The Wire is arguably the greatest English-language TV drama ever made. A wide-ranging, novelistic, incisive work that attempted to depict the rot at the heart of the late-capitalist empire that is the United States of America. A ‘cop show’ that isn’t really a cop show: the heart of David Simon’s masterpiece was the thesis that America’s institutions are not fit for their purpose. That the pillars of its civil society–from its schooling system to its police force to its government–are riven with cronyism, corruption, racism, and a self-perpetuating inertia that stifles individuals or groups of individuals who might seek to alter the status quo in any meaningful way.
The Wire made this indictment all the more compelling by drawing a parallel between legally accepted institutions like the police and officially forbidden enterprises like the drug trade, casting the two as mutually dependent components of a binary star system. Both sectors of this system are forever orbiting each other within the drug trade, and perpetuatinmg themselves thanks to deep, systemic problems in society and in career law enforcement institutions that remain fundamentally disinterested in addressing the underlying ailments that lead to such systemic trouble.
Yet in all this institutional analysis, The Wire never lost track of the characters at the heart of its stories. Quite the opposite, in fact. Over five seasons, the writers and actors of The Wire created one of the most richly drawn casts of all time. That depth of characterisation meant that when The Wire decided to dabble in humor, it did so better than the majority of comedies out there. There have been many pieces written about all sorts of aspects of this once-in-a-lifetime show, but it felt to me like its funny side was something that didn’t get nearly the attention it should.
So attention is what I decided to give it.
Here, then, is my run down–in no particular order–of the funniest moments of The Wire. Though there are hundreds of moments that do not appear here that easily could have, these are my particular favorites.
1. ‘That’s Crutchfield’s Desk’
Michael Crutchfield (Gregory L. Williams) is the veteran homicide detective who makes his debut in season three, catching the murder that takes place in–and potentially imperils–Bunny Colvin’s (Robert Wisdom) ‘free zone’. That might be the first we see of Crutchfield, but it’s not the first we hear of him. That would be this glorious moment from the second episode of the very first season.
At this point, the police bosses have reluctantly agreed to form a detail to catch a phantom. Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris). A name that rings out on the streets of Baltimore but which is unknown to all but the most tenacious of detectives. One of those detectives is the arrogant and self-destructive, yet undeniably gifted, Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West). Having disrespected the chain of command–a cardinal sin in the structures of the police force–and spoken directly to a judge friend of his, Jimmy is the reason that the Barksdale detail exists in the first place. The bosses do not believe Avon is real. They do not want to believe that he’s real. They want to keep playing their inconsequential numbers game and hammering low level street dealers. The existence of a powerful gang boss who might control a significant portion of West Baltimore’s drug trade and have his fingerprints all over a series of unsolved murders is not an idea that they want to contemplate.
But if there’s anything that gives Jimmy McNulty’s life as much purpose as solving murders, it’s driving his bosses crazy. Seeing the ripples of rage that McNulty so often sends travelling through the police department is a reliable source of some of The Wire’s best laughs–especially when those ripples pass through the stat-juking, careerist a**hole that is Bill Rawls (John Doman), the head of the Homicide Unit, and chronic sufferer of McNulty-induced headaches and fits of rage.
Speaking of fits of rage: Crutchfield’s desk.
This is such a great moment. I love everything about it. McNulty has gone to Judge Phelan again, and revealed to him that a recent high-profile murder happened because the victim had been a state’s witness against a member of Barksdale’s organisation. The results are predictable: The case makes the papers; the police face pressure; Bill Rawls needs to punish McNulty. This sequence in which Rawls reacts to the news is just so well done, the way he bursts out of his office on seeing the news, and marches wild-eyed and single-minded to what he just assumes is McNulty’s desk. I love the way it’s framed, from down low for extra drama, as he sweeps his hand across the desk, casting everything there onto the floor, and then authoritatively pronounces, with the air of a man who gets high off projecting his ego and anger outwards: ‘Move that fu**ing desk out of my unit. I do not want that fu**ing man’s desk in my unit.’
To which, Jay (Delaney Williams), the sergeant working beneath Rawls and a man who actually knows his unit:
Christ that makes me laugh.
Poor Crutchfield. We don’t even see him for another two seasons, but here he is in spirit, bearing the brunt of the anger of a man who doesn’t even know his department well enough to realise that the desk he trashes belongs to a completely different detective who has done nothing wrong.
It’s already a golden moment at this point. It could cut right there and be an all-timer. But it doesn’t. The camera then cuts to Rawls, still standing over the wreck of what he now knows is emphatically not McNulty’s desk, and putting in a Herculean effort to hide the fact that he knows how impotent and ridiculous he must look. With just the tiniest pause first, Rawls then softly enquires: ‘Crutchfield’s?’, to which Jay, with perfect comedic rhythm, responds: ‘McNulty sits here.’ Goddamn, it just builds and builds on the initial ‘That’s Crutchfield’s desk’ punchline. When it then cuts to Bill Rawls marching wordlessly away, arms swinging outwards in that ludicrous faux-cowboy macho swagger of his, as if nothing at all has just happened, the comedy is shot straight into the stratosphere.
2. A Symphony
I first watched The Wire a bit less than year or so after it aired on TV. I still remember my reaction to this scene. The best way to describe it is in the dominant parlance of our time: With a meme.
Even if you haven’t seen The Wire, you probably know what I’m talking about now.
Jimmy McNulty’s and Bunk Moreland’s (Wendell Pierce) relationship was another of The Wire’s most dependable fountains of laughs. Hell, Wendell Pierce’s performance is one of the very best on a show absolutely jam packed with career-best turns. But the friendship between McNulty and Moreland–and all its boozy nights and rough mornings and moments during which the relationship is brought under strain (mostly due to Jimmy’s bulls**t)–truly is a gem. The two have an easy chemistry and a buddy dynamic that extends from their workplace to the many bars (and train tracks) that they frequent together and it’s always an effortless joy to be in their company.
In the fourth episode of the first season, Jimmy and Bunk are investigating an older murder. They have gone to the scene of the crime with a bag of evidence and they want to take a fresh look at the place in light of some new information they’ve received. The pair arrive at the property, the caretaker lets them in, and what follows is truly a masterclass in confident screenwriting. Jimmy and Bunk slowly and methodically examine the crime scene, working with the seamless cooperation of a veteran set of investigators, each laying out bits of evidence and examining different aspects while cross referencing with each other and assisting when needed.
It’s fascinating to watch the pair work, gripping in and of itself, especially as they do so in near total silence. Watching it the first time, you are glued to their movements and held rapt by the tension. You are so enthralled by it all, in fact, that it takes a little while to notice something odd. Every time either or Jimmy or Bunk opens his mouth to talk, only one word–or derivative thereof–seems to be coming out.
I would love to do a survey one day. It would only have one question: ‘How many variations on the word ‘f**k’ did it take for you to realise what is happening?’ Because for me, it was anything but immediate. That’s partly due to me not exactly being the world’s quickest thinker, but it’s also a testament to how finely crafted this scene is. It’s so damn well done, I was speechless after it finished. I had to pause the show. ‘Did I really just see that happen?’ It’s not only extremely impressive in the way it gradually reveals what it’s doing, and the way it never draws attention to itself as some sort of gimmick, instead still managing to feel somewhat organic, but it’s also funny in that wonderfully understated, character-specific way that The Wire was so often. You 100% believe that Jimmy and Bunk would do this.
It’s a filthy mini-symphony.
3. ‘Thievin’ Motherfu**ers’
At the time of its initial showing, season two of The Wire seemed like a somewhat radical departure from the first, both dramatically and thematically. While the police side of the story remained, the other part of the show’s focus shifted from the Black majority cast of characters that made up the towers and low rises of West Baltimore to the decidedly whiter gallery that worked the Baltimore docks. The Wire would continue expanding its scope this way with every subsequent season. What the show did particularly well was how it integrated new characters and areas into the world it had already established. Characters we met right at the start of the show would keep on developing and interacting in interesting ways with people and places that only came into play later. This interplay would be reflected in its themes. The Wire would weave its tapestry in this way, larger and richer, gradually building up a multi-layered, grand narrative and indictment of the structures that underpin American society.
And while doing all that, it remained funny as f**k.
Case in point: This stakeout that Detectives Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) and Ellis Carver (Seth Gilliam) get involved in during the show’s second season. The two break into an abandoned property to set up an observation post opposite a drug corner that they need to have eyes on. Clambering up into the darkened room, Greggs and Carver listen to the corner guys outside. The two detectives are a long way from the West Side of the first season, and they can’t help but notice and comment on a certain aspect of some of the somewhat paler locals’ vernacular:
The wonderful thing about The Wire’s comedy is that it was never afraid to flirt with the ridiculous, the almost cartoonish. By grounding itself so deeply in reality and verisimilitude in so many areas, it could afford flights of levity that would unmoor a lesser drama. To wit: An attempted door bashing that goes the way of a Looney Tunes cartoon:
One of the great treats of watching The Wire is seeing the members of the detail that would eventually become the Major Crimes Unit assemble time and time again. Sure, things deteriorate over time as bonds of trust are broken and personal and professional trajectories diverge, but every time the group–or a significant part of it–is thrown together, there is always this rush of joy and endorphins as everyone is pulled from whatever position they occupy within the sprawling bureaucracy of the police force and into some dank basement or dilapidated warehouse to, usually, greet Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) again and resume their work together. It very much tickles the same centres as a good ‘assembling the crew’ montage from a heist movie.
Not everyone is always so pleased with the crew getting back together, however.
In season two, when the kernel of the Barksdale unit is reformed around Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick) and Kima Greggs, we get a delicious bit of comedy that runs counter to much of The Wire’s tone. By this point both Greggs and Daniels have had a story arc that featured their respective partners wishing for them to find an alternate path.
Greggs’ girlfriend Cheryl (Melanie Nicholls-King) had been traumatized by Gregg’s near fatal wounding in the latter stages of season one, so she naturally wanted her to stay away from the close proximity to violence that almost cost her her life. Meanwhile, Daniels’ wife, Marla (Maria Broom) has long tried to convince her husband to quit the police and to use his law degree instead. For a chunk of season two, it looks like that’s exactly what Daniels is going to do.
When events then go the exact opposite way and lead both Kima and Daniels back to the same type of job that their partners have almost seen them escape, The Wire deploys a hilarious little bit of filmmaking (and rare use of non-diegetic music) to demonstrate the domestic drama these decisions are causing in both households. Cross-cutting between the two couples’ dinners at which they have both presumably just broken the news, the camera spins around a central point, cutting between Kima, Cheryl, Daniels, and Marla, making it almost feel like all four individuals are sat at the same table, with the serene classical music and candle warmth juxtaposed against the iciness of both partners. Not a word is said, but volumes are communicated. And stern, imposing Lieutenant Daniels makes a face like we’ve never seen him make. It’s priceless.
6. ‘Yo! Beavis!’
Thomas ‘Herc’ Hauk (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Ellis Carver are a great pair. Starting out as the runts of the Barksdale detail who get tasked with doing all the heavy lifting (sometimes literally), they might begin on pretty equal footing–both professionally and personally–but their eventual trajectories reveal a fascinating dynamic.
Put simply: Herc is the weight keeping Carver down.
While Carver has in some ways one of the richest character arcs of the whole show (and that’s saying a lot), Herc can’t help but fail sideways. Both start out as heavy handed, head-knocking, macho young detectives, but Carver grows into a deeply empathetic, wise, fatherly figure, while Herc…pretty much just stays the same. The main way that he changes is he puts on a suit and gets a job for criminal lawyer Maurice Levy, thus just becoming a whole different flavour of The Worst.
Before their paths diverge however, Herc and Carver’s interactions do yield a fair amount of laughs. Often from Carver ripping into Herc. They’re fun to watch because:
a) you get to laugh, and
b) you get to laugh at Herc.
What’s not to love? One of my favourite of these moments comes in season two, when the duo are trying to track down a car with a license plate that they scoped on a drug corner investigation that’s part of their unit’s larger case looking into Frank Sobotka. They pull up at night to the address the car is registered at and they park behind the car, with Herc briefing his partner from his notes, and being just a bit too slow on the draw while Carver disbelievingly repeats the key bit of info that Herc should have picked up on immediately:
Herc: ‘Alright, slow up. This is it. It’s uhh, it’s listed to Nickolas Andrew Sobotka. 1485 Reynold Street.’
Herc: ‘That’s what is says here.’
Carver: ‘Mean anything to you?’
Herc: [blank stare]
And then, the payoff:
Carver: ‘Yo, Beavis! That’s the name of the guy we’re supposed to be working. Frank Sobotka.’
Herc: We got Nickolas.
All hail actors Seth Gilliam and Domenick Lombardozzi, because they absolutely nail that tiny exchange. The first time I heard Carver calmly detonate the atom bomb that is ‘Yo, Beavis!’ I almost choked on my spit laughing. And all credit to Lombardozzi, because his response of ‘We got Nickolas’, as if that should be the end of that–rather than maybe something warranting further exploration–is pitch perfect.
7. ‘You’re Supposed to Be the Good Cop!’
Ah Bodie Broadus. My boy. The scarred, beating heart of The Wire. I’ve written before about how there is a case to be made for Bodie being the most thematically resonant, compelling character in the whole show. And this is in a show with probably the most compelling cast of characters ever assembled. So that’s really saying something.
Street-raised Bodie is not just a complex, layered personality played to perfection by JD Williams, he also serves as a symbol of sorts for (among other things) the streets’ relationship with the vindictive, violent, chauvinistic police force that occupies Baltimore. They intimidate him, beat on him, and force him to snitch.
Only one of those is really true. Bodie gets his fair share of cop beatings. But he’s never intimidated, and neither does he snitch. What he does do is get one up on cops. Time and time again. The boy is simply too smart and wily for most people, especially cops. At one point he gets interrogated by Herc and Carver, who agree beforehand to perform a classic ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine on Bodie. The pair are confident on getting one up on the lad they don’t know the full measure of yet, so Carver walks into the interrogation room, and gives it his sincere best ‘good cop’. And Bodie? Bodie plays him like a goddamn fiddle, stringing him along like a West Baltimore Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s glorious.
The still immature Carver, predictably, loses his rag, and leaps at Bodie to beat him. When Herc rushes in to pull the man off the boy after hearing the kerfuffle from outside, Bodie can’t help himself:
‘You’re supposed to be the good cop, dumb motherfu**er!’
Applause all around. What a perfect, defiant delivery. JD Williams, take a bow. Bodie, never change.
This is, after all, the kid who, in order to escape a juvenile detention center, just pulled up his hood, grabbed a mop, and plain walked out, right under security’s nose.
8. Omar Little, Witness
What is there to say about Omar Little? Michael K. Williams’s robin hood gangster lived a life of violence yet nevertheless abided by a strict moral code–never lay your hand on anyone who isn’t in the game–and had a keenly developed emotional core. Omar stands as one of the most iconic characters in all of television. He was fierce, intelligent, brave, loving, complicated–and he also had a glorious sense of often very ironic humor.
I could write entire essays about Omar Little–and I probably will at some point–but what I want to focus in on here is his appearance in court in season two. Omar’s life was spent on the margins of the margins. He prowled the most dangerous, neglected corners of Baltimore. His existence was a dance on the edge of a knife between life and death. He was at home there, on the streets, robbing drug gangs at gunpoint. To many, Omar was like a ghost, a phantom that only took form and visited you when it was your turn. He was the essence of the streets and of the game. So when the time came for us to see Omar go to court, into the belly of the beast of established order, to testify against Bird in the killing of a state’s witness as a favor to McNulty, we didn’t know what to expect. How would Omar fare in a world that was so alien to his own? Would he fold under pressure? Lose his trademark swagger and become awkward? Would he, hell. He treats that thing like a goddamn stand-up set, winning over everyone bar the defense attorney.
9. Lester, Bunk, and a Tennis Ball
The thing about the detail that would eventually become the Major Crimes Unit is that for a lot of the time, those working it just had to sit and listen. Whether they were camped out in abandoned buildings overlooking drug corners or settled up in front of the computer back at base, building up a detailed, comprehensive casefile of names, numbers, and connections on an ever-evolving, highly sophisticated drug network required herculean levels of patience, and a keen, analytical mind that could put all the pieces together.
Which is exactly why there was only one person who could become that detail’s heart and soul.
Lester ‘All the pieces matter’ Freamon.
Lester ‘You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start you follow the money, and you don’t know where the fu*k it’s gonna take you’ Freamon.
Lester, the veteran detective who caused such a stir with his politically inconvenient investigations back in the day that he was cast into the basement of the pawn shop unit for fourteen years (and four months). When we first meet Lester, we view him largely as the more charged, extroverted detectives like McNulty do: as one of the dead weights assigned to the Barksdale detail to ensure the investigation sinks. Lester takes his time coming out of his shell. For a decent portion of the first stretch of the first season, he doesn’t say much at all. He mostly sits there, making his furniture miniatures, and (we don’t realise until later) listening. But, just like we find out later how much those miniatures sell for, we also see another side of Lester before too long. When he shows up with a named poster of Avon Barksdale after the rest of the unit has been bleeding their brains dry trying to find any identifiable info on the guy, we know instantly that there is a lot more to this man than meets the eye.
Before too long, Lester Freamon is the heart and soul (and brains) of the Barksdale detail. When that transforms into the Major Crimes Unit, he is the tip of the spear. As Lieutenant Daniels tells him when he’s getting the gang back together again: ‘Motherfu*ker, as far as I’m concerned, you are the Major Crimes Unit!’
Lester is a big deal, in other words. Though he doesn’t make a big deal of himself. But it’s still hilarious to watch his slower, bigger-picture thinking collide with the relatively juvenile, short-termism of some of his colleagues.
Like this scene in season two, in which Lester, Bunk, and Beadie Russell (Amy Ryan) are monitoring the ship-loading system of the docks. It’s long, slow, arduous work. Hundreds of inconsequential identical container icons pass interminably until–maybe–one comes along that suddenly disappears off the record, and makes it all worth it. There aren’t many people with the patience and fortitude to put up with that. Here, Beadie, who had been up all night monitoring the system, has collapsed into a half-sleep. At this point Bunk has paid Lester a visit, and he is bored. Bunk, who isn’t even part of the detail, is bored. Just by watching the nature of the work that this part entails. And so he’s bouncing a tennis ball. Like a teenager. This is already funny. When, after a few successful bounces, the ball bounces askew–as it inevitably must–and heads towards and hits the watchful Lester right on the back of the head and Bunk makes that face… Well, I need to pause the show each time to let the laughter subside.
10. The Truth Will Out
Ah the classic ‘photocopier as lie detector combined with McDonald’s takeaway con’. Who doesn’t love it?
11. The Standoff with the Feds
The Wire has a way of telegraphing its more silly, playful jokes just enough that you can see them coming a second or so before they become obvious, and in the space of that second you think ‘Oh wouldn’t it be funny if they did this?’, and ‘Nah, I’m sure they won’t do that. Will they?’
And then they do do it, and do it perfectly.
Case in point: This moment when the Barksdale detail gets some much needed support from the FBI. The perpetual story of the detail is that it stays in the basement, both figuratively and literally. The bosses make sure of that. No matter how many resources it might be allocated once in a while thanks to groundbreaking police work and media attention, it will always in short order be returned to its default, intentionally defanged, state. Once in a while, though, when the investigation gathers enough steam, and it’s politically convenient for the bosses, the detail does get some extra help.
The unit’s relationship with the Bureau has its ups and downs over the course of the show’s five seasons, but the moment when the cavalry of Bureau personnel led by Agent Terrance ‘Fitz’ Fitzhugh (Doug Olear) stride into the detail’s forsaken headquarters is most certainly one of the high points. It’s a welcome relief for a beleaguered team, and we are rooting for this to happen, so it’s hilarious the way The Wire chooses to present it. The show loved its visual humor. It got some of its best laughs from wordless passages, using the actors’ movements, their faces, the framing of scenes, and audience expectation, to hit the comedic bullseye. This is a great example of that approach.
The first twenty or so seconds of this sequence crack me up so much. The Agents file in and fan out behind Fitz as the camera cuts between them and Prez (Jim True-Frost), Lester, and Bunk, and from the first close-up of Prez turning his head in response to the echoing footsteps you immediately think: ‘Are…are they doing a Western-style duel thing? No, surely not.’
And then it quickly cuts to Lester doing this face:
And then Bunk doing this face:
And at that point you don’t even need the next shot to know that a showdown is exactly what’s happening.
Words can’t express how much I love this short little scene. And how much I love that it’s Lester who leads the playful, deadpan proceedings, giving the Feds the first scowl, and then pulling back his jacket to get ready for the draw. The tip of the Major Crimes Spear is also a bloody joker. Absolutely love it.
The genesis of one of my favourite GIFs of all time. That’s all that needs to be said.
Well, that, and the quiet, sheepish way Herc asks Carver for a reminder of the word ‘amnesty’ in front of the kids he is trying to intimidate is pure comedy gold.
13. ‘It Has a Speed Dial Feature!’
Aw, Prez. You little misfit, you. What a redemption arc you had. From beating on kids and shooting fellow officers to trying your utmost to make sure the kids of Baltimore had the best possible start–at least at school. Maybe you never quite got over your own prejudices, but you sure as hell gave it a damn good effort.
Still, though, it’s a hell of a shame nobody else was that excited about the burner phone speed dial feature that would make it that much easier to track the proceedings of the drug gang you were mapping with Lester.
Well, except Lester himself.
Look at your faces just lighting up with a beautiful nerdy glow while nobody else even bats an eyelid!
14. RIP Takeaway
This is the smallest moment on this entire list, but it makes me laugh so much I have to include it. I’ve been trying to find a clip of it to no avail. Which is a shame because it’s a purely aural punchline. The set-up is this: Prez and Jimmy are getting Chinese takeaway while out on a shift. Eating it on the hood of their car when they receive an urgent call from dispatch, they dive back inside, Jimmy resting his takeaway box on the dash. They take the call, and note how close they are to the action. Prez says it’s only five blocks from their location. Jimmy, closing his door quickly with chicken still in his mouth, nods and agrees: ‘Go!’ Prez guns the engine, the car jumps forward, and Jimmy’s takeaway box slides backwards and onto Jimmy. The funniest part of it all is that while the scene is progressing, the camera slowly zooms in to a tight close-up on the box, so we don’t see it land on Jimmy. All we see is the slide, and hear Jimmy make just the best noise: A kind of disappointed ‘GAuwhHhh!’ that 100% perfectly captures the feeling of dropping some takeaway that you’ve been looking forward to for hours.
15. ‘I Can’t Wait to Go to Jail’
The fact that one of the funniest lines in the whole run of The Wire came from a relatively minor character like Bernard (Melvin Jackson Jr.) should tell you everything you need to know about how much the show respected and understood humor.
By the third season of the show, the chess game between the Barksdale organisation and the unit tasked with bringing them down seems to be heavily tilted in favour of the former. The back and forth of the detail getting a wire up on the Barksdale crew, using that to arrest key members of the crew, the crew then changing up and improving its methods, the detail getting another wire up, etc., has gone on for a while at this point. The latest communication system the Barksdale gang have set up, however, appears to be impenetrable. The crew go through a ludicrous amount of burner phones, stocking up on a new supply and ditching the old every two weeks. How on earth is a police unit meant to get a wire up on a system like that?
Enter Bernard and his girlfriend Squeak (Mia Arnice Chambers). Bernard is a member of the Barksdale organisation who has a simple yet onerous and vital job: Buy those phones. More specifically: Drive out of town and stop at various shops, buying no more than two phones at any one outlet. Bernard does his job well. He also takes Squeak along with him on these long drives. No one can blame him for that. These are long, boring, monotonous missions. The trouble is, Squeak is not exactly the type of person who is shy of expressing her feelings on the matter.
Or on any other matter.
Hilariously, this dynamic is what ends up being the downfall of the once mighty Barksdale organisation.
Bored and insistent, one day Squeak ends up persuading Bernard to buy all the phones from a lone vendor so they can save themselves the ludicrously long trips–and squeeze a bit of cash off on the side for themselves on top of it. The only trouble? That vendor is the one and only Lester Freamon, posing as a conman offering them a great deal, while actually selling them pre-wired phones. Soon enough, a huge swath of the Barksdale roster, all the way up to Avon himself, are arrested and jailed, with only a skeleton crew remaining on the outside.
As an aside, in his role as a conman, Lester looks like this:
So what does Squeak say when everyone is rounded up and arrested? What does she say after having gotten Bernard to deviate from the perfectly functional phone-buying plan put in place by the leadership? What does she say after also pushing him to close the deal with Lester?
To which, Bernard, with a line sparkling brighter than Lester’s fake gold tooth:
And let’s just take a moment to step back there and appreciate the underappreciated joy that is Poot’s (Tray Chaney) unimpressed face:
16. Snoop Goes Shopping
No comment necessary.
17. The Principal and the Vice
I’m a sucker for simple visual comedy. So I’m sorry, but any time I see the principal of season four’s Edward J. Tilghman Middle School stand next to the vice principal, I have to laugh. You can’t tell me this little bit of casting wasn’t done on purpose for this exact reason. I just won’t accept it. Principal Claudell Withers (Richard Hildebird) is a tower of a man, and vice principal Marcia Donnelly (Tootsie Duvall) is a lady of somewhat diminutive stature, and seeing them together is just an absolute delight. Things are enhanced in typical Wire fashion when the character of the people is taken into account: Principal Withers is a gentle, hands-off kind of authority figure who we never see use the natural gift of his size to impose order or discipline, whereas vice principal Donnelly is a figure that has the power to quell ostensibly uncontrollable student energy with just a look. The sight of a roiling crowd of boisterous kids, many of whom are taller than the vice principal, being brought into line by a quick word from her never ceases to be delightful.
Funnily enough, speaking as someone who went to a deprived inner city school, this rings true. If you were to describe the energy of our student body as ‘perpetually on the edge of a riot’, you wouldn’t be far off. At times, when the energy reached a fever pitch, things seemed entirely uncontrollable. Chaos reigned. Less experienced teachers fled the scene. Yet when one figure cut her way through the crowd, everything changed. This teacher–we’ll call her ‘Miss S’–was roughly about the same height as vice principal Donnelly. Yet she also had the exact same preternatural power to still Poseidon’s wrath, to calm the storm, to instill respect and, yes, fear, through means that science can never understand. Because teachers? They are superhuman. The Wire knows this.
18. Donut and ‘His’ Wheels
Season four of The Wire is often held up as its finest hour. Every season of the show examined a different facet of the shambling half-alive corpse of America, and season four of course zoomed in on its public school system–specifically the state of its decay in a Black-majority city in a country that was founded on institutionalised racism. In following four young friends as they enter the eighth grade, the fourth season of The Wire proved such a powerful entity because it showed in painful detail just how easily someone can be damned by the circumstances of their birth, and by the material conditions of the society they find themselves in. Earlier seasons had already explored the idea by showing young kids falling in with drug gangs due to no other opportunities being available, and they had shown us the ruthless victimisation and violence visited upon these kids by the occupying police force, but season four made this its primary focus, and it did not flinch.
But this is an article about the lighter moments of the show. And though season four has some of the most tragic moments in the whole show, it also has some wonderful moments of levity. For me personally, however, they are less of the guffaw variety, and more examples of the sort of happy, nostalgic vibes you feel when you reflect back on your youth. Because despite the deprivation that the boys of season four are subject to, they still manage to eke out moments of a happy childhood here and there among the ruins. Long summers of hanging our with your friends, getting into mischief, and seeing what all the other crazy characters of the neighborhood are up to.
Enter Donut (Nathan Corbett). Donut is a car fanatic. Despite being in sixth grade, he knows how to drive(ish). He is also extremely adept at stealing cars. And he has a habit of pulling up next to his friends in a stolen car with the single cheekiest, most satisfied face in existence, often accompanied with a knowing greeting of, ‘Gentlemen.’
And every single time he does it I laugh. A lot.
This is just another great little visual gag and character moment. Bubbles (Andre Royo)–ah, Bubbles, another character about whom I could write entire essays–tries his best to tutor and take under his wing a homeless kid called Sherrod (Rashad Orange)–bumping into Prez at Tilghman Middle. Bubbles is dressed smart and cleaned up as best he can be, and he is trying to enroll Sherrod in school. Prez is now working as a teacher at the school, but the last time Prez and Bubbles had seen each other, it was in an entirely different context, when Prez was still a cop. Later, Bubbles will quietly mention to Prez that he doesn’t need to worry, he won’t blow his cover. That’s funny too, but what kills me is the exchange of looks the two share when they first notice each other in this new place:
20. The One and Only Clay Davis
For all its religious adherence to verisimilitude and naturalism, The Wire was not above featuring a hammy performance here and there.
Well, to be honest, there was only really one that I would count among that.
It was still grounded in realism, but when scenery needed to be chewed, hoo boy, you knew you could count on this man. The man, the legend. Senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock, Jr).
21. That Sounds Like Someone We Know
I wouldn’t say that the final season of The Wire was unnecessary or bad, per se. It’s just that every time I watch it, I find my attention wandering a little bit. That’s something that doesn’t happen up until that point. Maybe it’s the fact that it comes after the incredibly moving climax of the fourth season. Maybe it’s that the new roster of characters introduced in the fifth season are just a little bit less interesting (no offense, Gus, love ya, buddy) than the rounds of introductions made in every previous season. Or maybe it’s because the fifth season is the point at which the plotting of The Wire strays into some areas that could be described as ‘just a little bit ridiculous’.
Yes indeed, we’re talking about Jimmy’s serial killer. In his desperation to free up more resources for the Major Crimes Unit, Jimmy cooks up a scheme in which he re-jigs the evidence files of old, unsolved murders to make them look like the work of a depraved serial killer. He even ends up pretending to be the killer over the phone. And Lester gets involved! And a slimy reporter who makes up his own parts of the story to embellish the lurid nature of the fake killer in order to bolster his own career! The thematic grounding remains solid, and season five of The Wire is still superior to the vast majority of TV out there, but it does start to all feel a tiny bit silly, especially, again, when compared to the supremely raw and honest material seen in season four.
Regardless, season five and its serial killer silliness do lead to two damn funny moments. The first is when Jimmy listens to a psychological profile of the ‘killer’ put together based on the communications that he had made and it all hits a little bit too close to home.
22. The Fallout
The second moment is when Mayor Carcetti of Baltimore (Aiden Gillen) finds out the truth behind the serial killer case that has made national news and that he has been trumpeting and running himself ragged over. We don’t see him being told it. We just cut to the moment where we know he’s just found out. The first few seconds, where he is just stunned into complete silence, Gillen absolutely nailing the look of a man struggling to understand a truth simply too big to comprehend, crack me up every time:
23. Roberts Rules of Order
Quite possibly one of the most recognised and venerated scenes in The Wire, and for very good reason, the Roberts Rules of Order sequence is just a masterpiece sequence of television. No two ways about it.
It all takes place right at the start of season three. Avon Barksdale is still in prison. In his absence, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba, as if it needs saying) has stamped his own identity on the sprawling enterprise that he and Avon had built but that Avon had led. Where Avon led with the gun, Stringer’s methods are more…businesslike. Where Avon beefed over corners, Stringer pioneers a cooperative with all of the other main Baltimore players. They share turf, they share product, and they see profits explode.
One of Stringer’s innovations is the introduction of certain formal frameworks to what was before a bit more of a loose–if still strict–organisational structure.
Specifically: Meetings. Meetings that run properly, according to the rules. First published in 1876 by U.S. Army officer Henry Martyn Robert, Robert’s Rules of Order is, as Wiki puts it, ‘the most widely used manual of parliamentary procedure in the United States. It governs the meetings of a diverse range of organizations–including church groups, county commissions, homeowners associations, nonprofit associations, professional societies, school boards, and trade unions—that have adopted it as their parliamentary authority.’
This is what Mr. Bell, ever striving to escape the hood milieu that he was born into, brings to the table. This scene from the first episode of season three is when we first see it in action, at a meeting that Stringer has called and that he is chairing.
I don’t even know where to start with it. It’s all perfect!
The framing when Bodie asks his question in an improper way, without putting his hand up first, and Shamrock shoots him down with a ‘Chair don’t recognise your ass!’
Bodie being shot down again, this time with a quiet hand, because he didn’t stand up to ask his question!
Poot being decidedly unimpressed with the whole thing!
Poot then asking for the floor properly, standing up, and asking if the chair realises that this no beefing business will mean they will ‘look like some punk-a*s bit**es out there?’!
Stringer losing his cool, only for Shamrock to weakly try to calm him with a ‘String! Poot did have the floor, man!’
It’s all perfect.
24. ‘Wake Up and Die Right’
It’s Detective Cole’s (Robert F. Colesberry) wake. As is tradition, the bar is crammed with his colleagues and The Pogues are playing. The drinking has been going on for quite some time at this point. Bunk and Jimmy are outside, somewhat worse for wear. Bunk is sat on the curb in his suit, drunkenly slurring and ruminating on what it all means, when a life can just end. When it can just end on a Stairmaster, like it did for Cole’s. Jimmy is swaying next to him, barely coherent, but in agreement. They’re both still drinking.
Then, just when the energy seems to ebb, and silence threatens to descend, out comes Detective Norris (Ed Norris), clutching two shots and doing the funniest drunken walk I’ve ever seen. Struggling to maintain balance, arms held out in front of him like some Frankenstein’s monster, he is trying his best to not spill any of the precious liquid he is bringing for his colleagues.
And what is Detective Norris’ rallying cry for the flagging Bunk and Jimmy?
‘Wake up and die right, you cu**s!’
The two take the offered drinks, and, his mission now completed, Norris relaxes.
25. Bunk’s Quarry
Seasoned Detective Bunk Moreland spends the majority of season three of The Wire chasing a gun. No murders, no nothing, just following dead lead and exploring dead end after dead end, trying to find one damned gun with the bosses breathing down his neck and him visibly aging due to the stress.
26. ‘Bosses Don’t Know, Huh?’
It’s almost too on the nose. For a show as nuanced and understated as The Wire often was, this moment between McNulty and his one-time commanding officer Bunny Colvin goes a little broad. But you know what? It works amazingly and is a treat every time.
In his exasperation with the system’s inability to provide even a modicum of a solution to Baltimore’s drug problem, Major Howard (or ‘Bunny’ to his friends) Colvin tried an idea that was the definition of ‘out of the box’. Underneath the noses of the bosses, without their consent or knowledge, Colvin took an abandoned area of Baltimore, and he proclaimed it a drug law-free zone. In this area, pushers could push, junkies could score, and as long as there wasn’t any violence, the police would not harass anyone. Naturally a secret like that is hard to keep, and while the programme was successful in many ways, the information slowly filtered and leaked through the various containers that is the lumbering ship of the Baltimore police department, and eventually it got brutally and mercilessly shut down before it could be refined or any lessons could be learned from it.
McNulty and Colvin had a warm, friendly relationship from back in the day when McNulty was just starting out, with Colvin was his boss (and one of the very few people Jimmy would call a good boss). So when Jimmy stumbles upon Colvin’s little secret, he doesn’t fly off the handle in response. A lot of the more primitive (and racist) cops couldn’t stand Colvin’s scheme, viscerally reacting against it in multiple ways. But Jimmy knew that the system as it was wasn’t working. And he respected and trusted Colvin. So when he happened upon the free zone, instead of flying off the handle, he let Colvin explain himself, which led to a delicious bit of framing where the two walk right up from the middle distance into a conspiratorial close up in which we get to see Jimmy processing everything as Colvin drops all the details on him. Despite everything, the magnitude and novelty of what Colvin has done weighs on Jimmy’s mind for a second, and though we’re sure he’ll understand and agree to not say anything to anyone, it’s the moment he makes his decision in which the hilarious payoff lies:
Look at that bloody smirk.
While I think it would’ve been slightly more effective to leave out the explicit ‘The bosses don’t know, huh?’ line, letting us see that realisation happen solely inside Jimmy’s head, this is still one of the funniest moments in the whole show. Perfectly framed, wonderfully timed, and character-specific. That’s The Wire for you.
27. An Awkward Meeting
The Wire was concerned with organisational structure, institutional inertia and rot, and how power is distributed and exercised throughout various real world agencies and bodies. Drawing the parallels between those various bodies was something the show did particularly well. This was seen clearly in the nature of the–there’s no other way to describe it–professional relationship that developed between a number of the members of the Baltimore police and certain recurring faces originally working for the Barksdale crew. Yes it was a dynamic marked by violence, domination, subjugation, and all the other aspects of the structural racism that defines policing, but throughout the years we saw them, individuals within those structures developed relationships that also featured recognition, humor, and even respect and affection (see Carver’s arc and McNulty’s treatment of Bodie in his last moments, RIP).
This moment from season two plays the organisational parallel angle for great laughs. Bodie and Poot and their respective partners coming across Herc and Carver with their dates at the cinema. It’s an old comedy staple: Two groups, formally marked by some degree of antagonism, bumping into each other outside of work, on neutral ground. Having watched these two representatives of their respective institutions bump heads for more than a season, it’s such a light-hearted relief of a moment to see them outside of those roles that they’ve been playing, and it serves as a reminder of how arbitrarily assigned our circumstances of birth and eventual roles are. Cop, criminal, who decides? Underneath it all, we all just wanna go to the movies.
Plus, seeing Herc suddenly stripped of the usual swagger that the protection of the badge gives him is a joy unlike many others. Just look at the big lunkhead, struggling to tell which way is up.
28. ‘At This Rate We’re Never Gonna Get It In’
This list of the funniest moments in a show not often highlighted for its humor has by no means been in any ranked order. I was simply making notes on my last rewatch, and then wrote them up here in an order that felt natural for the flow of the piece. I knew I wanted to start with Crutchfield’s desk because it’s always one of the first moments that has me in stitches and because it sets up the tone of so much of the comedy found in The Wire: Subtle and understated, yet never afraid of being bolder or flirting with slapstick, and always–always–firmly grounded in and arising out of superlative character work.
And so we come to the other desk.
Just like I knew I was going to start with Crutchfield’s desk, I was certain I had to finish with this one. As hard as it is to pick a favourite funny moment out of all the stellar ones that The Wire gave us, I do think that for me, it has to be this.
It’s the sequence that makes up the cold open to the fourth episode of the first season. The Barksdale detail is in the process of moving into their first headquarters, the dark and dusty basement where the bosses sent them hoping to bury the case that the detail was going to work. Some of the members of the unit know each other from before. Others don’t. At this point, everyone is still very much getting a measure of everyone else.
As part of the moving process, Herc is trying to shift a large, heavy-looking desk through a door. He has it standing upright on its side, and despite his not insignificant mass, he is having trouble. One by one all the men of the unit file into the room and observe Herc struggling. And so they do as straight men always seem to do: They offer to help, in that slightly macho, ego-driven, roll up your sleeves, ‘Ah he’s struggling now, but once I get involved this’ll be sorted in no time!’ way. Carver is the first to join the fray, running around to the other side to help from there. Then, when that produces no results, McNulty and Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) wade in, each going to one side of the wedged desk. Finally, Lieutenant Daniels arrives. With a smirk and that ridiculously correct posture of his he scoffs: ‘I’m embarrassed for y’all!’ Dispatching Sydnor to the other side he rolls up his sleeve and intends to take command of his new unit in this very primal task.
With all their combined might they fail to move the desk even an inch.
Already, this is hilarious. Just a great, revealing and levelling moment that tells us so much about the individuals involved and group dynamic between them. They could’ve just left it at that and it would’ve been enough.
But The Wire had other ideas.
While all the men are filing in to test their strength, there is one of their number that hangs back, and simply observes. Lester Freamon, busy with one of his miniatures. The editing of the scene is such that it keep cutting back to Lester, his curiosity transforming into bemused incredulity as his colleagues fail to make any progress.
Lester’s face is the first clue that not all is at it seems. As usual, this man knows something the others haven’t clocked yet.
Finally, after much grunting and sweat flying, the would-be desk movers give up. They all let go, and half-collapse. Carver concludes: ‘Jesus. My ass is kicked!’
To which Herc: ‘I could move it a bit when I was alone. It must’ve got wedged in the door somehow.’
McNulty offers to help. ‘Desk is empty right?’
Daniels: ‘You check it?’
And then one of my favourite lines in any show ever.
Herc, at the end of his rope: ‘Well, at this rate we’re never gonna get it in.’
The silence in the room could be cut with a knife.
It just doesn’t get much better than that. The way the realisation hits the viewer just as it washes over each member of the unit. Herc’s complete cluelessness. The fact that Lester was there, watching this all unfold, and you just know–you know–that he was aware while no-one else was.
Pure. Comedy. Gold.
I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard italics in someone’s speech better than in McNulty’s complete and utter disbelief at the fact that the two sides of the team had been applying tremendous amounts of force in, as it happens, opposite directions (metaphor!).
The team march out, angry, covered in sweat, leaving Herc, his desk, and Lester, with this look on his face:
What else is there to say?