The Graduate: The Father of the Modern Comedy of Awkwardness

Today’s comedy landscape is prominently defined by the line of cringe-inducing moments and awkward conversations, from the character of Michael Scott on The Office to the persona of Zach Galifianakis (especially in “Between Two Ferns”) to Michael Cera’s bumbling adolescent characters. It’s a type of comedy that defines every faux documentary from This Is Spinal Tap to Modern Family, and it’s present in the painful real-life comedy of Louie and Judd Apatow’s films. NBC’s Thursday night line-up is built around single-camera entities with recent roots dating back to the groundbreaking “The Larry Sanders Show” on HBO. But further back than that, it’s a type of comedy that first grabbed the public’s attention in Mike Nichols’ epoch-making 1967 film, The Graduate.

The Graduate has become such an over-used cultural reference point in TV and films that it’s possible to know it only through iconic sequences (the moving sidewalk at the airport, the interrupted wedding) and quoted lines (“Plastics.” “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”) without ever having actually enjoyed its for the genuinely funny, ground-breaking comedy it is. Its progeny includes all the modern comedies of awkwardness, and its influence can be seen in every faux-documentary, every story of modern manhood, and every improv-filled work we enjoy today.

Awkward People

Charles Webb’s 1963 novel implies that Benjamin Braddock is a standard California man, the sort “big blonde people” that Buck Henry also called “a family of surfboards.” (In the book, Ben is captain of the cross-country team, goes on a three-week road trip fighting forest fires in upstate California and is comically contrasted with an ethnically named rival, Abe Frankel.) Casting Hoffman as Ben gives him a nebbish quality that adds to the comic awkwardness of his interactions with more standard California WASP types at the Taft Hotel, college fraternities, and the rest of the wedding party at the end of the film.

Producer Lawrence Turman described the tone of the film as “[Harold] Pinter married to Charlie Chaplin … funny, yet serious,” an apt description of many of today’s best film and television comedies, from The Larry Sanders Show to Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Ben’s awkwardness, which presages the work of Michael Cera and the character of Michael Scott, is most prominently on display in the scene when he is checking into the hotel opposite Buck Henry’s front desk clerk. After accidentally writing down his real name, Ben tries to hide his registry card, first in the fake pocket of his blazer, and then inside his coat. Trying to avoid further interactions with any hotel staff, he tells the suspicious clerk he doesn’t need a porter to help bring the luggage from his car, since all he has is a toothbrush. The palpable discomfort here is in line with many interactions on the American version of The Office.

Later, the film even descends into a cringe-inducing level of painful awkwardness that matches the tone of the British Office and its follow-up, Extras. When Ben is forced to take Elaine Robinson on a date, he tries to ruin it so he can continue his affair with her mother. He takes her to a strip club where a dancer in pasties begins twirling her breasts in opposite directions. Elaine, whose back is turned, cannot see the woman. “You’re missing a great effect,” Ben tells her. Then he asks if she can do that particular trick. She shakes her head; she cannot. The moment is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying.

Although it’s very funny, there are very few actual jokes in the film, and only two moments that would be considered gags in the classic sense of comedy in the mid 1960s. One is a well-timed toaster that pops up after Ben’s father tells him his plan to marry Elaine is “half-baked.” The other is a kindly old woman who mistakenly believes Ben is a man named Braniff in a farcical moment at the hotel. The rest of the comedy is tonal, as opposed to the punchline-centric dialogue that defined comedy from vaudeville days to the golden era of conventional sitcoms.

Improv and The Graduate

Mike Nichols, who had directed Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park on Broadway and made the screen adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, had an improv background from his days with The Compass players before the group morphed into what became The Second City. Although he did not film improvisations to use in the movie like Judd Apatow, Christopher Guest, or Adam McKay later would, Nichols held three weeks of rehearsals, as if The Graduate was a play. This led to a number of improvised moments that were later incorporated into the film, allowing for those discoveries to be included without interfering with the groundbreaking widescreen visuals and lighting of The Graduate.

One example is Ben and Mrs. Robinson’s first night together, when Ben clumsily cups his hand around her breast while she is nonchalantly undressing. Hoffman says Nichols advised him to do this during rehearsal without telling Anne Bancroft in advance. Her reaction was so amusing to Nichols that he began laughing hysterically, which caused Hoffman to break and start laughing. In order to hide the fact that he was laughing, he walked to the back of the set and pressed his head against the wall, and then began banging his head against it. Nichols had Hoffman recreate this moment in the film.

“We improvised a lot for The Graduate,” Nichols says in Something Wonderful Right Away.

Documentary Style

Although The Graduate is not presented as a documentary, it offers classic moments that suggest the cinema verite style that would later come to prominence in films like Medium Cool and comedies starting with This Is Spinal Tap.

The first shot of Mrs. Robinson in the film comes in a hand-held shot that follows immediately after the oft-quoted “Just one word: plastics” scene. Taking leave of the Mr. McGuire the Plastics man, Ben walks through the kitchen and into the living room tracked by an unsteady camera. Suddenly, and seemingly accidentally, we see Mrs. Robinson sitting on a love seat in the foreground staring intensely towards us from a room full of strangers. Ben immediately turns and runs away from the crowd. The feeling of intrusion on a Ben’s private moment hints at the unplanned witnessing that is a staple of great fly-on-the-wall documentaries (and mockumentaries).

And the famous extended take of Ben and Elaine riding a bus at the film’s end captures the post-confession silence and revelation that is a hallmark of interview scenes in everything from The Office to Modern Family.

Alumni of The Graduate

Just like many Judd Apatow and Adam McKay players have gone from early supporting roles to make influential marks in the comedy world, the team behind The Graduate also made a significant contribution to comedy in the next two decades. Here’s a brief sampling of some of their comedic works.

Buck Henry (screenplay) — Henry, who co-created Get Smart, made a mark in the early days of Saturday Night Live as a frequent guest host (he plays the straight man opposite John Belushi’s samurai). More recently, he portrayed Liz Lemon’s father on 30 Rock.

Mike Nichols (director) — Nichols continued his illustrious career as a film, theatre, and television director. Notable comedy works include 1988’s Working Girl and Whoopi Goldberg’s Broadway solo show.

Dustin Hoffman (Ben Braddock) — Hoffman went on to portray comic Lenny Bruce in Bob Fosse’s film Lenny and cross-dressing actor Michael Dorsey in the classic comedy Tootsie. Hoffman has also appeared in non-comedic films like Kramer Vs. Kramer, All The Presidents’ Men and Little Fockers.

William Daniels (Ben’s father) — Young sitcom viewers may remember him for his work as Mr. Feeney in Boy Meets World. He was also the voice of KITT in Knight Rider, Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere, and John Adams in 1776.

Norman Fell (landlord) — Fell plays the hard-nosed landlord who rents Ben a room in Berkeley. He portrayed another rule-abiding California landlord for three seasons on Three’s Company. Later, he broke meta-comedic ground by portraying himself in an Graduate-themed episode of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, where Fell explains that many people confuse his appearance in The Graduate with Three’s Company, so he always carries a VHS copy of the movie with him, and he screens it for Shandling.

Erik Tanouye is a writer and performer at the UCB Theatre in New York.

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