What is a Joke? A Dialogue (part 2 - part 1 can be found here)
(Note: this blog contains an extremely distasteful and offensive comment - I say 'comment' because whether or not it qualifies as a joke is the reason for its inclusion. Obviously I don't endorse said comment, etc.)

Dear Neil,
At the risk of appearing rather churlish in the face of interest from an actual member of the public, I’m not convinced by the equation. For one thing, I’m not sure what difference, if any, holds between ‘+’ and ‘*’. For another, although a joke will often feature all three elements, it seems possible to find jokes that don’t. A simple pun such as ‘Why was six scared of seven? Because seven eight nine’ works almost completely independently of any mood, and its subject matter appears to be nothing other than the potential for double meanings with which the English language, particularly when spoken aloud, is so blessed.
But the more general point about mood is well made. Here’s a very similar joke to the previous effort: ‘What did Freud think came between fear and sex? Funf’ There’s a bit more to this joke, for a few reasons – for one thing, the punning is between different languages. But it also involves a shift in what might be termed register, and which is at least close to what you refer to as ‘mood’: what appeared to be psychoanalytic totems are revealed as mere placeholders for wordplay. There’s a change in attitude which isn’t brought about by argument or derision, but by slyer and arguably more effective means. It’s a lot more subtle than the manipulation of mood Frankie Boyle is so good at, but it’s still there.
I think your suggestion of constants in the equation, i.e., elements present in every joke or ever good joke, is very interesting. I’m loath to speculate as to what these might be – that way lies the elephant’s graveyard of Theories of Humour – but I’m not so loath that I won’t throw around a couple of ideas for the sake of a blog post. One contender is probably wit (more or less the extra level of cleverness you mention). But witty things are not always funny, as the plays of Oscar Wilde so epigrammatically demonstrate, and not all funny jokes are clever (although interestingly, the best examples I can think of are probably from slapstick).
Another possibility is incongruity or the confounding of expectations, which was a criterion I suggested in my original article. Interestingly, I came across a possible counterexample to this recently, in Jim Holt's charming little volume Stop Me if You've Heard This Before. It's one of the few jokes, or attempted jokes, to have impacted on a national level - it cost then US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz his job when he was overheard making it on a flight from the Republican National Convention in 1976. It is, undoubtedly, quite something:
“I’ll tell you what the coloreds want. It’s three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit”[i]
Obviously, this is a truly feeble attempt at humour. Holt comments:
“What is striking about the Butz joke, apart from its ugliness, is its dismal lack of art. It contains no paralogical twist, makes no unexpected conceptual links; it is merely a clumsy enumeration of racist stereotypes. (Indeed, it is recognisable as an intended joke only by dint of its formal observance of the Rule of Three.)”
I’m inclined to suggest that Butz’s comment is not a joke at all. In saying this, I’m not appealing to its crudely offensive nature. Many jokes are crudely offensive; indeed, revolting examples are only a couple of clicks away from this page. But this particular clumsy enumeration of stereotypes lacks the element of surprise, of the reader or audience having to draw a connection themselves, that seems to me to distinguish jokes from brute insults or offensive remarks.[ii] In short, there is no joke to get here. If there’s anything that characterises jokes, it’s that they can be ‘got’, much as commands can be obeyed or questions answered.

[i] Interestingly, in each of the slightly different wordings I’ve read – this one is from Time – Butz is said to have used ‘coloreds’ rather than another well-known term for black people. Although one doubts he chose to phrase his point this way to avoid causing offence.
[ii] These can, unlike Bautz’s effort, themselves be witty: for instance (to continue the theme of 70s politics) Denis Healey’s famous remark that being criticised by Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say that Healey had in this instance made a joke.




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.


Pedant’s Corner: The Style Maketh The Man

The first Korean rapper to have a UK No. 1 is clearly a matter of sufficient gravity to merit at least a passing post. Gangnam Style’s success quite possibly owes more to the video, twenty zillion YouTubes hits and all, than the accompanying soundtrack. As online sensations are wont to do, it has spawned all manner of homages, pastiches and spinoff versions. One of the more remarked-on of these is Eton Style, which, if you haven’t seen it, is exactly what you would expect some Eton students doing a version of Gangnam Style to look and sound like – and just as amusing.

There’s probably a lot this little episode tells us about internet humour, but what struck me was that Eton Style was billed on YouTube as a parody of the original. In the spirit of online discourse the information superhighway over
I feel bound to protest. A parody isn’t any old humorous imitation: it must have some intent to send up the original by showing it as ridiculous, even if it’s ultimately meant as affectionate. Whatever else Eton Style does, it doesn’t present Psy’s video in this light. Indeed, it is arguable that Gangnam Style is literally beyond parody.[i] It’s difficult to think of any way in which it takes itself seriously, and without this it’s hard to see how it could be held up to ridicule. Its various online take-offs are more like the endless versions of Bruno Ganz’s famous scene from Downfall a few years back – having little to do with the original, merely adopting it as a vehicle for satire or sheer randomness (or, naturally, a crossbreeding of the two).

If anything, the bright young things from Eton are ridiculing themselves. Either considered as public schoolboys or as rebels against their own privileged background, they look pretty silly riding imaginary horses, robes billowing behind them. Most people do - except, it seems, the man who started it all.

[i] Unless, perhaps, it was done using infants or trained animals, or the elderly.


Dissecting the Franken: Will Franken interview (part 2)
(part 1 can be found here)
Donnchadh: Your show isn’t political in the sense that you’re criticising individuals or parties, it’s more cultural politics. And what’s interesting is that it’s mostly aimed at liberal pious politics.

Will: I just don’t like people telling me what to do. Liberals, the liberal bent is this weird religion of language – you can’t say this, the whole thought-crime aspect of stuff like that. Plus I just wanted to avoid the political, too… when I moved to San Francisco, there were so many comedians doing anti-Bush jokes. I was obsessed with trying to be different, so I said I’m not doing Bush jokes, I will make fun of the people who make fun of Bush. Which is what I really loved about Chris Morris. I don’t believe the enemy of today is the government – the big enemy is the media.

Donnchadh: Yes, your other big target is junk TV…

Will: It elected our President. I’m not saying what I think or don’t think about Obama, but when Pepsi-Cola changed its logo to match the Obama logo, I thought, we should be wary of this. I find the liberal mentality very funny. Growing up in Missouri, it was a very right-wing kind of environment - ‘Don’t curse, that’s not right’. But the new Christians are the people who say ‘We call it the n-word. Don’t say that word’.

Donnchadh: On a slightly different note, you’ve performed in States for a number of years, is this your first time performing for an extended run in the UK?

Will: Oh, yeh.

Donnchadh: What are the big differences?

Will: It’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me.

Donnchadh: This interview?

Will: This interview, right now. Out here, your ego goes through such a grind. You know there’s three thousand shows going on, you can’t care about numbers or what’s going to happen. I love talking to the comedians out here, the identification we all share is an amazing experience.

Donnchadh: And is your status a bit different than in the equivalent festival in the Sates? Would you consider yourself a bit more underground?

Will: Yeh, definitely. I ran into the woman who reviewed me for the Scotsman, she told me something really cool. In San Francisco especially I’m kind of spoiled, it’s a big fish in a small pool thing. She said ‘Isn’t it great, you get to work for it out here!’ And she had this weird fire in her eyes… This was about ten minutes before I was had to go on. I have been afraid every night… every night as I’m walking up there with that beer on the tray, I go ‘No turning back now!’

Donnchadh: Would you notice that there are different trends in comedy over here, things which are popular at the Fringe and that wouldn’t be so popular in the States, or vice-versa?

Will: I think there’s much more experimentation going on here. I mean,  I haven’t seen The Boy With Tape On His Face, but I’ve seen the posters – for something like that in the States to have that big a poster, I don’t think you’re going to see that. That’s the stuff that really impresses me – the fact that a guy with tape on his face can get that big a billing. It also makes me feel safe, going ‘He can be weird, I can be weird’.  The first time I saw Python’s Flying Circus, the first time I heard Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat, the first time I read Waiting for Godot, I felt like, ‘I’m not alone and I’m not insane’. Cause I was making weird noises and doing faces as a kid... Or I was trying to do a certain type of comedy that was the same comedy, and once I saw Python and that stuff, I thought it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe the stuff that you find funny actually is funny, and it doesn’t need to be this linear bullshit you see on the mainstream stand-up shows. It can be weird and subconscious.

Donnchadh: And twenty years later here you are. Thanks Will.

Will: Cheers.

Dissecting the Franken: Will Franken interview (part 1)

One of the stand-out acts at this year’s Fringe, at least in terms of heavyweight reviews, is San Francisco-based character comedian and one-man sketch troupe Will Franken. We discussed Python, politics, and other disappointingly non-alliterative topics.
Donnchadh: To start with a boring question, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into comedy?
Will: That’s always a hard question. I was a very lonely child, and somehow I picked up the ability to do voices. I had a cassette recorder, and I loved to talk to myself. When I was really young, the SNL episodes would come on, with Chevvy Chase and John Belushi, and I thought those guys were such rock stars and I wanted to do that. Then when I saw Python, years later, I thought that was the coolest format I’d ever seen.  My first actual show was at sixteen - we did a three-person sketch revue up at this coffee shop in a university town about a hundred miles away. We did a Hindu version of It’s a Wonderful Life, concepts I wouldn’t do now. I’ve never done the traditional stand-up form, I’ve always been more in love with sketch. I love the idea of a face, a voice, a setting, working with the writing to be able to accomplish a joke.
Donnchadh: Did you carry on in university?
Will: No. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I thought I’m just going to go to school and get a Masters. I actually started teaching at that time, as an adjunct professor. I was one of those fun professors, which I hate - when I took classes I preferred the dry boring guys that everybody else hates, because I’m there to learn. But I was the kind of fun guy who spent about fifty minutes three times a week trying to make everybody laugh. So I learned improv through teaching, as well as flirting with the students, but that was college so they were legal.
Donnchadh: I was going to ask you, was your background an improv one?
Will: Improv? I starting riffing about three years ago, I started putting riffs into my act, but I’ve always been more into scripting stuff.
Donnchadh: That was the question I was going to ask, because while I was watching your show I got the feeling that, while it was obviously very tightly scripted, the characters seemed to be coming from the characterisation. It seemed to me that you were starting from the vocal or the physical characterisation and spinning it out from there. Would that be the way you develop your ideas?
Will: I never write anything down. Ninety-eight per cent of the time, I will just start talking, I’ll start with the voice or face, work with that until I’ve got something of an idea. I won’t even attempt to write anything down until it’s locked in my head first.
Donnchadh: The other striking technical feature of your show was the way that your sketches tended to segue quite seamlessly. You didn’t have any blackouts, you didn’t have any music between scenes, so it tended to move from one sketch into the other. Is that a deliberate choice on your part?
Will: That was Monty Python. One of the coolest things about those Flying Circus episodes was… they called them links, and sometimes just referencing the fact that they didn’t have a link was a link in and of itself. Or James Joyce even farther back, the whole idea of a stream of consciousness.  I remember Terry Jones in an interview from a couple of years ago, he said they loved a show that Spike Milligan was in, but what killed it for them was the punchlines. They’d be doing these crazy things, and all of a sudden they’d end with a punchline. And he said, we wanted to do what they were doing but never end it, and have it go in and out…



What is a Joke? The Joke according to Dave

Dave’s Funniest Joke competition does provide a snapshot of Fringe humour, albeit seen through the rather restricted lens of a promotional gimmick. Indeed, the most interesting feature of the list is how limited the kinds of jokes on it are. They are all very short, which is understandable in the context, though it’s not as though there are no good long jokes. Unsurprisingly, these short jokes are mostly puns, some extremely contrived, others less so. (George Ryegold’s is interesting in that it’s a pun, but it trades on the metaphorical use of ‘frowned upon’ which is rooted in the literal description of someone angry as frowning. It might be for this reason that it’s less obviously a pun than, say, Chris Turner’s effort, or either of Stewart Francis’s.)

It may not be coincidence that my two favourites (Marsh and Kumar) are not puns. Brian Logan notes that Marsh’s effort “succeeds because it both punctures an expectation and implies a whole bizarre reality in only 12 words”; this is not something you could accuse most of the other jokes on the list of doing.

Logan’s article delivers some blowback against the Dave list. As a number of the comments below his article point out, the award celebrates jokes rather than all humour, so Logan seems to be using a false premise to criticise the competition.  But I think his complaint also misses a more fundamental point. In general jokes ought to be portable; it should be possible for them to work when told by different people in different circumstances (though obviously not by any person in any circumstance). It’s true that certain jokes only work when told by certain kinds of people, e.g., jokes about one’s appearance or manner. But the majority of jokes on the list could be repeated straightforwardly over the water cooler, without the need to fill in any background information (“So the person telling this joke is a young Caucasian male…”). And that’s not, in and of itself, a criticism, any more than it’s a criticism of a play that it can be staged in different ways, or a song that it can be covered by different artists.


Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Wednesday 15th (part 2)

As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title (Daniel Kitson)
Daniel Kitson’s new play features some familiar themes – loneliness, what we owe to each other, the nature of commitment - but he has also chosen to add new ones, in a deliberate effort to undermine these Kitsonesque features of his work. Not only do we get the story of an old man and a nurse trying to understand each other, we also meet the writers creating their story, and the writers of their story. The immediate result of these metafictional layers is to fragment the story and prevent the kind of resonance between narratives which enriches Kitson’s best work.

The text not only undermines itself, it also (predictably enough) features a debate about the wisdom of this move. Reflexivity mightn’t be as awful as one of Kitson’s alter egos claims, but in this specific case it doesn’t seem to work. First, its predominance means that a lot of the show involves Kitson doing the kind of play-about-writing-a-play routine which many other performers and writers have done. Unsurprisingly, it feels much less distinctive than his other work, and indeed laboured. It is undoubtedly brave of him to subvert his modus operandi and frustrate his audience in this way, but the result is a show which is neither as funny nor as emotionally charged as his best theatrical pieces.

Second, the problems caused by reflexivity are arguably more serious in a theatrical piece then in other forms of comedy. Reflexivity usually involves a certain amount of creative destruction; the jokes, ideas or characters are usually commented on in order to be rejected as contrived, artificial, or just plain fictional. This is not such a problem if what is rejected is not something particularly crucial anyway. Stand-up about the mechanics of stand-up or sketches about sketch troupes each undermine the original jokes or ideas which are made the objects of humour. But in As of 1.52pm GMT..., what is in effect being undermined is a much more developed story, which requires that the audience invest a lot more attention and emotion in order to appreciate it properly. This may well be Kitson’s intention, but if so in fulfilling it he paradoxically condemns his show to failure.

The Pin
Every year the Fringe hosts a handful of sketch troupes promising to do some different with the venerable Oxbridge-graduates-and-silly-voices form. The Pin, three former Cambridge Footlights, are this year’s model. It’s relatively common to tell a single story through different sketches. The Pin’s twist on this formula is to play with the narrative structure, jumping backwards and occasionally forwards to show the origin and result of each scene. There’s no doubting the cleverness of the writing and the precise staging required to make this work, but this cleverness and precision seems to me to be at the service of a gimmick rather than a genuine development of the form.

It’s worth contrasting what The Pin do with the more widespread use of longer narratives running through a series of sketches. The latter can generate extra laughs when the links between sketches are revealed, or it can give the show as a whole an emotional or dramatic depth which individual sketches could not carry. I didn’t notice either of these resulting from The Pin’s playing with chronology. What it adds to the individual sketches are explanations of their starting points (e.g., why a character goes out to do a favour for the old man downstairs, why the old man’s window gets broken, etc.). The sketches themselves are the usual mixed bag – some excellent ideas (I particularly liked the Italian waiter who gradually drove a blissful couple to break up) alongside less inspired fare. But explaining their characters in this way, through potted back stories, didn’t make them funnier, or add much by way of dramatic irony or pathos. Failing a very different approach to the sketches themselves, I don’t see how it could.


Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Wednesday 15th (part 1)

Perhaps the single most interesting feature of comedy at the Fringe, apart from the volume and variety, is the degree to which it draws on influences from elsewhere. This year has seen shows bringing comedy together with magic and puppetry, but the most frequent external source is theatre. Three shows I saw offered interesting (and contrasting) takes on comedy and theatricality.

Would Be Nice Though... (Odd Comic)
Site-specific comedy has been a feature of the Fringe of recent years, and in the theatre world for longer. The point of performing a comedy in a specific location, apart from sheer novelty, is the tension it sets up between the ‘comedy’ and ‘site-specific’ parts of the description: how far can the show adhere to the situation in which it is set while being funny? Or, alternatively: how far can the show deviate from this situation without the situation, and the specific site, becoming redundant to the humour?

Odd Comic have a pretty good stab at solving this conundrum, but they don’t quite hit the mark. The build-up, with the audience being ushered up some stairs, waiting on a landing and then being moved into a room to wait some more, was just the slow burn required, with the humour springing from slight quirks in characters otherwise closely tailored to the context. But for whatever reason (a need for more laughs, or for something a bit more peculiar) the comedy became increasingly surreal and dislocated from its surroundings in the final part of the show. It felt like random silliness imposed on the situation rather than being drawn from it. You could imagine the botched video presentation and its aftermath occurring onstage at any number of offbeat sketch shows, whereas what had gone before could only have worked in a cramped office space. 


Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Sunday 12th

Fringe comedy suffers from two major problems.i The first is obvious: people trying to be funny, who aren't. You know the drill: charmless standups shouting abuse at the audience for not laughing, improvisers desperately shoehorning their rehearsed lines into unfortunate situations, 'wacky' sketch troupes performing with little clothing and no dignity. We've all encountered this sort of problem; some of you/us may even, at one point, have been that problem.

The second problem isn't as obvious, but if anything is even more pervasive: funny people in shows which aren't funny. Performing comedy is a demanding business. It's not enough that the performer is funny with their friends, or even to strangers; being funny on stage, for up to an hour at a time, is a very different task. For a start, they're expected to be funny; that's the point of their being on stage (and what an audacious thing it is, to claim to be able to make a roomful of people – or some subset of a roomful, at any rate – laugh at your jokes or general hilariousness.) The dynamic is very different to real-life humour; even the funniest person you've ever met is unlikely to mount a one-way barrage of humour for fifty minutes (and if they do, chances are they will come across as funny in a different way.)

This second problem is particularly obvious in sketch shows and character comedy, because here it's easier to pull apart the material from the delivery. A number of shows I've seen in the past couple of days have featured often accomplished performers offering sharp characterisations and holding the audience's attention, but not being funny. Kieran Hodgson, of up-and-coming sketch outfit Kieran and Joe(or The Joes, depending on what year it is), presents a stream of precisely drawn caricatures, with careful attention to detail in the facial expressions and hand movements. But I found only a handful of these creations actually amusing. Likewise, Ruth Bratt and Lucy Trodd's sketch show Well Done You runs through a range of mostly broad but convincing accents and stereotypes, but these were placed in sketches which went nowhere (and not intentionally, either).

In each case, I got the impression that the characterisation itself was being made to carry too much of the comic weight; we were being given comic characters rather than comic scenarios, i.e., sketches. I don't mean that the characters must always be placed in well-defined contexts with clear plots and climaxes that make sense (though I find that doesn't hurt). It's the broader point that a funny show requires funny writing, whether it be dramatic writing as in orthodox beginning-middle-and-punchline sketches, or a comic juxtaposition of ideas. Nor need 'funny writing' involve witty dialogue; it can be instructions for someone to do something which, in a particular context, is funny. Sam Simmons spends about a third of About the Weather dancing to loud and stupid music, but in the context of his show it (mostly) works. Does he need to do it with sweaty conviction and an appealing lack of grace? Does it help that he looks like a PE teacher with a disturbing past? Yes, and yes (and yes, he does). But his show isn't just a funny person being funny; it's a funny person doing a funny show, where a lot of work has been put into bringing the audience onboard, so that what might in another context be desperate begging for laughs is infectious silliness. Funny show = funny person + funny writing. Not the most useful equation, but not one you should ignore completely.

i Apart from issues of financial security, equity for performers, the increasing commercialisation and corporate digestion of the entire Fringe experience, etc
Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Saturday 11th

My immediate reaction on leaving Nick Sun's show was 'Why do other stand-ups bother?' Which says a little about Nick Sun, and a little about me, but maybe not what you'd first think.

It's an odd reaction, objectively speaking. Why should Sun's excellence be relevant to what other comics are doing? Thus far I've seen five stand-ups, plus a couple of musical comedy acts and a spoken word piece which was stand-up in all but location in the Fringe guide. Most of these comedians aren't even trying to do what Nick Sun achieves. The only comic I've seen who mines the same seam of bitterness and alienation was Lewis Schaffer (in the same room, coincidentally), and the fact that Sun did some of the things he did but better doesn't change the fact that Schaffer's was a good show.

The only other comedian I've had this reaction to – 'Why do other stand-ups bother?' - was Daniel Kitson. I think I had the reaction in each case for different reasons. In the case of Kitson, it's simply because he's Kitson. (To give you a idea of how he is regarded in the comedy world, I was talking a few years ago with a circuit comediani about our favourite stand-ups, and when I mentioned Kitson he replied 'I assumed we were talking about my favourites other than Kitson'.) Sun is very good, but not quite that good. The reaction this time, I think, was down to him being so refreshing after a diet of comics who ranged from very enjoyable to average to downright poor, but who were all doing pretty orthodox stand-up. It turned out that Sun's particular take on the mechanics of the form was just what I needed at that point.

It's not that he's reinventing the wheel – plenty of comics have have things to say about inane audience interaction, predictable stand-up topics and the whole experience of being in a dank room listening to someone talk into a mic at you. But I can't recall a comic who blends this metacomedy so forcefully into the persona of a frustrated, bitter stand-up, who hates what he is doing but is forced to do it anyway. Sun, of course, has an excellent command of the dynamics of stand-up, and has things to say about some of those hackneyed topics he so decries, but his disgust is no less convincing for all that. (In theory, an anti-comedian who completed subverted what they were doing to the point that their show became boring would be pushing the idea further, but it's difficult to see how such a show could be funny. Sun is funny – and anyway, the fact that he is actually good at stand-up adds a certain poignancy to his dislike of the form.) 

i Don't worry, it's no-one famous. Sorry, Sean.


Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Friday 10th

The current fashion for science and rationalism in stand-up reaches some sort of a climax when AC Grayling speaks/performs/lectures tonight on the Fringe. This trend is partly an extension of the twee comedy of a few years ago (shows about mixtapes, home-made fliers, etc), with Josie Long's defence of the Enlightenment one obvious conduit. Other comics, such as Robin Ince, have been working at the comedy-science coalface for longer, and the more general cultural interest with science and rationalism has also helped.

Comedy and science are not natural bedfellows. (Comedy and rationalism, i.e., debunking astrology, homeopathy and other new age beliefs, are much more obvious allies.) This isn't to say that the two can't be combined, just that the balance between them is very difficult to get right, more difficult than, say, comedy and politics. Too much scientific detail anaesethises the comedy; too little turns the comedy into shallow name-dropping.i (Politics, by contrast, is inherently dramatic and about performances, and requries just a little exaggeration to become ridiculous.)

Of course, the scientist-comedians are aware of this danger, and plan accordingly. By way of brief and extremely unscientific illustration, consider two shows I saw yesterday: Helen Arney and Domestic Science (a double act between Ms. Arney and Rob Wells).ii Domestic Science avoided the dilemma just described by not really being about science; some of the jokes relied on scientific references, but for the most part it was a standard double-act, with sock puppets, audience participation, and the occasional spat between the performers. The scientific content featured largely as a pretext for these set-pieces. The recurring soap operas featuring the domestic lives of famous scientists relied far more on spoofing bad television than any detailed knowledge of the work of Marie Curie or Charles Darwin.

Helen Arney is leading name in the science-comedy movement, but her solo show wasn't as convincing a vehicle for her undoubted talents. Voice of an Angle was just as whimsical as Domestic Science, but the powerpoint-heavy format felt more like a presentation, and there were fewer concessions to straightforward comedy. The humour was certainly more reliant on recognising scientific terms, but more importantly too much of it relied on the premise that science and the ukelele are an inherently funny combination. This might be true on the radio (specificially Radio 4, on which Arney has performed), but as a live comedy show it didn't have enough punch or downright silliness. Like the kind of culture-geek comedy purveyed by Project Adorno, the science-comedy crossover is basically a good thing, but not the easiest to master.

i I blame Tom Lehrer. It was funny to put the Periodic Table to jaunty music, but it wasn't a particularly good comic song, and unfortunately it's become a template for a lot of subsequent ditties listing reams of scientific data to little comic effect.
ii Disclosure: I know Mr. Wells. I even know his real surname.


Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
Thursday 9th

If it's August, I must be in Edinburgh, or planning to go there, or wishing I was still there. For the moment at least, I'm there. What follows is an inevitably haphazard set of jottings about what I will do and see – not really a set of proper reviews, more whatever themes happen to crop up. Expect it to read a little like something you get in the broadsheets when arts correspondents are dispatched for one weekend to report on 'the state of the Fringe' - except that I won't be trying to sum up a three-week arts festival as a whole, and I'll try to base my opinions on more than seeing a single stand-up, a single piece of physical theatre from Poland, and the Cambridge Footlights. Can I exceed the shoddy standards of British/Irish journalism? A tall order, but that's the challenge I've set myself.

The first thing that strikes the recidivist Fringe visitor is how little changes, at least from year to year (no doubt, the Fringe is rather different now than it was, say, in 1992 – but it's very similar to how I remember it eight years ago). The same patterns of activity across the city; the same multitudes of impossibly fresh-faced students bursting into choruses from musicals and ordering preposterous juices in Black Medicine; the same mixture of desparation, naivete, cynicism, and out-and-out insanity on the Royal Mile. Stepping off the train from Durham into this maelstrom actually makes me feel thankful I'm not hawking a show here. It's hard enough just trying to take it in, without scrabbling for a foothold in the overloaded consciousness of every passerby.

Two shows this evening, offering contrasting takes on musical comedy, and illustrating contrasting dangers that the form faces. Christian Reilly played to a packed audience who generally enjoyed his smuttier efforts and were a little more reserved about his political fare. Project Adorno (my obligitary wild-card Fringe choice) played to an audience that peaked at four, though the four of us were still there at the end.

Reilly offered a much more recognisable take on musical comedy, featuring such classic tropes as sincere-sounding songs with smutty lyrics, a song from one artist in the style of another artist, and songs with lyrics changed to reflect recent events. There was nothing much the matter with his execution of individual numbers, but the cumulative effect is slightly deadening; when the same trick is repeated too often, it becomes hard to appreciate it as anything other than a trick. (Stand-ups who rely on one-liners face a similar problem: if the quality of the lines dips, what was delightfully subtle and smooth becomes forced and clumsy). One way to avoid this might be to explore unusual themes, but Reilly rarely stretched himself on this score.

On the face of it, this isn't a criticism you could level at Project Adorno; their electro-pop odes covered such varied subject-matter as Rene Magritte, manhole covers and the National Trust. But in it's own way, their treatment of musical comedy was as conservative as Reilly's (although I should add that they were in the Cabaret section of the Fringe Programme, and clearly weren't primarily interested in getting laughs). While it's good to see an act so determinately niche, they relied very heavily on mentioning names (famous and obscure) and on the occasional pastiche. Once you've gotten over the thrill of hearing a song about the Test Match Special or catching a reference to Carl Andre, there seemed little left to get your teeth into. The writing wasn't witty enough to work as a celebration of their geeky love of pop culture and art history, and for the most part they didn't appear interested in subverting it either. You couldn't say that they were giving the audience what they wanted, but they never moved beyond a set of boundaries which ultimatey proved as resticting as those faced by Reilly.


What is a Joke? (an occasional series)

A couple of recent articles about the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine takes on the sacred monster that is the New Yorker cartoon got me thinking about what counts as a joke, and how jokes succeed or fail. Thus begins an occasional series within an already rather occasional blog, about the nature of The Joke.
(A caveat: we’re definitely heading for the kind of territory dismissed by EB White in his quotation which provides the title of this blog. Readers with little patience for such phrases as ‘The beauty of the joke is how the expectation is built up through the mapping of each of these terms onto its counterpart in the other sentence’ might want to stop at this point.)
I assume a joke must involve some incongruity or the confounding of an expectation, very often one which the joke itself establishes (Robert Mankoff’s comments about jokes involving contrasting frames of reference are relevant here). This isn’t much use as a definition of a joke (it also applies to whodunnits and surprise parties), but it does allow us to think about how jokes might work, and how one joke might work better than another.
As a starting point, consider a recent exchange I had with a friend (of mine). He asked me for an example of what I considered a good joke, and I offered him the following, which as far as I know comes from Groucho Marx:

‘Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana’.

My friend offered me the following (unattributed):

‘How did Darth Vader know what Luke Skywalker got for his birthday? He felt his presents’.

For what it’s worth, I’m not crazy about my friend’s joke (sorry Simon). I’m reluctant to say it’s not funny, or even that it’s not as funny as Groucho’s. If someone said they preferred the Darth Vader joke, I’m not sure I could say that they were wrong, any more than they would be wrong to prefer Jack Daniels to Talisker, or vanilla to mint choc. But I think there are objective criteria on which we can judge jokes, and I think that Groucho’s joke works better as a joke than the Darth Vader one.
Each of these jokes is a pun, and each involves a pun on two words (‘flies’ and ‘like’, and ‘felt’ and ‘presents’/‘presence’, respectively). One involves a reference to a pop cultural phenomenon (though the other does involve reference to a cliché). I don’t think this makes much of a difference, though – many finely-wrought jokes require familiarity with a specific framework or set of assumptions.[i] What does make a difference, I think, is that the Groucho joke establishes and subverts the expectations of the audience in a more efficient and subtle manner. To see how it does this, work backwards. The joke (the confounded expectation) is revealed in the juxtaposition of the two sentences, which have the following respective structures:

First sentence: noun-verb-preposition;

Second sentence: adjective-noun-verb.

The beauty of the joke is how the expectation is built up through the mapping of each of these terms onto its counterpart in the other sentence.[ii] ‘Fruit’ is actually used as an adjective in the second sentence, but it is often used as a noun, and its position after the first sentence creates the assumption that this is how it’s functioning here. Because of that assumption, ‘flies’, which is actually used as an adjective, is assumed to be functioning as a verb; and because of those two assumptions, ‘like’ in the second sentence is understood as setting up a comparison. It’s only when this assumed comparison goes awry that one rolls back these assumptions and uncovers the joke. This sounds extremely pedantic, and of course it is. But it’s a tribute to the joke in question that to appreciate how it works one must go into this kind of detail.
The Darth Vader joke works differently. There’s no expectation confounded, just the incongruity of Christmas in the Star Wars universe. This requires a more cumbersome setup than the Groucho joke; the two frames of reference are yoked together before the punchline, so we’re immediately confronted with the incongruity rather than being allowed to figure it out. This diminishes what is left to be revealed, and signposts what the joke is going to be like. We’re all familiar with jokes of this form, and know that the punchline will be a pun on something from Star Wars.[iii] Again, this isn’t to say the resulting joke will be bad, just that it won’t have the sophistication of Groucho’s. While we can hardly say that someone is wrong to think it funny, I think we can legitimately question their appreciation of how jokes work – their appreciation of wit – if they deny this.

[i] E.g.,Dorothy Parker’s timeless line ‘If all the girls at the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be surprised’, which is not timeless insofar as it relies on its audience being familiar with the ‘If all the such-and-such were laid to end to end…’ convention.
[ii] I did warn you.
[iii] E.g., ‘What do Titanic and The Sixth Sense have in common?’ ‘Icy dead people’ (for my money, that’s a better joke than the Darth Vader one). See also innumerable sketches featuring Jesus shopping for a cross in Ikea, etc.


His Kingdom Come? (Moonrise Kingdom)

            A quick post on Wes Anderson – partly because I mentioned him in my most recent post, partly because he has a new film out. Super-quick summary: it’s not essential viewing, but if you liked his other stuff, you’ll probably like this one too. Slightly longer summary: I liked his other stuff, and I liked this too, but I liked it less. One reason is a danger ever-attendant on arch humour and comedy of manners, of becoming too dry, too brittle, too mannered. A second reason is a certain staleness in the Anderson Style. Intense young leads; furrowed middle-aged antagonists; epigrammatic dialogue; beautifully composed tableaux; tracking shots of small armies scuttling back and forth, marshalled by said intense leads and/or furrowed antagonists; predictably enough, they’re all here. At times it feels like watching a very skilled tribute to the cinematic oeuvre of W. Anderson.
            The third reason requires a little more explanation. Basically, there seems to be little else to the film than the aforementioned Style. There is less going on here in terms of plot than in The Life Aquatic, and far less in terms of character and empathy than in Rushmore. It’s hard to say much about either of the lead characters (Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop) other than they wish to be together and are prepared to embark on a quixotic rebellion to achieve this. Bill Murray’s character (Suzy’s father) is a photocopy of a photocopy of his part in Rushmore.
It might seem odd that this, in and of itself, could make a film less funny, but in Anderson’s case it makes perfect sense. His humour doesn’t work by way of set-ups and punchlines in the dialogue; rather, the set-up is typically the situation itself, and the punchline will be a dry comment on proceedings. (Anderson’s best lines are asides – what is unusual is how he places them at the centre of scenes, rather than having his characters deliver them in passing.) It’s in this way that his humour is closest to that oft-used comparison, the New Yorker cartoon.
Panel cartoons don’t rely on engaging plot or characters; they’ll have just enough detail to let us place what we are seeing and who’s talking. Strip cartoons are ever-so-slightly more expansive: the first panel or two builds up an interaction between usually familiar characters, thus basically working up a little plot. Simplifying for the sake of a brief blog post, one problem with Moonrise Kingdom is the grafting of a panel cartoonist’s sensibility onto a situation which develops through character interaction, more like a strip cartoon. This wasn’t such an issue in the earlier Anderson films, because the characters and story were well-developed enough that each exchange both amused and slid the plot a little further on; and the lines (and in Bill Murray’s case, his trademark expressionless expression) were funnier for coming from a perspective that you could properly engage with. The dramatic aspects of Moonrise Kingdom are too slight to allow for that lightness. And when it’s hard to care about the characters, Anderson’s bon mots rattle around like peas in an empty tin: they make a distinctive sound, but you wouldn’t confuse them with anything that mattered too much.


The Soul of Whit

Things I look out for in gathering material for a blog post: sketch groups busy ‘reinventing the genre’;[i] up-and-coming stand-ups about to squander their promise in something awful on BBC3; funny females and/or articles denying there could ever be such a thing (anything to chase ever-elusive publicity); and writers or performers with a distinctive style. The last category is sparsely populated - it’s a tough job being either funny or distinctive, let alone both.
Step forward Whit Stillman, American auteur and purveyor of the sort of low-energy satire for which the adjective ‘sly’ should have been coined. If you haven’t seen any of his work, think of him as a sort of goyish Woody Allen with fewer zingers, or a less geeky Wes Anderson. These comparisons place him fairly accurately as regards the class of his characters, and his nostalgic aesthetic; they also hint at his humour without really summing it up.
Stillman’s characters want, in a self-conscious fashion, to change the world. His is a universe where you can barely move for bumping into chunks of ideology: decorum, etiquette and Catharism are among the causes spoken up for in his latest film (and first for thirteen years), Damsels in Distress. For a film which is nominally a comedy, it is noticeable how few attempts at humour any of the characters make. Everyone is in earnest here, which can become tiresome but is also the key to the film’s charm. What makes Stillman’s sense of humour so distinctive is how none of his characters are played for laughs. They are naïve, for the most part – though the Cathar turns out to have a hidden agenda – but the film indulges them; they may lose in love or life, they may lose their innocence, but they never lose their belief.
I can imagine this being highly irritating to someone who doesn’t buy into Stillman’s conceit. A lot of what we see seems misguided or downright irrelevant, and the determinately non-judgemental approach taken towards it might come across as precious, a celebration of difference for its own sake. I can sympathise with criticisms of this sort, but I can’t help but feel that they are missing the point somewhat. Stillman isn’t presenting these characters as rebukes to the cynicism of our sullied age, but as studies of people with a very particular set of attitudes towards the past and the present. The humour comes from the incompatibility between their beliefs and the real world, but the joke is on neither them nor us; the joke is our mutual incomprehension. Violet and her companions, ceaselessly trying to drag the male students of Sevenoaks University into an age of innocence or at least one of personal grooming, are ridiculous, but they are not laughable, no more than we would be for ignoring what they get so worked up over.
The obvious danger with this approach is a lack of bite or sharpness in the writing, something compounded in Damsels in Distress by the slow-moving plot. Whitman, it has been observed, makes comedies of manners, but at times his comedy is too mannered for its own good. This is why, for all that I find his films intriguing, I can never enjoy them as much as I would like. Whether this is Stillman’s fault or my own is, of course, another matter.

[i] Sometimes they even manage it, or close enough.