The Experience in the Joke

This is partially procrastination from a cover letter I’m trying to write, but honestly? It’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

“It’s… flip. It’s… glib. It’s journalism.”

I’ll start this with an anecdote: A few weeks ago when I was at work, a couple of guys came in to buy stuff, as a couple of guys are wont to do. By this time, it’s late and I’m slightly on autopilot so when the second guy puts his stuff on the till – I’m still serving the first guy, so I end up putting the second guy’s stuff through. (Note: I hate people who do this because it always puts me off)

You can imagine what happens. Guy no.2 states “no, that’s my stuff” – I get embarrassed and take it off, and this guy is all, ‘well he can buy it for me if he wants’. I’ve heard this sort of thing a lot by this time, so maybe I was tired of it and decided to make it a little less boring.”Well, they say you should always buy them a drink first.” Whoops. Bad joke.

“Are you suggesting that I’m gay?” Says the first guy. He sounds more confused than angry. Was I insinuating this? No, not really. That would be suggesting that it’s possible to ‘look’ gay but whatever, I digress. It was all a bit embarrassing and I felt like a tit. I should never be allowed to make jokes, ugh.

After all this I started thinking about jokes and why, sometimes they work and are hilarious, and why, sometimes they don’t and you’ve just got this awkward silence and a swiftly changed subject. Usually for me it’s the latter, but then, I’ve never been good at jokes.

You can blame what lies below  on a putting on a presentation combining comedians and Lacan’s teachings – suddenly I’m really curious about the minutia of comedy.

I think what makes the difference between a good joke and a bad joke is experience. For instance, if I’d known these guys personally (and, for that matter, if they’d known each other) I could’ve made that joke and it would have worked – maybe. Regardless, it’s not the sort of thing that would be successful with strangers – because I don’t know the little things about them to inform jokes like that.

“Can’t you see that even to say etcetera is monstrous? Etcetera is what the Nazis would have said, the dead reduced to a mere verbal abbreviation.”

This also applies to those dangerous jokes. You know – race jokes, sexist jokes, 9/11 jokes. Now, I’m a steadfast believer in ‘Nothing is sacred, thus everything is profane’. There is no joke that cannot be made and no person that cannot make them. Hell, I love Frankie Boyle as a comedian even though a lot of his humour lies in the safety of everyone else laughing.

Sure, a white guy can make a joke about a black guy and that’s great! It just won’t be funny and he’ll look like an arse (unless the joke is aimed at some likeminded individuals). Why is that? Well, I think the little things really bring jokes to life – especially if they’re anecdotal – because suddenly those jokes are anchored in the concrete and the comedian is sharing their experience with others.

The reason this doesn’t work so well if the comedian is telling a joke about black people when they’re white (unless they joke about being an outsider or something) is because they haven’t lived those experiences and cannot successfully bring in the little details that would bring that joke to life. Plus, often when someone makes a joke about something they haven’t experienced, it’s at the expense of another person – and that just isn’t nice.

If you take into consideration the wordplay jokes that also function at the expense of others, the same thing applies. For instance, 9/11 jokes that revolve around the lyric ‘it’s raining men’, or the ‘Houston, we have a problem’ quips that arose after Whitney Houston died.

Why wouldn’t these be funny? Wordplay is funny! Thing is, when the subject is something so personal or sensitive like the deaths of one or many people, it takes experience completely out of the equation. It reduces people and their lives into a pun, simplifies them into a lyric. That seems a little dehumanising, to me. In fact, it’s kind of farcical.

“They go on school trips nowadays, don’t they? Auschwitz. Dachau. What has always concerned me is where do they eat their sandwiches? Drink their coke?”

I think the humour of a farce comes from the surreal, that ‘this can’t be real’. When pitted against something as horrific as 9/11 – well, it did happen. Even if you believe the conspiracy theories, those towers still fell and people still died – turning the lyrics of a love (ish) song to take on such a literal meaning seems a little too simplistic for the intent, even unnecessary. If a person wanted to find humour in such an event, wouldn’t they use something more complex to display it?

You may have heard the phrase ‘Comedy = Tragedy + Time’ and it certainly applies here. If someone who lived through the fall of the World Trade Centre wanted to turn their experiences into comedy, they probably could and it would be hilarious. Hell, if someone who survived the Holocaust wanted to draw from their ordeal to make jokes, they could because they had those experiences to serve as a base. Thing is, why would they want to?

Jokes have a habit of making bad experiences safe to laugh about – in some cases that can even be a coping mechanism. Thing is, it can also be dismissive of those events and once we can dismiss something, we can forget about it. I think I can understand the anxiety.

“To put something in context is a step towards saying it can be understood and that it can be explained. And if it can be explained it can be explained away.”



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