Deadpan is an adjective, describing a deliberately emotionless and otherwise impassive, matter-of-fact manner. It is also a form of comic delivery in which humor is presented without a change in emotion or body language. It is usually spoken in a casual, monotone, or cantankerous voice, and expresses a calm, sincere, or grave demeanor, often in spite of the ridiculousness of the subject matter. This delivery is also called dry humor or dry wit, when the intent, but not the presentation, is humorous, blunt, oblique, sarcastic, laconic, or apparently unintentional.
The term deadpan first emerged as an adjective or adverb in the 1920s, as a compound word combining "dead" and "pan" (a slang term for the face). The oldest usage recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary comes from The New York Times (1928), which defines the term as "playing a role with expressionless face". An example of this usage is in a scene from the 1934 film The Gay Bride in which a gangster tells a man on the other end of a phone conversation to "give it a dead pan" (with the emphasis on "pan"), so that the man does not inadvertently alert anyone else in the room as to the importance of what the gangster is about to say. The usage of deadpan as a verb ("to speak, act, or utter in a deadpan manner; to maintain a dead pan") is recorded at least as far back as 1942.
Early in his vaudeville days, Buster Keaton developed his deadpan expression. Keaton realized that audiences responded better to his stony expression than when he smiled, and he carried this style into his silent film career. Many popular American sitcoms use deadpan expressions to deliver dry humor, including Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, The Office, and My Name Is Earl. Some good current examples are the characters April Ludgate from the TV show Parks and Recreation played by Aubrey Plaza, or Bob Newhart as Arthur Jeffries in The Big Bang Theory. Another example is the often-philosophical comedy of Steven Wright. Dry humor is often confused with highbrow or egghead humor, because the humor in dry humor does not exist in the words, their delivery, or both. Instead, the listener must look for humor in the contradiction between words, delivery and context. Failure to include the context or to identify the contradiction results in the listener finding the dry humor unfunny. However, the term "deadpan" itself actually refers only to the method of delivery.
Other deadpan comedians:
- Aubrey Plaza
- Ben Stein
- Bill Murray
- Buster Keaton
- Craig Kilborn
- Chevy Chase
- Dan Aykroyd
- Dan Mintz
- Dave Hughes
- Demetri Martin
- Dom Joly
- Fred Armisen
- H. Jon Benjamin
- Jack Dee
- Jack Handey
- Jane Curtin
- Jason Bateman
- Jim Gaffigan
- Jimmy Carr
- Jo Brand
- John Cleese
- Jon Stewart
- Jonathan Katz
- Kevin Smith
- Larry David
- Lee Mack
- Leslie Nielsen
- Milton Jones
- Mitch Hedberg
- Nathan Fielder
- Nick Offerman
- Norm MacDonald
- Paul Merton
- Peter Sellers
- Romesh Ranganathan
- Sarah Silverman
- Sean Lock
- Seth MacFarlane
- Stephen Colbert
- Steven Wright
- Stewart Lee
- Tig Notaro
- Tim & Eric
- Todd Barry
- Virginia O'Brien
- Zooey Deschanel
Styles within deadpan
Deadpan can vary in subtlety. Obvious deadpan uses a high amount of contrast either with characters or situations. It may also take the role of mirror to characters who are unaware of their folly. More subtle deadpan can test the observational limits of the audience and even play off the audience's awareness (and thus off the implied intelligence of the audience).
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- Rishel, Mary Ann (2002). Writing humor. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. p. 166. ISBN 0-8143-2959-4.
- Oxford English Dictionary. "dead-pan, adj., n., adv., and v." Second edition, 1989; online version December 2011. accessed 17 February 2012. First published in A Supplement to the OED I, 1972
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