One of my favorite comedic movie scenes of all time is the marching band scene from Woody Allen’s TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN. If you haven’t seen it (or even if you have) check it out.
When I watched the movie recently, I was curious to see if the scene would have the same effect on me as it did when I first saw it ten years ago. Sure enough, I was doubled over, laughing so hard I was crying. We all know that humor is an elusive, subjective thing that is difficult to nail down, but watching the marching band scene again after all these years made me wonder why it still worked.
In thinking about this, it occurred to me that the joke breaks over the audience in several waves. First of all, there is Allen’s masterful stroke of absurdity—a cellist in a marching band. Once the initial surprise of this begins to wear off, we are hit with the realization of the logistical implications of a seated musician playing in a moving group. Then we are hit again as the band passes by Virgil and he has to pick up the chair, move it forward, sit, and start to play again. And if that wasn’t enough, we are hit again and again as the band passes him and he repeats the whole silly routine over and over. Instead of getting tiresome, Virgil’s attempts at keeping up just get funnier and funnier. It’s funny because even though we know his actions are futile, Virgil seems to think he’ll eventually figure out a way to keep up. He’s continually doing the same thing but expecting a different result—a form of insanity.
Perhaps my favorite form of comedic insanity is megalomania, which is the condition of being deluded about one’s power and importance. If I wasn’t afraid of repeating myself, I would write only about megalomaniacs because of their rich comic appeal. Fictional megalomaniacs that most readily come to mind are Barney Fife from the Andy Griffith Show, Don Quixote, and my personal favorite--Ignatius J. Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. Reilly’s snobbish disdain for nearly everyone and everything becomes hilariously ironic when juxtaposed against his own sloth and social ineptitude.
Delusion is the gap between who a character thinks he is and who we know him to be. Beyond the comedy, there is also enormous potential for self-examination by the audience. Who does he think he is? we ask ourselves. Becoming judge and jury, we are then forced to ask, Who do we think we are?