Two Drink Minimum is a comedy-based column by Vague Visages staff writer Jacob Oller.
Would we like The Rock as much if he wasn’t shredded like taco lettuce? Comedy and physicality are often intertwined in performances, but the easy-going Adonis is bringing something new. As Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s new comedy Central Intelligence hits theaters, his extraordinarily positive, upbeat and nerdy character marks a shift in the way audiences think about physical comedy duos and body image.
Like Channing Tatum’s career transformation from pretty boy dancer to romantic lead to ripped comic dullard, or the more action-oriented path paved by bodybuilder/entrepreneur/Mr. Freeze punslinger Arnold Schwarzenegger, Johnson has gone through similar phases trying to re-brand himself after a professional wrestling career. First literally used as a monster in The Mummy and an action hero in its spin-off, Johnson quickly took his physique and charisma to comedy.
While Schwarzenegger relied on action for the majority of his successes, his first comedy was a film sold on the mere premise of a humorous body comparison: Twins with Danny DeVito. This isn’t a new phenomenon. The extremes of the human body have always gotten a chuckle out of us, just because it’s not what we think of as “normal.” Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and his modern counterparts (including but not limited to Chris Farley, Kevin James, Melissa McCarthy, and John Belushi) subvert their heavy appearance with frenetic chases and slapstick gags, keeping the pace at odds with our expectations. Chris Farley’s double cartwheel entrance on Letterman, or his famous Saturday Night Live Chippendale’s audition with Patrick Swayze, summons up something primal about the physical nature of comedy: the dissonance between what we think and what we get.
On the other side of this, usually the straight man to these body extremes, are the skinny companions who react to the antics of their larger-than-life associates with a wan, put-upon exasperation emphasized as strongly as the subjects of their sighs. Buster Keaton’s sad-eyed deadpan, Harold Lloyd’s nerdy, accidental daredevil, Jack Lemmon’s exhausted eyebrows and now Kevin Hart’s gnomish accountant contrast the spectacle erupting all around them. They are normalcy made as normal as possible — too normal.
This dissonance meets with extremes (extreme bodies and extreme normalcy) so that any given situation can be spun comedic by virtue of the elements in play. An Austrian bodybuilder plays a Kindergarten Cop. A former male stripper and all-around hunk goes undercover in high school. But Johnson isn’t just the token big guy, like Schwarzenegger was in his first roles, or the hot guy, like Tatum, but an actor with a varied comic arsenal. His face, all stretchy wrinkles and big eyes, benefits from his shaved head to place all focus on his exaggerated expressions, combining both action and reaction into the same comic persona. He’s gone past the leading-man physique into extreme territory, placing him back in the outskirts of comedy with the lanky Jim Carrey and squat Jonah Hill. It’s an indicator of Hollywood’s body biases and their root in our society’s expectations for humor. The prestige, “movie stardom,” usually goes to those that look like they graduated from soap operas. Anything else reconfigures your brand to a disappointed date’s hopes — “maybe he’s funny.”
Our shifting definition of clownish bodies means that Johnson is playing a fat guy (literally a fat high schooler turned buff) in a musclebound body. Exceptional health has replaced unhealth as a contrast to “normal,” though Johnson’s gleeful delivery and warm expressions endear viewers to his buffoon from top to bottom. As professional wrestlers and other athletes work their way into mainstream acting (LeBron James in Trainwreck comes to mind), comedy welcomes their increasingly otherworldly bodies as we (Americans) see our new normal become pudgier and pudgier.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.