What is the Joke? A Dialogue
Dissecting the Frog reader and comic presence in his own right, Neil Wates, writes:
Interested to read your deconstruction of the Joke - something a lot of people (including myself) have been trying to get their heads round. I like your approach very much, particularly the point about subverting audience expectations, which reminds me of this masterful, masterful effort from Plum Wodehouse:
"Mr. Wooster, how would you support a wife?"
"Well, I suppose it depends on who's wife it was. A little gentle pressure beneath the elbow while crossing a busy street usually fits the bill."
The point I am interested in is what I am loosely terming the 'mood' of a joke (for now). Some of Frankie Boyle's worst stuff uses exactly the same linguistic and comedic conventions as the above, but the darker subject matter makes it a) seem like a different beast altogether and b) slightly funnier/less funny, dependant on your point of view. I guess what I am loosely grabbing at is that in the subjective world of jokes, there seems to be an equation going on where X = effectiveness of wordplay (into which we incorporate subversion of expectation, maybe), Y = subject matter, Z= Mood (or attitude toward subject matter). So, X+(Y*Z) = Joke, perhaps? Does that work?
I've been thinking about the linguistic value of some forms of comedy, not because I want to come up with some breakthrough theory or anything - just because it tends to ameliorate the joke if there is an evaluated extra level of cleverness (is this part of what we call ‘wit’?), though this is often one of the intangible/abstract reasons why one joke is supposedly 'better' than another. This is often completely separate from subject matter, which is noteworthy. I am not ignoring the completely wonderful subjectivity involved in all this, in fact I am trying to work out why linguistic layout effects jokes precisely because different people find different things funny. A fool’s errand it may be, but I have often wondered if there are one or two constants in the equation alongside the subjective variables of sense of humour, recipient's mood, context, experience etc etc.
It also hasn't escaped my notice that true to beautiful ironic absurdity there is some kind of Heisenberg uncertainty principle effect: The more the linguistic tricks are appreciated the less obvious humour therein (for most except the nerdiest of nerds like you and I). Heisenberg's unfunny principle? Who knows.
Neil Wates runs Monster Comedy, which has disappointingly little to do with monsters.