The Wire’s peculiar debt to sketch comedy

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for pretty much the whole of The Wire.

clock downCheeseshop

This summer, I had the privilege of being able to watch the complete box set of The Wire. And it really is a privilege. The programme is the realist novel par excellence for the 21st century, and should be as secure in the canon as the more traditionally feted Dickens and Eliot are. That its medium is the small screen only makes it more powerful; it arrives to the viewer through the vessel of mass readership, just as Great Expectations and Middlemarch reached their readers through All The Year Round and Blackwood’s magazine respectively. To continue such an analogy, the box set is the equivalent of the ornate, high-investment bound copy released a few years later.

Hardback copy of Middlemarch.

Hardback copy of Middlemarch.

There are many shows that have become successful through television and then found a second life with box set sales, but in my (fairly limited) experience, only The Wire comes remotely close to answering the question that haunted the great 19th century novelists: what is to be done?

Any attempt to address the whole of a series which manages to contain nearly all aspects of the American urban experience is an Icarean project, so in the meantime I want to focus on one specific scene, my favourite from the entire series: Omar visiting Proposition Joe’s shop in season 4 episode 11, ‘A New Day’.

The set-up of the scene is a good example of what sets The Wire apart from its competitors: complete bravery in writing, and a tonal flexibility that ensures the series always rises above trying to portray a lowest common denominator image of the streets. The scene begins with a Tarantinoesque fragment of conversation, as Cheese logically concludes that midgets have the ‘fattest ass’ and the ‘best pussy’. It would be easy to set the scene in the shop with a moody silence before Omar makes his entrance, almost bellowing how serious the show should be taken from the screen. Instead we get an insight – and sometimes five seconds is all it takes – that the characters have much more behind them than the game they are a part of. It’s illusionary, sure, but the best programming nearly always is. I particularly like the little exchange because it gives a brief glimpse into Prop Joe and Cheese getting along as members of a family, meaning that Cheese’s betrayal of his uncle in season five has true pathos. It gives neat mirror image of the punning exchange to follow as well, as if every interaction has a kernal of comedy at its core.

What happens next is an absolutely audacious move, anchoring the scene in a very recognisable TV genre, albeit one usually far removed from the streets of Baltimore: sketch comedy. Reducing comedy sketches to a structuralist core would probably leave you with a branch of what could be best described as the ‘man walking into a room’ sketch, the type used as a central conceit in Thank God You’re Here, and perfected by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s safe to say Prop Joe’s reaction means he wasn’t expecting the Spanish-American inquisition.

DIABOLICAL LAUGHTER

DIABOLICAL LAUGHTER

You have to credit Michael K. Williams and Robert Chew for their sense of timing in their first part of this exchange: following the guns being drawn, Omar casually places the clock on Joe’s desk and Robert Chew lets the chime of the clock ring out just long enough before putting on his glasses (another comic prop in the circumstances, with shades of Eric Morecambe and Vic Reeves), then asking what its malfunction is. Omar’s pun ‘ran out of time’ is wonderfully absurd, when we know how thorough he is when planning his robberies; as if as well as scoping the joint, keeping track of Joe’s muscle and their movements, he also put the same amount of thought into a splendid little throwaway gag. The punchline is delivered while he produces a .50 caliber Desert Eagle, mixing the tone somewhat: on one hand it is a comically large gun, becoming an excessive prop in the manner of Joe’s glasses, but on the other it is supremely powerful and Joe’s fear is justified, given that one shot from it would be enough to place most of his innards on the back wall.

One big gun.

One big gun.

Likewise, the clock is a symbol of Joe’s mortality, only giving himself a chance of crawling out of his grave by fixing it, and fixing Marlo. As their dialogue develops, and the situation becomes more intense, the camera flits between Joe and Omar’s faces, zooming in closer and closer each time. This is until Joe urges that Omar ‘take a deep breath’, and then offers him a proposition. Here the writers make great use of Prop Joe’s name, and his established behaviour. He momentarily becomes a recurring character in this twisted sketch show, appeasing the audience with his catchphrase. Omar’s response is mirrored by the reintroduction of zoom into his face, and the stakes are raised again. In a similar vein, Omar’s insistence that ‘we got to have things simple. See Omar likes it simple’ extends a character trait he has used several times before and here has a newly-tapped comic dimension: talking about himself in the third person. Both Joe and Omar issue lines not out of place as part of a recurring comedy sketch, talking about themselves as characters and employing their most distinctive lines. The next section of dialogue is like them laying the foundations for the next sketch in the series, as Omar adopts a camp, faux-despairing tone when he imagines what he would have to do if Joe double-crossed him. With the scene firmly laid, Omar continues the vaudeville style acting, which has a strange anaesthetic effect upon the consequences of his actions; namely, taking out Joe.

The comic structure is brought back to the fore as Omar asks for a ticket for his clock, which, forgoing its symbolism for a moment, is an almost unbelievably banal follow-up to the plan he and Joe have just laid (and the consequences it has). His parting word of ‘Gentlemen’ to Joe, Cheese and Slim Charles is a theatrical flourish upon which to exit.

The clock/ticket episode shows how Omar manages to treat Joe as a civilian and a gangster all at once.

The clock/ticket episode shows how Omar manages to treat Joe as a civilian and a gangster all at once.

It looks forward to Omar’s posthumous reputation as a mythical figure, the accounts of his death exaggerated hugely to superhuman levels, as his propensity for drama adds to his power, by cultivating an aura which makes others fear him, as he tells Renaldo afterwards, “I trust [Joe’s] fear”.

By invoking a paradigm of sketch comedy and mixing it with themes of the Baltimore streets, this particular scene shows The Wire at its most successful as a tragedy, a piece of social commentary, while being capable of raising more than a few laughs. The overlap of the two forms is indicative of the show’s more general concern with (mis)communication, because as a viewer it becomes difficult to find a stable reference. This seems very fitting in a show that examines at length the ins and outs of ‘The Game’, a euphemism for the American city and the sub-euphemisms within that. Furthermore, the name of the show points to one of its central paradoxes: that the Major Crimes Unit needs wiretap surveillance to be able to make the most powerful arrests, but the institutions of the police department and the criminal underworld are separated by a common language. It only makes sense that for the viewer, the message is obfuscated as to whether we’re watching a sketch comedy or something much darker.

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