Notes Towards a Theory of the Uncanniness of Step Brothers

Step Brothers (2008) | art by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

OK, so


FIRST THINGS FIRST

Yes, I’m serious. I’m not winking, and my tongue is nowhere near my cheek. I would like to present to you my best case that Step Brothers is the work of 21st century mainstream American comedy that most derives its power from the uncanny. There will be laughs, there will be terror, and by the end we’ll all be covered in frog guts. Everyone on board?

Great. Let’s get into it. But before we do,

LET’S DEFINE SOME TERMS

There are two adjectives often used to describe a comedy:

  1. It’s absurd!
  2. It’s surreal!

By a casual definition, they’re perfectly apt, and nobody would fault you for applying them to Step Brothers. But instead, let’s get obnoxiously pedantic, because that’s what you want when you click on an essay about arguably the funniest movie of the past 10 years, right?

The terms absurd, surreal, and uncanny each have an academic definition referring to a psychic conflict and the discomfort it produces.

  • Absurdity is that feeling you get from the conflict between your desire to find meaning in life and your fear that life is meaningless.
  • Surreality is that feeling you get from the conflict between events operating on dream logic and those operating on reasonable everyday logic.
  • Uncanniness is that feeling you get from the conflict between the recognizable and the alien.

To put it in terms of what I’ve seen labeled the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay Mediocre Man Trilogy, I’d argue Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy traffics primarily in the surreal (when the climax of your movie hinges on a subtitled negotiation between a dog and a bear, you’re way down the rabbit hole of dream logic) while Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby traffics primarily in the absurd (when your protagonist spends a portion of the story psychosomatically paralyzed, relieved of the condition only after stabbing himself in the leg to prove a point, you’re wringing laughs from pretty bleak territory).

The word uncanny is invoked far less frequently in describing comedy. But I would (and am and will continue to) argue that given its philosophical kinship to these other two comic descriptors, it can be just as fertile a source of humor, despite—or perhaps due to—the oddity and difficulty of the task.

At heart, the term uncanniness evokes a kind of cognitive dissonance. In the aesthetic idea of the uncanny valley, a figure looks too lifelike to be evidently false, but too false to be evidently lifelike. Mental gears that are supposed to spin smoothly—those gears that allow us to sort robots from humans, real from unreal—suddenly start grinding painfully.

The modern conception of the uncanny was pioneered by Sigmund Freud, who mostly focused on the unconscious terror it can provoke. But in his 2003 book The Uncanny, University of Sussex professor Nicholas Royle allows a slightly milder angle. In describing what he defines as “a crisis of the natural,” Royle acknowledged that “the uncanny is never far from something comic.” Just as the existential crises we call absurdity and surreality can make us laugh, so too can this schism in what Royle terms “how we conceive and represent what is happening within ourselves, to ourselves, to the world.”

And that’s where Step Brothers comes in. The entire premise of the movie rests on a crisis of the natural: our protagonists are two middle-aged men who act almost entirely—and yet, not exactly—like children. The story takes place in a reality that’s neither here nor there, one that slips through your grasp every time you think you’ve gotten your hands around it.

OK, wow, that was a lot of pretty dry theory about existential angst, but we made it through. So just as a palette cleanser, how about we pause for

A CELEBRATION OF THE FUNNIEST SCENE IN STEP BROTHERS

The eponymous duo, Dale (John C. Reilly) and Brennan (Will Ferrell), are facing their climactic crisis of confidence when Dale’s father, distinguished physician Dr. Robert Doback (distinguished character actor Richard Jenkins), takes them aside for an inspirational speech.

“When I was a kid,” Robert tells his son and stepson, “I wanted to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex more than anything in the world. I made my arms short, and I roamed the backyard, and I chased the neighborhood cats, and I growled, and I roared.”

This heretofore reasonable man now draws his arms close like vestigial claws, furrowing his brow in sorrow as the horrified Dale and Brennan watch.

“I thought to myself, I’ll go to medical school, I’ll practice for a little while, and then I’ll come back to it.” Robert’s voice aches for opportunities lost.

“How’s that a skill?” Brennan asks.

“You’re human!” Dale implores his father. “You could never be a dinosaur!”

Robert cricks his neck, searching for that bygone passion, and then admits, “I lost it.” And so, he urges his boys, “Don’t lose your dinosaur.”

The scene is both uproarious and oddly poignant1. But alongside that humor and pathos, there’s a disorienting eeriness to a man aching for a career of “being” a dinosaur. On some level, you’re laughing at the cognitive dissonance as Robert’s behavior hovers right in between the rational and the horrifically unreasonable.

Oh, I’m sorry, did you think we were just going to enjoy a no-strings-attached exaltation of a funny scene? No, we’re here to get deep into the weeds on how comedy functions. And so I guess this is a good time for

A FEW QUICK POINTS ABOUT HOW COMEDY FUNCTIONS

It’s really hard to describe and define what makes something funny. But in 2010, Dr. Peter McGraw made what I’d call the best attempt yet.

Through his work with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Humor Research Laboratory2, McGraw created what he calls the Benign Violation theory. Something is funny, McGraw argues, if it is both:

  1. somehow a violation of the way the world should operate
  2. not harming you personally

To illustrate the importance of both conditions coexisting, McGraw uses the example of falling downstairs, but let’s use a more Step Brothers appropriate example:

  • Someone jumps onto the top bunk, lands gracefully, and has a pleasant chat about guacamole: no violation; not funny.
  • Someone jumps onto the top bunk while you’re on the bottom, and the bunk beds collapse, crushing you underneath: not benign; not funny at all.
  • Someone jumps onto the top bunk while Will Ferrell is on the bottom, and the bunk beds collapse, leaving Will Ferrell crushed underneath: benign violation; very funny.

Basically, there’s humor in the cognitive dissonance of seeing the ordinary innocently upturned3.

We’re amused, according to McGraw’s hypothesis, by an imbalance in “people’s sense of how the world ought to be.” A nice, pleasant crisis of the natural. Which brings us to

THOSE UNCANNY STEPBROTHERS

While it’s acknowledged that Dale and Brennan really should have moved out by now, there’s nothing objectively appalling about adults living with their parents. Just two years earlier, Matthew McConaughey mined essentially the same territory in Failure to Launch. It’s unusual, but not, like, horrifying.

But there’s a scene that takes place on the night Brennan and his mother Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) move in with Dale and Robert that represents the entire uncanny conceit of the film in microcosm. Brennan loudly slurps his blue Gatorade until Nancy asks him to stop; Dale aggressively squeezes too much ketchup onto his plate until Robert cautions him; they act like jerks, but not much more so than the occasional patron at your local dive bar.

But Dale and Brennan are eating chicken nuggets and fries while their parents eat fish and salad, which is absolutely outside the bounds of adult behavior. And as they pout and boast their way through the dinner—Dale claims he once wrestled a giraffe to the ground with his bare hands—we squint to try and get our heads around the joke. Is the idea that Dale and Brennan are essentially being written as though they’re 8? That would track with the moment when Brennan weeps into his nuggets because Dale was mean. But then again, Dale’s meanness was provoked by Brennan’s sneering suggestion Dale’s never been drunk.

I’d wager this conceptual slipperiness is a major reason for the film’s enduring legacy. The conceits of Anchorman and Talladega Nights are easily parsed, so the films have diminishing returns once you’ve memorized the best lines. And if the joke of Step Brothers had been as simple as “They’re grown men who act like 8-year-olds,” it wouldn’t be nearly as compelling4. Instead, the film has an elusive quality that merits repeat viewings just to try and identify some grand unified theory of how Brennan and Dale operate.

In perhaps the most outright delightful sequence, Dale and Brennan finally realize they’re destined to be best friends and spend a night indulging their wildest impulses—chopping bags of Doritos in half with samurai swords, roundhouse kicking pumpkins, watching Steven Seagal in Above the Law over bowls of cereal. Finally, Dale and Brennan burst into their parents’ bedroom and beg for permission to turn their beds into bunk beds. As they make the breathless case that it will, as Brennan says, “give us so much extra space in our room to do activities,” Reilly and Ferrell contort their faces into masks of adorable guilelessness. At no other point do they appear quite so literally to be playing little boys trapped in adult bodies.

“You don’t need permission from us,” Robert responds with barely suppressed dismay. “You’re adults.” Is Robert missing the eeriness inherent in seeing grown men use childish terms like “do activities?” Or is there some logic to this world that we’re not fully tuned into? As much as you might fiddle with your mental dial in hopes of bringing the movie’s reality into focus, you’ll never quite get there. And that’s what makes it not just funny, but fascinating.

At least I hope so. Because otherwise, you’re groaning about how hard I’m analyzing something as gut-level as a goofy comedy. But I really do believe that in this case, it’s not as simple as “It’s funny because they’re being goofy.” Lots of comedies are funny because they’re goofy. This one is funny for the liminality of the world in which it takes place, a world that hovers between live-action cartoon and kitchen-sink reality so precariously that it almost seems to violate the laws of comedy physics.

OK, y’know what, I guess it’s time to just delve into

THE UNCANNY WORLD OF THOSE STEPBROTHERS

If Dale and Brennan were uncanny figures in an otherwise normal world, the movie might be interesting, but probably not fascinating5. Meanwhile, if the world they occupied was fully stylized, you’d be looking at a fairly routine comedy. Instead, the world of Step Brothers exists in its own uncanny balance, recognizable as ours except for those periodic indescribable rifts in the fabric of normality.

In his book, Nicholas Royle observes the tendency for uncanny stories to begin with arrival in a new home, and the eeriness in trying to reconcile the foreboding of the unfamiliar with seemingly normal surroundings.

Notably, Step Brothers is the lone entry in the Mediocre Man Trilogy to take place in an anonymous suburban milieu (as opposed to the hyper-stylized flyover country of Talladega Nights or the hallucinatory ‘70s Bay Area of Anchorman), and it’s exactly this utterly mundane setting that makes the periodic bursts of unreality so bewildering.

The opening sequence, in which Robert and Nancy meet-cute at a conference, is full-on realism to the point of being quite moving, a crucial audience buy-in that grounds the film in a recognizable emotional world. And for a time, the couple appears to be the anchor tethering us to reality.

But when Robert meets Nancy’s younger son, Derek (Adam Scott), his behavior starts sliding into a stranger realm. Spellbound by this young man who’s essentially a parody of a Shark Tank investor, Robert moans, “Oh God you’re impressive,” giggling and flapping his hands the moment Derek offers him the slightest compliment. Robert, previously the metric by which we could measure the oddness of Dale and Brennan’s behavior, now slides slightly off the axis of reality, leaving even the stepbrothers baffled.

You could say that each character exists in their own movie with their own reality, but then again, Derek’s wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) seems to exist in several different movies at once, shifting from Douglas Sirk melodrama to animalistic sexuality from line to line. So rather than taking place in a single parallel universe, it might be more appropriate to say Step Brothers takes place in no apparent universe at all. At one point in The Uncanny, Royle remarks that a certain story isn’t so much “funny in more than one sense…[as] in a multiple, undecidable sense.” And it’s that same undecidable quality in the Step Brothers universe that makes it so uniquely compelling.

The idea of exposing the bizarre hidden just below the surface of a domestic milieu has long been a rich source for stories of the uncanny. You could even see Step Brothers as a spiritual cousin (perhaps once-removed) to Blue Velvet—the perfectly manicured lawns where men drop dead while watering the grass and teenage fisticuffs are interrupted by the wanderings of nude battered women seem only the thinnest white picket fence away from the ones where blind men invite themselves over to feel their neighbors’ faces and grown men try to solve their problems by burying one another alive.

“Blue Velvet,” wrote film theorist Laura Mulvey in her book Fetishism and Curiosity, “restores an uncanny to American culture that the uncanny president disavows.” Which provides an excellent bridge to the consideration I’d like to offer to

THE UNCANNY ERA THAT BIRTHED STEP BROTHERS

Mulvey sees Blue Velvet as the natural outgrowth of Ronald Reagan, whom she describes as “an image of the uncanny: made-up, artificial and amnesiac.”6 And if Lynch’s vision of disturbing impulses simmering beneath the surface of suburbia perfectly reflected the uncanniness of its political moment, then it seems fair to acknowledge that McKay’s vision of simmering asininity couldn’t exist without the influence of a president who may well best Reagan for sheer uncanniness.

Step Brothers opens with an epigraph from George W. Bush, whose presidency was sputtering to an ignominious close when the film was released in July 2008: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.” The very wording is uncanny; you can scan the opening clause without realizing until several words later that you snagged your sock on the nail of baffling grammatical inconsistency, and the closing clause has just enough recognizable shape to feel like an aphorism but makes your head spin with a moment’s analysis.

As it can be all too easy to forget a decade later, this was how we spent every day for eight years: trying to make sense of a president who evinced the outward trappings of political legitimacy but couldn’t open his mouth without uttering some clanging malapropism. “[Bush is] fine as long as he’s shaking hands and smiling,” The New York Times wrote of the 2000 speech that provided Step Brothers its epigraph. “But something weird happens when he…starts speaking extemporaneously.” This was the uncanny valley in presidential form.

The impact of the Bush era has been a continual obsession for Ferrell and McKay, from the patriotism-on-bath-salts backdrop of Talladega Nights to the financial crimes that drive the plot of The Other Guys. It’s an issue complicated slightly by the inarguable fact that the duo is largely responsible for the public perception of the man known as Dubya—McKay was a writer on Saturday Night Live (having just finished a two-year stint as head writer) when Ferrell appeared in a series of flashpoint debate sketches that may not have single-handedly created the impression that Bush was a lovable goofball worthy of grabbing a beer with, but certainly lent a significant guiding touch.

As their follow-up to Step Brothers, Ferrell and McKay made an unexpected move: for just over a month in early 2009, Ferrell performed a one-man show on Broadway, in which George W. Bush reflected on his life and times. On the same boards once tread by Basil Rathbone and James Dean, Ferrell strutted and chuckled his way through a truly uncanny evocation of Bush. Ferrell’s impersonation never bore any particularly strong resemblance to the real man, and yet his characterization was so ubiquitous from Saturday Night Live to talk show appearances that his take seems to capture what George W. Bush means even more than the genuine article. Like the old7 story of Charlie Chaplin surreptitiously entering a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest and taking second place, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the image of Bush held by the majority of Americans looks a lot more like a gray and squinting Will Ferrell than the true 43rd president.

Throughout the performance (which is available to stream), Ferrell and McKay identify the essential cognitive dissonance of the Bush era and bear down on that soft spot until the psychic itch becomes almost unbearable. Ferrell-as-Bush delivers a rapid-fire list of his accomplishments as the governor of Texas, a list simultaneously hilarious and sickening—all the funnier for being revolting, and all the more revolting for your impulse to laugh, an ouroboros of bleak comedy.

The entire show tests the limits of the Benign Violation Theory of comedy. Dr. McGraw is pretty strict in his belief that anything funny must be both a violation and benign, but there’s very little in Ferrell and McKay’s show that passes that latter test. Towards the end, Bush has a rhetorical phone call with former FEMA director Mike Brown. “When I think back to your appointment, it shows a blatant disregard for the agency and its function!” Ferrell-as-Bush remarks. “And then, wouldn’t y’know it, we get hit with the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history! You still have nightmares about it? I bet you do!” And the audience laughs and laughs.

If there’s a violation at play, it’s the show acknowledging how flagrantly this president violated his pact to do everything in his power keep his citizens safe. Maybe some audience members found a benign angle on that beat and enjoyed the laugh. But it seems to me that for most viewers, this show plays in the absurd end of the spectrum: you laugh because to do otherwise would be to flirt with the howling existential loneliness of a universe that would allow for the events Ferrell is recalling.

Mulvey believed Blue Velvet was a refutation of the wholesome picture that Ronald Reagan painted of the American spirit. And in his 2006 State of the Union address, Bush painted his own. America, he proclaimed, was experiencing “a revolution of conscience,” and its people were increasingly aware that “a life of personal responsibility is a life of fulfillment.”

What a fabulous place that America sounds like. What a decent, harmonious place to live. Unfortunately, it sounds absolutely nothing like the vision of America conjured by Step Brothers, where the ostensible heroes are walking embodiments of all seven deadly sins, and can hardly exhale without letting slip some casually cruel inanity. If the suburbs of the Bush era were indeed where wings took dream, then those wings, at least by Adam McKay’s reckoning, were taking a pretty rancid nightmare.

Yeah. This took a kind of a dark turn, huh? Sorry. I did warn you. But for all our sanity, I guess we’d better get to

LAST THINGS LAST

Want to see a really long German word? Sure you do, those are great:

Verfremdungseffekt!

It’s so long! How would you even begin to pronounce it? Savor that wonder, because I’m about to get theoretical again.

That really long German word translates to “alienation effect,” a dramatic technique developed by Bertolt Brecht. The idea was to make the familiar feel suddenly alien, to unmoor audiences from all the conventions they take for granted—to make traditional storytelling, in a word, uncanny.

In his 1940 paper Kurze Beschreibung einer neuen Technik der Schauspielkunst, die einen Verfremdungseffekt hervorbringt,8 Brecht lists several examples of everyday occurrences that can induce casual uncanniness. And you’ll never guess what one of his primary examples is. You ready for this shit?

“To see one’s mother as a man’s wife…for instance, when one acquires a stepfather.”

Boom goes the dynamite! Isn’t that just too perfect? I could riff on that forever, I could make a huge case for a Brechtian-Oedipal reading of Step Brothers, bring it back around to Freud, the OG uncanny theorist. I could just absolutely go to town.

But at the end of the day, I do want to honor the fact that we’re talking about a fun movie that takes place in a house that’s a fucking prison on planet bullshit in the galaxy of this sucks camel dicks (at least according to Dale and Brennan).

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can,” E.B. White once rather famously wrote, “but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”9

I’ve had fun digging through these frog guts for a while, and I hope you have, too. I hope I’ve made the movie a little more interesting, but I’m fully aware that by no means have I made it any funnier. And honestly, since I started writing this piece, I can’t help trying to identify the benign violation in anything that makes me laugh. So, if anything, I’m at risk of making it less funny through distracting layers of analysis.

Ten years after we were blessed with this singular comic vision, we live in a world that’s somehow absurd, surreal, and uncanny all at once. There’s precious little these days that’s as purely joyful10 as a viewing of Step Brothers. So I’m going to leave it here with a death toll of only a few frogs in my wake. Because going on much longer would risk losing the dinosaur. And we just can’t afford to let that happen.

  1. “Don’t lose your dinosaur” has also had a strange second life as a quasi-inspirational mantra, which peaked in 2014 when Kanye West cited the line in a GQ interview to support a point about God’s boundless love.
  2. And you better believe those jokesters abbreviate it to HuRL.
  3. Of course, one person’s benign can be another’s malign, as demonstrated by Roger Ebert’s startlingly bleak Step Brothers review, which featured the line, “Sometimes I think I am living in a nightmare.”
  4. That description also calls to mind 1994’s Clifford, in which a then-44-year-old Martin Short quite literally plays a small child, and while that film has its fans, there’s something undeniably grotesque about taking the conceit quite that far.
  5. Not to mention the fact that the story would be invalidated by the psychiatric care or imprisonment to which Dale and Brennan would have been subjected long before we meet them.
  6. In writing this, I also ran across the Conor Oberst song “A Little Uncanny,” which includes a whole verse about the uncanniness of “old Ronnie Reagan,” and there was no real reason to bring it up, but if you think I’m gonna run across something that auspicious and not mention it, get real.
  7. And possibly apocryphal
  8. Sure, I could give you the translated title, but aren’t all those German words so nice to look at? So many Ns and Ks!
  9. People often attribute to White the slightly more streamlined, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” But I’m sticking with the ungainly original because if we don’t stand up for truth on the internet, who will?
  10. All due apology and respect to Mr. Ebert.