“Baldrick, you wouldn’t recognise a subtle plan if it painted itself purple and danced naked on a harpsicord singing ‘subtle plans are here again’.” I love a good insult. Edmund Blackadder was the king of them, the humour and venom coming as much from Rowan Atkinson’s delivery as from the words themselves. I think a Blackadder classic is so satisfying because the sad truth is, faced with a situation where we want to take someone down a rung or two, most of us will stutter, stumble and blurt out something like, “well… you… suck. So there”. The witty retort only comes to us hours later. The French call it l’espirit d’escalier or ‘staircase wit’, the perfect response thought of too late.
There’s a trick to a really good insult. Look at the greats, the Blackadders, Malcom Tuckers, Lucille Bluths, they all have one thing in common: spontaneity. Of course, their insults are pre-written by talented writers, but they feel like they’re being delivered in the moment, right off the top of their heads. That’s hard to write. If it feels too scripted, too premeditated, it doesn’t ring true. Unsurprisingly, a lot of TV gets it wrong, especially US comedy.
This occurred to me recently while watching the new series on Amazon Prime, Loudermilk. On paper, a dramedy about an acerbic, misanthropic AA counsellor sounds great, especially when Ron Livingston (Office Space, Swingers) is playing said counsellor. Livingston has a way with a hangdog expression. He’s charming and handsome, but there’s something laconic about him as an actor that makes him a perfect fit for a bitter loser like Sam Loudermilk. That makes the show’s swing and a miss all the more of a shame.
The show that sprung to mind over the first few episodes of Loudermilk was Two Broke Girls, a classic example of over-written primetime US comedy. Kat Dennings’ character delivers barb after barb, none of them snappy or witty enough to ring true. I found it endlessly annoying. Loudermilk has a lot more going for it than Two Broke Girls, but it still doesn’t get the natural rhythms of how people talk. Instead, it overdoses (no pun intended) on snark and winds up feeling contrived.
Five of the best insults on TV:
- The Thick Of It
Malcolm Tucker: “You’ve got all the charm of a rotting teddy bear by a graveside. And, by the way, women f***ing hate you. I can show you the polling. They think you come across like a jittery mother at a wedding.”
- 30 Rock
Jack Donaghy: “Did the medical supply store where you bought those shoes have any… women’s stuff?”
- Arrested Development
Lucille Bluth “If I wanted something your thumb touched, I’d eat the inside of your ear.”
- Game Of Thrones
Cersei: “That man is as useless as nipples on a breastplate.”
Cliff: “I’m ashamed God made me a man.”
Carla: “I don’t think that God’s doing a lot of bragging about it either.”