This week’s episode of Modern Family, “Las Vegas,” gets its laughs through chaotic misunderstanding and miscommunication. To use theatrical terms, it was a farce. The farce is an old form of comedy, and regardless of its age, low-brow humor and predictability, it’s still an effective way to make us laugh. In theater, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is probably the most classic and appropriately titled example, not to mention Molière’s Tartuffe. I Love Lucy is one of the TV shows that knocked farce out of the park. In film, Roberto Benigni’s and Francis Veber’s movies are almost all farces.
It takes talented writers to pull off a farce, and Modern Family’s execution this week showcased those writers. In “Las Vegas,” the adults take a trip to Vegas and stay in a fancy hotel courtesy of one of Jay’s clients. They are treated to the Excelsior floor, which, much to Jay’s chagrin, is the second-best floor (the best floor is the Excelsior Plus). While Jay attempts to get his client to super-size them, Phil auditions for the secret society of magicians (the leader is played by Patton Oswalt). Claire’s goal is to win money at the tables, and Cam and Mitch try to have a relaxing couple’s weekend. All goes awry, and it leads to tertiary characters having gross misunderstandings as to this family’s habits. The Excelsior butler (Stephen Merchant) misinterprets Phil’s magician garb and falsely assumes his handcuffs and ropes are for getting kinky. Cam and Mitch bump into Mitch’s ex-boyfriend (played by Fred Armisen), who is there for his bachelor party with his fiancé and mistakenly thinks that Mitch wants a one-night stand with him. And when Jay invites his client over for Scotch, room service misunderstands and sends him “The Kilty Pleasures,” a group of male strippers in Scottish kilts.
There were tons of comedy-gold guest stars this week, and they weren’t wasted. Modern Family really likes to stack the deck with its visitors, rather than spreading them throughout episodes. There have been past episodes of Modern Family that have a more theatrical style (such as “Three Dinners”), and this episode was in that same vein. After watching, I thought a bit about farces and why, even though they all have the same expected joke, they consistently make me (and most of the population) giggle. In his Guardian article, Mark Lawson points out that farces were extremely popular in the time of the Great Depression. In the ‘30s, the farce’s silly, predictable plot gave comfort to an audience that had too much to worry about in real life. We have quite a bit to worry about these days, and there is a comforting factor to knowing what the punchline of the joke is going to be before it hits. The article has a quote by director Sean Foley, who articulates why farces are so effective: “The wonderful paradox of farce is that there’s a double image going on onstage. At the same time as we are laughing at the incompetence of the characters, we are aware of the deep expertise of the performers. And that is a very theatrical vibe.” I tend to agree with this perspective since I found myself uncontrollably laughing at moments that I rationally knew were stupid and felt a strong admiration for the writers and actors of the show.
Below are some of the best bits of dialogue from this week’s show:
When Jay realizes he is not on the top floor, he tells Gloria, in a panic: “I know, it threw me too. Excelsior Plus. But to the people on that floor, we’re Excelsior Minus.”
When Phil tries to enter the Secret Society of Magicians, he must say the password: “Rasputin’s dalmatian drowned in the Volga.”
The man behind the door answers: “I thought he was allergic to dogs.”
Phil: “You’re thinking of Merlin, and it was peanuts.”
When Claire tries to pressure Mitch into drinking and gambling, Mitch responds: “You sound just like the kid who bullied me into smoking my first cigarette.”
Claire retorts: “Maybe this time you won’t tell on me.”
When the hotel butler watches the Kilty Pleasures with fondness, he notes: “This reminds me of my late grandfather.”
Phil innocently asks: “He was Scottish?”
The butler corrects him: “He was a stripper.”