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.