Comedy has been ingrained into the very being of cinema since its inception, some of the earliest recorded clips being sketches (see L’arroseur arrosé, 1895 Lumière film). Drama has always been seen as the pinnacle of the big screen, it’s the genre that wins awards and garners respect for actors that make the jump from other styles into more ‘serious’ roles. However, those that can bring comedy to the more serious tone without losing the dramatic heft require a high level of skill.
Here are three such moments in otherwise dramatic or heavy films. These aren’t necessarily the top three, but certainly memorable in their own right. Before we begin, there must be an honorable mention to arguable the most famous of these: Gun vs Sword in Raiders of The Lost Ark (1981). Hilarious, memorable and very sudden for anyone who hasn’t seen it before (and allegedly only due to Ford’s impatience) it acts as the most clear and obvious example of comedy in an otherwise straight drama.
1. Frozen Chicken – Manchester By The Sea (2016)
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Rightfully winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Lonergan finally gained the mainstream notice he was yet to receive from earlier works You Can Count On Me (2000) and Margaret (2011) for Manchester by The Sea, with Casey Affleck taking home Best Actor for his performance as Lee Chandler, the uncle to Patrick (Lucas Hedges) who recently lost his father to heart failure. The film uses flashbacks to explain why Lee is so reluctant to care for his nephew and why he leads such a solitary life, and explores themes of grief and loss in an elegant manner. This doesn’t seem to lean itself to moments of comedy particularly obvious, but a number of moments relieve the drama, and none more casually than the panic attack scene.
Here, Patrick is trying to deal with his fathers burial being delayed due to the hard ground, and goes for a midnight snack. He opens the freezer seeing the frozen meat, causing him to think of his dad being kept on ice till they can bury him. Whilst he cries, Lee tries to assist, his awkward manner not helping the matter. Patrick retreats upstairs, locking the door, and letting his built up emotions have the better of him. A short exchange occurs before Lee breaks down the door completely misreading how to deal with Patrick’s situation.
2. Cat Food – District 9 (2009)
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Although presented in more accessible way, District 9 explores no less dramatic material in an alternate history of South African examining apartheid and social segregation through a vulnerable alien race unaffectionately known as ‘prawns’. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a representative from the Multinational United, a weapons manufacturer is brought in to move the aliens from their slums to replacement accommodation.
Some of the film is shown in a found footage style, like the scene on this list, acting as a report to exposit the nature of the aliens and their inhabitants. A small scuffle ensures, MNU member is badly injured and the aliens start to gather. To break the situation up, Wikus launches cat food tins at them (the reporter assuming its tear gas) and he explains their addiction. Copley and the rest of the cast play it straight and deadpan, and serves as a dark but humorous look at a susceptible race.
3. Leeches – Stand By Me (1986)
Director: Rob Reiner
“Is he dead?”
“He’s not dead, he’s still breathing you idiot.”
One of many short quotes that can be said from Stand By Me, one of Reiner’s greatest films. It encapsulates growing up and the nostalgia of youth by having four young boys travelling across their small town to see if the rumour, of a missing boys body turning up, is true.
Rather than hitting the comedic notes of This Is Spinal Tap (1984) or later works such as When Harry Met Sally… (1989) Reiner instead opted for sweet, relatable moments to create a sense of real childhood on screen. That being said, the sequence of the boys wading through swampy water to find they’ve been infested with leeches brings a wonderful scene of humour. Their reactions is to be expected, clambering to clear all they can find – until Gordie discovers a rogue one in any area sure to make a man wince. Their acknowledgment is priceless and human and brings a light hearted nature to the adventure.