Unintended Comedy in The Godfather

I’m a lucky guy.  Recently I had the unique opportunity to see The Godfather…on the big screen.  In conjunction with a new, super restored DVD release of the Godfather trilogy, Coppola also had new 35 mm prints issued, and they (well, Parts I and II) were screened at New York’s Film Forum.  Awesome.  I was totally stoked…but not quite prepared for what would ensue during the screening.

WARNING: Spoilers (and unintended comedic reactions) after the jump.

The lights went down.  A solo trumpet mournfully accompanied the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera’s plea to the Godfather for mafia-style justice.  My heart was pounding.  I was in awe of the cinematic greatness that would ensue.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRLU0UFwFAo

But at the conclusion of the long zoom-out shot, the camera cuts to the shot of Don Corleone making that face-touching gesture.  And what happens?

The audience starts laughing.

Not uproariously laughing, mind you, but definitely chuckling.  Then more laughter as the cat squirms in the Don’s lap. Granted, there is something slightly comic about all of this, but remember, this is a taut and dramatic scene.  This exposition is offering key insight into Don Corleone’s character: the respect he commands and the violence he controls.

But the audience (myself included) is laughing.

And this happens in several other non-comic parts of the movie:

  • Woltz sleeping in his bed, right before the horse head is revealed
  • The baker, after standing guard with Michael outside of the hospital where Don Corleone is staying, fumbles with his cigarettes after the standoff with the would-be assassins
  • “Don’t forget the cannoli!”

And other scenes as well.

This is the effect of an audience watching a classic movie they know and love in a communal setting.  Laughing at the gestures and hints of things to come is a way to show everyone around you that you so know this movie because you’ve seen it, like 20 times, and know all the reasons why the little things add up to make this movie so great.  Everyone knows that you wouldn’t laugh at these scenes if this were 1972 and you were watching this for the first time, but pretty much everyone in the theater had seen this movie at least once and has lived an entire life with this movie imprinted into the fabric of their American cultural knowledge base.  The laughter, therefore, is less an expression of humor and more an expression of satisfaction that this part of our cultural knowledge base is in fact cut from the finest cloth.  Everyone shares in this moment, and everyone laughs, because there’s not really any other way to express it.

Of course, there wasn’t any laughter in some of the more dramatic and intense scenes.  If someone had guffawed, or even chuckled, during the climactic baptism/assassination scene,* he/she would have gotten some dirty looks. After all, as Bonasera learned, you must show your respect for the Don.

Readers, some questions for you:

  • When you last saw The Godfather, did you laugh at any of the non-comedic scenes?
  • If so, were you alone, or were you watching it with friends?
  • Do you consider the squirming cat in Don Corleone’s lap to be intentionally comedic?
  • Can you imagine yourself laughing/chuckling in anticipation of the pencil scene in The Dark Knight if you went and saw it again, with a bunch of people who had seen it before?  Why or why not?

*This, not surprisingly, was incredibly powerful to see on the big screen, but one of the things that really did it for me was the way the theater sound system really brought out the low notes from the organ music.  Awesome.

12 Comments on “Unintended Comedy in The Godfather”

  1. Gab #

    Yes, by myself, and yes with the caviat that it’s meant to be a little twisted and possibly just for people re-watching it, and yes.

    But I’m going to elaborate more on TDK. I have seen it four times. Yes. The first with my ‘rents and siblings, so the pencil thing was unexpected and got a “WHOA” from all of us, with my sister and I turning to one another after and smirking a little (and she said, “Wow, that was kinda awesome,”) (she’s thirteen). There were also things the Joker did that made me laugh a little even that first time, and a bit more each time I saw it thereafter. The next two times were with my best friend from hs. She and I both chuckled a bit as the Joker pulled out the pencil and lold when he said, “It’s gone.” And we lold at a lot of his antics (and again, more the second time we went together than the first). But the last time I saw it, I was with a different set of people that I love to death but would have to call goody two-shoes- they don’t even say “ass,” let alone like violence. So the dark humor in a lot of the Joker’s scenes was lost on them, and they just found him grotesque and don’t want to see it again. When I chuckled at the pencil, one of them gave me this horrid look (we were at a drive-in) and said, “You think that’s *funny*?” After that, I kind of held it in as best I could- I smiled and snortled softly to myself a lot, but I didn’t actually laugh because I could see how squirmy my companions were and knew they’d judge me again.

    I bring that all up because I wonder if the people in the theater during your experience are more like me and my best friend and less like that last group of people I was with. My friend and I are big fans of Batman and were stoked to see both of Nolan’s movies; they saw BB and didn’t like it much because it was “too dark” and “too violent” for them- so TDK, being darker and more violent, totally turned them off. You went to a special showing of a specific movie that would probably be a draw more for an already established fan-base: the people in your audience were already confirmed fans of “The Godfather.” So laughing would be ok with them. It’s a shared understanding and appreciation of the movie and what it represents. In my last TDK experience, I was with people that weren’t very enthusiastic to begin with that also don’t like the nature of some of the most important elements to the film. TDK is SUPPOSED to be dark and violent, and they don’t “do” that very well. If they ever did see it again, I doubt they’d crack a smile because they aren’t really “fans” of Batman (they didn’t like the older movies, either, btw) and thought TDK was “alright, [they] suppose[d].” We have very different tastes in movies and quality programming (they think “Babylon Five” is one of the best shows ever, and genuinely, not for its campiness, while they thought “The Ref” was terrible and depressing and hinted that they wished I hadn’t made them watch it).

    So to conclude that totally unnecessarily verbose blurb, I think some of it has to do with the kind of people there and what they can “handle” and such. It’s not slapstick to laugh in anticipation when Woltz gets in bed, it’s a dark, semi-sadistic type of humor. Not everyone enjoys that sort of thing. A person laughing at something of that nature would have to be able to enjoy all of the underlying themes and tropes in “The Godfather”- not just the violence, either. So it takes a specific kind of person to be able to laugh.

    That cat in itself is worth a whole post, by the way. Seriously. I haven’t seen that movie in at least four years, though, so I’m not going to try to analyze it myself- I’d need to rewatch first.

     
  2. mlawski #

    I remember laughing at the cannoli line very hard the first time I saw the Godfather.

     
  3. lee #

    mlawski: You laughed at the cannoli line without realizing that it was a setup for “Leave the gun; take the cannoli”?

     
  4. mlawski #

    Oh, I misread. Sorry, sorry!

     
  5. NaoNao #

    I’ve never seen the Godfather at all during my life, so it’d have confused me if everyone had been giggling at it. I do feel like I’d like to see it now though!

    Also, I probably wouldn’t laugh at the pencil in the eye scene in dark Knight, mainly because I didn’t like the film very much. I feel I’m the only person in the world to feel that way.

     
  6. lee #

    NaoNao: you really owe it to yourself to see this movie. I’d seen bits and pieces of it on TV over the years but only got around to renting the DVD sometime last year.

    Sadly, I did see the awful parody “Mafia!” before I saw The Godfather.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjkBtEDZpLI&feature=related

    I think I laughed more during this recent screening of “The Godfather” than I did during “Mafia!”

     
  7. pave #

    @gab: ‘the ref’ is one of my personal faves. so dark. so funny. and not enough people have seen it. must start some sort of campaign to make it happen!

     
  8. leontarsis #

    It is important to note that many in attendance at evening screenings of classic films at Film Forum have not only seen the movies before, but are arriving at the theater immediately post-happy hour.

     
  9. Professor Coldheart #

    I’m sorry, but “Leave the gun; take the cannolis” is funny, period. No further analysis needed. It’s funny in the same way, “I’m shocked – shocked! – to find that gambling’s going on in here” is funny: the naked cynicism in the face of real human tragedy.

     
  10. lee #

    Prof. Coldheart: I was referring to the setup line, “Don’t forget the cannoli!” as opposed to the punch line, “Leave the gun; take the cannoli,” which everyone agrees is funny.

    People don’t remember the setup nearly as much as they remember the punch line, which is why I found it interesting that people laughed at the setup line during the screening.

     
  11. Professor Coldheart #

    Ah. You’re right; I had completely forgot the setup line.