Lynchian Humor: How We Laugh at Twin Peaks

David Lynch’s use of humor throughout Twin Peaks Seasons One and Two and again in The Return is a truly dynamic and unique side to his filmmaking that can be understood in multiple aspects, all of which help us to better understand what Lynch intends to do with each individual episode of Twin Peaks and ultimately the motion of the whole show. We can see three distinct types of humor deployed by Lynch during the course of Twin Peaks.

The Pilot may be the best exposition of Lynch’s use of two different types of humor. One is an outright, silly humor that is intended to grab attention quickly and entertain the audience. These outlandish scenes include the random light flickering in the hospital examination room as Agent Cooper discovers the letter “R” under Laura’s fingernail, the mounted buck head lying on the table as Truman and Cooper examine Laura’s safety deposit box, the random high school kid dancing in the hallway, and Agent Cooper’s monologue to Diane on his first ride into Twin Peaks. Many of these scenes are explored in another 25YL article, “Favorites: Funniest Twin Peaks Scenes”These scenes are known outside of the world of Twin Peaks fandom, and appeal to everyone due to their offbeat and openly funny appearance.

These scenes are sure to evoke a laugh, either because we are silently surprised that these things would even be a part of the scene (lights flickering in a hospital? A mounted buck head?) or because they are innately goofy and subversive to the serious and gripping narrative playing out with Laura Palmer’s death and the town’s reaction to it (e.g. Cooper’s lighthearted, sometimes naive spirit while investigating murder; his funny banter with Truman throughout seasons 1 and 2).

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But this bright, silly humor is often juxtaposed to a type of darker, more sinister humor that when executed, makes us question if we should even be laughing in the first place. Scenes such as Andy crying at the sight of Laura’s body wrapped in plastic, Catherine heartlessly firing the mill employee after Josie shuts the operation down, and Jacoby’s unforgettably creepy introduction into the show (“Laura’s parents… they didn’t know that she was seeing me!”) evoke a laugh from us, but the humor is uncertain because the material is dark and offbeat. This is classic “Lynchian” humor – a certain mode of dark humor that plays well into Lynch’s suspense narrative.

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As the show progresses, both of these types of humor continue – we see Major Briggs hit the cigarette out of Bobby’s mouth and into Mrs. Briggs’ meatloaf, a genuinely funny scene; however, this humor with Bobby is juxtaposed to a darker side, where Bobby seems almost uncaring about life in the context of Laura’s death – he almost never acknowledges it and seems more interested in correcting his and Mike’s wrongs with Leo.

As we see these two distinct types of humor playing out, a new manner of humor emerges – delving into the supernatural. This is evident when we are introduced to the Log Lady in episode 1, “Traces to Nowhere”- (“One day, my log will have something to say about this. My log saw something that night.” “Really? What did it see?” “Ask it!”). This hilarious and unforgettable introduction into the mythos of the Log Lady initiates us into the idea of the supernatural aspects of the show, almost a sort of warm-up to Cooper’s infamous dream sequence- also a quirky, out-of-this-world scene (“I’ve got good news! That gum you like is going to come back in style.”).

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Another notable instance of this supernatural humor occurs during Agent Cooper’s Tibetan method demonstration in Episode 2, “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer”. We laugh as Cooper throws a rock and hits Andy on the head (“It didn’t hurt a bit!”), but we are also silently wondering if this moment is connected to some higher power that will eventually lead Cooper to find Laura Palmer’s killer. Given the suspicions that we already have about Leo Johnson via the bloody shirt, it is surprising that Cooper hits the glass bottle when Leo’s name is read aloud, begging the question: did this quirky, hilarious scene actually mean something?

This supernatural humor shines through the whole show, and is a central part of Twin Peaks, in union with the funnier, and also darker humor that is routinely peppered into the script of Twin Peaks. Other notable instances of this supernatural humor throughout the first 2 seasons include Nadine’s superhuman strength acquired in Season 2, The hilarious opening scenes of Season 2 before the Giant/Fireman appears (Is the butler a Black Lodge entity?), and even after we discover that Bob has possessed Leland, his behavior appears comical and campy (dancing and singing constantly, driving around town with Maddie’s body in the trunk).

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25 years later, The Return encapsulates all three categories of humor, expanding on the supernatural in turn with the new developments of the Black Lodge plot. One of the first scenes of season 3 involves a lighthearted Dr. Jacoby and his spray painted shovels, we are introduced to Dougie and his kid-like state of mind (including a fantastic performance by Naomi Watts as Janey E.), Wally Brando returns to Twin Peaks in hilarious fashion, and Lucy has a peculiar distaste of modern technology; on the other hand, we chuckle at the darker humor of Mr. C and his mysterious intentions (giving Jack a face massage?), Red and his strangely funny magic trick, and Diane’s unusually cynical “fuck it” attitude about the world and the FBI.

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Delving into supernatural humor, we are given a heavy dose in The Return. The Woodsman’s classic “Gotta light?” line is dark enough to scare you but catchy (and skull-crushing) enough to make you want to give him a lighter through the TV screen. Freddy Sykes’ unusual superhuman hand (hearkening back to Nadine’s sudden newfound powers) is a funny addition to James’ story line, and also not to mention Mr. C’s comical arm wrestling competition at the Farm.

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In season 3,  Lynch once again finds his humorous techniques that helped the original run of Twin Peaks become such an artistic and lovable masterpiece. All fans of Twin Peaks find something funny that appeals to them in different ways. The use of humor is truly a centerpiece of Twin Peaks and makes it enjoyable to watch, for now and for generations of television viewers to come.


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4 Replies to “Lynchian Humor: How We Laugh at Twin Peaks”

  1. An interesting piece about a subject often mentioned but more rarely analyzed.
    A few of the visual gags are known to be what Lynch calls “happy accidents”: the mounted buckhead, the flickering lights (and the guy mishearing Cooper in the same early scene). These were all non-scripted, if I remember correctly. I don’t agree that the flickering lights was that light-hearted, though. It’s quirky and funny, but also a deeply ominous sign.

    However, there’s a big omission in this article. I’ve often attributed much of the humour to Mark Frost, and he isn’t even mentioned. I don’t have much in terms of evidence – other fans might know more. But If you compare Twin Peaks with Lynch’s other work, I find more quirky-funny-bizarre humour in Twin Peaks and in Lynch/Frost’s short-lived sitcom On the Air, than in Lynch’s other works. In those, the over-all feel of the humour is more weird-sinister-surreal.

    I do think that Lynch and Frost share a similiar sense of humour and I can’t be sure about the differences mentioned above. But I’m pretty sure that Frost is an important part in scripting the funny stuff into Twin Peaks, and he’s worth credit.

  2. I thought I had a good sense of humor, but this article showed me scenes that I thought were serious and sinister that you found to be humorous. Makes me wonder about you.

  3. I thought all of the examples in the article were about humourous scenes, albeit some of them very dark. For instance: Mr. C and the arm wrestling.

  4. Thanks for the fun read. One bit I always laugh at is Leo saying “Leo needs a pair of new shoes!” in the middle of an ominous meeting in the woods with Bobby and Mike (also when he tells them to go out for a pass). On a side note, I wonder if Eric Da Rae gets enough credit for his work as Leo.

    I agree with Mr. Uppenberg about Mark Frost. Twin Peaks wouldn’t be the same without him.

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