Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
The Recycler-O-Matic has been displaying one of my favorite moments from 30 Rock:
Liz: [About Jack’s background check.]: Will they find anything?
Jack: Oh yeah. I’ve done some things, Lemon.
Sometimes all an actor needs is a single line, even a single word, to be hilarious, or terrifying, or heartbreaking. What are your favorite performances of a single line, or even a single word? —Grant Nebel
They don’t have to be good to be favorites, right? Because the very first thing that leapt to my mind was Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, saying “I know kung fu!” Rarely has Reeves’ dopey, whoa-dude line delivery produced such a perfect comic moment, regardless of whether the moment was actually written as comic. On a more serious note, the film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross is packed with some of the greatest one-line deliveries of all time, even though they tend to come packed in runs of equally memorable lines. (“Coffee is for closers only.” “Fuck you, that’s my name.” “Third prize is, you’re fired.” ”Who ever told you that you could work with men?” And so forth.) But the one that’s stuck with me longest comes at the end of the film, when Jack Lemmon makes his final broken plea: “My daughter.” The pain, disbelief, and entreaty he throws into those two words gets me every time. Glengarry was the first Jack Lemmon movie I ever saw, and I haven’t been able to get enough of him since, and at least half of it is his delivery on that one agonized line.
Easy. The alien telling Professor Frink to shut up this Simpsons clip never fails to make me laugh. I think it’s that a) You don’t expect that alien to speak. b) You don’t expect it to speak in a normal human voice. And c) You don’t expect it to say what it does. It’s incredibly silly, but it works.
Two easy answers to this, both from sources I’ve mentioned in the AVQ&A before. In My Man Godfrey, Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) is pouting because Godfrey (William Powell), the rich-kid-turned-homeless-man-turned-butler she brought into the house, is ignoring her as she bats her eyelashes loonily at him, among other things. At one point, her mother entreaties her to eat. For about two seconds, we see Irene, softly lit, gazing soulfully at, I guess, the stars, a perfect parody of Hollywood glamour, and she utters: “What is food?” (A girlfriend showed me this movie for the first time; we had to pause the VCR for 10 minutes because I was laughing so hard.) The other is from the one and only Nicolas Cage. It’s from Honeymoon In Vegas, when he’s been summoned to a crazy man’s hut to hear the South Pacific soundtrack a bunch of times. The way Cage spits out “He lives in a shack!” startled me and my friend so much, we kept repeating it as we walked home.
Certain phrases plant themselves into your psyche instantaneously the first time you encounter them. Then they stubbornly refuse to leave, claiming squatters’ rights. Oftentimes, these lines are spoken by Christopher Walken. My favorite Walken tangent is from Gigli: Walken plays an enigmatic cop who wanders into Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s lives under questionable circumstances and taunts Affleck with the words, “Man, you know what I’d love to do right now? Go down to Marie Callender’s, get me a big bowl, pie, some ice cream on it, mmm-hmm good! Put some on your head! Your tongue would slap your brains out trying to get to it! Interested? Sure?” Walken seems to be talking primarily for his own amusement (he often is) and there’s something about the rising and falling delivery of the lines, when fused with their innate weirdness, that gives the scene a distinct train-wreck appeal. Alas, those are a fuckton of lines, not just one, so I’ll opt for another My Year Of Flops Case File, Envy, and Walken’s delivery of the words “hooty owl.” There’s something exquisitely redundant about delineating an owl as being specifically “hooty,” so as to separate it from the non-hooty variety. And it’s fucking Christopher Walken, whom, it should be stated, is awesome.
The funniest two words in NewsRadio history were delivered by Phil Hartman (of course), and they were “Fair enough.” The setup: Lisa (Maura Tierney) walks through the newsroom wearing nothing above the waist but a bra. She passes on-air newsman Bill McNeal (Hartman), then turns around and slaps him in the face. Hartman protests: “I didn’t say anything.” Lisa fires back, “You were thinking it.” Hartman’s face settles into a satisfied smirk, and he casually delivers the punchline: “Fair enough.” It’s the best line-reading I’ve ever seen on a sitcom. Hartman encapsulates his character’s smarm, ego, libido, and cynicism in two words, all without overselling it. It’s one of my favorite TV lines, as it doesn’t just sum up Bill McNeal, but also Hartman’s extraordinary talent.
Daniel Day Lewis’ entire performance in There Will Be Blood still amazes me. And there are so many quotable moments—that whole opening speech (“I am an oil man”), to his rant against his adopted son (“You’re just a bastard from a basket.”), and of course the “milkshake” line to Paul Dano that turned the entire country into a terrible SNL sketch for a while. (Gosh, we were so young then.) But for my money, the definitive note of Lewis’ work as Daniel Plainview is struck at the very end. I’m not going to get too specific, but the way Lewis says “I’m finished!” is maybe my favorite moment in one of my favorite films. It’s the combination of glee, exhaustion, and spent fury that gets me, like hearing from a man who has finally finished his life’s work of damning himself utterly, and can’t help but take some pride in what he’s accomplished.
The consistently excellent delivery by the Futurama voice cast is a huge factor in that show’s eminent quotability. Billy West’s hilariously smarmy work as Zapp Brannigan makes the episode “Amazon Women In The Mood” one of my most oft-quoted episodes (see: “She’s built like a steakhouse, but she handles like a bistro”; “You win again, gravity!”; “You know, I find the most erotic part of a woman is the boobies”; and so on), but he’s outdone by that episode’s guest star, Bea Arthur as the all-knowing Femputer. The word “femputer” is enough to make me laugh all by itself, but the way Arthur says it, with just the right amount of righteous indignation, never fails to send me into a giggle-fit. Any one of her line readings could easily rank as a favorite, but the one I imitate most often—try it, ladies, it works in a variety of situations—is “That does not fempute!”
One of TV’s most beloved, hysterical characters solidified his status with one simple line: “I’m Ron fuckin’ Swanson.” I take you to Parks & Rec’s season-two episode “The Stakeout.” Ron Swanson has thrown out his back and is stuck in the office—nay, his chair, in one position, surviving by tossing hamburgers directly at his face and hoping they land near enough to his mouth to provide sustenance. He turns to April, the only person he trusts in the office, for assistance, and when she arrives with her parents’ minivan to take him to the hospital, he states his line, with a quiet, understated delivery. Little did we know that this mantra would continue to inspire his actions for the rest of the show to date. Ron Swanson eats as much bacon and eggs as he wants, cares as little about the government as possible, and builds his woodshop to whatever safety regulations he so desires. (Meaning none.) He exists in his own world, where hunting is the only sport that matters and Julia Roberts is simply “that toothy girl from Mystic Pizza.” The essence of his entire amazing character is encapsulated in that line, and once it was said, TV comedy was never the same:
One line practically defines Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entire acting career: “I’ll be back,” from The Terminator. That line, one of only a handful he speaks in the film, delivered in his nearly impenetrable Austrian accent, manages to convey his character’s utter relentlessness and mechanical coldness in just three syllables. It’s one hell of a one-line performance, and it was so bad-ass—the AFI chose it as the 37th best film quote of all time—Schwarzenegger went on to reprise it not only in the sequels, but in enough of his other films to make it a meme of sorts.
I’ve got to go with Darren McGavin’s classic “Sonsofbitches! Bumpuses!” in A Christmas Story. It’s one of my absolute favorite movies of all times, and only partially because it was filmed in Cleveland. The angst is just so incredible all the way through, and it makes the movie timelessly hilarious. As a holiday-ham fanatic, I heartily identify with the Old Man’s Christmas turkey fixation, as well as the pure, manic sadness that grips him as the neighbor’s gross dogs destroy his house and eat his turkey. I don’t know. It probably isn’t the greatest line ever written or anything, but I’ll be damned if I don’t find myself thinking about it all the time in completely unrelated situations, like when someone cuts in front of me in a line, or the bus is too crowded. It conveys such a universal frustration so immediately that, as a line, it just can’t be beat.
To this day, I still regard Real Genius as Val Kilmer’s greatest performance. His goofy, wisecracking charm as genius student/troublemaker Chris Knight helps land a collection of brilliant one-liners in a movie brimming with fantastic dialogue. But one line in particular has just a bit more bite than others: In one of his many volleys with turtlenecked suck-up Kent, Knight coolly asks, “Do you mind if I name my first child after you? ‘Dipshit Knight’ has a nice ring to it.” The pair’s sparring throughout the film is so one-sided that it borders on bullying, but Kent (Robert Prescott) is so clueless, stubborn, and harmless that it’s high fun to watch Knight toy with him. The line is a perfect example of antagonizing the antagonist, even if the original antagonist is really bad at what he does.
It always makes me smile to remember that the last utterance in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant filmography was, simply, “Fuck.” It’s a fittingly tart, irreverent word for a career that constantly provoked debate within the culture. The word also feels completely well-earned, arriving at the end of his underrated Eyes Wide Shut, which examines the jealousy and sexual frustration that simmers within a marriage. For most of the way, Kubrick follows Tom Cruise’s dreamlike odyssey through New York as he tries to come to terms with his wife (Nicole Kidman) confessing to a fantasy she once entertained about another man. The evening persistently confronts Cruise with his own inadequacies and adds a fresh layer of tension between himself and Kidman the next morning. Kidman’s solution for how they might resolve that tension (“Fuck”) is elegantly delivered—just the word and a crisp cut to black—and it ends the film (and Kubrick’s career) on a hard-won affirmation of marriage.
Scott’s response reminds me of another stellar, er, climactic “Fuck.” Operating under the understanding that one non-sexual utterance of the word is allowed in a PG-13 movie (although The Social Network seems to have upped that number to two), The Aviator waits until the very end. Alec Baldwin (as Pan American mogul Juan Trippe) just realizes he’s been outmaneuvered in a huge way by rival Howard Hughes. Baldwin’s dawning moment of realization—his hand resting on a globe he isn’t conquering today—is hilarious in its compressed frustration. If you only get one chance to say the word, better make it count.
I’ll follow Scott’s lead with elegant profanity delivered by two dapper gentlemen. The first is Clay Davis from The Wire, played by Isiah Whitlock, Jr. His super-extended “Shiiiiiiiiit!” almost bordered on a catchphrase, but it seemed like the type of catchphrase somebody like a crooked state senator might use. It’s also the first word in the greatest single line in a movie full of them, Pulp Fiction. Almost everything that comes out of Samuel L. Jackson’s mouth in the movie is pure gold—he went on to play variations on Jules Winnfield for years. There’s his Bible passage. There’s his insistence that he’s going to walk the earth like Cain in Kung Fu. There’s the unstoppable, “SAY ‘WHAT’ AGAIN!” But if you were to sum up Jules (and Samuel) in one classic line, it’s when he’s covered with blood, unsure of how to clean up a corpse, but filled with relief when he learns that The Wolf is coming to help. “Shit, negro—that’s all you had to say!”
Aisha Tyler’s readings of “YUUUUUP!” and “NOOOOPE!” on Archer are surface-level funny every time, and on a deeper level, perfect encapsulations of the character of Lana Kane. She’s a highly competent, usually rational super-spy surrounded by coworkers who are utterly ridiculous (especially her titular ex), and the brick-wall feeling of her affirmations and denials comes off in the specific way she’s evolved to deal with their out-of-line demands/lack of boundaries/mother issues/jokes about monster hands. It’s even gotten to the point where other characters on the show (and certain watchers like myself) have started using her “Yup!” and “Nope!” with the exact same inflections. How hilarious these two little words always are, and how much they’ve become associated with the character is doubly impressive considering how not-particularly-funny “Yup!” and “Nope!” are on paper.