For a series that’s now world-famous and astonishingly popular for its gripping drama, devastating violence, and unexpected plot twists, Game of Thrones doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its sense of humor. It doesn’t wallop you in the face with zinger catchphrases or John Ritter-esque physical hilarity, but HBO’s cultural leviathan has more subtle, dry, and character-driven humor than those who haven’t seen it might ever imagine. And with its penultimate season 7 winding down and season 8 not that far away, it’s a good time to examine how and why Game of Thrones employs laughter in such an emotionally heavy atmosphere.
Indeed, that dramatic weight is one of the main reasons GoT showrunners D.B. (Dan) Weiss and David Benioff turn to humor: you can’t have one crushing death of a beloved character after another and betrayal upon betrayal and still have your audience’s eyeballs staying glued to the screen for nearly 70 hour-long episodes now. There must be moments of levity, and GoT has more than a few, including a famous running bit involving key character Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) – a frequently-drunk and often-despondent dwarf from one of the richest families in the show’s universe – trying and failing to get to the punchline of a joke about a honeycomb and a jackass in a brothel. It’s a sly continuity nod to viewers who pay close attention, but it’s also a tool to humanize characters who exist in a fantasy world that includes dragons, witches who can resuscitate long-dead people, and seers who can project their minds into the bodies of animals.
With material like that, you need to maintain some tethering to modernity, and humor does the trick.
“I think because it’s more sparingly used to cut tension or lighten the mood, maybe it’s seen as being valuable because there’s less of it,” GoT actor Daniel Portman, who plays squire Podrick Payne, told me in London in May, prior to the debut of season 7 in July. “Sometimes you go through whole episodes like ‘Battle of the Bastards’ or the final episode of season 6 where it’s very hard-hitting, which is very fantastic. But if that was the way it was for ten hours [each season], you’d never really get a chance to breathe.”
“Dave and Dan have got such a light touch when it comes to adding in those real subtle comedic beats,” added Gemma Whelan, who portrays Yara Greyjoy on the show. “They’re never labored, they’re just incidental, and they’re finely managed. It’s an extra element of the show that’s often overlooked, because it’s a very serious drama.”
That said, Game of Thrones also doesn’t think too highly of itself to lean on some lower-of-brow humor: at one point in season 6, the loathsome character of Maester Pycelle (a backstabbing, cruel old scholar/advisor to royalty) is surprised by the appearance of Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, a zombie-monster whom he’d been running down during a discussion; when Pycelle does realize The Mountain is mere feet from him, he accidentally passes gas in a suddenly silent room.
That’s right – GoT has a fart scene. And even the cast found it glorious.
“The Pycelle fart – I paused the show and laughed, because it’s so good and it’s a fart joke,” said Jacob Anderson, who plays noble soldier Grey Worm. “It shouldn’t work, but it works beautifully.”
“It’s great because that sort of shows it doesn’t take itself too seriously,” added Portman. “Even though it’s a really powerful drama, it’s not above a fart joke.”
That moment aside, the consistent humor of Game of Thrones is far more organic and is derived from the actors and characters in the series. Author George R.R. Martin created the roles in his A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels, but Benioff and Weiss adapted his material to include the comedic strengths of the talent who bring them to life. They’ve cast actors who excel at humor – Whelan is an award-winning standup comic in the UK, while star Dinklage was right at home hosting Saturday Night Live in 2016 – and, more importantly, they’ve written the show with a terrific grasp of what their actors are capable of.
For instance, Irish actor Liam Cunningham – GoT’s beloved Ser Davos Seaworth – is best known on the series for his stirring calls-to-arms and his duties as an advisor to royalty, but he gets his own comedic moments every so often: in one episode of season 6, he and a few well-meaning soldiers are trapped in a room in a northern castle in winter; on the other side, traitorous villains are attempting to coax him out without a fight by assuring him they’ll do him no harm. The head traitor promises Davos will receive amnesty and a horse to travel wherever he chooses. But before he can finish his offer, Davos interjects by asking for…mutton. Stunned, the villain asks him to repeat his odd request.
“I’d like some mutton,” Davos says matter-of-factly. “I’m not much of a hunter, and I’ll need some food if I’m going to make it south without starving.”
Granted, it’s not Dumb and Dumber, over-the-top slapstick, but it’s a lighthearted moment that illustrates how little Davos has left to lose – and the bleak humor of it serves the character, not the other way around.
“The humor in it, it’s character-driven,” Cunningham said. “I think if you’re going to get a laugh out of something, it’s because the only person that would say that particular thing would be that particular person. [The mutton line] isn’t even a gallows humor, it’s more of a ‘Fuck it, I’m going to die’ humor.”
Arguably the most consistently funny lines on GoT go to the character of Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann), a disfigured-by-fire, former bodyguyard-to-the-king whose brusque nature provides him with all sorts of memorably sharp retorts and cutting insights. In many ways, he’s GoT’s film noir detective, and he’s become a huge fan favorite for it.
Here’s an example: in season 6, The Hound makes a surprise return to the show and has left behind his brutal past to become part of a peace-loving religious group (led by Deadwood’s Ian McShane). Unfortunately, when The Hound is out cutting down trees to provide lumber and firewood, a small group of bad guys rolls into camp and murders the entire sect. When The Hound catches up to the killers shortly thereafter, they’ve been captured by a different band of religious zealots very familiar with his curmudgeonly history. But he demands they hand the killers over to him so he can exact revenge.
“They killed a friend of mine,” The Hound says.
“You’ve got friends?” one of the captors asks, sarcastically.
“Not anymore.” The Hound replies.
It’s that wry response that deeply endears The Hound to GoT fans. And McCann gives credit to Weiss and Benioff for knowing him and his mannerisms so well and incorporating them into the scripts.
“I feel David and Dan personally know me – we’ve gone out socially so many times, and on set, and they know my character and how I talk,” McCann said. “And there’s so many times I read the scripts and I go, ‘That’s exactly how I talk – that’s how I speak.’ And that’s a wonderful gift, that. There’s almost no acting required sometimes.”
It’s true: even being around McCann – a native Scotsman who towers over most people at 6-foot-6 – for a few hours, you realize how playfully curt he can be. Talking alongside Cunningham to a group of journalists, McCann was asked about Scotland; when one writer broached the name of Mel Gibson and the Braveheart movie that honored Scottish national icon William Wallace, here’s how McCann reacted:
“We have a national monument to Wallace in Stirling, and when you go to the [parking lot] there, there’s a statue of William Wallace and it’s got Mel Gibson’s face,” McCann said with cheeky disdain. “One day I’ll fucking blow it up.”
Another beloved GoT actor – John Bradley-West, who plays budding Maester and all-around good guy Samwell Tarly – also believes the showrunners know precisely what their actors can do and provide them with lines that allow them to add their own comedic touches.
“They know us so well and David and Dan are so sensitive to actors, as generous and sensitive writers, they challenge us, but they know how to get the best out of us,” Bradley-West said. “It’s almost like they give me a puzzle to work out; they give me a line that, on paper, reads as a quite practical, quite functional line, and that’s a puzzle they give me. And my job is to solve the puzzle and work out where the humor is in that. And that either comes out through performance or some sense of dramatic irony in the scene that isn’t necessarily on the paper.”
A great example of Samwell’s humor can be seen in season 6, when he’s traveling home with his girlfriend Gilly and their child to meet his parents for the first time. Gilly is a Wildling – a pariah group seen as savages by many people in Samwell’s world – and when she asks him what he’s told his parents about her in a message written on parchment, he mentions he’s told them a few things, but not where she’s from.
When Gilly bristles at his lack of full disclosure, Samwell replies sheepishly, “Well, it wasn’t a very large piece of parchment.”
Again, we’re not talking zany, laugh-a-minute lines, but rather, cleverly-written and deftly-acted moments that make GoT’s cast relatable. And when Bradley-West sees the words Benioff and Weiss give his character and recognizes opportunities to bring a funnier side with a well-timed pregnant pause or a few blinks or stutters, he’s thrilled to mine them for all they’re worth.
“I feel like they’re challenging me – they give me a line and they say, ‘Find out why this is funny,’” Bradley-West said. “And I have to really take it apart and go, ‘If I put a little pause there and do a slight eye movement there, that’ll be funny.’ And I quite like the fact they give me that challenge.”
With only seven episodes remaining in the entire series – one this season and six in a season that will arrive either later next year or early in 2019 – the tension and drama of GoT is likely to ratchet up to fever pitches. But it’s a huge credit to the showrunners and cast that this series is multi-tonal and has a joy to it that makes the harrowing parts easier to digest.
But a word to the wise – if ever you meet him, don’t tell McCann he’s The Hound. Yes, he plays the character, but he isn’t actually The Hound, and there’s a difference. Although, as he told the media group that erupted in laughter as he told a quick story, the real McCann isn’t all that far off from Sandor Clegane, either.
“Someone said to me the other day, at the wrong time, before my breakfast – ‘You’re The Hound!’” McCann said with a smile. “[I said,] ‘Fuck off!’”
Adam Proteau writes about entertainment, culture and sports; his work has appeared in outlets including The Hockey News, ESPN.com, The Toronto Star, Playbill.com, The Canadian Press, and TheGlobeAndMail.com