Geoffrey Bokuniewicz '14
Hometown: Kingston, TN
Major: Writing Communication
Senior Study Title: “Et Tu, Dude? Humor and Philosophy in the Movies of Joel and Ethan Coen”
Advisor: Mr. Kim Trevathan
This is a two-part senior thesis revolving around the works of the film writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen. The first seven chapters deal with the humor and philosophy of the Coens according to formal theories of humor and deep explication of their cross-film themes. Though references are made to most of their films in the study, the five films studied most in-depth are Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man. The study looks at common structures across both the Coens’ comedies and dramas and also how certain techniques make people laugh. Above all, this is a study on the production of humor through the lens of two very funny writers. This is also a launching pad for a prospective creative screenplay, and that is the focus of Chapter 8. In that chapter, there is a full treatment of a planned script as well as a significant portion of written script up until the first major plot point.
Why is The Big Lebowski so funny? What makes you chuckle during Fargo? Just what is it about film writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s films that makes us laugh?
That’s exactly what Geoff Bokuniewicz ’14 wanted to find out.
Bokuniewicz grew up watching the Coens’ movies and can recite numerous funny quotes from the films.
“I thought they were the funniest things I ever heard, but it’s a very insular type of humor,” said Bokuniewicz, who is from Kingston, Tenn. “I thought there was something there, and I was just wondering why that was so funny. So I decided to set out and find out why those things were so humorous.
“I think I can be decently funny sometimes, but I also wanted to know how I’m doing it or how other people do it, because I think it could make me a better writer and a funnier writer – I would love to write comedy,” he continued.
His two-part Senior Study, which revolves around the works of the Coen brothers, is “a study on the production of humor through the lens of two very funny writers,” Bokuniewicz wrote in his thesis.
“The study looks at common structures across both the Coens’ comedies and dramas and also how certain techniques make people laugh.”
He initially wanted to explore all of the Coens’ movies and write a full screenplay at the end, but he soon realized that he would need to narrow the scope of his project. Though his Senior Study makes references to most of the Coens’ films, Bokuniewicz decided to focus on five of them: Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man.
The first seven chapters examine the Coens’ humor and philosophy according to formal theories of humor and deep explication of their cross-film themes.
“There is surprisingly very little literature out there about humor, considering humor is this idea or thing that we probably think about every few minutes – or even seconds – of our lives,” Bokuniewicz said.
Another challenge Bokuniewicz faced was finding accurate film scripts. As a result, he referenced the actual movies instead of the scripts, transcribed quotes and wrote stage directions and descriptive movements himself.
Humor theories he examined include pattern recognition theory, benign violation theory, superiority theory and mechanical theory.
“All of the theories that I studied explain humor somewhat, but I think it’s just really hard to explain humor,” said Bokuniewicz, who works for a local tech startup company. “The Coens use a lot of pattern recognition in their work, and philosophically, their movies can be defined with three things: there is no order in the world, humans ultimately can’t control anything, and the only way to achieve some limited form of happiness is to either accept the first two maxims or ignore them. If you don’t do that, you’re doomed to this unfulfilled, unresolved life. But you’re doomed to an unresolved life anyway, and the Jewish way has been to treat that with humor, for whatever reason. I think that’s why the Coens’ movies are funnier to people who come from ethnically or culturally Jewish backgrounds.”
Interestingly, the Coens’ most recent film, Inside Llewyn Davis, came out while Bokuniewicz was working on his thesis, and he recognized the same themes he was researching.
“It was all according to plan – I thought it was standard-issue Coens,” he said.
In the eighth chapter of his Senior Study, Bokuniewicz applied his research to draft a summary of a screenplay, which he describes as a “wholly creative work that shows how I can use some of the methods of these brilliant and highly successful filmmakers.”
In his screenplay, a pizza delivery driver goes missing and claims that aliens captured him and his dog. After the dog is still missing, the pizza delivery driver and two friends investigate the disappearance.
“Hopefully, hilarity ensues,” he said. “My goal was to make it funny. I was trying to model it after a Coen brothers movie but not directly rip off their sensibilities too much.”
Bokuniewicz’s Senior Study advisor, Kim Trevathan, was so impressed with his student’s thesis that he recommended it for the library’s permanent collection.
“Geoff really goes into depth about different kinds of humor, and you learn a lot about these movies and about theories of humor through reading the thesis,” said Trevathan, assistant professor of writing/communication. “He takes chances with his writing, but he also succeeds in getting his point across really well and making a good argument.”
Trevathan, who is a fan of the Coens’ films, also praised Bokuniewicz’s originality.
“He created something new for the study, and to me that’s the ideal creative thesis – one that combines scholarship when you look at examples, and you’re applying what you learned to that creative chapter,” he said.
While Bokuniewicz is not sure whether he’ll finish the full screenplay, he is adapting it into a YouTube television series that he describes as “The Twilight Zone of East Tennessee.”
When asked whether he’d send his screenplay to the Coens, he said he did try to contact their agent but wasn’t successful.
“I hope the Coens would find it funny,” Bokuniewicz said. “They’re pretty reticent guys, so they’d probably just snicker to themselves and then talk trash about me behind closed doors.”