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Star Wars: A New Joke by Michael Heather

Michael Heather Takes A Look At The Humour In Star Wars

An oft repeated maxim about John Williams music for Star Wars (that is episode IV, A New Hope) is that, rather than use a futuristic type score, the genius was using very traditional classical themes that would ground the action and make what was occurring on screen relatable to the audience.  This is, of course, absolutely true and his contribution, as ever, is absolutely key to the films success. One thing of note about the original film (and which follows through to the two original sequels, and that I loved as a young fan) was also how funny the film is. Star Wars... as comedy. Much like John Williams score it was key in making the film relatable and successful. Now I am not saying that if you fancy a good laugh you select Star Wars over Chevy Chase’s broken glasses (or Steve Martin having a conversation with a brain on a lake) but Star Wars definitely uses humour for effect and to humanise and sympathise the characters. Granted Darth Vader isn’t a barrel of laughs (except maybe later when he seemed insistent on screaming out ‘Nnnnnoooooooooooooo’ at the most in-opportunistic times) but humour is used to deliberate effect especially in the original trilogy. It also helps if you remember a time when you were unfamiliar with every single frame of the trilogy, a time when you couldn’t repeat the cantina scene word-for-word while you were taking a bath. If you can remember that far back (seeing the film not taking a bath), and remember some of the appeal when you were just into double figures, you’ll also remember laughing with the film and, perhaps, more often than you might at first give it credit for.

Humour, initially, is used (and vitally) for the droids C-3PO and R2D2...lending the bickering duo a sense of fun was essential if the audience was to want to spend the first 20 minutes of the film with barely any relatable characters. It is used to show Threepios frustration at being bundled into an escape pod (‘I’m not getting in there you overweight glob of grease...I’m going to regret this’) and it is used to show Threepio’s wonderfully two-faced personality (‘He tricked me into going this way’). That side is also amusingly shown not long after when he, at first, sings R2’s praises so they can remain together (‘...he really is in first class condition’) and then, moments later, trying to sidle up to his new master by agreeing to R2’s trouble making (‘...oh he excels at that sir’) A pity he hadn’t told Luke that prior to purchase, reflecting the used car salesman persona as Threepio was originally written. There are numerous other examples (‘no, I don’t like you either’) until we meet the instigator of much of the films humour, Han Solo. He immediately draws sympathy/humour from the audience by his cocky claims about the Millennium Falcon (which Obi Wan smells like a dying womp rat). Harrison Ford’s famously partly ad-libbed conversation with the Imperial officer over the com-link, while trying to appease the situation but in fact just making everything a whole lot worse, was one of many young Star Wars fans favourite moments. Likewise, humour is absolutely essential in the appeal of the lead trio whose male characters bumble about the first film making it up as they go along (or was that another Lucas character?) Princess Leia's first comment to Luke is famously a put-down (‘aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?’) and she then chastises both her would-be heroes with a withering ‘when you came in here didn’t you have a plan for getting out?’ Almost all the wonderfully written dialogue that occurs between the three of them during their Death Star escape is played for amusement.

‘Get in there...I don’t care what you smell!’
‘What a wonderful idea, what an incredible smell you’ve discovered!’
‘I take orders from just one’ ‘It’s a wonder you’re still alive.’
Jokes at Chewbacca’s expense (the walking carpet) then give way to a sequence that is almost entirely played for a laugh, Han Solo’s apparently heroic chase of the stormtroopers down a  Death Star corridor only for him to face certain doom at the other end and his very un-heroic about turn. (Is it any wonder this film started Harrison Ford on his path to stardom?)

All this humour has the desired effect and the great time you have had with these characters only increases your empathy with them, unlike the distinctly po-faced imperials (perhaps Tarkin should have displayed his pink slippers after all).

The edit of the film continues to push this element...after the tie fighter attack (‘great kid...don’t get cocky!’) an insert is used from two different scenes in the production, edited together to draw a laugh (‘Help! I think I’m melting!’)
Han Solo’s character continues to use humour and cockiness (‘I don’t know, sometimes I amaze even myself’) and he uses a dismissive hand gesture to Chewbacca when the rebels are, in his view, describing what he perceives to be a suicide mission to destroy the Death Star.

Han Solo’s celebrated relationship with Chewie is very much based on humour (‘C’mere you big coward’ as Chewie cowers like a frightened dog) and continues through the three films. Personally I enjoy the subtle humour that is sometimes presented as in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ when Solo (and a winking Harrison Ford) dismisses Chewie’s clearly unintelligible barks as a question of engineering (‘No, no, this one goes there, that one goes there’, a deliberately obtuse answer to an obviously obtuse Chewie growl.)

In the same film we have Luke’s wonderfully smug expression after having claimed the kiss from Princess Leia that clearly Solo thinks he deserves...little does he yet know.

Han Solo continues to provide much of Empires amusement often at the expense of his crappy ship as he literally thumps it to start the ignition (the old 1980’s how-to-switch-on-your-TV gag) and with Leia using it to downgrade his masculinity (‘Watch this’  ‘Watch what?’) Han’s painfully obvious disliking of Threepio also provides amusement (‘Of course I’ll have to fix it’) though at one stage it is to the smugglers detriment as he so nearly makes the connection with the Princess he feels he deserves only to be thwarted by the droid (‘Oh, you’re perfectly welcome sir!’)

Ford’s natural charisma and humour allows him to stamp his presence on the film and it is this quality that he uses frequently in Empire whether being dismayed at the stink of a tauntaun's guts or gently chastising his old friend Lando for cheesily trying to woo the Princess.

The character work already achieved by the first two films Return Of The Jedi has less work to do and knows we are by now familiar with the lead characters and, indeed, their luck, “How we doin?” “Same as always” “That bad huh?”

Jedi is perhaps disappointingly free of Leia and Hans’ spikey ripostes reflective of their evolving romance and it has oft been noted that this blunts Han Solo’s character somewhat but this is hardly the actors or screenwriters fault just reflective of the unfolding story. Ford still gets to enjoy the odd ‘Han Solo’ Star Wars fan can possibly resist Fords “...hey, its me!” line accompanied by Hamill and Fishers knowing and weary head shake. Jedi, of course, then produces the key humour-providing element for the whole film in the shape of 3ft tall furry forest dwelling teddy bears. Sorry, ewoks. I’m not sure this humour works for (or is aimed at) quite the same audience that enjoyed the more character-based humour of the previous two films but that audience had by now grown up and were given other elements to enjoy in Jedi (some of which are now Un-PC and we are not allowed to refer to...or buy an action figure thereof!) All I know is, as an 11 year old in 1983 sat watching the conclusion to this trilogy with my mother, I enjoyed seeing Wicket hitting himself around the head as much as the next 11 year old (and there were lots of us).
So the humour connects us to the characters and, conversely, that then makes the dramatic moments that much more effective. We enjoy spending our time with them which makes it that much more effective when Luke loses Obi Wan Kenobi or when our cocky space pirate is turned into a Slave One wall decoration. Humour is a key and defining characteristic to ‘easily’ win an audience over and create a memorable character or characters and George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan (along with several uncredited screenwriters) use it to great effect.
Now...laugh it up fuzzball.

Michael Heather is a retail store manager who spends his spare time time watching movies and painting & drawing often movie related subjects.
He grew up in the eighties and has an unhealthy (!) obsession with all things Lucas/Spielberg and Harrison Ford / Sylvester Stallone as well as the beautiful hand painted movie posters that advertised them.
The Bearded Trio - The Site For Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams and a whole lot more.


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