THE Funniest Movie Scene!
Ready To Laugh: "High Anxiety" (1977)—Issue #2
Image by L.E. Wilson from RedBubble
ANATOMY OF A MOVIE SCENE
If you haven’t seen High Anxiety (1977), directed by Mel Brooks, yet—stop reading this; there are spoilers ahead. Please watch the movie then come back for a play-by-play and deep level analysis of the greatest comedic scene ever put to film. Don’t ruin for yourself what may very well be the funniest sequence you’ll ever see in a movie.
High Anxiety (1977) is a comedy co-written and directed by Mel Brooks about Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (Mel Brooks), a successful psychiatrist who also suffers from a debilitating fear of heights, which is made worse when he starts to work at the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very VERY Nervous alongside Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman).
Life Lesson: Figure out what you really are afraid of.
🍿Movie Scene Link (movie quote)
Why is it so funny? Because being surprised is funny.
This is the best way to get a laugh:
You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps over the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.
Laughter is the reaction to being surprised in a safe environment. Laughter is the release of tension when it becomes clear that the reason for the tension is something harmless. That is essentially what a surprise does; it gives you a moment, just a moment, of trepidation, of fear, of discomfort—and when the surprise reveals itself to be not only harmless, but also puzzling, intellectually stimulating, and/or amusing—you laugh.
In the above Charlie Chaplin example, we expected the lady to slip on the banana peel and fall, but instead she steps over the peel, and falls anyway down a manhole we didn’t know was there. That was the surprise. For a moment we feel something like shock, then the realization that it’s a joke hits us (no fat women were hurt). It was a harmless surprise, and so we laugh. In High Anxiety there is a stairway gag that demonstrates this exactly: the rickety, crumbling, old wooden step that’s splitting down the middle is the focus of the shot, so the main character jumps over it only to fall through the sturdy step next to it. It’s hilarious!
Set within the structure of a serious drama, High Anxiety builds tension culminating in a scene that is an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho (1960)—a master class in suspense. The fear and anxiety you feel while watching a menacing shadow approach a translucent shower curtain while someone is in there showering is real.
But in High Anxiety, all that tension and trepidation you feel gets released as uncontrollable laughter by the extremely surprising turn of events once the shower curtain is pulled back. You’re brought back from the brink. This isn’t Psycho, this is a comedy. No one is injured.
The joke in this scene has a long set up and build up. You have to go through the whole path to enjoy the grand payoff. If you experience it fully, really let yourself feel the tension, you will run out of air from laughing so hard when the surprise is finally revealed. This is the visceral underpinning of comedy: fear being reshaped into thunderous laughter.
Then comes the button (the joke that ends the scene): “That kid gets no tip.” Genius! What an understated reaction by the “victim” to the dramatic scene that just unfolded. It stands in stark contrast to the humorous overreaction and screeching by the bellboy. It’s another surprise! More uncontrollable laughter ensues.
(Amusing anecdote: the actor who played the crazed bellboy, Barry Levinson, would eventually become the director of many successful movies including Rain Man (1988), for which he won the academy award for best director.)
So without further ado, here is the funniest movie scene in its entirety:
[At The Hotel Reception Desk]
Receptionist Randolph: Oh Dennis, will you take Dr. Thorndyke to his room, please?
Bellboy DENNIS: (to Thorndyke) Anything I can get you, Sir?
Dr. Thorndyke: Yes, please. I'd like a newspaper.
DENNIS: Gotcha. Get you one and meet you at the elevators.
Thorndyke: Please don't forget. It's rather important.
DENNIS: All right. All right, already!
Thorndyke: (to Brophy) I want to see if there's any mention of Wentworth's death.
Brophy: Yeah. Oh, Doc, there are the elevators! [Ominous music plays.] Come on, Doc.
Thorndyke: I'm-I’m-I-I’m, coming. I’m coming.
DENNIS: Here we go. Straight to the top… Quite a view, isn't it? Here we are. Top floor. Top of the hotel. You can't get any higher. We're pretty high!
Thorndyke: We know it! We know we're high! That we know. That part we know.
DENNIS: Excuse me. This way. This way, please. Right around the corner.
Brophy: Wow! Hey, Doc, look at this. What a view! This is spectacular!
Thorndyke: I can see it from here. It's very nice. Very nice indeed. Very nice.
[Thorndyke screams as he is pushed to the edge of the floor railing by a housekeeping cart.]
Brophy: Are you all right, Doc? Are you all right?
Thorndyke: I’m all right. I'm all right, Brophy. I’m all right.
Housekeeper [Surly]: I'm sorry, Sir. I didn't know anyone was there.
DENNIS: You fellas want to see your rooms or not? Huh? Well?
Thorndyke: Come on. Let's get out of here.
Brophy: Boy, if you would have gone over you would’ve been smashed like corned beef hash. Your brains would have splattered all over the lobby. Your guts would have…
Thorndyke: Brophy, please.
Brophy: Oh, yeah. Ooh.
DENNIS: Right here is 1702. (to Brophy) You're in 1703. Here's your key. I'll bring your bag in a minute.
Thorndyke: See you later, Brophy. Thank you. (to Dennis) Here you go. [Gives Dennis a tip.] Thank you very much.
DENNIS: Thank you. Anything else I can get you, Sir?
Thorndyke: Oh, yes, my newspaper. What happened to my newspaper?
DENNIS: Oh, the newsstand didn't have any. I didn't feel like running around the corner. It’s a hassle.
Thorndyke: I want that newspaper! It's very important.
DENNIS: All right! I'll get your paper. I'll get your paper.
Thorndyke: What a hassle—Don't forget!
DENNIS [Shouting]: All right! All right! What's so important about a lousy, crummy newspaper?! [Slams the room door as he leaves.]
[Back At The Hotel Reception Desk]
Randolph: Oh, Dennis? Dr. Thorndyke in room 1702 just called down to remind you not—
DENNIS [Shouting]: I know! Get the newspaper! Get the newspaper! Get the stinking newspaper!!
[Back to Thorndyke who is in the bathroom taking a shower. Ominous music plays.]
DENNIS [Enters bathroom, pulls back shower curtain, repeatedly stabs Thorndyke with a rolled-up newspaper.] [Screaming]: HERE! Here! Here! Here! Here! Here’s your paper! Here's your paper! Here's your PAPER! Happy now? Happy? Happy now? [Dennis leaves and slams the bathroom door behind him.]
Thorndyke [Grabs the shower curtain and pulls it down off its rail. Newspaper ink spirals down shower drain. His head rests on the rim of the bathtub.]: That kid gets no tip.
[Knock on door]
Thorndyke: [Straightening his tie in front of a mirror.] Who is it? [Knock on door] Who is it?—It's not the bellboy, is it?
So next time you feel irritated or angry about something, ask yourself if you are being as ridiculous as Dennis the bellboy in High Anxiety. Hopefully it will at least make you smile a little to recall this hysterically funny scene in this amazing movie, and thus allow you in the end to have a good day anyway.
And remember: always get your own newspaper!
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