Mixing Up Some Comic Chemistry in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is not a comedy, but it plays like one on TV.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister dancing in Game of Thrones
Photo: HBO

Comedy is as important in drama as it is in life. Try to get into the headspace where you can watch Casablanca as a comedy. It works. It’s almost a rom-com. Game of Thrones is not a comedy, but it could be. It has all the elements: Witty lines, alert timing, visual gags and chemistry. The dragons slay me.

Game of Thrones has that Chemical X. It’s got so much chemistry that I can dawdle a bit on the physical comedy. Let’s start with Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) and that golden crown. You want a golden crown? I’ll give you a golden crown. Viserys Targaryen gives a comic tour de force as the drunk straight guy. You can’t get a better straight guy. He’s in Bud Abbott territory. Viserys is played by Harry Lloyd. Isn’t Harry short for Harold? Is this the new Harold Lloyd? Harold Lloyd was all about that physical comedy, hanging from clocks and such. Drogo doesn’t want for wit, either, but I’ll leave that to be pondered by men with big brains and skinny arms.

That straight man dynamic is all about relationships which goes into chemistry. There are many comic duos on Game of Thrones. King Robert (Mark Addy) has Ned (Sean Bean). Like Bud Abbott, Ned can get in a couple zingers of his own, just as his rolly polly, slightly dimmer partner Robert gets most of the punchlines. The two characters establish their brand of comic chemistry immediately, in the series opener. Robert comes on gruff and kingly, only to break down into the good-natured, playful marauder he can be in Ned’s company. Sure, Eddard can be a nudge, calling Rob out on his weight and drinking, curbing his appetite for whoring and slaying dragon queens with their unborns and such. But at the end of the day, they can kick back and laugh it all off. They might not be the best leads in an Old Vic reprisal of Waiting for Godot, but they certainly wouldn’t be the worst.

The most obvious Abbott and Costello teaming is the bastard Jon Snow and his ever-faithful puppy Sam Tarly (John Bradley), but poor Jon Snow isn’t given to fits of fancy. Even poor, long-suffering Ygritte (Rose Leslie) has to shoot an arrow in his ass for a larf. Oh, and speaking of long-suffering, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) is a master of the eye-roll. Most of this rolls over King Joffrey, who would roll her eyes back in her head if given a chance. Funny can be punishable by death in King’s Landing. Well, everything can be punishable by death in King’s Landing, but step on the king’s punchline and you’ll find your feet on a pike, if you’re lucky.

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Another straight man team is Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham). Stannis is as straight as you can get. I don’t think I’ve seen him crack more than three smiles in four seasons. Davos yucks the shit out of things, and Stannis stands there, immobile, a rock in a hard place. But Davos is the kind of character who would have great chemistry with anyone. A smuggler among kings, he might not warm the Red Lady, but his scenes with Stannis’ daughter, Shereen (Kerry Ingram) are filled with joy, humor and pathos. Davos’ bonding with Gendry (Joe Dempsie) is also lighthearted and earthy. You get the feeling Cunningham could joke his way out of any situation. In any role. That is true of a lot of the secondary characters who have age on them.

Age adds weight, like weight adds weight on Game of Thrones, to the crinkled comedians. David Bradley portrays Walder Frey like everything before him is something Mrs. Norris–his cat in the Harry Potter movies–dragged in, especially his own daughters. He can barely remember their names, they’re so numerous and ugly, but he never misses a chance to give them a sarcastic appraisal.

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Lady Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) plays much the same role that Mrs. C (Marion Ross) played on The Gilmore Girls: The matronly type who can get away with saying, and in Olenna’s case doing, almost anything they like, even if they don’t like it that much. Kind of like Elaine Stitch with a superior accent. Diana Rigg is of course a natural at anything she’s done. She’s brought comedy, action and sixties sexuality to Emma Peel, parried with Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood and dodged condoms from Harry Potter on Extras.

There’s a classic chemistry in pairing adults with children and it is not lost in Game of Thrones. Charlie Chaplin playing with The Kid, Jackie Coogan, who would grow up to be Uncle Fester on The Addams Family, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern against Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, or Tom Hanks playing with himself in Big are good examples. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and the Hound, Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), continue the tradition of the older, gruffer, unlikely mentor-type, tossing ticklers with a young wise ass. They are very sensitive to each other’s comic needs. When all Arya needs is a name, The Hound calls knock-knock so Arya can put a blade in the gullet of whoever’s there. The little rascal, or should I say the little Dickens since she’s been looking like a chimney sweep.

Cersei may be the most hated character on Game of Thrones, but I just love her lines. Filled with venom and cruelty, they are uncensored utterances of unchecked derision, and promises of personal undoing. “Every breath you draw in my presence annoys me,” she informs an elderly pervert physician. “If you ever call me sister again, I’ll have you strangled in your sleep,” she lovingly vows to her soon to be sister-in-law/daughter-in-law.

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Joffrey is a hoot, really. Completely unfettered and unchecked, everyone laughs at the slightest of witty rejoinders. The dwarf-king match extravaganza he threw for his wedding could have used a bit more Punch and Judy, but he’s not bad with the one-liners. “Which do you prefer your hands or your tongue?…” or on putting his diminutive Uncle Tyrion to bed: “Ladies, pick up my uncle. Don’t worry he isn’t very heavy.” Jack Gleeson, who plays the bratty monarch, is as far removed from the Great One, Jackie Gleason as you could get, but if he were to say “bang, zoom” the laughs would be heard all the way to the moon, Alice.

The real Punch and Judy show on Game of Thrones is the paring of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) and the bastard Ramsay (Iwan Rheon). Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. Castration, not the most whimsical of wisecracks, is funny when it comes with breakfast sausages. Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) may not like fish pie, but his droll delivery weaves a web of whimsy that can disarm even the best-armored knights. Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) knows funny. He doesn’t like funny, but he recognizes it, and whoever may be overly jocular in his presence, well, the joke is usually on them. “You’re much uglier in the daylight,” Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) tells Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and it defines their comic give-and-take. The subtle flirtations hidden by outward ambiguity make for great slapstick sexual tension.

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And of course there’s Tyrion’s dry condemnation, “I hope you enjoy the wall, I found it surprisingly beautiful, in a brutal, horribly uncomfortable sort of way.” Peter Dinklage has chemistry with whomever or whatever he encounters. When he was rising through the ranks of New York theater, and fronting a band that only sang songs about pissing, he already had a reputation for his acerbic and quick wit. He drove lesser actors from the stage, never to perform in public again. He gave as much as he got from Tina Fey on 30 Rock.  Tyrion’s most easy rapport is with Bronn (Jerome Flynn), though this isn’t fair. Bronn is another character whose comic chemistry mixes with any actor on the set. His lessons with Jaime Lannister are as sharp with rapier lines as with the swords.

Dinklage is a master mixer. The dwarfish Imp can belittle a king and make an old whore blush. No difference. Great delivery of great lines is only half of what Dinklage brings to the small council table. Dinklage actively listens and minutely telegraphs his setups. His eyes can laugh or glower, but they almost never lose their humor. When he is broken, his tongue takes over for those eyes. Tyrion isn’t at his best when he’s at his worst, he’s consistently on point. Tragedy doesn’t need time to become comedy in his hands, he cooks it up like microwaves were already invented.

In last Sunday’s episode, “Mockingbird,” Tyrion and Melisandre (Carice van Houten) both exclaimed that life could be a joke, and not a funny one. Game of Thrones has a lot of jokes that aren’t funny. Jokes that are cruel. Jokes that veil threats. There are many clever characters on Game of Thrones, but there are also laughs aplenty for the groundlings. And don’t get me started on the White Walkers, those guys can do a slow comic burn like no one else on TV.

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