Sunday, May 17, 2009

Concealed Humor?

deadpan--a form of narration or delivery in which a character relating opinions and material appears to be neutral and nonjudgmental; a means of conveying material bound to have some effect on the audience without betraying any hint of its implications or explosive nature.

Deadpan delivery is an enormous play on the role of the naive narrator, a pretense that what is being revealed is nothing out of the ordinary. One of the more legendary deadpan deliverers in American letters is Samuel Langhorn Clemens, who recast himself as the storyteller Mark Twain, and who used himself as an apparent butt in order to bring down sundry targets of his outrage. 

 Twain often affected the role of the bumpkin or, as he referred to himself in the title of one of his books, an innocent. (See The Innocents Abroad for a classic example of deadpan travel writing.) After achieving one or two laughs at his own expense, Twain strode forth, his overall intent becoming increasingly apparent (See the opening pages of his Christian Science).

Another style of deadpan writing is seen in the work of an individual whose life span extended a scant fifteen years beyond Twain's--Franz Kafka. His mordant settings were the backdrops for individuals who at first blush represent victims of conspiracy or repressive social mechanisms, extending into bureaucracies and families. 

 In some of his works (See The Trial), Kafka seemed to be saying that the individual had no choice, was at the mercy of whatever Fates happened to be in power at the moment, had no hope for raising his status. Seen as a deliberate invoker of the understated and a sly precursor to Woody Allen, Kafka and his work take on a richer meaning that a more literal reading would provide. Thus may Kafka be thought to join Twain as charter members of The Satirists' Club.

Yet another, more nuanced gloss on the deadpan approach to the release or revelation of dramatic material comes from the mind and pen of Steven Colbert, who often seems to provoke the support of his actual targets. 

 Like Twain and Kafka, Colbert can be experienced on a literal basis, from which a set of assumptions may be made. Thus each of these three deadpanners and all those who chose to provide individualized paths of their own are asking the reader to look under the surface for hidden intent. 

 Twain, Kafka, and Colbert arguably have mischievous senses of humor for those who look for the truly serious intent lurking beneath the apparent serious intent. Imagine the greater effect Ayn Rand would have enjoyed had she regulated her rant to the point where it became more deadpan.

Warning: one of the consequences of deadpan delivery, in live performance or in writing, is to limit the audience, and, in the case of the actor, Sasha Baron Cohen, who presented himself as the entity Borat, to not only limit the audience but as well to seriously offend it. Thus does deadpan as a prism of dispensing information become partners with irony, which by its own nature implies conspiracy (often of the sort Kafka write about), and irony's hard-to-manage cousin, sarcasm. Deadpan also relies heavily on a not-too distant relative, ambiguity, as in "What did the writer really mean?"

Don't forget: In many of the visual and performing arts, the intent of the composer is to disturb. Disturb from what? Disturb from complacency.

For extra credit: Read the opening two pages of Twain's Life on the Mississippi, his love letter to the great American river, which had captured so big a place in his heart. After reading those two pages with their straightforward sincerity and offering of statistics, can you say for an absolute certainty that Twain was dead serious and not having us on?

1 comment:

Querulous Squirrel said...

This is very difficult to define and I think you did a good job and am intrigued by the examples you gave of Twain/Kafka/Colbert, three I never would have put in the same category, but now that you point it out, yes, I can see it. I do think of a lot of Deadpan being in the oral delivery and harder to convey in writing, which is why Colbert comes more quickly to mind. But yes, of course Kafka is deadpan. Deadly deadpan. Poe is deadpan as well. Deadly deadpan too.