The BRMC and its Humor in The Wild One
With its high profile presentation of motorcycles and motorcyclists with pugnacious attitudes, The Wild One did as much as any film to develop the rebel stereotype of motorcyclists dominant in American media culture for the five and a half decades since. One of the central conflicts of the film is how the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club (BMRC) tries to vivify its subculture by distinguishing itself from the small town California locals, the “squares.” As the BRMC struggles to be different, to be “cool,” these struggles are among the sources for their anger at the towns they visit, and which represent the complacent, conservative Eisenhower American culture that pulls and pushes on their group identity. The BRMC’s identity struggle in the film also reveals the intangible possessions of their subculture; those intangible possessions are the attitudes and rhetoric of a working-class machismo. Indeed, among those intangible possessions of identity is what I think is the most unique and effective subculture signifier for the BRMC: their sense of humor. That is, after the numerous signifiers the BRMC incorporate into its group identity fail to distinguish and separate them from the Eisenhower culture of contentment they disdain, the BRMC most successfully strengthens its group ties and separates its members from the townspeople of The Wild One using their sense of humor.
If we define humor as absurd juxtaposition, from the beginning of The Wild One, the exclusive verbal and non-verbal humor displayed by the BRMC establishes and maintains its members as a group. The humor is not only genetic to the group, it is a group dynamic for coping with internal tensions and rallying against external forces. The gang’s perspective on the culture around them is pervasively ironic, and the role of various members is to verbalize that irony, which literally makes everything a joke. Although the BRMC’s identity ultimately depends on many signifiers which serve as social coherence mechanisms of this gang, a close look at the film reveals how these other signifiers are largely indistinct and belong to the mainstream culture; the film shows how even the BRMC combination of these signifiers is not unique. The film does show ultimately that the BRMC tries to cope with its non-distinction and thus (ironically) achieves its goal through humor.
Among the non-distinct identity signifiers for the BRMC in The Wild One are notable symbols the club struggles to claim for itself. The most notable example is the motorcycles. Obviously important to the group, if for no other reason than the “M” in BRMC, these bikes are machines from major manufacturers—Triumph, BSA, etc—of the period, what some observers consider a golden age of motorcycle engineering. While the motorcycles are extremely visible and, en masse, make enough noise to give menace to the group’s presence, the bikes actually can contribute only in small ways to the BRMC’s group identity in the film because viewers see similar motorcycles in other contexts early in the film (plus the bikes of the Beetles, later). Historically speaking, the race in Carbonville at the opening of the film presents one manifestation of the peak of per capita motorcycle popularity in the United States, but as far as the film’s cultural signifiers go, the presentation of the race obliterates any exclusive ties between the BRMC and motorcycles. (Contrast this with the later film Easy Rider, for example, whose protagonists’ motorcycles are customized machines that never share the stage.) Even the Carbonville police, who run the BRMC out of town, are outfitted with motorcycles. Motorcycles are apparently a major part, if not the central impetus, for Carbonville’s festival, and for this film’s purposes, serve as a significant part of the identity for the town. When the BRMC attempts to disrupt the race itself, the club may be jockeying for control of this signifier, seeking to appropriate the motorcycle symbol for their group, but it doesn’t work. Immediately after the BRMC is run out of Carbonville, when a Sage Valley race official maintains that motorcycling is not some anti-social degeneracy—“ten guys like that give people the idea that everyone who drives a motorcycle is crazy”—Carbonville indicates it will not surrender this signifier to the gang’s identity. Instead, the BRMC is labeled as deviant by contrast, and does not return to this motorcycle haven, which they disdain. Their motorcycles don’t make them stand out in the Carbonville crowd, so the BRMC (mostly Johnny) decides it isn’t interested in being there—although they get their revenge by stealing the race trophy, to filch some glory and subvert the purposes of the motorcycle race.
If the motorcycles themselves do not carry the weight of distinction for the BRMC, neither does the uniform. When the BRMC raises the issue of appearance with a joke about the Carbonville “street cleaner,” this indicates their value of such appearance. Further evidence of BRMC effort to craft a distinct visual presence for the gang is found with their jackets: the Rebel jackets carry the BRMC emblem, a skull and crossed pistons, with their club names embroidered on the breast. However, the subculture value here is minimal because of the already mentioned motorcycle race, which litters the film early with leather jackets and other bike regalia, and makes these leather articles seem commonplace. The race participant in Carbonville who criticizes the BRMC as an “outlaw outfit” and who is dismissed by the BRMC as “chicken” is wearing clothing, including a leather cap, virtually indistinguishable from the BRMC uniform (except for the emblems), and which may necessitate their confrontation with him. Later in the film, when the Beetles appear, the BRMC style is even further submerged, and although the Beetle variations are more clownish (“pig bait”?) when the gangs temporarily combine for their efforts against the town, viewers are challenged to distinguish the members of the two clubs from one another, and at this point, the value of BRMC moto-clothing as unique signifier is largely dissipated.
The street slang of the BRMC is another signifier of the group that also serves the BRMC identity. “Daddy-o,” “cool,” “zow,” “bebop,” etc. and other slang is distinctive and empowering to the BRMC because its use is alienating and disorienting to the townspeople. Furthermore, the attempt to position the townspeople as “local color,” or country bumpkins, is evident through the BRMC’s use of derogatory slang towards them, e.g. “What do you hicks do around here for kicks?” Some of the slang use appears to be directly prompted by the jazz music available at the café, since before and after the café visit, the slang usage is largely limited to the terms “square” and “zow.” Primarily, the BRMC uses the slang to accentuate their clowning or mystify their motives for behavior the townspeople don’t understand, such as when Johnny talks to Kathie about the BRMC’s whimsical roaming of the countryside (but not going on picnics), or when the boys are talking to Jimmy in the bar after Uncle Frank leaves to ice more beer. The slang is mostly nouns or nouns made into verbs, creating some syntactic limitations for its use, so the volume of the slang compared to non-slang is minimal. Comparatively speaking, such slang is less impacting than other language-based subcultural signifiers such as accent or dialect (that affect almost every spoken word); all of this inconsistency to the slang undercuts its identity value.
By contrast to the motorcycles, uniform and slang of the BRMC, the rank importance of BRMC humor for its sub-cultural identity is made clear by the humor’s consistency in the film. From the very first dialogue, the “blood makes everything slippery” joke, to Johnny’s wry “Whaddya got?” remark about rebelling, to the wiseguy-like joking when the BRMC forcibly evicts Dorothy, the operator, from her switchboard, the humor of the BRMC is central to their group social interaction—and rankles everyone around them. The sardonic fashion in which the BRMC approaches women is loaded with joking and false bravado, adopted to facilitate comical responses when they get shot down. Simply put, everything is a joke to the BRMC, and because most of the humor is exclusive humor, internal to the group, where the jokes are meant to be funny to the members alone, this unifies them as a group. The humorous moment the BRMC members experience when they are socially toying with Jimmy, using their slang, shows in itself how their internal humor is a powerful group cohesive; when these two men share the moment of Jimmy’s misunderstanding, it is a joint amusement for them, and it distances Jimmy, whom they see as local color. Furthermore, Johnny’s leadership of the club exists in tandem with his role as ultimate evaluator of humor; he can reject jokes, like the coffee order in Bleeker’s the boys disappear from briefly, or he can validate them, like the theft of the race trophy. The fight between Johnny and Chino is started because of Chino’s implication that Johnny has no sense of humor; what might be a more accurate perception, though, is that Chino has the same inclination toward humor and public farce as the BRMC, and his appearance on the stage is threatening. Naturally, the BRMC leader must fight to preserve this social role.
Joseph Boskin points out in his book, Rebellious Laughter: People’s Humor in America, that the Eisenhower era in America was dominated by a lack of public and political humor. “Severely emasculated during the McCarthyite repression,” he writes, “public comedy barely spoke in a whisper” (Boskin 73). This anxiety-driven humorlessness in both the townspeople and the audience of The Wild One may position the BRMC within easy reach of this tool of subversion. Adopting humor as their most distinct signifier for the gang helps the BRMC rebel against “whatever ya got,” and like purveyors of humor in all cultures, makes them subversive tricksters—although making the jokes funny to only the BRMC members themselves allows them, metaphorically speaking, to have their cake of subversion and eat it, too. Additionally, their humor raises the club profile like the motley of jesters at court, something they clearly desire; the BRMC sticks out because none of the townspeople make any humorous remarks except perhaps Jimmy (whose potentially ironic dialogue may be what dooms him); most are the straight characters at the butt end of the BRMC jokes, even Kathie, whose never-realized fishing trip to Canada is labeled as “crazy” in Johnny’s only joke in the film. Also, the humor in the film is also quite clearly gendered. None of the women characters make humorous remarks or jokes; they laugh at some of the BRMC humor, but never assume more than this supportive role, and never make jokes of their own. Regardless, what ultimately makes this club a gang, a social threat, is not their embroidered jackets, motorcycles, public rowdiness, or zowie coolness, it is their humor. Johnny’s last joke of the film, leaving the trophy for Kathie after he’s been ordered to leave town, conveys the BRMC’s last stab at anti-establishment humor, whether or not anyone, including the audience, is laughing.
Boskin, Joseph. Rebellious
Laughter: People’s Humor in
American Culture. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997.
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