Examples of Great Dialogue: The Thematic Joke

Here is the latest post in a series on how to use television dialogue writing to help improve the dialogue in all creative forms of writing.

I recently finished watching Angel (so spoiler alert!).  I really got into the fifth and final season of the show in a way that I hadn’t with the other seasons, and it was a joy to finally find episodes that were on par with the best that Buffy had to offer.  One such episode was the heartbreaking A Hole in the World written, unsurprisingly, by series creator Joss Whedon.  While I said that the episode is heartbreaking, one of its earlier scenes is one of the funniest of the series.   Watch it here:

Now when some people look at me cross-eyed after I explain to them that the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff represent some of the finest art that television has to offer, the cavemen vs. astronauts debate will come into mind as an example of what I’m saying.  In a lesser show, such a debate as the one above would be pure nonsensical window dressing.  It’s like a Kevin Smith conversation.  You know, the kind that says, “Look at my characters.  They’re witty and cool.  Don’t you wish you spoke about such mundane things with the awesome that they bring to it?”  Having used such dialogue to establish the characters as endearing and enjoyable, the lesser show would then move on to the real meat of the story and such a scene would just serve as comic relief.

No so with the cavemen vs. astronauts debate.  Instead of letting it die the death of ‘comic relief’ Whedon spins it into the metaphorical glue that binds A Hole in the World together as a cohesive work of art.  We do hear other characters talking about the debate in future scenes.  Wesley clearly has interest in it.  Fred.  Lorne.  It may seem like the joke is just being rehashed.  And then, later in the episode Fred–who has appeared earlier on to favor astronauts–lies dying in her bed, the hue of her apartment’s bedroom cold and cavelike.   Fred says the following:  The light…hurts my eyes, but I don’t want you to turn it off.  But it hurts my eyes.  Everything’s so bright and hollow.  Cavemen win.  Of course the cavemen win.

Boom.  It hits you in the gut.  All of a sudden that ha-ha-aren’t-we-witty-and-sarcastically-bantering-away stuff from earlier on becomes deadly serious.

And then we realize it: Spike and Angel, men from another time, have flown in a jet, their first flight to go visit the Deeper Well (a cave) in England.  First time astronauts flying off to a cave to save their enlightened science-minded friend.  But no matter their technology, no matter their books, no matter what they try, they fail.  Fred dies.  Cavemen win.  The brutality of nature will always win.

Fred's Cavelike Room

And then our understanding of the ‘joke’ deepens.  Fred, a tough brilliant hero in her own right, needs to be saved by the men.  A huge group of them.  They surround her bedside and rush about saying brave manly things like “Not this girl.  Not this day.” and “I swear on my life…” that you won’t die, etc.  And no matter how much Fred wants to prove that she’s strong and can fight back, she’s forced into a childlike position: carried to bed, read a children’s story, held tightly.  In the end, death forces her into being a child, removes her right to be a part of the team that’s fighting for her life.  She can no more use culture and reason to retain the dignity she’s fought so hard for than the brave and clever ‘astronaut’ men can figure out a way to save the damsel in distress that hates being called a damsel in distress.  In the face of tragedy and grief, culture dies away, society crumbles, and all that’s left are the base truths of ‘cavemen’ and the chaos of nature.

This is brilliant dialogue, and it offers writers an example of how you can take a joke and make it matter–make it mean something.  In this case, the joke serves as the starting point of the episode and ends up laying down the thematic work for its remainder.  It shows me that nothing should be wasted in a text.  There should be no fat.   No mere ‘relief.’  Everything–everything–needs meaning and purpose in your work, even the very pieces of text that try to prove that nothing has meaning and purpose.  So when you’re looking for witty dialogue, don’t forget cavemen and astronauts.  Don’t just look for wit–look for something that will be deep, resonant and unforgettable.

Any similar examples you know?  Any challenges with dialogue you’re having?  Post your thoughts below.

Other Posts in this Series (Mostly Whedony Examples Thus Far):

  1. The Echo
  2. The Character Manifesto
  3. Death is Your Art
  4. Lie to Me
  5. Poignant Villainy (A Tarantino Example)
  6. Analogy Jokes
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