If you are asked to define the style of Joss Whedon, I think that his standard method of mixing humour with drama would be one of the first things to pop into your head. An exact description might run thusly: “Characters saying things at certain moments that are unexpected or against standard script doctrine for those moments”. It’s rare that Whedon characters actually tell jokes, that is, “set-up, punchline” type entities that are meant to be comedic from the very start. Instead, they are about reactions, saying something in reaction to something another character said, with the first part of the equation inherently non-comedic. Whedon works are utterly full of this, and the practise probably found its zenith around the time of Firefly, when Whedon was also making Angel. So successfully was it implemented in The Avengers that almost the entirety of Marvel’s “Phase Two” attempted to ape it, with varying levels of success: Age Of Ultron was a fairly obvious example of such things being taken to too much of an extreme.
But back on Serenity. Serenity is a funny film, without a doubt, but it is also a very good example of comedy mixing effectively with drama. There are essential things that need to be in place in order for this to occur, and good timing, in terms of the placement of jokes, is probably the most important. Serenity never gets too funny, and every comedic moment tends to be balanced out by something much more serious. Moreover, Whedon knew when making the film when the funny needed to be drastically cut back, and the amount of humorous moments do tail off as we go into the third act, though they never vanish completely.
Let’s take a look at a few instance of humour in Serenity, and why I think they work. First, the jokes in an action scene, practically a staple of the genre. Mal, Zoe and Jayne are being chased by Reavers, who will eat the crew alive if they get caught. A terrifying prospect, and poor Jayne is soon being dragged towards the Reaver Skiff, holding onto the hovermule one-handed with a harpoon in his leg. Jayne is defiant in the moment:
“I won’t get et! You shoot me if they take me!”
Mal obligingly levels a gun at Jayne, who responds:
“Well don’t shoot me first!”
The humour is on a couple of levels, mostly of contrasts. There is the contrast between the incredibly perilous situation and the funny line, and the contrast between Jayne’s bold action-heroish first statement and the slightly panicked, almost shrill, tone of the second. The general peril and the comedy find a suitable contrast in the actual visual and the editing of the moment, as we go from Mal exchanging bullets to watching Jayne dangle between mule and skiff helplessly.
The line works I think because it’s early on in the film, and the audience is relaxed enough to know that no one, of any importance, is going to die in this sequence. We can accept a joke here better than we maybe might in another part of the film. And of course, the argument can be made that it isn’t really a joke at all: Jayne doesn’t want to Mal to shoot him just yet, and the humour is derived not from the actual line, but from its placement and the contrasts it brings. In essence, the joke doesn’t derail the seriousness of the situation too much because it isn’t an unnatural thing for Jayne to say at that moment.
Of course, you can compare that to similar moment in the finale space battle, when Wash flies Serenity into the thick of the fighting with the famous words:
“I’m a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar”.
That’s a very dramatic action-hero statement. Mal even follows it up with a similar “Chickens come home to roost” when viewing the destruction visited upon the Alliance fleet. But then Wash unintentionally hits something, and his panicked reaction is:
“It’s OK, it’s OK. “I’m a leaf on the wind…”
It’s all in the delivery of course, but much like the exchange above, the humour is in the contrast between the two moments, essentially a gentle poking at action hero tropes. The moment is a very quick bit of tension relief before additional drama, and does remind the audience, to some extent, the nature of the ship – not a war vessel by any stretch of the imagination – and the danger it faces. But it doesn’t work quite as well as the first example I quoted, since someone does die in the same sequence: the line doesn’t have quite the same verve the second time you watch it, because you know what is coming. But I could argue that enough time and enough action passes between this line and Wash’s death.
How about the Operative? In the training house scene, he presents himself as the epitome of civilisation, softly spoken, reasonable generous in his offers and complimentary of his adversaries. But when Mal shoots him, the gloves come off:
“I am of course wearing full body armour. I am not a moron”.
Again, it’s about the contrasts. The Operative was civility incarnate one moment, then blunt and insulting the next. But like Jayne and the Reavers, the humorous moment doesn’t ruin the tension of the scene because it sort of fits: the Operative is annoyed that Mal cut him off and did something so terrible as shoot an unarmed man, and so drops the civil tone and civil language. We don’t feel like characters are saying something unnatural or alien to them: when people say that Whedon characters feel human, it is moments like these that push that feeling. The moment also establishes a certain lack of poise in the Operative, which comes to the fore again in the “Somebody fire!” line later.
A few other examples will make the point. Kaylee’s “Going on a year now I ain’t had nothing twixt my nethers weren’t run on battaries” is one I have talked about before, but it’s a great comedy line worthy of note again. It comes at a more relaxed moment in the narrative, so fits nicely, but also says some things very important about Kaylee: that’s she’s relaxed about her sexuality, that her crush on Simon isn’t just some romantic starcrossed thing and that her frustration with the captain is bound up in something very physical, making her closing sting – “Tell that to Inara” – all the more effective. And we have Jayne on hand to be crude as well: “I could stand to hear a little more”.
There’s River and Zoe during the payroll heist in the opening. River is along to make sure no unexpected trouble occurs, and mentally spots one of the patrons itching to start shooting. She points this out very dramatically to Zoe with a raised arm and a pointed finger, but when Zoe hesitates to follow through, River has to give her a frustrated, pained, “Yes, I mean that guy” look full of childish irritation. It’s a very brief, non-verbal, break in the overall tension that doesn’t involve a dumb quip or anything like that, so works wonderfully.
And there’s the moment shortly after as Mal and Jayne gain access to the vault: when asked to provide a password by the lone guard inside, Jayne just fires off a few rounds from his “repeater” into the floor, and the clearly scared guard just response “…OK”. The great thing about this is that it’s actually everything other than the lines that make it funny, the moment could be played totally serious. But it’s the non-verbal actions and cues of Mal, the delivery of the “OK” after a perfectly timed pause, the dropping off of the score volume to emphasise the point and the quick cuts between Mal and Jayne that actually make the entire thing laugh worthy.
These are just a few examples. Whedon goes way too far with his brand of humour sometimes, as mentioned, but in Serenity he was really at his zenith as the creator of effective action-comedy in his role as both writer and director. Serenity is a film just aching with emotion and genuinely heart-breaking moments of dramatic tension, but it’s a funny film too. Everything is in the right balance, and that repeated motif of contrasting lines and actions relative to the situation is one of the key reasons why.