Wednesday 8 October 2014

Laughing at Star Wars: the Top 10 funniest jokes in the original movie - part one

Big laughs: the original Star Wars had more jokes than people think

Here's a fact that's sometimes forgotten about the original Star Wars: It had some very good jokes.

I don't just mean in-jokes, i.e. references to other films and literature that made critics and movie buffs feel clever when they spotted them.  (I wrote about some of those references here.) No, I mean genuine jokes which prompted audiences to laugh out loud.  I remember some of the laughter quite vividly from that first viewing all those years ago.

It wouldn't have been surprising, back then, that a George Lucas movie would contain some jokes.  While his first film, the dystopian THX 1138, scored decidedly low on the laughometer, American Graffiti was a nostalgic comedy, and a very engaging one.  Yet all these years later, we're so used to the Star Wars universe being intensely preoccupied with its own po-faced mythology that it's easy to forget what bright and breezy fun the original film was.

Funny: Ronnie Howard and Charlie Martin Smith in
George Lucas's American Graffiti, 1973
Less funny: Robert Duvall and the
police robots of THX 1138, 1971

Star Wars was always bound to attract dedicated science fiction fans, if only out of curiosity. But to be a big success, it needed to reach a wider audience.  It was a film that deftly blended all kinds of genres and traditions to give the audience a great night out.  It was only natural that humour would be part of the mix.

So, what follows, in two posts, are my Top Ten funniest moments in the original Star Wars.  The fact that it's a Top Ten is no contrivance on my part. I set out to list only the moments that provoked a real, out-loud reaction among audiences of the 1970s as far as I remembered, and the list fortuitously came to ten.  They're presented in the order they appear in the film.

1. R2-D2 and C-3PO bicker in the desert.

Reviewers often likened the droids of Star Wars to Laurel and Hardy, and it's easy to forget, all these years on, just how charmed people were by the robots' comedy shtick first time around.

Akira Kurosawa's 1958 film The Hidden Fortress had given George Lucas the idea of introducing his story through a pair of lowly players in the drama. But the droids are a very different combination of characters from Tehei and Matashich in Kurosawa's film.  They are  the classic comic double act: the pompous one and the childish one who knows how to prick his companion's pomposity and annoy him at every opportunity.  

Today, the droids' argument in the desert in Star Wars may be among the scenes most likely to send the young viewer reaching for the fast-forward button.  But in 1977, audiences were laughing all the way  – not least at this moment, enriched by a nicely judged thud sound effect.

2.  R2 falls over.

Here's a moment that shows that films really need to be seen with an audience.

Artoo, making his way through a Tatooine canyon in pursuit of his secret mission, is zapped by the Jawas and falls over.  I'd seen it countless times, but had forgotten what a reaction it provokes from the audience.  Then I saw the 1997 Special Edition with a first night audience, most of whom had probably watched the movie many times themselves, and I heard the whole auditorium erupt into laughter as the droid hit the ground.

It works thanks to a combination of comic timing and – once again – the perfect sound effect, as Artoo groans and then hits the ground with a sonorous thud.

It's another laugh that owes a lot to either sound editor Sam Shaw or sound effects creator Ben Burtt – whichever of them matched those effects to a well-timed gag.

3.   “I don't like you either”: the R2-D2 and C-3PO bicker in Luke's workshop.

Another droid moment, but then they were the main source of comic relief in the movie.  

Once again, the comedy owes a lot to the sound department.  The laugh is greatly enhanced by another couple of well-placed effects, in the form of Artoo's reaction to the prospect that he may not be Luke Skywalker's favourite robot.

4. Bloodshed in the Mos Eisley cantina: the band plays on regardless

This one is drawn from a hundred westerns or gangster movies, where blood is spilled in a saloon and the pianist knows to start the music again as if nothing has happened.

Luke Skywalker has run into some dangerous characters at the bar and things have quickly escalated.  A bit of verbal provocation and shirt-pulling has led to a lightsaber being ignited and someone getting their arm cut off.  And before anyone has even begun dealing with the mess or wondering whether to tell Ben Kenobi that he's barred, the band resumes playing. 

Who was respnsible for this comic moment working so well?  John Williams for the jaunty cantina music?  Sound editor Sam Shaw for the way the music cuts in with such perfect timing? George Lucas himself?  Whoever it was, it's a great joke. 

5.  “It's not wise to upset a wookiee”: the rigged holo-chess game on the Millennium Falcon

The modern viewer might not realise how taken people were with this scene in 1977.

Artoo and Chewbacca are aboard the Millennium Falcon playing a chess-like game which involves little holographic monsters doing battle on a round board. The stop-motion aliens were animated by Jon Berg and Phil Tippet (who would go on to animate the AT-AT 'walkers' in The Empire Strikes Back).  Artoo should be winning, but he's advised to throw the game after Han Solo warns that wookiees are known to “pull people's arms out of their sockets if they lose”.  It's the characters' reactions that make this moment work so well, not least the way Chewie reclines in his seat when he realises he'll be winning this game.

All this happens moments after the disintegration of Alderaan, showing that in Star Wars, the destruction of an entire civilisation is nothing to stay downhearted about for long.

Next time: The next five funniest jokes in Star Wars, including wisecracks on the Death Star and the beginnings of a romantic triangle.


Rory Cobb said...

That is one pf my fondest memories, too, of seeing it in the theatre in Kankakee, Il. in the summer of 1977- how fun *and* funny it was! My dad still talks about how that was the one thing that surprised him that first time, was the amount of humor and charm that film had!

Darren Slade said...

Hi Rory.
Thanks very much for commenting. Great to hear that your memory of the film, and how much fun it was, is so like my own.
I'll be posting part two of this post shortly.
Best wishes,

John White said...

Great post Darren! And you hit the nail on the head:
"we're so used to the Star Wars universe being intensely preoccupied with its own po-faced mythology that it's easy to forget what bright and breezy fun the original film was."

Star Wars is so pretentious now. Guardians of the Galaxy got back to the style of the original SW. The audience just kept laughing and laughing during GotG!
Artoo falling over was wonderful. My pals and I gleefully re-enacted this in the schoolyard. My son Johnny loves it too: "Look, he falls over like a dustbin!"
Chewie's satisfaction tht he'll win the game is wonderful. We re-enacted him smoothing back his hair too!

Sometimes I wonder how much of the humour was due to Harrison Ford? He has a gift for it and he was constantly making suggestions and being granted script revisions. Thankfully!