In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Let’s examine the construction of a single perfect joke. (Let’s kill a frog!) It’s a purely visual punchline (albeit an image involving words) at the very end of a scene in David Mamet’s Hollywood satire State And Main, about a film crew that takes over the sleepy town of Waterford, Vermont (“Where is it? That’s where it is”), to shoot what’s gradually revealed to be a 19th-century period drama about a firefighter (Alec Baldwin) and a nun (Sarah Jessica Parker). William H. Macy plays the director of the film-within-a-film, which has just had to flee its previous sleepy town in New Hampshire due to Baldwin’s proclivity for seducing local teenage girls; Philip Seymour Hoffman is the much-harried screenwriter, working on his very first movie after achieving some Barton Fink-style renown as a playwright. (We see a copy of his magnum opus, entitled Anguish, adorned with a very anguished author’s photo.) Early scenes have involved a great deal of discussion about Waterford’s historic old mill, a key location. Here, as Macy talks to his producer (David Paymer) on the phone, he gets a bit of bad news, though how bad only becomes truly clear when the aforementioned punchline finally lands.
State And Main is Mamet’s only flat-out comedy (though there are great jokes scattered throughout most of his serious films), and he constructs humor the same way he constructs drama: via repetition, misdirection, and his own unique dialogue rhythm. Macy, who met Mamet in college and acted in most of his early plays, knows how to deliver lines that would sound unnatural in the mouths of most anybody else, no matter how talented. Even actors who excel at Mametspeak often have trouble with certain elements—Baldwin, for example, does a great job except when he’s asked to do the bit where the person on the other end of the phone keeps interrupting mid-word. He sounds like someone cutting off where the script tells him to do so. Macy, by contrast, is completely believable when he says, “The new town’s cheaper than the old town, we’re gonna save a fort—” Anyone who thinks it’s easy to make that sound natural should try it sometime. Baldwin, given that line, would actually say “fort,” like a tree fort. All of which is to say that State And Main is highly execution-dependent, even though the script is so carefully constructed that it’s practically an instruction manual.
Anyway, back to the joke. Macy tells Paymer that they’ve moved from New Hampshire to Waterford, in part because Waterford already has an old mill, thereby relieving them of the burden of constructing one, which they can’t afford to do a second time. In the middle of this conversation, and following some unrelated business that I’ll get to in a moment, Macy’s underlings—Lionel Mark Smith and Jim Frangione—show up and reveal that Waterford’s old mill burned down four decades earlier. Consequently, when Hoffman walks in, Macy’s first words to him are, “Does it have to be an old mill?” This phrase will be seen on crew T-shirts a few days later, becoming an instant production in-joke; it’s the perfect encapsulation of the writer’s viewpoint, in which his work is seen by stars, directors, and producers as infinitely malleable, the extent to which has yet to be revealed. At this point, we don’t yet know the movie’s title.
It’s hard to articulate exactly why certain effects or strategies are funny, even if they consistently induce laughter. I’m absolutely certain that this scene wouldn’t have worked nearly as well had we been told up front that Hoffman’s script is actually called The Old Mill, even though that knowledge would make the question “Does it have to be an old mill?” much funnier when it’s first spoken. Instead, it’s sort of retroactively hilarious, as you project that revelation backward to the preceding discussion. That seems to me a higher form of comedy, maybe because it asks the audience to do a very small yet satisfying amount of work. Some may argue that it’s just the element of surprise, but I’m not sure that’s really the case. When Hoffman asks why they had to leave New Hampshire, Frangione whispers his reply, which we don’t hear; that’s a technique Mamet uses frequently (see The Spanish Prisoner, in which someone writes a profit estimate on a blackboard and Mamet frames it so that only the dollar sign is visible), and it’s not predicated on the withholding of information. In this particular case, we already know the answer that’s being whispered: They had to skip town because Baldwin slept with some teenager. It’s the suggestion of propriety itself that’s amusing.
Mamet’s also skilled enough to know that if you want to sell one terrific joke, the best way to do so is to disguise the setup by tossing in a lot of extraneous information. (Odds are he learned some of this from his long association with magician Ricky Jay. A magician’s patter is all about distracting you from their true intention, even as they entertain you in the process.) So in the middle of this scene, which is primarily about the old-mill gag, he also plants the seed for an important plot point near the end of act two, by having a production assistant accidentally erase “DINNER W/THE MAYOR” from the daily schedule on the office whiteboard. Unfortunately, Mamet (or his script supervisor) completely whiffs this plant: We’re meant to gather that the P.A. places the dinner on the wrong date when she rewrites it (and Macy does subsequently miss the dinner, causing the mayor to turn on him), but it’s clearly visible, written on the correct date, behind Smith and Frangione, who enter after the P.A. has rewritten it. Oops. Likewise, as Hoffman shuffles dejectedly out of the office, but before he holds his script up to the window so we can see the title, there’s a quick discussion about securing a horse—just a feint, really, to suggest that the old-mill bit is over, which it isn’t. (Or maybe it’s just an excuse for Macy and Smith to do that goofy high five.)
There are other miscellaneous aspects of this scene worth noting, like the fact that Frangione has a pen stuck in the band of his wristwatch (a detail that only someone with experience would think to include), and the whiteboard’s inclusion of stuff like Baldwin’s flight info, Paymer’s flight info, and the forthcoming arrival of the EPK crew to conduct behind-the-scenes interviews. But I’ll conclude with the introduction of another Mamet specialty: the joke that’s funny precisely because it’s never explained. (This goes back to at least Lewis Carroll and “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”)
When Frangione reads Macy a passage from a history of Waterford, about the destruction of the old mill, he notes with interest that the arsonist’s actions led to the formation of the Waterford Huskies. (“Go you Huskies!” is the town’s all-purpose rallying cry.) This gets mentioned half a dozen more times over the course of the movie, and we wait and wait to learn how a bunch of fires set by a disturbed kid inspired the local football team, or whatever the Huskies may be. But no explanation could likely be as funny as simply not being told. Again, the audience is asked to do a certain amount of work itself—in this case, to imagine a punchline that’s never formally supplied, the same way you might imagine a monster that a horror movie chooses never to show (or to show only fleetingly). It’s a peculiarly theoretical form of comedy. But then, so is Andy Kaufman’s Mighty Mouse routine, or any number of self-referential Monty Python bits in which they abandon sketches halfway through or notice that interiors are video but exteriors are film. State And Main is a Hollywood satire and a screwball romance, but it’s also a reflexive interrogation. If only there were more filmmakers capable of making that sort of thing fun.