‘Barry’s NoHo Hank: Behind-The-Scenes And Why He Works
Barry is funny as all hell (weird simile, right?), and not just because we have a shrine to Bill Hader in the office bathroom, but also because of the Chechen mobster Hank, played by non-Chechen actor Anthony Carrigan. Fans of that Batman-less Batman show Gotham might recognize Carrigan from his recurring role as Zsasz, and for everyone else, Barry is probably the first time you’ve seen him in a role, and boy, what a first impression. He’s easily the funniest character on a show that has Bill “My God, That’s Bill Hader” Hader and Henry “AYYYYYYY” Winkler.
The co-creator of Barry, Alex Berg, explains here that head gangster Goran's number one lieutenant was originally supposed to be just another run-of-the-whatever-Chechen-mill gangster that's supposed to look like until Bill Hader took his MacBook to the Apple Store to get it fixed.
And a fellow at the Genius Bar was actually super helpful. Whaaa?
Yep, sorry you had to spill your coffee, but he made such a positive impression on Hader that he felt it could be part of the Goran henchman character. According to Berg, "The first idea we had was a guy welcoming Barry into his criminal hideout by offering him a beer or a submarine sandwich, just super-accommodating. That’s sometimes how these things work — you write one joke for a character, and it starts to fill out from there.”
So on to why Hank works. There’s quite a number of things that make Hank hysterical, but they are devices and techniques we’ve already highlighted in other articles from this series. There’re the juxtaposition of his character, playing the brutality of his occupation against his absurdly friendly and overly polite demeanor. Then there’s his delivery and timing, that sort of slightly awkward and cheery way he delivers punchlines.
But there’s an aspect of his character that none of the other characters we've covered in this series have: his accent.
CONTENT WARNING: Big-time Micky Rooney racism to follow.
Accents in comedies can be a tricky thing. The wrong intention or wrong delivery, and you end with something like this monstrosity:
We still laugh at this in 2021, let me FINISH, uh, not because the character is funny, but because it’s so offensive it’s funny. Our eyes now rightfully swell and we go “Somebody once thought this was funny??”
An accent in comedy can’t stand alone as the punchline. Like we wrote here, George Carlin states that good comedy punches up, not down. Like race or gender or sexuality, if the fact that a character is black or gay is the punchline, it’s not a good joke. Mocking a character’s natural accent for its own sake is just picking on minorities or other people for being different in a way that they can’t change, you know, sort of the definition of “punching down.”
Accents in comedy work when they’re used strategically to slightly alter certain aspects of the delivery, such as the cadence of the voice or slightly changing the phrasing of a punchline. Take this line from Hank: “This is great physical comedy of you!” (Our emphasis.)
Hank’s accent there combines with his main character trait, politeness and positivity, to enhance his delivery by changing the grammar juuuust enough so that to American ears, it’s slightly different in a way that we find a little bit more amusing. Nothing Hank ever says is funny because he speaks differently, but the fact that he speaks differently occasionally makes what he says funnier.
One more example to illustrate that nuance is maybe the most famous sketch from Chappelle’s Show, Clayton Bigsby, the black white supremacist. When the Bigsby character fires off racist tirades, it’s funny because racism is inherently ridiculous, and that ridiculousness magnifies coming from a black man. It’s NOT funny because the punchline is “haha so true, Mr. Racist.” Again, not punching down but using race in a subtle way to bring the joke home.
Accents are difficult and tricky, and Carrigan admits that he may not have nailed it initially. And, like he mentions in that interview, it’s especially hard to do an accent when you’re doing improv – which is a key component of making comedies. Actor Neil Flynn, The Janitor in Scrubs famously improvised nearly all his lines. Also, The Office (US), which while totally scripted, allowed plenty of space during filming of scenes for the actors to improvise within the specifics outlined in the script.
All of this, really, is just to say that NoHo Hank provides an excellent case study of how to use accents in comedy correctly, and Carrigan’s comedic talents are even more impressive when you realize he’s able to improvise with the accent.
You can just hear him saying it, can't you?
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Top Image: HBO