Photo Credit: imagefiesta.com
Here’s the age we live in: not including video games, we have had fourteen different actors portray the Joker either in animation or live action. Yet the moment a glimpse of number fifteen comes out, the internet loses its collective shit and spends thirty-two million valuable clicks telling Warner Brothers that, yes, we did in fact need a new Joker only eight years after Heath Ledger’s iconic performance in The Dark Knight.
There are fourteen other mostly perfectly good Jokers you people could be watching right now! I’ve decided to take it upon myself to rank them. Not by quality, that would be too logical for the Joker, but by laugh. No character is more inextricably tied to an auditory gesture than the Joker to his laugh. It is so meaningful that it spent the first twenty-some odd years of its existence solely on print and it still became iconic before we ever even heard it. It is the defining characteristic of Batman’s defining villain. Let’s get started.
15. Brent Spiner—Young Justice
Ugh. Young Justice got EVERYTHING right. It got a goddamn sentient alien motorcycle named Sphere right. But it couldn’t get the Joker? Seriously? Let’s run through this as quickly as possible and get it over with. This Joker was a hobo with a bowl cut. He’s the clown who came to your ninth birthday party after a few too many drinks. He laughs like a Family Guy character with a foot-long under-bite. He’s the worst.
14-12. Larry Storch—Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder
Lennie Weinrib—The New Adventures of Batman
Frank Welker—The Super Powers Team
‘60s Voice acting lagged behind the rest of entertainment by a solid three or four decades and didn’t really recover until the ‘90s. For whatever reason villains from cartoons before that—and this is not exclusive to Batman, do yourself a favor and watch some classic Scooby Doo—all spoke like roaring 20’s gangsters. Their voices were too deep and came with zero enunciation. They liberally used terms like “loot” and “doll face.” Every villain was either that character or Cesar Romero. It’s hard to fault these guys too much for being victims of their time, but they aren’t getting any credit either.
11. Kevin Michael Richardson—The Batman
The Batman takes more liberties with the source material than almost any other interpretation of the characters, and some of them pay off big time. The Batman doesn’t technically have a Two Face, for example, but folds the tragedy of the Harvey Dent character into its version of Clayface, forcing Batman to watch a long-time friend and ally figuratively and literally melt right before his eyes. The animators reveled in the dehumanization of their villains, and for Clayface it worked. For the Joker? It failed miserably.
The Batman’s Joker had the physicality of a chimpanzee, using his feet with the dexterity of hands and constantly hanging from ceilings and pipes. He keeps his hair in long green dreadlocks and spends much of the show’s early run wearing a straightjacket rather than a suit. The idea was to separate it from Mark Hamill’s more traditional Joker but the result created only a nonthreatening vaguely clown-like prankster. Like the simian physicality, Kevin Michael Richardson attempts to give the Joker a more animal-like unpredictability by modeling his laugh on a hyena’s cackle, only taking it about 300% over the top. The result is a Joker largely not worth our time.
10. Cesar Romero—Batman
I can live with the idea of Adam West’s Batman having a sort of kitschy appeal, but the worship Romero gets as a Joker is ludicrous. His laugh was less Joker and more Antoinette-era French king laughing at the meager troubles of a peasant. There’s an inherent attitude about it that doesn’t work for a character who’s aware of his own insanity, a sort of egotistical decadence that screams “I know something you’re too stupid to comprehend” when the intent of a Joker is to revel not in how he’s better than anyone, but how everyone is just as bad as he is.
9. Jack Nicholson—Batman
Count me as literally the only person who disliked Tim Burton’s first turn with the Batman franchise. It’s dated, it’s campy (cue Prince montage), it’s filled with the sort of clichéd 80’s winks to the audience that no post-Nolan viewer could ever stomach, it’s a flat out bad movie, but because nobody had ever attempted a superhero movie of that scale it gets praised merely on the merit of its own existence. It’s stupid. If that’s the attitude we want to take then why aren’t we heaping such consistent praise on Bryan Singer’s X-Men (the answer: Brett fucking Ratner) or Sam Raimi’s Spiderman (the answer: finger snapping montage) as the true spiritual instigators of the cinematic superhero revolution? Tim Burton’s greatest accomplishment as a Batman director was simply not being Joel Schumacher. But I digress.
Jack’s Joker is remarkably inconsistent. His laughs range all over the spectrum from chuckle to throaty to at one point even a dull hiss. The optimistic viewer would argue that it’s a reflection of the unhinged nature of Jack’s Joker, that he could not consciously string together any sort of consistency in his overall tone, except I’m not giving this crappy movie that sort of credit. Jack’s Joker wasn’t unhinged. He made a conscious choice to do crazy things to try to prove to himself and others that he was actually crazy. The far likelier solution: Jack looked at the script, saw the word “laugh” in parentheses, and ran through them in one or two takes because hey, he’s Jack Nicholson, he knows what he’s doing.
8. Jared Leto—Suicide Squad
Let’s just say I’m pessimistic about how a character named The Joker will fare in a world with a strict no jokes policy. In the admittedly short sliver we’ve seen Leto’s laugh feels so premeditated. Like he was counting beats in his head, making sure there was a degree of uniformity that contradicts the essence of the character. Leto has probably earned more trust than that as an actor. But DC hasn’t.
7. Jeff Bennett—The Brave and the Bold
There’s no edge to The Brave and the Bold, and that’s fine. It knows what it is, a throwback to the Golden Age of Comics when things didn’t need to be gritty and realistic and Superman could have super knitting powers. It’s a team up show designed to parlay that nostalgia into viewership. If you’re looking to get a child into comics, this is the way to go, just don’t expect anything beyond bad puns and one-note characters. With all that in mind Jeff Bennett’s Joker is serviceable enough. The laugh is pretty standard fare, but you’ll never get the sense he or the directors were interested enough to get it right.
6. John DiMaggio— Batman Under the Red Hood
DiMaggio is at his best playing narcissism. The beauty of characters like Bender and Jake are that they really don’t know how awful they can be. That’s the polar opposite of a Joker, who not only knows what a monster he is but actually lives for it. He carries himself as something of an equal to Batman and holds every other character in a certain amount of disdain. It’s one thing to kill the redshirts, but DiMaggio treats them as props. His laughs feel almost forced when Batman isn’t in the scene and when he is you can hear him intentionally belting out a few extra notes. It’s sort of rushed, with this Joker trying to act in concert with Batman rather than forcing Batman to play his game. DiMaggio’s Joker isn’t bad by any means, but it’s probably the least authentic modern version we’ve seen. Nothing about him was necessarily Joker-ish. Had the story not been based on one from the comics he easily could’ve been replaced with another villain without missing a beat.
5. Troy Baker—Batman: Assault on Arkham
How many points do we take off for plagiarism? Baker’s Joker has drawn a fair and justified share of praise. It’s probably the second or third best animated Joker. But it’s just a pale imitation of Mark Hamill’s interpretation of the character. Scratch that, it’s a cheap rip off. There is nothing original about it.
And as a viewer? I can live with that. I’d rather spend my ninety minutes on an inauthentic performance than a bad one. But I refuse to give Baker any credit for it either. It’s Hamill’s laugh, not his.
4. Cameron Monaghan—Gotham
Of the many, many things I despise about Gotham, Cameron Monaghan’s Joker somehow isn’t one of them despite butchering the most fitting origin any villain could ever ask for. The quality of Gotham’s writing is so poor that they almost had to jump the gun on several characters and introduce them before their time just to keep people interested. Saying “this week we’re introducing the Joker!” is a great way to drum up viewers, but it defeats the entire purpose of the character.
The brilliance of the Joker is that he doesn’t have an origin story. If you haven’t read The Killing Joke it’s a must for anyone remotely interested in these characters. The idea behind it is that the Joker isn’t really insane, but rather he is so sane that he can create whatever perception of himself he needs in a given moment just to go on. His past is whatever he decides it to be. What more perfect connection could that give him to The Dark Knight, who shares the very stereotypical “parents killed, swore revenge” origin with something like 40% of superheroes? It’s almost like he’s mocking him. He doesn’t need history to be the Joker in the same way Bruce Wayne needs it to be Batman.
The Gotham writers decided to take that brilliant character point and throw it in the garbage in favor of something about a blind psychic. But Monaghan takes the lowbrow material in front of him and runs with it. His laugh takes on a life of its own through some inadvertent wheezing and well-placed changes of direction. The reflexive bounces of his head give it an authenticity only possible in live action, as if the laugh is taking physical control of his body. The quality of writing and the lack of Batman are going torpedo any chance this Joker ever has of being memorable, but it won’t be for lack of trying on Monaghan’s part.
3. Michael Emerson—The Dark Knight Returns
Several writers have touched on the repressed sexual tension between Batman and the Joker, but no one as eloquently as Frank Miller. In The Dark Knight Returns Michael Emerson’s Joker finds himself catatonic for the tehn years of Batman’s retirement and almost immediately recovers upon hearing of his return. He spends a key sequence of their final battle forcing himself on a downed Batman joking about how he might “fall asleep before we finish.” It is a character defined by his relationship to the other, finding satisfaction in a death delivered by his other half over a life in which neither can even exist. It’s a dementedly twisted Romeo and Juliet.
Emerson plays that obsession brilliantly. His laugh is lyrically unstable with too many sounds to catch in one sitting. It’s the most hauntingly authentic Joker that’s ever been cast, turning the act of murdering dozens of people into a playfully innocent game between two friends. “Isn’t it great that we’re doing this again? Hasn’t life been so dull without me?” It’s as if every body he adds to his count is a point on some imaginary scoreboard he keeps between himself and Batman, and at its heart that is what a Joker is supposed to be doing. The reality of his monstrosity isn’t a concern. It’s all about having fun with his Batman.
2. Heath Ledger—The Dark Knight
Ledger’s laugh is the funhouse mirror version of Jack’s. There is no consistency to it, except the character is so warped that you can ascribe real meaning to that inconsistency. There’s the slow-pitched sarcasm of the pencil scene, the naughty but diabolical chuckly-hum when he tells Gotham that “the bridge and tunnel crowd are sure in for a surprise.” There’s the volcanic roar he gives when Batman beats him up in an interrogation room.
Joker laughs should vary based on the joke, and Ledger’s laughs always said something unique. The way he maniacally cackles after Batman throws him off of a building is his way of saying he’s won, that he’s gotten Batman to do exactly what he’s wanted. The forced giggles he ends the scene with make his survival somehow even worse, they’re his own little way of mocking Batman for the futility of his mission. He wants the meaning in his laugh to be honest and implicit when his words can’t be. The laugh becomes an extension of the character’s intent, and that’s what makes it so memorable.
1. Mark Hamill—DC Animated Universe
Most Jokers laughs are a reflection of the character the actor tried to create. Like Ledger’s, they were somewhat external, reacting to whatever the situation called for. Hamill’s laugh had a sort of sentience to it, an internal big bang from which the rest of the character was born.
There are too many elements of Hamill’s laugh to praise in a few paragraphs, so the one we’ll focus on is its dynamism. Hamill’s laugh builds. It grows louder and crazier between scenes and between breaths. It is proactive rather than reactive, giving life to the joke rather than responding to it. There have been plenty of worthwhile Joker laughs. But Hamill’s will always be the most memorable.