Feeling a bit nostalgic, I started watching A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix this week. As I did, it got me thinking about how much more screenwriters are giving themselves permission to use “on the nose” dialogue, often to great comedic effect.
“On the nose” is a term used to describe dialogue that is overly literal or direct, leaving no room for subtext. People rarely say exactly what they mean, so when a character onscreen does just that, it is often seen as unrealistic, and is therefore frowned upon in screenwriting classes. For example, a character making an aside to the camera to define the term “on the nose” might be seen as a bit “on the nose.”
But what is it that makes it funny in certain instances, like in A Series of Unfortunate Events or other shows such as Angie Tribeca, and cringe-worthy in others, say certain Lifetime original movies?
I think the answer has to do with self-awareness. In shows that use this kind of dialogue effectively, the writers and actors know that although their characters are dead serious about their lives and what they’re saying, the audience is supposed to find them absurd. There’s a meta-quality to them, knowing glances to the camera or long pauses after particularly awkward or melodramatic lines to allow the audience to really feel the absurdity and soak it in. Shows like Angie Tribeca stretch the over-literal aspect even further with prop comedy and puns.
In films and television that use “on the nose” dialogue that comes across poorly, there is usually a disconnect where either the writers or the actors, or sometimes both, don’t realize the oddness of the dialogue. They try to force it as something natural and blow past it, so when the audience feels that tingling feeling in the back of their mind that something sounds weird, they feel uneasy about it as opposed to enjoying it. We’re embarrassed for them instead of sharing the joke with them.
It’s the same principle that make horror films like Scream or The Cabin in the Woods work. Instead of shying away from the predictable tropes that undermine the scare factors of the genre, they point a spotlight at them and bring themselves in on the joke.
That’s what writers appear to be doing more of with “on the nose” dialogue; they’re pointing it out and saying “isn’t it funny when people talk like this?”
And you know what? It really is.