Let's be Reasonable
Somehow this straight man is still hilarious—probably because he's one of the three characters played by Peter Sellers.
Throughout this nightmare comedy, U.S. President Merkin Muffley is the voice of reason, often butting heads with the hotheaded, warmongering Gen. Buck Turgidson over how to deal with the crisis caused by the psychotic Gen. Ripper. While Turgidson wants to respond to the situation with a preemptive strike that'll turn the U.S.S.R. into nuclear soup, Muffley insists that the U.S first try every other possible option. (Seems like the nice thing to do since this one's kinda our bad.)
Muffley is so determined to avoid a nuclear catastrophe that he even invites the Soviet Ambassador into the top-secret War Room and spends half the movie in ridiculously dry phone conversations in which he does his darndest to calm down the drunken Soviet Premier Kissov:
MUFFLEY: Dimitri there's no point in you getting you hysterical at a moment like this! Dimitri! Keep your feet on the ground when you're talking, Dimitri. I... I am not I am not getting... no, Dimitri. I... I just am worried, that's all.
The President even goes so far as allowing the Soviet planes to shoot down the U.S. bombers that are zooming toward the U.S.S.R with their grim payloads in order to avoid having the Doomsday Machine destroy all of mankind. Politicians sure have to make some tough decisions.
Muffley Gets a Makeover
Originally, Muffley was meant to be a wussy character, and Sellers started off playing him as a wimpy, whiny guy with a bad cold, and it was screamingly funny. Chances are that Merkin Muffley's name, which references female genital hair (see our section on "Characterization' for more), was originally meant to be a reference to the fact that the character was "unmanly." Meaning he didn't find nuclear war to be an aphrodisiac like some other characters we could mention.
The rumor mill says that even though Sellers' original take on the character was a hilarious success, Kubrick changed his mind about how the character should be played. Instead, Kubrick decided that Muffley should be the character that grounded the rest of them. And so we get Sellers' dry but still side-splitting performance as the rational Muffley. Whenever the rest of the characters are ready to jump off into nuclear madness, Muffley is the guy who says, "Wait, a sec, fellas. Let's think about this."
The way we figure it, Muffley's makeover does two great things for the movie. One, it gives the War Room a straight man, a necessary ingredient for any comic cocktail. Two, it never allows the audience to forget the gravity of the situation. When Turgidson casually suggests annihilating millions of Russians for no good reason, it's Muffley who brings us down to Earth by declaring that he refuses to be "the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler." You have to hand it to Muffley—he's a guy who's not afraid to stand his ground in the midst of total chaos, even if things end up out of his control.
Muffley Hearts Stevenson
It's not too hard to see that Pres. Muffley represents the factions in the U.S. Government that value diplomacy over outright aggression. (Sellers actually based his characterization on Democratic Party hero and Ambassador to the U.N. Adlai Stevenson.) Probably the most nightmarish thing about this comedy is that in the end the levelheaded president's efforts come to nothing. When Major Kong rides the nuclear bomb down to oblivion and sets off the Doomsday Machine, the world is sent into a 100-year nuclear winter, and all of President Merkin Muffley's good intentions turn to ash.
Muffley's the only one who shows a little human compassion in thinking about the survivors of the nuclear holocaust.
MUFFLEY: But look here doctor, wouldn't this nucleus of survivors be so grief stricken and anguished that they'd, well, envy the dead and not want to go on living?
Muffley goes on to say that he'd hate to be the one who has to decide who gets to go down into the mineshaft bunkers and who has to stay above ground and die.
What do think the film is trying to say? That diplomacy is useless when the hawks run the government?