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Deadpan is a form of comic delivery in which humor is presented without a change in emotion or body language. It is usually spoken in a casual, monotone or cantankerous voice, and expresses a calm, insincere or grave demeanor, often in spite of the ridiculousness of the subject matter. This delivery is also called dry humor or dry wit, when the intent, but not the presentation, is humorous, blunt, oblique, sarcastic, laconic or apparently unintentional.
The term deadpan first emerged as an adjective or adverb in the 1920s, as a compound word combining "dead" and "pan" (a slang term for the face). The oldest usage recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the New York Times (1928), which defines the term as "playing a rôle with expressionless face". An example of this usage is in a scene from the 1934 film The Gay Bride in which a gangster tells a man on the other end of a phone conversation to "give it a dead pan" (with the emphasis on "pan"), so that the man does not inadvertently alert anyone else in the room as to the importance of what the gangster is about to say. The usage of deadpan as a verb ("to speak, act, or utter in a deadpan manner; to maintain a dead pan") is recorded at least as far back as 1942.
Many popular American sitcoms use deadpan expressions to deliver dry humor, most notably Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, The Office and Seinfeld. A good current example is the character April Ludgate from the TV show Parks and Recreation played by Aubrey Plaza, or Bob Newhart as Arthur Jeffries in The Big Bang Theory (TV Series). Another example is the often philosophical comedy of Steven Wright. Dry humor is often confused with highbrow or egghead humor, because the humor in dry humor does not exist in the words, their delivery, or both. Instead, the listener must look for humor in the contradiction between words, delivery and context. Failure to include the context or to identify the contradiction results in the listener finding the dry humor unfunny. However, the term "deadpan" itself actually only refers to the method of delivery.
Other deadpan comedians:
Deadpan can vary in subtlety. Obvious deadpan uses a high amount of contrast either with characters or situations. It may also take the role of mirror to characters who are unaware of their folly. Some of this can be seen with the characters Britney and Kevin in Daria. More subtle deadpan can test the observational limits of the audience and even play off the audience's awareness (and thus off the implied intelligence of the audience). Some British comedy relies on this.
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