WARNING: MAY CONTAIN VOLATILE SPOILERS INSIDE
Many people, when asked if they watch Breaking Bad, will tell you that they just can’t. The constant fear of mortality and ongoing themes of illness and cruelty hit too close to home and depress them for days. The main character’s constant bad decisions and horrifying actions make them too furious to pay attention. And here’s a really constant one: the show’s endless stream of suspense and tension leaves them stewing with anxiety. Most hyperbolic fans will tell you that their favorite show almost gave them a heart attack; fans of Breaking Bad live in constant fear of that actually happening.
With that said, whether you’re physically capable of watching the show or not… would you believe me when I say Breaking Bad is the funniest show on TV right now?
Marc Maron’s beloved podcast WTF has earned acclaim for its in-depth approach to comedy; dissecting what it is, where it comes from, and how it seems to turn up in the unlikeliest places. In his excellent interview with Bryan Cranston, the actor who portrays the dying-teacher-turned-better-off-dead-criminal Walter White, Marc Maron brings up a dynamic in BB that he’s never heard anyone else address: the relationship between Walt and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), the former student who becomes his partner in crime. Many rave reviews have talked of their complicated, dramatic relationship… the father/son rhythms, the puppetmaster/puppet scenarios, the anger and distrust that permeate between the two.
But Maron, who always speaks in the language of comedy, sums up the complicated pairing in a simple and stunningly accurate description: they’re a comedy duo.
And he’s right. An over-the-hill family man and a sexed-up hoodlum? A scientific genius and a high school dropout? A man diagnosed with cancer who desperately needs money and a twenty-something who’s never had a responsibility in his life? There’s great pathos to be drawn from any of these descriptions. But “…walk into a bar” attaches pretty nicely to the end of any of them, too.
Comedy, like drama, comes from conflict. And the extreme juxtaposition of these two is an extremely funny contrast. They don’t get each other; their misunderstandings are hilarious. Jesse believes, with the naivety of a toddler, that Walt can build a robot from household appliances. Walt despises Jesse’s music with a cartoonish cranky-old-man grimace. Their polar-opposite voices grind against each other in situations both calm and (more often) terrifying, making sparks that feel funny because they’re surprising, they’re character-based, and above all they make SENSE. And when they find something in common, it’s even more hilarious. Who knew that these completely different men could bond over diner food? Who knew that their similarly prideful natures could make an enthusiastic high-five between the two elicit a belly laugh?
And as any fan can point out, the biggest constant of the show is how Walt’s former student Jesse will always, always, ALWAYS – through murders, betrayals, kidnappings, power shifts, and constant threat of death – refer to Walt as “Mr. White.” The high school pecking order persists; the longer that title remains the funnier and more ironic it gets. That’s a perfect running gag.
If the criminal vaudeville of the White and Pinkman Duo doesn’t do it for you, consider another love-it-or-hate-it strand in the show’s DNA: The truly shocking, graphic instances of violence. People are nauseated by the over-the-top gore, using it as a prime example of “They can get away with anything on TV these days” moral outrage. But with shock comes surprise, and with surprise comes humor. Consider this: the violence is so extreme that it becomes slapstick. In the world of cult horror films, playing brutal and messy deaths for cartoonish laughs is affectionately known as “splatstick.” Breaking Bad is the first-ever splatstick TV series.
SPOILERS! Don’t ruin the jokes!
In the second episode ever produced, Jesse and Walt have to dispose of a body. Walt’s knowledge of chemistry leads him to the conclusion that dissolving the body in acid is the way to go. Jesse’s lack of knowledge leads him to throw the body in the upstairs bathtub, pour bottle upon bottle of sulfuric acid into the tub, and… drumroll, please…the acid eats through the body, bathtub, and the floor, leading up to… BA-DUM, TISSSH! A mess of guts hitting the ground floor. Replace the blood with dog pee and you’ve got the climactic gag of a Beethoven sequel.
A low-level thug, Combo, is roped into peddling top-notch crystal meth by his friend Jesse. A little kid circling him on a bike turns out to be a fledgling assassin… but when the constantly-snacking Combo gets shot, we see the bullet hole not in his chest, but in the enormous cup of soda he’s holding in front of him. He bleeds cola, then blood.
A tweaked-out junkie struggles to crack open an ATM propped over his head like a fixer-upper car. His wife, having been called “skank” one too many times, tips the ATM off of the carjack its resting on. It CRUSHES the junkie’s skull with an awful CRUNCH… and the ATM pops open, sending money flooding out like a slot machine. Tell me that’s not a comedic payoff.
And the mother of all BB splatstick gags, the “Oh my GOD!” heard round the world of Sunday night basic cable watchers: It turns out that the slow-burn, methodically-building fourth season was basically one long set-up for a violent punch-line death of a major character. Walt’s chemistry genius leads to a homemade bomb that blows up inches away from the character’s face, exposing SKULL and MUSCLE before collapsing dead to the ground. Insult-comedy to injury: that episode is titled “Face Off.” Don Rickles would be proud.
The splatstick element is key to understanding why so many of the grim, dark beats of this show are simultaneously funny. Horror and comedy are essentially structured the same way: build-up and pay-off. “Don’t open that door!” and “How do you drown a blonde?”** Set-up and punch line. Lots of tiny, satisfying deliveries. And both horror and comedy can elicit laughter through tension, disgust, and deep discomfort. You’ve gotta laugh or you might cry instead… or throw up.
Finally, there’s the fact that a lot of the show is just flat-out comedy, not hidden and not misread though certainly overshadowed by the many deeply disconcerting dramatic beats. And it works! A lot of dialogue is written to be funny commentary on the increasingly complicated story lines. Bob Odenkirk, an icon of alternative comedy and co-creator of Mr. Show, was introduced to the show halfway through the second season yet he fits into this dark world so comfortably you’d swear he was in the mix since the first day. His character, Saul Goodman, brings a more clearly announced comedic relief that Odenkirk nails. His character is straight out of a joke book: a self-serving sleazeball lawyer. But even that concept has a clever comedic twist laid onto it: he’s really, really good at his job.
Odenkirk’s not the highest-billed comedian in the twisted, high-stakes world of Breaking Bad. That rank falls on Walter White himself. When the show first premiered, many people thought, “The dad from Malcolm in the Middle in a dramatic role? Really?” Three Emmys later (probably four by this time next year), Bryan Cranston’s comedic roles seem dim memories by comparison. But Cranston’s expert handle on comedic timing translates perfectly in Walter’s fish-out-of-water reactions to the crumbling universe around him.
The Maron-Cranston interview talked a bit about Cranston’s technique of finding a simple, one-word emotional core for his characters. With Walter White, that core is numbness. But what was surprisingly enlightening was his description of the goofy Malcolm in the Middle dad’s emotional core: fear. A father whose life is ruled by fear doesn’t sound particularly funny on paper, but in practice a big part of Malcolm’s success was in Cranston’s totally committed performance. It was a telling demonstration of how darkness can be at the core of making light. The laughter not only serves a purpose, it comes naturally.
One last thought: One of the longest standing comedic archetypes in film, literature, theater, TV, even comic strips is the character whose view of him- or herself outreaches his reality. Max Fisher in Rushmore is an aggravating F student who thinks he’s the crown jewel of his private school. Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces thinks he is a dashing intellectual when he’s a morbidly obese rambler who can’t even run a hot dog cart with competence. Snoopy thinks he’s a World War 1 fighting ace. And Walter White, for all his misery and the misery he wreaks, for the deep emotional turmoil he exhibits in each episode, for the awe-inspiring pathos and fearless acting acrobatics Cranston delivers…
…Walt still thinks he’s a powerful man when he’s impotent. He still thinks he’s the smartest man in the country as he tosses a pizza onto his roof in rage… then scrapes it off the shingles himself days later. Walter White, like any clown, is his own worst enemy and just too goddamned different to fit into the world around him. You know people like that. They never tell jokes… but they’re pretty funny.
You can listen to the interview at http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_216_-_bryan_cranston and you can watch the first three seasons of BB on Netflix Watch Instant, unless you’ve understandably cancelled and run screaming from endless emails that say, “Good news! We’ve taken a perfect system and ruined it!”
* To run from the twin assassins trying to murder him to take revenge for the cartel blood that’s been spilled! Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all night!
** Put a scratch-and-sniff sticker at the bottom of a pool.