Becky Portman: The harmony of horror and humor
When “Get Out” hit theaters two years ago, people were pretty confused: Why is the guy from “Key and Peele” making a scary movie? What does a comedian know about horror? After I saw “Us” last weekend, I started to contemplate how a comedic mind could leap over to the dark side. The film — as unsettling and horrifying as it was — provoked moments of chuckles from the audience. I couldn’t help but wonder (cue Carrie Bradshaw’s contemplative pose) what is the connection between horror and humor?
I immediately thought of Mel Brooks. In my mind, horror and humor had one place and one place only, in Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein.” The monster made the film “scary,” but overall the film is a comedy. Brooks and the late Gene Wilder sprinkled horror tropes throughout the film by mocking them, from dance numbers to Frau Blucher (neigh!). Yet, Brooks and Wilder’s parody of old monster horror is just that, a parody. The same goes for “Scary Movie,” “Shaun of the Dead” etc. So where does horror and humor lie for Jordan Peele? Has comedy influenced his horror? What about vice versa? Are they connected at all? Did he have a midlife crisis and realize comedy was dead? How did this sketch comedian turn into a master of fear? And most importantly, is the continental breakfast sketch a spiritual prequel to “Get Out”?
For answers, I turned to the true master of horror himself, Stephen King. King does a good job at explaining the overlap of humor and horror in a 1993 CBS interview. “It’s a childish thing the way that humor is the two (humor and horror) closely allied,” he explained, “They both elicit — when they work to their best — a vocal reaction in the audience.” According to King, there is a connection between horror and humor because they both create some sort of eruption within us, one of fear or amusement, respectively.
Personally, I can’t stand being scared. In fact, I actively do things to avoid being scared. I will not enter my bathroom if the shower curtain is closed because there is a 1000 percent chance someone is in there, trying to kill me. Additionally, I distrust any mirrored medicine cabinet, because I know for a fact when I open the cabinet no one is behind me, but when I close that cabinet there will be a murderer and I will not be prepared. I detest surprises so much that when I was thrown a surprise party I cried because I thought I was getting kidnapped and I never fully recovered. Obviously, if you like being scared you’re probably not OK, but I get it if you follow Stephen King’s logic. The same way I like to be amused by comedy and elicit a vocal reaction, also known as laughter, you may like to get the shit scared out of you to elicit a vocal reaction AKA bloodcurdling screams — if you’re into that kind of thing.
In an interview with Cinemablend back in 2017, Eric Eisenberg asked Jordan Peele about the relationship between comedy and horror. “They’re two sides of the same coin,” Peele said, “Any really successful or great horror movie, you go and see an audience there's going to be laughter from nervousness. They’re both about building the tension and releasing in some way.” For Peele’s horror, it’s all about building tension. Look at “Us” and “Get Out,” they build in tension, making the audience physically uncomfortable and nervous. I swear, after I saw “Us,” I didn’t have any fingernails, meaning I bit them all off from the anxiety the movie caused me.
Similarly, look at humor from the perspective of tension. Comedy asks the same questions as horror, just with a lighter take. The building tension in comedy is the setup, a question to be answered, a premise to explore; the answer is the punchline. Like in horror, the question begs the audience to wonder, what’s going to happen? The changing answers in both genres elicit different reactions in us based on how those answers make us feel. They keep us on the edge of our seats with fear or leaning back in stitches.
I started thinking about what makes things scary versus funny. If the setup is a question and the answer is the punchline is the answer, what is the horror equivalent? And what makes something scary instead of funny? If building tension creates questions, then the answer has to be the thing that elicits our reactions. For example, in “The Shining” the question is, what is in room 237? If the answer was a walrus with a British accent instead of a rotting corpse, does that make it funny? What if in the SNL digital short “D*** in a Box” Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake revealed that the thing inside the box was a hungry poisonous tarantula? Is that scary? If a family identical to your own showed up in your driveway but the only difference was that they all wore bowties, is that still scary?
All this tension makes me think of the 2014 “Key and Peele” short titled “Aerobics Meltdown.” The sketch is an old video from the 1987 Jazz Fit Championship. The video opens with a line of text that reads: “Everything you are about to see is true.” A line of spandex-clad women with big hair stretch as two male dancers, Flash and Lighting, played by Peele and Key respectively, enter in similarly shiny purple costumes. All is well in this aerobics video until the video cuts into behind the scenes footage that displays itself more clearly. The news is given to Lighting through various cue cards that his wife and daughter have been hospitalized from a hit and run. Between pieces of bad news, cards are interlaced to remind Lighting to “Keep dancing.” Lighting’s face falls as he continues to dance. The tension builds as the director asks if Lighting would know anyone that might want to hurt him or his family. The recognition comes to Lighting as he looks over to his competitor and Flash gives him a sadistic wink. The clip ends with Lighting strangling Flash and the video cutting out. But the reason I bring this sketch up is it is a perfect example of the building tension that Peele loves to utilize in both his humor and horror. This sketch, albeit dark, provokes a shocked kind of laughter that can only be attributed to the genius tension-building of Jordan Peele.
I think the answer to the horror and humor conundrum lies in the answers themselves. If the answer makes us laugh, it’s comedy. If the answer makes us shit our pants, odds are it’s a horror film (or you need to get your bowels checked).