attached to Winona’s Community Memorial Hospital. The participating residents were heavily female. And their HQT scores were very heavily Consoler. For many of these respondents, getting through the HQT at all was a daunting challenge, and as observers, Paul and Robin wondered if anything useful could come from results gathered from respondents so variously challenged visually and orally. That the results were remarkably bent toward Consoler rather than random is evidence that humor preferences are real even when extreme old age and infirmity makes humor perception more work than fun.
Let us consider how these empirical results about humor and aging might add to our understanding of Father of the Bride. The Holt conclusions suggest that men start out relatively strongly Crusader but find themselves moving away from that base toward Consoler at a relatively early point in their careers. Applied to Father of the Bride, that would suggest that George Banks has been moving away from Crusader and toward Consoler for quite a while before the film opens. The voice-over self-critical ambience of Father of the Bride is consonant with such a perception—George is no longer the Crusader, ignoring costs and losses as they mount. Long before the opening scene, he has learned to be reflective, to view his own inadequacies not as flukes but as unfortunate, abiding challenges. And in many ways, that prepares him for the much greater challenge of the loss of Annie.
The Holt data also suggest that Nina may be near the apogee of Crusader disregard for consolation as she moves determinedly to provide for her daughter the perfect wedding and simultaneously gives short shrift to her husband’s emotional tremors. Nina is presented as approximately 43 years old in Father of the Bride.
The addition of empirical evidence then provides additional insight on the humor personality of Father of the Bride. We sense in Father of the Bride, largely through contrastive roles with respect to humor that George and Nina have been on divergent tracks for almost the whole of their marriage, George moving Consoler, Nina moving Crusader. They are still in love, but the strains are showing, and the strains themselves become the source of Sympathetic Pain humor. The good news for the Bankses, at least from empirical evidence, is that if they can hold on for a few more years, Nina will start to reverse course, becoming more of the caring Consoler as she and George move into retirement.
George could probably use that reassurance.