Sunday, October 25, 2009

Explaining the Joke


You're about to witness me trying to pull together examples from a postmodern novel, some popular fiction and even (dare I!?) a few cartoon series, in order to show what I mean by "explaining the joke." This is liable to be ugly, but it might be fun!

II. GROENING, et al.

Let's start with the cartoons, because the explanations (and jokes) happen most obviously there, and when I say they "explain the joke" I mean it quite literally. It is impossible to watch an episode of The Simpsons, for example, without having at least one joke (or situation) explained for you.

I think the goal of the writers (who get paid way too much money) here is twofold. First, they want to make sure the highest number of gags work for the highest number of audience members. Second, they want to make a second joke by explaining the first joke.

The first type of explanation is used when a reference is made, and the writers are afraid it might be lost on younger (or stupider) viewers.

The second type of explanation is used whenever a writer feels like it (maybe when a scene is moving too slow) and wants to explain the obvious, especially the obviously ironic -- and that's the joke. This happens most often on Family Guy, but The Simpsons cannot be absolved of guilt either.

Homer is having a bad day, then he walks away from the
coffee table and it's stuck to his pants.
He tells us the coffee table is stuck to his pants
and adding to his bad day.

A mix of these two, a third type of explanation, happens when some kind of rhetorical or plot device is used that might be lost on some viewers. It is explained for their benefit. But this explanation functions as an "explaining the obvious" joke for the savvy cartoon viewer (as if there is such a thing!). I picture Stewie Griffin saying something like:

"You see what I did there? I equated you with a transvestite.
You're a transvestite. You wear women's clothing."

I have always poo pooed these kind of jokes as an insult to my intelligence, as a damper on the actually funny jokes, and as a comedy crutch. I especially can't stand the explanations that make reference-based jokes funny for everyone. I have always thought of a reference as a sort of inside joke for those who know the reference -- right? In one Simpsons episode, there is a rapid succession of references ending with Homer riding a bomb to his death. I got them, and they were not explained. I felt like they were much more successful "jokes" because of what was left unsaid.

But you know, until the scene was over I didn't put it past those writers to have Homer say something like, "I'm riding the bomb! Just like the cowboy guy in Dr. Strangelove when he falls out of the plane! Weeee!" and then have Bart walk up and say "Enough with the sixties movie references, Homer." You know it could happen just like that, reader. Does it not make you even a little annoyed?

(Sorry if I seem hostile -- I've been hanging out late nights with Charlotte Bronte. Plus I'm listening to Kansas who are insisting that I'm dust in the wind.)


My next example of explaining the joke is more like "explaining the literary device." But it functions like the joke explanations in that the author seems to want to ensure that no subtle (or obvious) device is lost on the reader, and in that the effect on the savvy reader is an insult to the intelligence, and a lack of satisfaction with the allusion, foreshadowing, etc. compared with the satisfaction they would have gotten with discovering the device on their own.

I recently gave a five-star review on to Richard Yate's novel Revolutionary Road. I loved the unapologetically manly style, the intensity of the characters, the treatment of some horrid situations, and the insights about '50s culture (it was published in '62, so these critiques were not yet trite a la Pleasantville). After a few days, I went back and knocked the review down to four stars. Throughout the book I'd been prodded here and there by parenthetical references to earlier character dialog and inner dialog, and I couldn't forgive that.

Here's how it went: Whenever a particular character description resurfaced, like April recalling a negative description of herself by Frank, the earlier negative statement would show up in parentheses and italics. As if we'd forgotten Frank said that. Then, say, whenever April is thinking about what to do, she would reflect on a conversation with Frank and how she regretted it and snippets of the conversation would be inserted for us. They have said these hateful things to each other throughout. Dear author, it might have been more fun if you let us remember or go back and look for the exact phrase you are referring to. We get it without the explanation!

This also happened with foreshadowing in the novel. Once the foreshadowed event or statment was realized, the author would provide us with a parenthesized and italicized recap of the actual foreshadowing line from back in chapter five or whatever. Thanks, man. That's a big help.

As if all this weren't bad enough -- Yates is great at intense scenes, gets us all wound up, yet he has these parenthetical things show up right in the middle of fighting or sex! Sometimes it makes sense, but other times -- what a bummer!

I'm sorry I didn't put actual examples here but I described them pretty true to the book. Believe me, you can just flip through RR and find these things. The parentheses even make it easy to go back and find'em for your high school book report!


Now I still like The Simpsons (maybe excluding some of the newer writers) and I still like Revolutionary Road but their overexplaining has certainly put a damper on my enjoyment of them. At least The Simpsons are an ongoing text, always offering to redeem itself. I'm not sure though. I was reading while watching the new "Treehouse of Horror" this month, and had to look up and sigh when:

Marge: Ok Maggie, we'll see you in three hours.
Homer: Or later, if something happens.

I know this is supposed to be ironic (or what people call ironic nowadays), but it does get old after awhile. The fact that entire cartoons (Family Guy and its offspring) are based on things purposely not being that funny, jokes purposely dragging out too long, or a whole joke being that someone's purposely being way too obvious about plot devices and self-sconscious of everything that happens on the show, indicates that it's time for a humor overhaul. When eveything's ironic, nothing's ironic. (And doesn't dramatic irony depend on what the little people in the TV box don't know?)


The last thing on my list is last because I really don't have a problem with its explaining. I just read John Gardner's novel Grendel for my Senior Seminar in Literary Theory (which is really a last minute "Oh SHIT! We totally forgot to tell you about this literary...uh...theory thing!" crash course), and I thought it was great. It was the perfect, easy book for a last minute "Oh SHIT!" course, but an enjoyable read (or game) for those readers who can instantly tell what's going on it too.

The novel is purposely designed for beginning theory students to be able to find a million and one things to take apart, to help them begin a very easy jog down the intertextuality path (follow Beowulf directly to Beowulf...), and to put on display every element of postmodernism that points to "Hey guys! I think this is postmodernism!"~"Wow, get over here and look! Tommy found some postmodernism!"

To be more specific for those of you who aren't the same kind of nerd as me (you're all nerds if you're reading this, just different flavors), Grendel is postmodern because it is self-conscious, funny, purposefully intertextual (it "talks" back to Beowulf), pushes the limits of genre, and most of all because it knows it's going to be subjected to criticism and picked at by theorists. If you think of earlier novels, like 19th century ones, I'll bet you can't think of many that behave this way. That's the postmodern, in a smoothed over nutshell.

Now for the theory games planted in it: they give this text a meta-text aspect that's pretty unique, even to postmodern novels. But the games are almost all very obvious, and some are superfluous, not really offering any new insight into the text. This could be interpreted as yet another task of self-reflection and postmodern playfulness (look at this funny thing I'm doing by hiding all this theory stuff in me!), but it's also interesting to me because of the obvious authorial intent. That is, Gardner didn't do all that stuff by accident or because of some sea of texts flowing through him. Theorists, especially Kristeva, grandmother of intertextuality, like to deny the importance of any authorial intent. I like to think of Grendel as a game played with Gardner present. But I suppose he doesn't really have to be there. His (the) puzzle box works autonomously.

I don't have a conclusion about all this yet, but I think it's fun to think about it from both sides of the author is dead/alive argument when you have a book that appears to have a tutorial purpose like this one. (I busted up my class when I asked if Kristeva often tells her husband he doesn't exist -- he's a writer. Petty and missing the point on my part, but it went over well! "Ecris! Ecris! Tu n'existes pas! Tu es MORT!")

Anyhow, some of the treats in Grendel are hard to find but others are so painfully obvious that they are not really fun to "discover" unless you are a total theory virgin. Which is why I said it's great for this class. The treat I laughed most at was "mor(t)al," which is just a call to whip out your handy step-by-step deconstruction manual . But the zodiac in twelve chapters? C'mon. Some kids got waaaay too excited about that. The zodiac supposedly acts as a key to the twelve philosophies developed in the chapters (the philosophy is fun to read -- Nietzsche and other existentialists lurk and lurk), but I'm not sure how. Besides, that's just what Gardner said the zodiac was there for when he was pressed to explain it. And what does he know?


So you've endured three very different, very half-assed analyses, but I hope you get the point. In most cases, explaining what you're doing in humor or in art is obnoxious and does not serve the art, but subtracts from it. Unless you're a brilliant novelist -- then it just makes you "postmodern" (cough) and I can forgive you.

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