The Art of the Comedic Scream

I saw A Fish Called Wanda for the first time recently, and while the film is famously awash in  quotable lines, I think my favorite consists of no recognizable words at all: it’s a noise John Cleese makes a little more than 45 minutes into the movie. His character, a repressed English barrister named Archie Leach, is entertaining Jamie Lee Curtis’ Wanda in his home while his wife and daughter are away at the opera. For reasons as complicated and silly as they always are in this kind of movie, Curtis needs something from Cleese and is trying to seduce him. He has gone to fetch champagne, and while he’s out his wife (Maria Aitkin) has come back unexpectedly and taken Curtis’ place on the couch as she and Porn Stache Kevin Kline scurry around the room to hide.

Cleese hurries in, unaware at first that anything’s changed, makes a flourish, then has the heart-attack-level realization that the one person who must absolutely not be here under any circumstances is sitting in front of him. Cue scream. Netflix subtitles it as “AAH!”

This movie is more than a quarter of a century old, and yet I’m certain moviegoers in the 80’s had seen this kind of thing before in a zillion screwball movies and Three’s Company episodes. As an actor, Cleese had a bottomless list of different ways he could have approached this moment based on all the examples that came before him: he could have given an “unexpectedly” high-pitched shriek.  He could have done a double or even a triple take (though only a master should ever dare to attempt a quadruple take). He could have even done the hokey old “AHHHHHHEEELLlllo darling” scream-to-conversation thing that turns up a lot in these kinds of farces. Despite our familiarity with them, any of these tactics might have worked.

Here’s what he does instead: he just yells. It’s a short one, but long enough to be impossible to fully ignore and totally socially inappropriate. There’s nothing self-consciously comedic about it. It sounds like his character is genuinely horrified, which of course he is, and the scream serves the story rather than trying hard to get laughs just on its own. Of course, Cleese is kind of like the Eric Clapton of spazzing out and built his career around yelling horrifically, so it’s no surprise that he’s got the pitch and duration absolutely right.

So many comedians seem to rely on screaming that’s just screaming, as if that’s all you need to do to be funny. It’s not just the scream, it’s the character of it and what it says about the screamer. Hank Hill’s infamous “bwah!” noise is funny because of just how sheepish and pathetic it makes him sound while still communicating terror. Plus, have you said it aloud? It’s hours of fun, although not in the literal YouTube sense, at least for me.

Anyway, I’ve heard people (I’ll say it: older people) say they didn’t like certain comedians because they are “too loud” or they “shout too much,” and that’s probably just one of those preferences you get when you grow and decay and need something gentle and slow-moving to keep a fix on. But my belief is that anyone can make sudden alarming exclamations work if they know what they’re doing and put their gut into it.

This is normally where I’d ask any theoretical readers out there to leave comments about any memorable comedic screams they find interesting, but that’s just begging for an avalanche of goat videos in this day and age, isn’t it? Ah, well, I guess it’s better than those damn flash animations with the screaming ghosts that used to pop up halfway through.

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