Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Why Is This Joke Funny?

This very special installment of "Old Jews Telling Jokes" lasts a solid 2-plus minutes, but stick with it. Then click through and let's discuss it, shall we?

Okay, what did you think? You either loved it or hated it, right? "Jews" producer Eric Spiegelman had an interesting reaction.

I need someone to explain why this makes me laugh. Calling it "absurdist humor" isn't quite sufficient. There are all these comics who treat comedy like a science – something akin to psychology, I imagine – constantly looking for predictable and consistent ways to incite laughter in another person. I need one of those funnymen of letters to speak up here.

In person, hearing this joke was an experience. After the punchline (that word deserves to be in quotes here), there was a long, silent pause. Then the audience exploded. Nobody understood why.

There was a similar long pause following Daniel Okrent's "Schmuck," but that was due, I suspect, to the sophistication of the punchline, the long cognitive jump you had to make to realize its brilliance. The pause for this one was longer, and it was not followed by any great epiphany. It doesn't make any sense.

You will obviously have your own explanation. My enjoyment of the joke, and explanation for same, is due to the combination of its absurdity and its length. I'm certainly on record as being a fan of the long joke, but John Pleshette's bit here is something more than the lengthy joke just referenced, which does, at least, conform to certain standards. The absurdity of Pleshette's punchline only works because of the length: You are literally set up by the set-up to expect some sort of humorous, affirmative stopping point. When you reach the end and the joke collapses in on itself, your response is a reaction to, yes, the absurdity, but also the way in which you've registered that absurdity. You've been taken for a long walk around the barn only to end up at the place where you've started, technically no wiser but still jarred by the recognition that you're back at the front of the barn, and not only was the trip pointless, that pointlessness was the point of the trip.

Or maybe it's just that the word "fuck" is funny. I don't know. This is probably we shouldn't try to explain jokes. They just are, like light or air.

27 Comments / Post A Comment

Saying funny things vs. saying things funny.

Moff (#28)

For me it's because bees killed my parents.

Comedy is like sex*. The longer the build-up, the better the payoff had better be.

I think John Pleshette is a shitty lay.

*This is not from Freud's "Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious"; it is from my book, "That's Not Funny: A Post-Feminist Dialectic, with Ham"

saythatscool (#101)

I love that book. Especially the pop up version with scratch and sniff Pastrami section.

Also John's clearly the kind of guy who rents a couple of hookers and leaves his fucking black socks on. What a fucking bore. He couldn't get a hurricane wet.

TH42 (#1,939)

It's funny for several reasons, one being what Balk is saying above. Absurdist humor is funny because it is completely unexpected, and the length helps that. But this joke isn't JUST absurdist. It's also about the girl. Morty goes away and comes back in great shape, everything is going well, he's healthy, he's got this woman on his arm. He's crediting the bees but it's funny because he doesn't REALLY give a shit about the bees because he's got everything else. He'll be just fine without the bees.

That's not all of what's funny but it's part of what's funny.

From old Jews we don't want absurdist. Any young fuckface can do "absurdist" humor. Old Jews, do not stray from your quest! Give us irony, heartbreak, pathos, intense hilarity, throw some Yiddish in there to fuck up the pharaohs, but no "concept humor," please.

Does Spiegelman smoke a lot of pot? Cause there's his answer right there.

SemperBufo (#1,849)

I think it's the way the last line makes the two-dimensional stock characters suddenly jump into 3-D, and from their wind-up punchline world into the real world of grief and crassness. The one where I live, anyway.

Screen Name (#2,416)

It's a recognition, the kind Gaddis wrote about. Confronted with the futility of a purpose-driven life in the face of constant setbacks and tragedy, the only proper attitude, the only way to live, is "Fuck 'em."

Or, think of it another way. The joke here, in a different form, is the same one underlying Kubrick's film, "The Killing."

The film is ostensibly about a methodically plotted racetrack heist. Here's the opening narration:

"At exactly 3:45 on that Saturday afternoon in the last week of September, Marvin Unger was, perhaps, the only one among the hundred thousand people at the track who felt no thrill at the running of the fifth race. He was totally disinterested in horse racing and held a lifelong contempt for gambling. Nevertheless, he had a $5 win bet on every horse in the fifth race. He knew, of course, that this rather unique system of betting would more than likely result in a loss, but he didn't care. For after all, he thought, what would the loss of twenty or thirty dollars mean in comparison to the vast sum of money ultimately at stake."

Johnny, the main character in the film, painstakingly calculates every detail of the heist and subsequent getaway. Everything goes precisely according to plan, and what doesn't has been prepared for in advance with a contingency, a fail safe.

In the final scene, Johnny and his girl, Fay, are walking on the tarmac to get on their getaway plane after having put their suitcase full of cash on the luggage cart. Naturally, something which could not have been prepared for or even imagined transpires. A fancy, annoying woman accompanied by a yappy dog, is boarding their same plane. Her dog escapes from her arms and runs out onto the tarmac in front of the luggage cart, causing the driver to veer sharply, toppling the suitcases. Johnny watches his suitcase break open, the stolen bills flying everywhere. The jig is up. Fay says, "Johnny. you've got to run!" And his response, the only response, is "Eh, what's the difference."

To me, that's the same joke. For all of the planning and contingencies made, or for Morty, his vacation, new girlfriend and new hobby, there's no correlation between the process and the outcome. In other words, "What's the difference?" And seeing as there is none, "Eh, fuck 'em."

The recognition is deeply comforting and, ultimately, hilarious.

Nah. It's because "fuck" is a funny word.

Screen Name (#2,416)

Fuck! That's what I was trying to say.

Jeff Carpenter (#3,752)

If you read Steve Martin's autobiography (Born Standing Up) you'll find that this is what he calls 'anti-humor.' He discovered the concept from a performer in the magic shop he worked at as a teenager. That magician would fail at his acts, and that was the joke. Martin latched onto this concept and made a career out of it.

This joke exploits the same concept. It's different, but the basic principle is the same.

Also, I'm well aware that explaining jokes kills them. Sorry about that.

Hirham (#1,709)

I look forward to meeting the Laughing About Architecture tag again.

This next to the dead parents thing is a lot. My father, who was not Jewish, but is dead, told a version of this joke where the man has his bees in a cigar box on a plane. Thanks.

nloewen (#4,040)

There's a little gray man. And he's down and sad, so he decides to go to the circus. And he's having a ball, really enjoying himself. Then the clowns come out. And they do their act and the head clown says, "Hey, everybody, I need your help. I've forgotten the names of the animals!" And he brings out the elephant and scratches his head and says, "What's this?" And all the little kids yell, "It's an elephant!" "Oh," says the clown. "And what's this?" as he brings out the giraffe. "It's a giraffe," cry out the kids and the little man, too. "I see." He brings out a donkey. "What is this?" And the little man gets caught up in the act and yells out, all by himself now, "It's an ass!" And the clown says, "And so are you!" and everyone laughs at the little man and he slinks home in shame and anger. He decides to get revenge. He goes to the library and gets all the books on comebacks and humor and putdowns that he can find. He studies them for years. He literally stays in his house for 5 years. And when the circus comes back to town, he goes. And the clowns come out. "I've forgotten the names of the animals. What's this?" asks the clown. And the children and the little gray man yell, "It's an elephant!" And the clown asks, "What's this?" "They all yell, "It's a giraffe!" The clown brings out the donkey. "What is this?" And everyone is quiet, except for the little gray man, who yells out, "It's an ass!" "And so are you!" replies the clown and everyone laughs. And the little man, yells back, "Hey, clown. Fuck you!"

saythatscool (#101)

I'm sticking with jerk store.

The Clown Joke is an eternal classic of the genre. One of my favorites.

Stop Okay Go (#365)

I laughed. My favorite episode of MASH is where Hawkeye tells the same joke better than anyone else. 90% of a joke's funniness is trusting that the teller is already funny. Or a few seconds in when you're primed to laugh because you can tell if you're in good hands. (Also, absurd wins every time.)

barnhouse (#1,326)

The joke is not in the least "absurdist," I don't think; it's kind of a serious comment on (a) the real absurdity, futility and arbitrariness of human belief systems. The guy has been in a bad way, and now he is doing well, and he has got a very absurd explanation for why that should be; the results are good, so who cares whether or not the underlying reasoning is sound? Because (b) we have to have a belief system, no matter how stupid it is, in fact we know that it's stupid, and futile, and we don't care.* So (3) when the patent ridiculousness of the belief system is brought to light, the subject will throw up his hands and say "fuck 'em," and this is funny exactly because he knew it all along, it comes as no surprise.

Processing all this and then comparing it to the truth of one's own lived experience is responsible for the long pause before you laugh.

*In the face of certain death and the mystery of what comes after, which is the true background and subject of Jewish humor (the U.S. kind, at least.)

I would say it is "Absurdist" (as opposed to absurd, which it is only barely) for the reasons you say it isn't. It isn't surrealist or silly but it is Absurdist precisely because it points out absurdities. Those may, like this, be in our explanatory structures or they may be, as is usually the case in Shaggy Dog Stories (which, though short, this is a variety of), the expected structures of jokes (which are themselves generally built on overturning our expected structures of life and reality). This joke is especially good because it combines those two features so beautifully, it overturns the Joke and it overturns the Reality, making us more aware of both.

This is a great joke. WASP SDSs are usually much more hostile to the audience; ending after 30 minutes in a terrible pun giving nothing to the audience existing only as a showcase for the teller. This, on the other hand, this is a nice joke that serves all mankind.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I am convinced! Your definition of "Absurdist" is better than mine. Love your analysis generally.

iplaudius (#1,066)

I don’t consider this joke “absurdist,” though absurdity is part of the fun. People tell lies, sometimes for the fun of it, sometimes to distract from the truth. This joke sets up a lie that quickly becomes absurd.

Beekeeping? That seems unexpected, not to say implausible. Millions of bees in a cigar box? That is absurd for its impossibility. “Fuck ’em”: that statement reveals unambiguously that no one is doing any beekeeping.

I think the dialectic is colloquially Jewish. The interlocutor allows for the possibility of beekeeping and continues his line of questioning in order to know the truth of the matter. This is very much in the Jewish tradition, to continue the argument until it is resolved.

By way of comparison, a colloquially/stereotypically New York-Italian dialectic would perhaps have something like “Beekeeping? Fuck you.” It would end there.

I also like barnhouse’s reading (above).

Ribs (#2,690)

I liked it. I also wouldn't consider it 'Absurdist' in the capital-letter, comic sense (as that's more associated with having few or none of the traditional joke elements, while this has a clear set-up/punchline, even if the punchline's a tricky one). Balk's around-the-barn-and-back-to-the-same-spot metaphor works for me.

The length also lets us get familiar with these guys, and Pleshette begins to set up the humorous scaffolding for the non-punchline around 1:30, when the hobby is first mentioned. The other character is asking the questions we're wondering in the audience, it builds, and then the last line embraces the absurdity of it without denying the reality of it. It's not a 'punchline' but it still humorously acknowledges Morty's absurd hobby/way of thought.

I guess, while a normal punchline serves as a surprising 'reveal' that prompts a response, this punchline's surprise is, in part, Morty's sudden acceptance of the other character's assertions of reality while not denying his own thang.

Also, fuck is funny.

Pop Socket (#187)

The Aristocrats!

katiechasm (#163)


nloewen (#4,040)

You be the judge:
Absurdism is a philosophy stating that the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning in the universe will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd), because no such meaning exists, at least in relation to the individual. "The Absurd," therefore, is commonly used in philosophical discourse to refer to the clash between the human search for meaning and the human inability to find any. In this context absurd does not mean "logically impossible," but rather "humanly impossible."[1]

From Wikipedia.

Screen Name (#2,416)

Yes. Hence, the punchline, "fuck 'em." Sometimes absurdism is used interchangeably with surrealism, but this is incorrect and creates confusion. There's an internal logic to the joke that never breaks down, so while it comments on the impossibility of understanding or even managing cause and effect, it doesn't demand the belief in a new context that operates outside of cause and effect.

Obviously, I really like discussions about what makes something "funny", otherwise I wouldn't have written two (2) embarrassing and pretentious posts about it in the same thread. (Sorry!) Still, if anyone else here is trying to write the occasional funny piece or joke, I think it's worth trying to understand Spiegelman's original question.

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