Scenes from the new film show a Judd Apatow stand-in and his wife exchanging casual quips about killing each other. Dark comedy, or a real phenomenon?
The trailer for This Is 40, the new Judd Apatow movie, includes two conversations on the same theme: Married people who fantasize about their spouses dying. The first exchange is between Pete, whom Apatow enthusiasts will remember from Knocked Up, and his friend Barry:
Pete: This sounds horrible, but do you ever wonder what it would be like if you and your wife were separated by something bigger? Like death. Like her death.
Barry: I have given it a fair amount of thought.
Pete: Not in a painful way, but like a gentle, floating off...
Barry: Its gotta be peaceful. I mean, this is the mother of your children.
Pete: And then the new wife would be great.
Barry: God, I can't wait to meet my second wife. I hope she likes me better than this one.
The second is between Pete and his wife, Debbie:
Debbie: Why do we fight?
Pete: I don't know. You get so mad at me. Sometimes I think you want to kill me.
Debbie: I do want to kill you.
Pete: How would you do it?
Debbie: I would poison your cupcakes that you pretend not to eat every day. I would enjoy our last few months together, but while killing you.
Apatow wrote, directed, and produced This is 40. He cast his wife, Leslie Mann, as Pete's wife. He cast his children with Mann, Maude and Iris, as Pete and Debbie's children, Sadie and Charlotte. If one then concludes that Apatow simply replaced himself with Paul Rudd, it is easy to imagine we are watching a reality-based movie. Is this fantasy about spouses dying a pervasive phenomenon in marriage, and in particular, the Apatow-Mann household?
"It's not something Leslie and I talk about," Apatow assured me over the phone, going on to explain that he relies far more on Oprah and her therapist, Harville Henrix, than his own marriage, when writing. Nonetheless, Apatow directed my attention to an appearance Mann made on the Jimmy Kimmel Show that contradicted nearly everything he said. At one point, Kimmel asks Mann if Rudd is playing Apatow, and Mann responds, "I guess so, yeah, a little bit, I guess so, yeah." Mann said she was not playing herself, but described Apatow's writing process as participatory, explaining that they had a lot of "coded conversations" over a number of years during which "Judd would say things he would be afraid to say to me, his wife, that he wouldn't be afraid to say to the character, Debbie." At another point, Mann does not dispute Kimmel's assessment that this is "a real puppet master situation." Finally, Mann says, "I do feel like, you know, he's very quiet, and he holds things in, and I do feel like he may be capable of killing me." She goes on to joke that she grows suspicious when home alone.
Regardless of whether Apatow himself has ever wished his wife dead, the sentiment is not so outlandish. According to the National Marriage and Divorce Rate Trends for 2000-2010, about half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. Despite this frequency, there is still a stigma attached to divorce. Perhaps because of this stigma, Apatow's characters choose not to fantasize about divorce, but widowhood.
"There's no failure involved," said Benjamin Karney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also conducts research at the Marriage Lab. "They all have an unstated fear of screwing up, and of taking responsibility for failure." Karney compared it to people who fantasize about suicide. "People like to think, 'That person will miss me and regret treating me so poorly.'"
There are few options available for married people: Put in the work it takes to get through difficult times, don't put in the work and suffer through a bad marriage, or initiate a separation. If one member of the couple dies, however, there is no choice to be made: They can escape their partners and be blameless.
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown, said the dialogue remind her of a joke her mother enjoyed telling. When asked if she ever contemplated divorce during 71 years of marriage, "She loved to say, 'Murder, yes, but not divorce.'"
Tannen wrote the book, You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, which spent nearly four years on the New York Times bestseller list and, 22 years later, is still assigned in universities and therapists' offices around the world. "I see them frustrated by the same old things, and the extreme expression of that frustration is murder," Tannen said. "They're putting things into words that normally aren't said, and I'm sure the audience will laugh."
While the frequency of the fantasy is unknown—mostly because it is not often asked about—the two sets of dialogue did strike most of the experts I spoke to as not only realistic, but illuminating about marriage and the ways in which spouses communicate.
While the trailer offers minimal details about the character's marriage, the two sets of dialogue proved revealing. "We know little about Barry, but from what he says, we can assume his marriage is substantially worse than Pete's," observed Howard Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver, where he is also the co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies. Barry does not even refer to his wife by name or relationship, but rather as "this one" when he differentiates his current wife from his imagined second wife. "I hope she likes me better than this one," he says.
On the other hand, Markman found Pete and Debbie's exchange full of signs of intimacy, the key to a successful marriage. Debbie wants to have a conversation about their conflicts, but Pete, seemingly fearful that the conversation might make her angry and therefore instigate a fight, provides a playful diversion. Debbie follows suit by invoking something only she, as his wife, is privy to. "They still need to talk about her initial question, but this is a great model for couples," Markman said. "It starts out negative, but then turns positive."
Another point where all the academics found agreement: If Pete and Debbie switched lines, and it was Pete who wanted to kill Debbie, the clip would have been far less humorous, if at all. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, among homicide victims, females were at greater risk than males for intimate killings, as well as sex-related homicides. "Intimate" include spouses, ex-spouses, and boyfriends. From 1976-2005, 30 percent of females were killed by someone who fell under this category. For males, that number was just five percent.
"The prospect of physical violence is far more frightening than death by cupcake," said Tannen.
When I shared Tannen's observation with Apatow, however, he adamantly disagreed. In the full-length film, Pete follows Debbie's admission with his own, far more gruesome plan: Husband would decapitate wife with a woodchipper. "It's still funny," Apatow insisted.
Indeed, Apatow's not the first to get laughs from the idea of would-be murderous spouses. In this clip from comedian Chris Rock's HBO special, Never Scared, we hear the audience shrieking with delight at the following monologue:
If you haven't contemplated murder, you ain't been in love. If you haven't seriously thought about killing a motherfucker, you ain't been in love. If you haven't had a can of rat poison in your hand and looked at it for forty-five minutes straight, you ain't been in love. If you haven't bought a shovel and a bag and a rug to roll their ass up in, you ain't been in love. If you haven't practiced your alibi in front of the mirror, you ain't been in love. And the only thing that's stopped you from killing this motherfucker was an episode of CSI: "Oh man, they thorough. I better make up. They might catch my ass."
According to Peter McGraw, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the benign violation theory he applies to research at the Humor Lab explains why we find the trailer funny: "The violation may be perceived as distant because common sense indicates there is no way this is a real threat." Or, as the humorist Mark Twain said, "Comedy is tragedy plus time."
While Debbie describes her murderous plan, Pete smiles, and they lay comfortably on a bed; their body language signals to the audience that this is a nonthreatening situation. Likewise, Pete and Barry avoid articulating a plan altogether, and if there isn't a plan, there probably isn't a problem.