Deadpan, dry humour, or dry-wit humour[1] is the deliberate display of emotional neutrality or no emotion, commonly as a form of comedic delivery to contrast with the ridiculousness or absurdity of the subject matter. The delivery is meant to be blunt, ironic, laconic, or apparently unintentional.


The term deadpan first emerged early in the 20th century, as a compound word (sometimes spelled as two words) combining "dead" and "pan" (a slang term for the face). It appeared in print as early as 1915, in an article about a former baseball player named Gene Woodburn written by his former manager Roger Bresnahan. Bresnahan described how Woodburn used his skill as a ventriloquist to make his manager and others think they were being heckled from the stands. Woodburn, wrote Bresnahan, "had a trick of what the actors call 'the dead pan.' He never cracked a smile and would be the last man you would suspect was working a trick."[2][3]

George M. Cohan, in a 1908 interview, had alluded to dead pans without using the actual term "deadpan". Cohan, after returning from a trip to London, told an interviewer that "the time is ripe for a manager to take over about a dozen American chorus girls and wake up the musical comedy game. The English chorus girls are dead–their pans are cold.”[4]

The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1928 New York Times article as having the first appearance of the term in print.[5] That article, a collection of film slang compiled by writer and theatrical agent Frank J. Wilstach, defines "dead pan" as "playing a role with expressionless face, as, for instance, the work of Buster Keaton."[6] There were several other uses of the term, in theater and in sports, between the 1915 Bresnahan article and the 1928 article in the Times.[3]

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.[5]


See also: List of deadpan comedians

Rat Pack comedians Joey Bishop and Brad Jewell, noted for their deadpan style, with Jennie and Terrie Frankel (Doublemint Twins), Sig Sakowicz, Tony Diamond, Sara Sue, Tippi Hedren and Mel Bishop

The English music hall comedian T. W. Barrett, working in the 1880s and 1890s, is credited with being the first to perform in a deadpan manner, standing completely still and without a smile.[7]

Early in his vaudeville days, Buster Keaton developed his deadpan expression. Keaton realised that audiences responded better to his stony expression than when he smiled, and he carried this style into his silent film career.[8] The 1928 Vitaphone short film The Beau Brummels, with vaudeville comics Al Shaw and Sam Lee, was performed entirely in deadpan.[9] The 1980 film Airplane! was performed almost entirely in deadpan;[10] it helped relaunch the career of one of its supporting actors, Leslie Nielsen, who transformed into a prolific deadpan comic after the film.[11] Actor and comedian Bill Murray is known for his deadpan delivery.[12]

Many popular American sitcoms use deadpan expressions to deliver dry humour, including Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and My Name Is Earl. More recent examples are Andre Braugher as Captain Raymond Holt from the TV show Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing in Friends, Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson and Aubrey Plaza as April Ludgate in Parks and Recreation, Jennette McCurdy as Sam Puckett in iCarly, and Louis C.K. in Louie. Another example is the comedy of Steven Wright.[13]

Deadpan delivery runs throughout British humour.[14] In television sitcoms, John Cleese as Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers and Rowan Atkinson as Edmund Blackadder in Blackadder are both frustrated figures who display little facial expression in their put-downs.[15] Atkinson also plays authority figures (especially priests) while speaking absurd lines with a deadpan delivery. Monty Python include it in their work, such as "The Ministry of Silly Walks" sketch.[16] For his deadpan delivery Peter Sellers received a BAFTA for Best Actor for I'm All Right Jack (1959). A leading figure of the British satire boom of the 1960s, Peter Cook delivered deadpan monologues in his double act with Dudley Moore.[17] In his various roles Ricky Gervais often draws humour from an exasperated sigh.[18] While in his various guises such as Ali G and Borat, the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen interacts with unsuspecting subjects not realising they have been set up for self-revealing ridicule; on this The Observer states, "his career has been built on winding people up, while keeping a deadpan face."[19]

Dry humour is often confused with highbrow or egghead humour, because the humour in dry humour does not exist in the words or delivery. Instead, the listener must look for humour 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 humour unfunny. However, the term "deadpan" itself actually refers only to the method of delivery.

See also


  1. ^ Rishel, Mary Ann (2002). Writing humor. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. p. 166. ISBN 0-8143-2959-4.
  2. ^ Bresnahan, Roger (20 Jan 1915). "Roger Bresnahan's Own Tale". 490 Washington Street. p. 10.
  3. ^ a b "Deadpan – Caught in the Web of Words". Retrieved 2021-11-13.
  4. ^ Darnton, Charles (1 Feb 1908). "George M. Cohan Froze in London, But in Paris–Ah!–He Managed to Thaw Out". New York World. p. 3.
  5. ^ a b Oxford English Dictionary. "dead-pan, adj., n., adv., and v." Second edition, 1989; online version December 2011. accessed 17 February 2012. First published in A Supplement to the OED I, 1972
  6. ^ "Slang of Film Men". The New York Times. 11 Mar 1928. p. 6 (Section 8). Retrieved 13 Nov 2021.
  7. ^ Busby, Roy (1976). British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who's Who from 1850 to the Present Day. London: Paul Elek. p. 22. ISBN 0-236-40053-3.
  8. ^ "Deadpan: the comedy of Buster Keaton". Telescope. 17 April 1964. Archived from the original on 2016-01-01. Retrieved 4 November 2015.
  9. ^ Knipfel, Jim (29 May 2015). "Shaw and Lee: Vaudeville's Loony Futurists". OZY. Retrieved 16 January 2020.
  10. ^ Dudek, Duane. "25 years and still laughing; 'Airplane!' maintains its cruising". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Archived from the original on 30 April 2008. Retrieved 23 February 2009.
  11. ^ Dalton, Andrew; Thomas, Bob. "'Airplane!', 'Forbidden Planet' actor Nielsen dies". The Monitor. Archived from the original on 8 December 2010.
  12. ^ Bernstein, Jonathan (October 30, 2015). "Will Bill Murray ever make another good movie?". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 2022-01-12. Retrieved November 3, 2015.
  13. ^ Thomas, E. C. (2014). The Everything Big Book of Jokes: Hundreds of the Shortest, Longest, Silliest, Smartest, Most Hilarious Jokes You've Never Heard!. Adams Media. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-4405-7698-0. Retrieved June 29, 2017.
  14. ^ Andy Bloxham (10 March 2008). "British humour 'dictated by genetics'", Daily Telegraph. Accessed 31 July 2019
  15. ^ "Blackadder rides again in festive schedule". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 July 2021.
  16. ^ "John Cleese and Mick Jagger are wrong – Monty Python's silly walks are still hilarious". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 August 2019.
  17. ^ "Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, The 25 best comedy duos". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 2022-01-12. Retrieved 22 July 2021.
  18. ^ "The king of deadpan". The Irish News. Retrieved 31 July 2019.
  19. ^ "Sacha Baron Cohen: Our man from Kazakhstan". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 October 2019.