Content Warning: This article contains references to murder and violence
Boardwalk Empire is known for being a serious period drama about Prohibition Era Atlantic City and the prominent figures that shaped it through bootlegging. Despite the tense backroom dealings, familial hostility, and rampant violence inherent to smuggling alcohol across the United States, there is an undercurrent of dark humor throughout the series.
Whether it comes from amusing wiseguys like Al Capone, Nucky Thompson’s deadpan sense of humor, Gyp Rosetti’s emotional outbursts, or even the strange trajectory of Agent Nelson Van Alden’s journey from Prohibition agent to iron salesman, jokes are as common as liquor and bullets.
9 Eddie Describing Nucky Thompson’s Legacy
Loyalty is hard to find among the criminal underbelly of Atlantic City, but Nucky knows that Eddie is a true friend who pledged himself to serve Nucky and his family, whatever the cost. Eddie takes his role incredibly seriously, which inadvertently leads to some amusing exchanges between him and his employer. At one point while out for a drive, Nucky memorably asks Eddie for his opinion about his character, influence, and contribution to the city. Without missing a beat, his valet dramatically rambles on.
While Eddie is busy extolling that his employer can be “found in the sky and sea” and “the dreams of children,” the scene cuts to Nucky’s clearly confused face. The stirring soliloquy in contrast to Nucky’s austere silence is amusing enough, while also ironically revealing to Boardwalk Empire fans that Nucky doesn’t think he’s half the genius his employee does.
8 Nucky Performing At Emily’s Birthday Party
With its violent turf feuds, Boardwalk Empire is one of the most gruesomely violent shows on TV, but bootleggers still need to throw birthday parties for their kids. After Gyp Rosetti’s recent attack, Nucky is able to honor his familial commitments by helping his daughter celebrate her birthday. However, the affair ends up being a more toned-down affair than anyone would like.
In an unexpected show of whimsy, Nucky tries to liven up the mood and make Emily laugh through performance. Not only is it a funny scene, but it also shows another side to Nucky’s character that increases his depth.
7 When Eddie Sasses Nucky Over Bourbon
By the time the second season occurs even Eddie – by all accounts, Nucky’s Number One fan- starts to become less sycophantic over his employer. Their relationship falls into a comfortable rhythm, peppered by bouts of slight antagonism, as evidenced one evening when Nucky asks Eddie churlishly why his bourbon decanter is empty.
“Someone drank it.” Eddie points out shrewdly, to which Nucky asks, “You’re cracking wise now?” Fans know only someone like Eddie could get away with sassing Nucky Thompson and live, but even he knows better than to downright accuse Nucky of over-indulging, which makes his sardonic observation very tongue-in-cheek.
6 When Gyp Roasts Everyone On New Years Eve
In season 3, due to pressure from his friends in politics, Nucky must break the news at an intimate New Year’s Eve party of his business associates that he will be selling exclusively to Arnold Rothstein, and that anyone wishing to procure alcohol will need to go through him. This greatly upsets Gyp Rosetti, who was looking to make a deal for 500 cases of rum.
Unable to contain himself, Gyp launches into a hilarious roast of everyone at the table, despite the fact that they all received the same bad news. Among the colorful insults he throws around, he calls Nucky a “breadstick in a bowtie.” Because every other member of the cadre is so self-possessed and composed, fans gleefully looked forward to one of Gyp’s infamous tirades because they almost always bring awkward humor to a tense situation.
5 When Jimmy Sends Mickey Over The Balcony
After having spent his young criminal life in the shadow of figures, like Nucky Thompson, Jimmy tries to go his own way. Without paying his dues to established veterans like Manny Horvitz, he risks angering potential allies. When Eli tries to warn Jimmy about Nucky, he forsakes him, and when Mickey tries to caution him about Manny, he does something even worse.
No sooner has Mickey complained about Jimmy snubbing Manny than Jimmy grabs Mickey by the scruff and tosses him over the balcony to land at Manny’s feet. With any other character, this would have been a violent and shocking scene. However, because Mickey is the comic relief and manages a confused, “Hey!” just as he goes sailing over the rail, it becomes a slapstick gag meant to get a rise out of the audience, not a gasp.
4 Al Capone Joking With His Friends
When Al Capone begins the series, he’s working for Johnny Torrio as part of Chicago’s bootlegging operation. Eventually, he branches off and embarks on his own very lucrative enterprise. Capone maintains his jocular personality, as well as the chip on his shoulder from a lifetime of slights, ensuring that his mood changes quickly from convivial to sinister at the drop of a dime.
When he starts to get paranoid about his operation being infiltrated by feds, Boardwalk Empire fans see Al Capone spends a lot of his best moments using humor to diffuse the situation. But the moment one of his boys joins in with his own jokes, Capone suddenly gets dead serious. Capone decides to mess with him, all the while viewers don’t know whether to cringe, laugh, or reconsider cracking a joke with their boss.
3 When Van Alden and Eli Steal Money From Al Capone
The randomly charted narratives of season 5 are anchored in part by one core storyline; former Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden working alongside former bootlegger Eli Thompson. The pair are partnered together as part of Al Capone’s cadre, but eventually, they end up trying to steal money from him.
The job goes horribly wrong despite their best efforts, including a messy shoot-out and an attention-drawing getaway, which leads to one of the most memorable lines in Boardwalk Empire from Van Alden, “Why must it always be pandemonium?!” Whether it’s internally with his own moral code, or in an external tangible sense, there is rarely a moment of peace for the conflicted agent-turned-mob-enforcer.
2 Van Alden And Eli Riding The Elevator
Owing to his particular nature as a former Prohibition Agent, Van Alden never fails to be an observer of even the most minute details. This is shown in the scene involving him and Eli in an elevator, where the two of them have been assigned to work together and Van Alden calls Eli’s hygiene into question.
They ride together silently until Van Alden casually asserts to Eli, “You reek, by the way. Of urine.” Eli was already on his way to having one of the most disappointing ends on Boardwalk Empire, having already fallen from grace in Atlantic City and losing his family. Chicago is his last hope, so the remark from Van Alden feels like adding insult to injury, but fans can’t help but laugh at the randomness of the scene.
1 When Remus Tries To Run
A bootlegger and profiteer from Cincinnati who has dirt on everyone, Remus isn’t that much different from his big-city contemporaries – except for the fact that he speaks in the third person. The deadpan manner in which he refers to himself lends humor to every scene he’s in, especially when combined with some slapstick physicality.
When federal agents finally come to arrest him in season 3, he sends them on a chase, running around on the slippery marble floors in his bathrobe. He’s finally apprehended after performing an elaborate banana-peel slide, all the while shouting, “Remus does not get arrested!” Fans couldn’t help but cackle at a prominent member of the Cincinnati underworld being reduced to such infantile behavior – especially since most of his confrontations result in a gunfight.