In John Wick 3, a guy gets his neck snapped by a library book. It’s funny. But a lion getting pushed to his death by his jealous brother? Not Funny. A bunch of models burning to death after an oddly sensual gasoline fight scene? Funny. Uncle Ben slowly dying on a New York City street while Tobey Maguire watches, helplessly? Not Funny. Onscreen death — it runs the gamut. A lot of the time it’s pretty sad. Sometimes it’s legit traumatizing. Bambi, much?
But sometimes it’s not sad. Sometimes it’s a great big lol and a half, and you’re left feeling semi-sadistic as you snicker while a human being breathes their final breath on screen. So why are some onscreen deaths funny? Are we all just deeply sick in the head?
At a most basic level, a lot of it comes down to distance. Comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks is famously quoted as saying: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
Take the John Wick series, the Keanu Reeves franchise that somehow has made action movies the best new form of slapstick comedy, a phenomenon we explore in a Wisecrack Edition video from earlier this year. Basically, in John Wick films, over-the-top fight choreography mixed with fast-paced cinematography distance us from the violent realities taking place on screen.
For instance, there’s this scene in which Wick first murders not one, but two dudes with a pencil, then piggy-back rides a sumo wrestler as he repeatedly shoots him. Here the pacing is critical — the film refuses to take even a millisecond to let the audience cinematically “mourn” the loss of a human life. Further distance is created by anonymizing many of his victims — sometimes we won’t even see their face before their untimely death occurs. The sheer audacity of Wick’s every move, and the ridiculous fast pace of his kill count combined with our utter lack of attachment to those he kills renders these deaths oddly but decidedly funny.
At other times, many a funny, abrupt death scene is preceded by an overly dramatic lead-up. Take this classically hilarious death from the Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which a swordsman boastfully waves his sword around for a little too long before being abruptly shot to death.
Here, the humor comes with the subversion of expectations. The set-up prepares us for a difficult battle, one which will require every sweaty ounce of Indiana’s concentration. The crowd parts dramatically. Two dramatic long shots frame the fight as potentially epic. The music, menacing laugh and most of all, the seemingly endless, intimidating sword twirling set an expectation of danger. Indiana’s smirk, immediately followed by an almost scornful shooting of his gun turn a menacing character into a cartoonish sideshow. And, like many a death in John Wick, the swordsman is left to languish, dying, in the back of the frame as Indiana moves the hell on.
At other times cinematography, editing, and acting combine to make you lol. Take this famous death scene from The Princess Bride, in which Wallace Shawn’s Sicilian goon is outsmarted by Westley in a deadly, poison-soaked wager. He cackles like crazy, assuming that Westley is about to die. Then, his chuckle abruptly ends, and he collapses to an untimely death.
Here, the humor comes initially from the performance. After all, who doesn’t love a guy dying laughing? Bonus points if that guy happens to be Wallace Shawn. Then, the cinematography compounds that humor — note how the camera holds on Shawn’s maniacal laughter, and stays steady even as he dramatically falls out of frame, literally never to be seen again. Here, we see slow visual proof of his demise, without actually taking a moment to pause and reflect on where he went or if heaven exists.
While these cinematic devices all contribute to making some deaths funnier than others, there’s still the fundamental question: Why are we willing to laugh at another human being’s mortal peril in the first place?
You can find one answer served up by your favorite star of Psychology 101, Sigmund “Cocaine-Fueled Penis-Envy” Freud. Though plenty of his theories don’t hold up to modern scientific scrutiny, the dude still offers an interesting way of looking at the world, and more specifically, your brain.
If you’ve ever briefly wondered if laughing at onscreen death makes you a sadist, let Freud reassure you of your normalcy. He argued that laughter is largely a subconscious phenomenon. Specifically, he saw it as a means of release, a way for a person, like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Snoopy balloon deflating, to blow away all the awkward helium of life, with its overly-friendly sales clerks, overly-uptight first dates, and every shade of uncomfortable human interaction in between.
In his book Humour, scholar Terry Eagleton builds off of Freud’s theory as he examines why death is sometimes really, really funny. Specifically, it’s because we are terrified of death, but we can’t go through life being terrified, so we repress that fear. Thus, when we watch our fear enacted onscreen vis-a-vis a bullet to the brain or a harpoon to a horny teenager’s back, we have that repression “momentarily disarmed.”
Crucial to this moment is the way the various cinematic devices described above can coalesce to create enough distance and shock to properly “disarm” us. When it works, for a few glorious seconds, all the excess “energy we invest in repressing the fact of our own mortality can be discharged in laughter.” That delightful second when Wallace Shawn collapses or when Keanu commits murder by pencil jolts us out of our comfortable state of fear and denial, and lets us giggle at what scares us the most.
Furthermore, in all of the previous examples, different cinematic devices communicated an overall lack of respect for the lives lost. Often, the film can’t even be bothered to show us, and let us reflect on, the dead body. This is essential to the humor. As Eagleton writes, “[H]umor involves a brutal disregard for human value, a value that we nevertheless continue to cherish.” When we watch a film like John Wick, to use Eagleton’s words, “[w]e can dip in to senselessness for a blessed moment without having to sign on for some of its more frightful consequences.” It gives us all of the humor of dying with none of the sadness of actually being dead.
The opening montage in Up would bring even the eye-rolling cynic to tears, and it’s still hard to watch Leo shiver to death even though there’s room on that damn raft . But death as a whole doesn’t have to be sad, and sometimes it can be downright hilarious. The right combination of editing, cinematography, performance and directing can shock us out of our general state of total repression and turn mortality into a great big joke.