'Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Andre Braugher And The Art of the Deadpan
Welcome to ComedyNerd, Cracked's new deep dive series on the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. Today's topic: Deadpan delivery.
There really was no reason for Brooklyn Nine-Nine to end with Season 8. Yeah, a lot of the principal actors were uncomfortable profiting from portraying funny cops in a time of BLM protests and calls for police reform, but that would have been an easy fix. Just have them change jobs with each new season and never address it. So one season, they'd be crane operators, then next year, they could be garbage collectors, roofers, loggers, or any one of the 21 professions more dangerous than being a police officer. I kept suggesting it to NBC, but for some reason, they ignored all the notes tied to bricks I hurled through their windows.
Because, see, the humor of Brooklyn Nine-Nine never really came from the police setting. It came from the characters, especially Andre Braugher's Captain Holt, one of the greatest deadpan comedians of our time. Let's talk more about this particular style of comedy.
Deadpan is actually a little hard to explain. Most people think that it's just telling jokes with a straight face and monotone voice, often bringing up Steven Wright as an example. I don't think I agree with that. With Wright, his monotone was more of a distinguishing gimmick. His jokes would still be funny even when performed in a regular or excited tone. Deadpan is more complicated than that.
Deadpan is the kind of comedy that, in the right hands, can make you piss yourself laughing from a character simply pronouncing the name a foreign country.
How does that work? Well, with a typical joke structure, you start with a set-up, and you end with a surprising punchline. But the punchline itself is expected. You were there for the set-up, so you know that something is coming, like how you know to brace yourself when you realize your kid has been awfully quiet for the last 15 minutes and you can't find any of your Magic Markers. Or the family dog. With deadpan humor, though, the breadcrumb trail of the set-up is usually obscured by an emotionless face or tone of voice. The flat delivery lulls you into a false sense of security so when the punchline hits you, it's like it came out of nowhere. The surprise adds to the experience.
So … deadpan humor is basically going, "Hello, what a fine day we are having. I just poo-pooed my pants"? This is where many comedians attempting deadpan utterly fail because the deadpan punchline is one elusive bitch. It should, in essence, be a punchline that doesn't sound like a punchline. It should be thrown out there indifferently in a way that suggests the character doesn't know that what they said was even supposed to be funny. And that's really the key here.
Deadpan lands best when it sounds like the person delivering it isn't in on the joke. Their obliviousness to the absurdity of what they said is what sells it. Announcing out of the blue that you crapped your pants is acknowledging an abnormal situation (hopefully; if not, you should really talk to a doctor about it.) It's not good deadpan material. Saying that your sister has laughed out loud many times sounds like a perfectly normal sentence but, in the right context and with Andre Braugher's delivery, it's comedy gold.
I guess part of the appeal of deadpan humor is that it also makes us feel special -- like we're able to see the humor in a situation while the deadpan character cannot. That's why deadpan works best when the comedian has dignity. Almost no Captain Holt joke would work with a pathetic character like Detectives Hitchcock and Scully because they once arrested a guy in the toilet with their pants down. In contrast, Captain Holt is a highly decorated, cultured, and very intelligent man. So when he, a gay character, tries and utterly fails to speak convincingly like a straight person while firmly believing deep down that he's doing a great job, it's just impossible not to laugh at that.
So let's make a pact that if Braugher doesn't continue to do comedy after Brooklyn Nine-Nine, we burn this mother to the ground. If you agree, please read this sentence to the end. Thank you!
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Top Image: NBCUniversal Television