In a 6.21 review of the Dr. Strangelove Bluray, N.Y. Times DVD columnist Dave Kehr says that director Stanley Kubrick “had no discernible sense of humor.” Well, that’s bullshit but let’s first examine Kehr’s examples of Kubrick’s tone-deaf funny bone.
Peter Sellers‘ Strangelove and Sterling Hayden‘s Gen. Jack D. Ripper , he says, “seem less funny as their audacity has drained away.” Then he says that lines like ‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!’ “now seem more labored than deliciously droll.” And then he says that “the film may be at its best in those low-key moments when Sellers, playing the American president Merkin Muffley, chats nervously on the hot line with the unseen Soviet premier — moments that owe everything to Bob Newhart‘s classic telephone routines.”
Kubrick most definitely had a sense of humor. It happened to be on the dry and perverse side, and for the most part seemed aimed at people on the set who were on his wavelength. Kehr misleads in his piece by not acknowledging that the above-quoted lines are pretty much the only ones in the film that apppeared to be aimed at mainstream ticket buyers circa 1963, and which consequently have a dated, on-the-nose feel. They were thrown in, in other words, as concessions to then-popular taste in humor, which Kubrick was probably wise to do because most people — let’s face it — respond to obvious material that any twelve year-old would laugh at. Like Newhart’s phone bits.
Most of the Strangelove humor is aimed, it has always seemed to me, at educated types who’ve been around the block. It is subtle and slightly kinky, and always in an undersold vein . Here, I submit, is the funniest exchange in the whole film, and there’s not a “laugh line” to be found in any of it:
General Jack D. Ripper: You know when fluoridation first began?
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: I…no, no. I don’t, Jack.
Ripper: Nineteen hundred and forty-six. Nineteen forty-six, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core commie works.
Mandrake: Uh, Jack, Jack, listen, tell me, tell me, Jack. When did you first… become… well, develop this theory?
Ripper: Well, I, uh…I… I, uh… first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love.
Mandrake: Oh! [doing what he can not to sound stunned]
Ripper: Yes, uhm…a profound sense of fatigue… a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I, uh… I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence.
Ripper: I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women uh… women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I… I do not avoid women, Mandrake.
Ripper: But I do deny them my essence.
The way Sellers quickly mutters a supportive “no” when Hayden says he doesn’t avoid women is a great improv — a touch of supportive osequiousness. It also reflects the film’s basic comic attitude, which constantly alludes to male sex drives and feelings of adequacy and inadequacy, etc. Another great bit is when Sellers almost asks Hayden when and how he cooked up his nutball theory but decides at the last second to ask when he first “developed” it, as if Hayden might have been working on a “purity of essence” essay with a team at the Rand Corporation.