November 15, 2007

Getting Serious about Comedy

I'm fascinated by the funny. I always have been. Recently, I have had the opportunity to write about comedy in two different papers. The first, which I think is probably the best blog-type material is in a short reflection on postmodern humor, specifically, the anti-joke. Here's the anti-joke example I like the most:

A man meets his friend for lunch one day, only to discover that his friend has a huge, orange round head. He asks about it and the friend tells him the following story. "I was cleaning my attack the other day when I came across an antique bottle. When I opened it, a genie came out and told me he would grant me three wishes."
"That's amazing," his friend says.
"I know. So, I first wished for a million dollars. The genie closed his eyes for a moment, and then when he opened them, he told me to check my account. I pulled out my cell phone, called my bank and sure enough..."
"A million dollars?"
"That's right. So, then I asked for a beautiful woman to come into my life. And the next day, I met this gorgeous young woman at the coffee shop. Things have been going really well, and we're already talking about marriage."
"Wow! That's all so incredible. But I still don't understand about the..."
"Well, I'm getting to that. You see, when it came time for my third wish--and this is where I think I went wrong--I wished for a huge, orange round head."
Here is my reflection on why that and other anti-jokes (included in the reflection) are funny to the postmodern soul.

Clever Postmodern Title

Postmodern sensibility is particularly interested in self-reference. Value is given to any entity that is keenly aware of its own flaws or foibles and makes use of them to its benefit. For example, Scream, the horror movie, had characters ridiculing the formula common to the genre even as it participates in that formula. In recent literature, Dave Eggers’s A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius was not only self-referential in its title, but it opens with Rules and Suggestions for the Enjoyment of This Book which warns “The first three or four chapters are all some of you might want to bother with...The book thereafter is kind of uneven." This may hearken to the postmodern appreciation of authenticity. In such works, there is no illusion that what’s occurring is perfect or original. That authenticity is essentially post-modern. This trend is also labeled with the prefix “meta”, which roughly means “about itself.”

I am specifically interested in how this idea applies to humor. There is a trend within postmodernism to create jokes about jokes, or to comment on humor as it is being performed. For example, stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard will often pantomime writing in a small notepad after a “bit” doesn’t receive a laugh and mutters to himself “Never use that joke again.” His commentary then receives an enormous laugh. His best jokes are the ones about his own jokes. The following joke also exemplifies this idea, “Three people of different nationalities walk into the bar. Two of them say something smart, and the third one makes a mockery of his fellow countrymen by acting dumb.” It bases its humor on the shared knowledge of a joke-telling device, thereby deconstructing that device. This particular example adds the additional humor of pointing out a common practice of jokes to stereotype ethnic groups. This generic version of a joke demonstrates how absurd the practice is, and makes us laugh at our own nature. In essence this joke is “We are all racist jerks even when we think we’re being funny. Isn’t that hysterical?”

Connected to the meta-joke is the anti-joke. The meta-joke directly references the device of which it is a part. The anti-joke bases its humorous effect on marked diversion from the established trends of humor, and in so doing, it draws attention to them. Here are a few examples:

  • Yo Mama's so fat, that she was instructed by the doctor to go on a low carbohydrate, high protein diet to reduce the risk of heart disease or even a heart attack later in life.
  • Two cows are in a field. Suddenly, from behind a bush, a rabbit leaps out and runs away. One cow looks round a bit, eats some grass and then wanders off.
  • How many kangaroos does it take to fix a leaky water main? None, a kangaroo has neither the intelligence nor dexterity to do any kind of plumbing work. At best it could try to locate the source of the leek by jumping around, but even then it would be hard pushed to actually do anything about it.
  • Two men are walking down the street...
    I forget the punch-line, but your mother's a whore.

Douglass Mann, professor of philosophy at the University of Windsor says, “Anything fast, image-centered (as opposed to using written text), without a linear narrative, anything that shocks or alienates the traditions in its field, can be seen as having a postmodernist flavour.” Clearly, anti-jokes are “alienating the tradition” of joke telling. They diverge from the expected course in a way that makes us look at the course we were expecting to take objectively.

The SECOND opportunity to write on comedy comes in the form of a big-ass paper on Commedia dell'arte, a masked Italian comedy style that involves improvisation. I entered the paper in a little contest of sorts here on campus, and it was selected to be read at a forum tonight. (And I get a $100 prize) . I think getting paid to read a paper makes me a professional geek. (Especially if the paper has the word cacophony in it).


Martin said...

That all depends on whether you pronounce "cacophony" correctly.

The Medievalist said...

A woman walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a double entendre, so he gives her one.

(Thank you.)

The Medievalist said...

Two penguins are standing on an ice flow and one says to the other,"Hey man, it looks like you are wearing a tuxedo." And the other penguin responds, "What makes you so sure I'm not?"

(Can you tell I'm a huge fan of the anti-joke?)

The Medievalist said...

Third times the charm:

An Irishman walks out of a bar.

Yeah, right.

DanBuck said...

These are great! The anti joke is certainly not new, (for that matter "Why did the chicken cross the road?" is an anti-joke) but it's like it's found it's home in postmodernism. :)

one of your old students said...

I can't believe you didn't mention the best anti-joke. What's worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm in it? Biting into an apple and finding half a worm in it. What's worse than biting into an apple and finding half a worm in it? The Holocaust.