Better Call Saul and the Fine Line Between Tragedy and Comedy

Comedy Features Better Call Saul
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Midway through the pilot of Better Call Saul, James McGill, played by Bob Odenkirk, repeatedly kicks a trashcan. In a later episode he listens patiently as a man demonstrates a product he wants to patent—a toilet for potty training that says, “Oh yeah, put that in me.” In the finale, Jimmy McGill grows more and more frustrated while presiding over a bingo game in a care facility. His musings become more and more frantic, and then specific. This B is for brother. This B is for betrayal. I feel like I’m watching a sketch from Mr. Show with Bob And David. Better Call Saul is supposedly a drama.

My friend Sara always said that the best dramas are actually comedies in disguise (and I’ve always felt that Mad Men is a better show if you watch it as a comedy about Pete Campbell, a man who can literally do nothing right). There’s an inherent humor to profound tragedy—it’s why people who suffer from depression, such as myself, make self deprecating jokes about self injury or suicide at time. Ha ha, wouldn’t it be so funny if I tripped and fell down this manhole and died? It’s horrifying to hear that come out of someone’s mouth. It’s hilarious to watch it happen on TV.

And James McGill’s life is a profound tragedy. Nothing goes right for him at any point. The pilot won’t be the first time he kicks a trash can repeatedly out of frustration. Every success he has is taken away almost immediately. Even when, in the finale, he returns to his former life of crime, it results in a friend’s death. But his reactions, the way he flounders, his turns of phrase are always deeply funny, not just due to Odenkirk’s skill as a comedian. I feel Vince Gilligan is striving to point out the humor in hopelessness. This whole show is the episode of Breaking Bad where Walt throws a pizza onto the roof of his house, the episode of Mad Men where Pete Campbell throws a whole roast turkey out the window. We’re all laughing to keep from crying.

I took an improv class, once, in art camp when I was sixteen. Our teacher, a handsome, charismatic man just out of college, told us all on our first day to think about why things are funny. Why do we laugh at a man falling down a manhole on television, when in real life we’d sob. He explained to us that comedy is a thing we do as human beings to distract us from the inevitability of death. This guy, as you can imagine, was a real piece of work. After he broke my heart, when my friends met him without realizing that he was That Guy, Sara said that you really notice his serial killer eyes when he’s got clothes on. I laughed. It was the only thing I could do.

Better Call Saul is a show about a man who is trying to be good in a world that just keeps fucking him over. He’s blessed with a sharp tongue and a quick mind, a skill for bullshitting and sizing up the person in front of him. He’s built to be a criminal, but he doesn’t want to be one. It’s that, the way that his desires don’t match up to where his life takes him, that creates comedy. It’s the Road Runner suddenly realizing he run off a cliff. We’re watching him look down, in slow motion, and realize just how out of his depth he is. In the second episode, Jimmy negotiates down a dangerous criminal from killing two young men—he lands on a broken leg each. While they argue, Jimmy and this criminal edge for space in the frame, the camera angling up at them from below as the two men, gagged, emit muffled screams as this criminal describes the brutal ways he’ll kill them. Jimmy takes them, legs broken, to the hospital, running with their wheelchairs like he’s on Benny Hill, and they call him the worst lawyer ever. He later throws up in a bar while hearing a man behind him crack breadsticks. The only thing missing is the laugh track.

On Mr. Show With Bob And David, there’s a sketch where Odenkirk plays a kidnapper trying to negotiate with his hostage’s parents. Except instead of leaving his hostage’s toe under the rendezvous point, he’s left the hostage. He’s screaming, god damnit!, in his dingy apartment, getting back on the phone, offering more appendages for increasing sums of money. It should be horrifying, but we’re laughing. He’s severely misjudged the situation, you see—he’s got all the right tools for the job but he’s still getting it wrong.

Drama and tragedy is inherently funny. It’s why Sara couldn’t stop laughing as we watched Cosmopolis together, declaring, “Yeah, the human embodiment of capitalism would shoot itself in the foot when it’s in the room with a man that wants to kill him.” Tragedy is where we build comedy from. All stories really come from the same thing, that mismatch of skill and expectations. It’s the execution that makes the difference, and even then they overlap. I was in tears laughing as Daniel Plainview explained the intricacies of drilling oil to Eli Sunday in the finale of There Will Be Blood. ”I drink your milkshake!” I was laughing, still, as he beat Eli to death with a bowling pin, my friend laughing beside me. Daniel may be alone in a house that can only represent the way he has failed as a human being, but he was allowed one final comeuppance against his foe. It’s a bit. It’s a joke. At the end of the movie he shouts “I’m finished!” to no one in particular, Eli’s lifeless body laying in a pool of blood. I laughed and clapped in the theater. I was the only one, but admit it to yourself: It’s slapstick. It’s fucking funny.

In the last moments of the Better Call Saul finale, Jimmy McGill is alone in his car, driving out of the courtroom’s parking lot. His brother has abandoned and betrayed him. His one lifeline in Chicago has died, and he feels responsible. He has worked at so many things, and they have all fallen through. He hums, angrily, the riff to “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. He looks ridiculous, driving a car that’s shaped like a duck’s head, in no better position than he was at the start of the series. I can’t help myself. I’m giggling. Better to laugh with him than cry for him.

Gita Jackson has dedicated her entire adult life to wading through the marginalia of popular culture and finding gold. Find her on Twitter @xoxogossipgita.

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