10 Comedians We Aren’t Meant to Find Funny


Maybe I will do a list of this kind every month. Or maybe I won’t. I probably won’t. I hope you didn’t like that introductory paragraph very much, because I’m going to write another one:

Comedy is difficult. Making people laugh is the easy part…making people laugh for the right reasons, at the right times, satisfyingly and consistently, is practically a science. For that reason, we come to expect that not every comedian will make it big, and that not every joke they tell will make us laugh. We know that an impressive hit rate is difficult to maintain, and we adjust our expectations accordingly, striking a balance between how much we’d like to be entertained, and how much we can reasonably expect of a fellow flawed human being.

But, sometimes, a particular comedian is doomed from the start. He is not only incapable of making us laugh, but he’s without control over his material, his audience, or even his demeanor. It’s tragic when this happens, and painfully awkward. The floundering comedian is an effective and offputting archetype, and that’s why writers have dipped into this well repeatedly, crafting characters fated to bomb every time, doomed to botch every punchline, making us laugh not warmly, but defensively, and with discomfort.

In the interesting cases of these comedians, laughing at their material means you missed the joke. Here are 10 examples of that irony personified.

1) Fozzie Bear (The Muppet Show)

There’s perhaps no better cultural touchpoint for the ill-equipped comedian than Fozzie Bear, and his signature “wocka wocka” has wormed its way into our vernacular as well, becoming rightfully associated with sub-par material and limp gags. Fozzie’s routine was dated before he was born, relying on simple puns and vaudeville showmanship to generate rapturous laughter and applause that never comes. He’s also, however, eminently sympathetic, which is not only why we like him, but why Kermit keeps him around, and gives him another chance every week to die on stage. With two old curmudgeons heckling him from the balcony above, we are free from the desire to criticize his act, and can instead turn our attention to the uplifting fact that no matter how poorly he’s received, Fozzie’s always devoted enough to his craft to throw away what doesn’t work — in his case, everything — and write a whole new act from scratch. We’d love to see Dane Cook follow his lead.

2) Jimmy Valmer (South Park)

Jimmy Valmer is a special case, in several senses of the word. For one, he’s an 8-year-old boy, which means — unlike Fozzie and everyone else on this list — he isn’t disappointed that he hasn’t made it further in his comedy career. After all, that’s still to come! But he also suffers from several obvious physical handicaps. No matter; Jimmy wants only to make the world laugh, an ambition that’s downright touching by South Park standards, and one made all the more unfortunate by his chronic stutter, which causes him to step on his own punchlines and prevents him from honing his delivery…or even intelligibility. His jokes are about what you would expect from an 8-year-old boy — meaning his material is about as mature as could reasonably be expected and therefore, again, elevates him above the other entries on this list — but they actually seem to work. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, Kenny and the rest of the boys accept him relatively happily for who he is, functioning just fine within their social circle, and he’s not defined in their eyes by his handicaps. No, instead Jimmy is treated exactly as poorly as they treat anyone else. That’s the healing power of humor.

3) Randy (Funny People)

Aziz Ansari is a genuinely gifted comic, and as Parks and Recreation demonstrates weekly, he’s also a talented actor. Both of those things allowed him to bring to life Randy, a pitch-perfect exaggeration — though only just — of a comedian so manic and animated that it completely masks the dire quality of the material he’s delivering. The greatest stand-up comics raised their volume for emphasis. Those from Randy’s school of performing, on the other hand, do it to drown out audience thought, keeping them cheaply engaged and laughing hollowly so that they won’t realize there isn’t any substance. Funny People is just one of many movies that Ansari steals wholesale from their ostensible stars, and the character of Randy has gone on to a have a full life outside the film: Ansari deploys him during his actual stand-up routines now, perhaps as a point of comparison to his normal material, but more likely as a cathartic blow against more popular, more profitable contemporaries of his, who cash larger paychecks but don’t have anything worth saying. Randy may be a popular draw within the world of the film, but all he really does is pull audiences away from more deserving performers.

4) Kenny Bania (Seinfeld)

In contrast to Randy, Kenny Bania is a hack we actually tend to like. Like Fozzie Bear before him, we feel protective of Kenny Bania, as though we don’t trust that he’ll survive the cruel world of stand-up comedy. Even the typically staid Jerry breaks down his personal barriers and takes Bania under his wing — however temporarily. Bania is overjoyed by the simplest, laziest pieces of observational humor, often interrupting his mentor with a sincere and irony-free exclamation of “That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!” His perpetual enthusiasm and sunniness is a rare thing for the Seinfeld gang, and it’s no wonder that he made several appearances during the show’s run, becoming more successful as a comic, but never getting any better or any wiser. Bania was given the ultimate compliment long after Seinfeld ended, by being one of very few recurring characters resurrected for that show’s “reunion” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Unlike the profoundly irritating Randy, whose success seems to grow as your faith in humanity diminishes, Bania is more of an infectiously adorable nuisance, and it’s nice to know that he’s still out there somewhere, as ecstatic as ever over jokes that aren’t as clever as he thinks they are.

5) Krusty the Clown (The Simpsons)

Krusty the Clown has provided us with much cause for laughter over the years…just not where he wanted us to find it. His Krusty the Clown Show sketches are the stuff of huge mustaches and pie fights, something that might be written by somebody who grew up watching classic comedians, but could never figure out why they were supposed to be funny. In fact, his comedy routines are so poor that they drove at least one of his previous sidekicks to criminal insanity. The humor behind Krusty comes from the incongruity of his situation: he’s a children’s entertainer who openly dislikes children, even when the cameras are rolling. His drug and booze fueled lifestyle allow him to coast lazily through whatever appearances he’s contractually obligated to make, but beyond that he’s a comedian who doesn’t particularly care whether or not you find him funny…he gets paid either way. In fact, in one episode (“The Last Temptation of Krust”) Krusty does become inspired to develop as a stand-up comedian, and achieves a new peak of notability with his more mature, insightful material. And then, of course, somebody offers him money, and he realizes that that’s his real passion. Krusty isn’t a hack because he doesn’t have the talent; he’s a hack because he’d rather make easy money than work hard. It’s an ethos so powerful and seductive that it eventually infected the writing of The Simpsons itself.

6) Dee Reynolds (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia)

You’d be hard pressed to describe any of the main characters in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as sympathetic, but you’d probably have the easiest time with Dee, if only because she seems to be aware that she’s missing out on something greater in the world. For all their grumbling and groaning, Mac, Dennis, Charlie and Frank are all actually pretty content where they are, and with who they are. They don’t have much of a desire to achieve even a measure of self-awareness, let alone anything bigger for themselves. Dee, on the other hand, does have aspirations: she wants to be an actress. With so little experience and talent behind her, though, she isn’t even sure where to begin, which is why she regularly subjects herself to delivering dire stand-up comedy at The Laff House. She explains this to Charlie — the only one in whom she’s confided about her performances — by saying she’s paying her dues. After all, if she wants to be an actress, she has to learn how to hold an audience. Fair enough, but when her set degenerates immediately into a series of painful and repulsive dry heaves, it’s clear that this is a gesture of self-mutilation, rather than any experience she’s likely to benefit from. Charlie, meanwhile, eats cat food. He’s the happier one.

7) Geoff Tipps (The League of Gentlemen)

The brilliant third series of The League of Gentlemen found many of its characters being thrust well outside of their comfort zones, an evolutionary direction for the show that resulted in much of its best — if not necessarily funniest — material. For Geoff Tips, this meant leaving the small town of Royston Vasey to pursue a stand-up comedy career in London. This is not a career change that’s destined to go well, particularly as we’ve already seen him botch jokes so badly that he’s threatened to shoot people for not laughing, and play practical jokes on his friends that involve him staging a gory suicide in a restaurant bathroom. Comedy is not Geoff’s forte, but it is his passion, and so, when he loses his job in “Turn Again, Geoff Tipps”, the comedy club is the first place he turns. Of course he bombs in more ways than one, not only allowing his act to dissolve into a shouting match with dissatisfied audience members, but also by serving as the unwitting chauffeur for a terrorist car bomb on behalf of the IRA. Still, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?

8) GOB and Franklin Bluth (Arrested Development)

Comedy is not GOB Bluth’s strong point. Nor is puppeteering. Nor music. Nor ventriloquism nor respecting the delicacy of race relations. It’s pretty clear then that his act with Franklin is going to go about as well as anything else he’s done. That won’t stop GOB, however, because GOB is one of those people who believes that everything he does is being done well, simply by virtue of the fact that it’s he who is doing it. He sees himself as preternaturally gifted in all areas he attempts to explore, and often this premature self-satisfaction is so seductive that others get sucked in as well. In the case of Franklin Delano Bluth — the puppet who reminds us that it’s not easy being brown — however there’s not much to get on board with. His racially-charged banter with the dead-eyed Franklin is stymied by the fact GOB can’t keep his lips from moving, ultimately resulting in his desperately hiding a tape recorder inside the puppet as a substitute for using his own voice. Unfortunately, GOB’s lips still move, even though he’s not saying anything, and the act is just as doomed as it ever was. As a character, GOB rarely says or does anything genuinely clever; rather, he works so well as a comic figure because of just how artfully he gets everything wrong. And speaking of puppets…

9) Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey (Knowing Me, Knowing You… With Alan Partridge)

Of all the characters on this list, Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey are the only ones who have just a single appearance to their credit. Even Randy continued to exist outside of the film that gave him life. Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey, however, so thoroughly squandered their chance at fame that they were never heard from again, in any form, ever. Just one of many, many, many things to go wrong for Alan Partridge on his ABBA-inspired chat show, Joe Beazley — suffering obvious and debilitating stage fright — bungles his performance so badly than Alan is forced to shut it down almost immediately…much to Joe’s chagrin. Joe starts out by bungling a joke that he improvised just minutes before in the green room, and it only gets worse from there. This comedy misfire wasn’t quite as damaging to Alan’s television career as the fact that he later shot another guest through the heart with a dueling pistol on live television, but the bitter taste of Joe Beazley’s routine with Cheeky Monkey lingers on to this day; he was one of the performers Alan saw fit to call out and specifically berate in his recent memoir, I, Partridge. Alan’s not one to let go of disappointment easily, and this laugh-free puppet fiasco affected him so profoundly that he used it as justification for never again giving up-and-coming performers a break. Ooh, you cheeky monkey.

10) Steve Martin

Why are we ending on an actual comedian? Well, because Steve Martin, in terms of his stand-up anyway, was always a very deliberate creation. What you saw on stage wasn’t Steve Martin the man, but Steve Martin the character. His arrow through the head, his balloon animals, his belabored “Well ex-cuu-uu-uuse me!” were all meant as clever pieces of anti-comedy. When he took to the stage, he did so as a walking caricature of the worst that stand-up comedy had to offer. Needless to say, audiences loved it, and Martin was given higher profile gigs, such as a record-breaking number of appearances on Saturday Night Live, and also more classic films than we can remember. The public initially decided they loved Steve Martin because he shined a spotlight on things that weren’t funny, but he did so in such an endearingly committed way that they just had to laugh. And then, once he had everybody’s attention, he showed the world that he knew comedy so well that he’s since stood as an important cultural fixture, spanning decades while lesser comedians — including many who unintentionally resembled the act that made him famous — came and went. And the moral of Steve Martin’s story is the most important lesson to keep in mind here: anyone can write a bad joke, but it takes a sincerely gifted people to craft these characters that are so perfectly bad in all the best ways.

How I Would Honor The Three Stooges

The Farrelly Brothers have been promoting their movie The Three Stooges by saying that first and foremost they wanted to pay tribute to the originals. Well, their movie is out this weekend, and from all accounts it doesn’t sound like all that flattering a tribute.

Personally, here’s how I’d pay proper tribute. I know it’s complicated, so I’ve tried to break it down into simple steps.

1) Take some time and go through all the surviving Stooge shorts. From these, take about 80 minutes’ worth of the best and most memorable material. You can narrow it down to a few complete shorts, or mix and match sequences from however many you like. I can see pros or cons either way. The important thing is, you’re using the originals, and not some lesser, artless stab at joyless re-creation.

2) Get someone knowledgeable and well-respected in the film industry to record an introduction for you. Roger Ebert won’t do for obvious reasons, but I’m sure you can find somebody important to speak for a minute or two about what the Stooges did for comedy, and how they influenced just about every physical comedian to come. This will be the first thing audiences see, because it’ll be comparatively boring and we want it out of the way early. Allot time for a pie in the face.

3) Draft a bunch of your Hollywood friends and colleagues to record new and interesting linking material. If they were willing to commit to humiliating cameos in the backyard horseplay you call a tribute film, I’m sure they’d be at least as willing to do this instead. Some of them might even come away from the project with some measure of self-respect, which would make for a nice selling point by comparison.

4) Edit it all together into A Celebration of The Three Stooges, or something. I don’t care. Call it a Tribstooge if you want. It doesn’t matter. Just as long as your centerpiece is original material, lovingly restored and considerately presented, featuring sincere reminiscences and discussions by contemporary stars and artists who appreciated them. Release it for one night only, or maybe schedule several showings over one weekend, to spur ticket sales and contribute to an overall sense of being part of an appreciative community.

5) There is no five. There are only four steps. This is fucking easy.

Of course, such a gambit might not make as much money as a major Hollywood film, but it would certainly cost a hell of a lot less than the monstrosity we have instead…and the profits on that one are yet to be determined anyway.

Then again, what do I know? We’re obviously in the hands of capable professionals.

Noiseless Chatter Spotlight: Double Indemnity (1944)

WALTER: Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell you.
Because the guy you were looking for was too close.
Right across the desk from you.
KEYES: Closer than that, Walter.

Double Indemnity is, quite simply, one of my all-time favorite films. It’s also, for whatever reason, the very first thing that came to mind when I sat down to write my first Noiseless Chatter spotlight. I hope this will become a regular feature of this blog, and I’ll devote these posts to discussing great films, songs, video games, television programs, or…well, anything, and I want to provide some actual, useful commentary rather than mere summaries or celebrations. I don’t know what to expect, and that’s probably for the best. Learning the lesson that Walter Neff never survived to put into practice, I won’t try to shape the future to suit me better. It can only end in heartache.

Double Indemnity is Walter’s story…quite literally, as he spends almost the entire film dictating it into a recording device. Walter’s narration is crucial to our understanding of what happened, as he’s the only character present for every important scene, but it’s also a reflection of the dissonance between what he believes about himself, and the reality of his situation.

Walter is an insurance salesman, or was, until he met Phyllis Deitrichson and decided he’d use his inside knowledge to help her take out a fraudulent life insurance policy on her husband, murder him, and then abscond with the money and the girl. If you can read that sentence without guessing how this ends up for him, and without imagining a thousand different details that could possibly go wrong along the way, then you are truly one of God’s special creatures.

Double Indemnity, though, isn’t about the suspense of whether Walter gets away with it. It opens, after all, with Walter stumbling gutshot through the deserted insurance office, letting us know before he even finds the recording device that his will not be a story of triumph. No, Double Indemnity is about something very different. It’s about a punishment we expect, it’s about the universe slapping those back into place who seek to escape their station, and it’s about a man who never realized how easy he was to manipulate.

From the moment Phyllis appears in Walter’s life, wearing nothing but a towel and a souvenier wig from Colonial Williamsburg, the leagues of difference between Walter’s self-assured narrative bravado and the immediate ease with which a dark presence manipulates him becomes apparent, and the film never lets us forget it.

Walter believes he is manipulating Phyllis, or, at least, that he is equally manipulative. But what plays out on screen is quite different, as she sounds his depths, finds his weakness, and appeals to it in such a way that he thinks the power balance is weighed the other way. She senses his loneliness — a loneliness I’m not sure he even senses — and makes herself available to him. If there’s anything Barbara Stanwyck brings to the role that very few other actresses could, it’s how easily she reshapes herself to suit her surroundings. She became what she needed for her husband, and as soon as he starts tightening his purse strings she becomes what Walter needs instead. Another man, another wig.

From the outside, it’s easy to sense her evil. And yet it’s also so very easy to place yourself in Walter’s hopeless shoes, and feel her eyes staring so openly into yours, and deciding on some level to believe her over everything the universe might be telling you to the contrary. Haven’t we all been there before? She’s a despicable human being, but for Walter she’s an escape: an escape from solitude, an escape from justice, and, ultimately, an escape from life.

For an illustration of this, just take a look at the few times we see her husband alive. It’s always in Walter’s presence, and it’s a grotesque delight to watch her try to rile him up in order to “prove” to her patsy of an insurance agent how horrible he is. Mr. Deitrichson comes across as a bit of a grump, but neither time does he rise to her challenges. In fact, the more I’ve watched this film the more I feel for him. Not only was he bumped off for an insurance policy he didn’t know he had, but this is the sort of thing he had to put up with day in and day out: a deceitful woman constantly prodding him and bleeding him dry. This, ladies in gentlemen, is the life Walter is so quick to pursue.

But we’ve made it this far, over 700 words according to WordPress, without mentioning the greatest evidence of Walter’s conflicting narration of all: Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes.

In his recorded confession, Walter addresses Keyes in two ways at different points: as an equal, and as an adversary. (He — equally incorrectly — discusses Phyllis in the same ways.) Sometimes, I suppose, he’s actually addressing him as both…an opponent on the other side of the chess board. (Closer than that, Walter.) A fencing partner who can mirror and anticipate his every move, but who is far from unbeatable. That’s Walter’s perception. In the footage that we see, however, Keyes comes off as far more competent and commanding a presence than Walter ever gives him credit for. In fact, it’s he that Walter probably sees when he looks in the mirror, because from the evidence on display, Keyes isn’t so much Walter’s worthy adversary as he is the wizened expert to Walter’s thick-headed upstart. It’s not a fair fight, and only Walter, delusional Walter, could see it as one.

Keyes is a master of his trade: as claims manager, it is his job to investigate suspicious claims so that the company won’t have to pay out on fraudulent ones. From Walter’s perspective, this makes Keyes the villain of the piece. From the audience’s perspective, Keyes is our most sympathetic character, and the one we keep our eyes on most closely, as we wait for him to prove himself.

It’s important to note that Keyes’s role here is not that of company hardass. He’s not a starched-shirt sourpuss who places hurdle after hurdle in front of those who come in seeking payment on their policies. No, Keyes has a more righteous aim: Keyes is fighting for justice. When the payout is genuine, he is happy to provide it. It is only fraudulence that upsets him, and once it upsets him he can’t eat or sleep until he brings the thieves to justice. After all, fraudsters inflate the premiums for honest folk. Keyes is fighting, indirectly, for the little man (a turn of phrase it would do you well to remember). By toppling conniving giants, he is also speaking up for the unspoken and anonymous honesty in the world around him, somewhere. It comforts him just to know its there, and that he’s doing his part to keep it safe.

Keyes is Edward G. Robinson at his absolute best. He’s more loyal to the truth than to his employer, as evidenced by one of my favorite monologues in all of film, when he stands up to the company president and recites the categorizations and subcategorizations of types of suicide, simply to let his self-important desk jockey of a boss know how much there is to consider before leaping to a single conclusion. It’s a speech consisting of hollow classifications and little more, and yet it’s also a stirring and impassioned plea for the common man, who is all too often the faceless victim of blind conclusions arrived at by rich men in corner offices. It’s delivered in the flat, technical parlance of a man who isn’t comfortable speaking any words that don’t relate directly to his job, but the heart comes through, and his words mean more than they actually say.

Raymond Chandler worked on the screenplay for Double Indemnity, but it’s based on a story by James M. Cain. Had Chandler written the story, Keyes, being a detective figure, would no doubt have been the central figure, and though I love Chandler this alone makes me genuinely glad that he did not write the story. Keyes is a far more imposing presence from the sidelines, and the fleeting moments that we spend with him allow his ghost to drift naturally through scenes in which he is not present, as we search for the clues that he might find, and side ourselves with him as we attempt to unravel the tangles of Walter’s doomed plot.

Keyes describes his sense of justice as being a “little man” inside of him who won’t let him so much as swallow his food as long as there’s a stone left unturned. Pinocchio knew him as a cricket. We know him as a conscience. The Little Man hears of Deitrichson’s claim, and he knows something’s not right. Walter anticipated this. He’s worked closely with Keyes, and he considers himself to have insider knowledge about Keyes’s investigations. He thinks he can outwit him. As things transpire, though, the only one Walter outwits is himself.

When Double Indemnity was released, there was some concern that it would be illustrating for movie-goers how to literally get away with murder. Obviously it ended up getting released anyway, and perhaps that’s because the film board realized that if anyone has to be giving advice on how to murder people, it should be the dimwit Walter Neff.

The more I watch this film, the more obvious the flaws in Walter’s plan become. It’s a passively comic way to view the film; pick apart every instance that Walter’s carefully orchestrated crime actually turns out to succeed not because of his meticulous planning, but because of chance and dumb luck.

I won’t go into it here as there’s already plenty more to say and it wouldn’t be much fun to rob you of these discoveries yourself, but one particularly ridiculous suggestion of Walter’s has to do with his communications with Phyllis.

Obviously they don’t want to be seen together, and they shouldn’t be driving back and forth to each other’s homes if they wish to avoid suspicion, but they do need to remain in communication somehow. Walter suggest meeting regularly in a drug store, which, in theory, isn’t such a bad thing. In practice, though, stock boys are constantly reaching over them to shelve items and shoppers are asking them to pass them the products that they’re standing in front of. They’re the most visible presence in the store, and they serve as an easily identifiable obstacle for those around them. Anyone who was to interview these shoppers or employees would find that these shadowy figures were far from anonymous, and could easily be described and identified on sight. They’re always there, exchanging shifty glances and panicked mumbles in front of the display of baby food. It’s a brilliant illustration of Walter’s terrible planning, and it’s never commented upon during the film. Double Indemnity gives the audience credit. It pays off in spades.

The closest the film comes to acknowledging the foolishness of Walter’s scheme is when we hear a message Keyes recorded on the same device Walter is using now, in which Keyes, who is investigating the claim, tells his boys explicitly not to follow up on their suspicions about Walter. Keyes can vouch for him as a human being (or is that friend?), and that friendship trumps even Keyes’s hard-wired lust for justice. It’s a decision Keyes would, of course, come to regret, and it makes that moment that much sadder; Keyes, for perhaps the only time in his life, allows himself to make a human decision based upon emotion rather than facts…and Walter is going to punish him for it.

Walter’s meticulous planning also gives us our clearest insight into the hollowness of his life, and why he would so quickly trade it for a paper-thin promise of excitement with Phyllis: when taking great pains to establish alibis for the night of the murder, he contacts colleagues and work associates. He does not contact friends. The reason? Walter has none.

Walter’s life is his work. Ditto Keyes. The difference is that Walter is not satisfied with his work, whereas Keyes views it as a noble calling. Having seen this film long after I saw The Man Who Wasn’t There, the noir-ish film by the noir-obsessed Cohen brothers, it’s hard not to see parallels between Walter and that film’s central character: a barber who dreams of becoming a dry cleaner. In both cases a life (literally and metaphorically) is thrown away in favor of pursuing a dream that could never make them happy anyway. Walter doesn’t dream of something bigger…he dreams of something different. Phyllis is another human being, and, in his sad state, that qualifies as something different.

Interestingly, Keyes himself offers Walter something different about halfway through the film: a job as his assistant. Walter declines, because it would require a pay cut, something that Keyes is quick to be honest about. This scene makes two things very clear: Keyes respects Walter so much that he’s offering him the highest praise he can possibly offer anybody by asking him to work closely beside him on the most important thing in his life, and that Keyes is perhaps the one person in Walter’s life who is not trying to manipulate him. If you want Walter on your side, you need to at least pretend to flatter him. Keyes approaches him with honesty, and with honesty Walter is able to decline. Had Phyllis been honest, Walter would have declined that, too. Perhaps Keyes should have worn a more seductive anklet.

There’s one thing I’ve been dancing around here, and it’s the one thing I wrote this post to discuss. It’s been difficult to keep from discussing it: Double Indemnity, in spite of everything I’ve said above or could ever say more, is a film about friendship. Unfortunately for Walter, he doesn’t realize it’s a film about friendship until after he’s switched off his microphone. Poor Walter thought he was in a crime thriller. He thought he was Humphrey Bogart, Dean Martin and Matt Damon. In reality he’s Fred MacMurray, collapsed and bleeding beside a potted plant, while Keyes looks on, disappointed and despondent. Keyes knew exactly what film he was in. He thought Walter did, too.

The quote beneath the film still that opened this article is what ends the film. Walter is still laboring under the misapprehension that he accomplished anything at all, still believing he led Keyes on some kind of wild goose chase that almost — so close — succeeded in letting him get away with murder. Keyes responds with the pained rejoinder that they were never adversaries at all. They were friends.

Walter’s reply, not included above, is the final line in the film: “I love you, too.” But it’s too late. Keyes had his heart broken. He sided with Walter over The Little Man, because that’s what human beings do. They let their emotions guide them and shape their decisions. They push logic to the side and they try not pick at things that they think might hurt them or the people they love. They have hearts that are so much easier to follow than their minds. And, sometimes, they make the wrong choice, and their closest friend ends up dying on the carpet before them. It’s the same choice Walter made earlier, and Walter died. Keyes did not die…but his faith in humanity just might have.

Walter was the last and only person Keyes thought he could trust. He was willing to make him a personal assistant. He was the only one other than Phyllis who dropped by Walter’s apartment, ever, in the course of the entire film. Walter knew, on some level, that he was friendless, but Phyllis wasn’t the escape he needed. It was Keyes who was already there, Keyes who could unlock a new and brighter future. He was a friend, a confidant, a colleague, a mentor and a fan all in one, and, what’s more, Walter already had him.

The twist at the end of Double Indemnity isn’t that Walter gets killed; we already knew that as soon as the film began, and so did Walter. The twist, that we learn along with him, is the central relationship of the film, one that’s always been in the background for Walter, but was always at the forefront for Keyes. That’s another reason it’s best that Keyes was not our main character…we need to discover this too late for it to do any good, just like Walter did.

Double Indemnity is a film about the murder of an innocent man, and the fallout and bloodshed that follows, and yet it’s also one of the most elegant, gorgeously explored illustrations of male friendship in cinema, and it sits right alongside such disparate genre films as Casablanca and Shaun of the Dead as another movie that withholds the secret of that friendship until it’s over. These are not films about insurance fraud or rekindled romance or zombie invasions…these are films about who we are to each other, and what our presence means to the person sitting across the room.

Closer than that, Walter.

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