America’s Most Depressing Goofball: Martin Scorsese
The subjects that attract Scorsese are by no means funny, but he nevertheless creates comedy through contrasts, a style that can be traced back to one of his earliest films, It’s Not Just You, Murray! (1966).
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When you think of comedic films, venerated director Martin Scorsese probably doesn’t come to mind. Scorsese is known for his intensely violent and profane movies, which typically revolve around the lives of mobsters, mafia men, and organized crime—an action-packed genre that he’s played a major role in since his 1973 breakthrough, Mean Streets. The subjects associated with Scorsese are by no means funny, but he nevertheless creates comedy through contrast, a style that can be traced back to one of his earliest films, It’s Not Just You, Murray! (1966).
It’s Not Just You, Murray! is a 15-minute short film that Scorsese wrote and directed as a film student at New York University. It was inspired by the real-life stories of his uncle and was shot almost entirely in Scorsese's apartment. It’s Not Just You, Murray! premiered at the 1966 New York Film Festival, where Scorsese won the Producers Guild Award for Best Student Film and the Jesse L. Lasky Intercollegiate Award. The film is about a half-baked mobster (Ira Rubin) who manages to achieve a life of moderate success and wealth despite his absolute ineptitude. Contrary to the film’s dark subject matter—organized crime and police raids—it comes off as more of a lighthearted jest, due in no small part to the fact that Scorsese effortlessly weaves in sarcasm only discernible to the audience.
It's Not Just You, Murray! is presented as a series of flashbacks that follow the titular character through his “business career,” as he calls it, but it’s clear from the get-go that Murray is an unreliable narrator, setting the story up for comedic contrasts. Notably, as footage of Murray’s imprisonment flashes across the screen, he remarks that “[he didn’t have] free time to go many places for a while, although [he] did see Ossining, New York.” Moments like these are seen throughout the movie, from Murray asserting that his alcohol bust was a “misunderstanding” to his being painfully oblivious to the fact that his business partner and friend is most definitely sleeping with his wife.
This subtle juxtaposition between narration and reality is a recurring theme echoed in Scorsese’s later films, most notably in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), when Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) remembers how he actually drove home (spoiler: not well) after taking extra-potent drugs—it provides a stark contrast to the scene that is initially presented, in which Belfort drives home successfully, albeit very slowly. The reason this comedic style works so well is because of Scorsese’s signature storytelling, which typically features the main character describing a series of events while the actual events (which may or may not match the narration) play out on-screen.
Since the beginning of Scorsese’s film career, he has developed his humor contrasts to include not only conflicting audio and visual details but also cultural clashes. About halfway through Goodfellas (1990), the three main characters kill someone and then end up at Tommy DeVito’s (Joe Pesci) mother’s house. As soon as the three men enter the kitchen, the light is flipped on and Tommy’s “mommy” (Catherine Scorsese) starts fussing over them and feeding them—“What happened to your shirt?” she asks, fretting over Tommy’s blood-soaked garment. It’s unclear how much the mother knows about her son’s lifestyle, but it’s funny to think of an overbearing Italian mother playing hostess for her mobster son and his friends right after they have killed a man.
Scorsese takes two essentially opposite stereotypes of Italian culture: organized crime and doting mothers, and smashes them together in a ridiculous mashup of cultural motifs—there’s blood and there’s tomato sauce, there’s murder and mozzarella. This is another key tenet of Scorsese’s humor; he takes two opposite experiences and interpretations and connects them, creating contrasting emotions that end up playing out as more of an absurdist farce than anything else.
This is the core of Scorsese’s sense of humor. It’s an inherent contrast to have comedy in such gritty, gory, crime-filled films, but Scorsese uses it to make his stories outlandish to the point of hilarity. Every bit of humor that Scorsese adds is intentional and calculated, and built specifically to go against the grain.