[Editor’s note: I asked my husband what he would write about for this column. He got pretty excited. He actually sat down and wrote 4000 words without breaking a sweat. I am honored to feature enthusiasm such as this; enjoy! If you think he’s full of shit, don’t hesitate to let him know.]
Here’s the thing - and Sarah knows this - I’m not really embarrassed by much. Am I embarrassed by my own behavior? Yes. CONSTANTLY. But not because I love it. Am I embarrassed by my taste in art? No. So at first I had a hard time choosing a topic for this guest blog. Finally I had a key insight - whose embarrassment are we talking about? Could it be...Sarah’s? Well. That makes it easy.
I love absurdist, transgressive humor. More specifically, I love a very particular strain of long, rambling jokes with punchlines that function on multiple levels. In this kind of joke, the humor of the joke derives from (1) surface-level subversion of the expectations created by the setup, (2) subversion of the expectations created by the joke structure itself, and (3) making an unexpected, much larger and subversive observation about life itself.
I love this very particular kind of joke to an extent, and I tell this kind of joke at such length and at such inappropriate times, that Sarah finds it intensely embarrassing. Which, quite frankly, kind of makes it funnier.
People in my life, when they are annoyed, have called this form of humor “Tristan Humor” or the jokes I tell “Tristan Jokes.” In the parlance of humor, it is more like a subgenre of black comedy. Black comedy tends to refer to jokes or works that take a cynical approach to taboo subjects, and I’m specifically fond of black comedic works that also interrogate the nature of comedy and/or storytelling.
Hold on. Before you get too far into this, haven’t you ever heard about how explaining a joke kills the joke?
Yes, and that is incorrect. Explaining a joke only kills the joke if someone asks you to explain it because they don’t understand it, or if you explain without being asked because you assume they don’t understand it, because either way that’s insulting and it undermines the context that makes the joke funny. I’m using critical analysis to explain jokes that people understand intuitively, which is a way of reiterating and elaborating on the joke and also deepening our appreciation of the form.
But if people already dislike the joke and are embarrassed by you telling it, the explanation is going to seem like an insistent, pedantic extension of the self-aggrandizing instincts that lead you to tell long, unfunny jokes in the first place.
Fairly stated, but counterpoint: what is this blog about, if not interrogating the mechanics of the things we love to deepen our understanding of artistry, and by extension our selves?
Counterpoint: nobody cares. Why can’t you tell jokes that people will like?
I am a grown up man-person. I have a daughter who calls me Daddy. I have a job and I wear a suit sometimes. You are telling me to be embarrassed about the things I like, or at least not to talk about them in public. It is just SO not in the spirit of the blog, even if--and I accept your implied point--the deeper point of the blog is to get people to read and enjoy it. I gotta be me. Sarah knows that. She asked me to write the fucking blog so I am going to do it my way. Ok? I AM GOING TO MAKE A BLOG OF SELF-AGGRANDIZING SELF-CENTERED BULLSHIT, SO YOU CAN JUMP ON BOARD OR FUCK RIGHT OFF.
So, for instance, I used to tell a version of this joke at dinner parties:
[Note - I can’t summarize this joke for you. You have to watch the video or none of the below makes sense.]
Most of our friends and guests did not get that joke, or did not think it was that funny. I would be laughing uncontrollably and people would think I was laughing at them. As if it were a shaggy dog story (i.e., a long joke comprised of an extended setup and no punchline or an irrelevant punchline, and the joke is on the listener because it goes nowhere).
But the Hobby joke is not a shaggy dog story. It has a setup and a punchline that functions on all those levels I described above.
Punchline - Level One
The setup is that Morty’s personal growth, happiness, and success come from developing a hobby, beekeeping. The punchline is that he is actually just keeping a box of dead bees in his closet, which is not beekeeping and also not a hobby.
Punchline - Level Two
The shaggy dog element of it, to some extent, is this second level of subversion. The joke has a long setup that leads you to expect a certain kind of punchline, probably a double-entendre of some kind about how the guy uses the honey for some sexual purpose or maybe just a pun like “...because beauty is in the eye of the bee-holder.”
To illustrate this point, try googling “bee jokes.” There are many jokes about bees, because bees have many homonyms, and we associate a number of concepts and words with bees, such as sting, honey, buzz, etc. And at their basic, dumbest level, a lot of jokes are just about creating an expectation as to one of those words in context, and subverting it by deploying a different meaning or context.
In other words, bees are an accessible premise for a really basic type of joke with a basic type of punchline, and when someone starts telling a joke in a certain manner and context of presentation, we expect a certain type of punchline. Instead, this joke ends with “fuck ‘em,” which is abrupt and profane and doesn’t even do the work of the joke. The work of the joke is done as you connect the dots yourself: by “fuck ‘em,” Morty implies he’s just killed a lot of bees and left them in a box in his closet. So “fuck ‘em” is a short road to the mental gymnastics that bring us back to Level One of the punchline: this is not “beekeeping” and not a “hobby;” but the violent escalation to profanity also propels us into Level Three.
Punchline - Level Three
So, we have a joke that subverts our expectations about the concept of hobbies, and the concept of jokes. But there’s a third level of subversion here, which occurs when we ask ourselves why this “hobby” has made Morty a happier person.
There are a few ways to read the joke, and they aren’t necessarily exclusive to each other:
Morty is lying about, or projecting a false image of, having become a happier, healthier person.
Morty is happier and healthier because he has caused pain and death to a large number of living beings.
Morty is individually a bad person.
Morty represents the male experience and culture.
Morty represents the Jewish experience and culture.
Morty represents the human experience and culture.
The joke forces us to ask these questions. In fact, the way you tell the joke can accentuate various interpretations and aspects of the questions. For instance, it’s not necessarily Jewish, (although this form of humor certainly has its roots in Jewish culture) and you could tailor it to any other culture, or just neuter that aspect.
(Or, as I do, you could go the other way entirely and name your characters Ralphie and Moishe, and really Jew the shit out of it. Another of my favorite jokes goes like this:
Two gentile businessmen are walking down the street. The one says to the other “Hey, how’s business?”
The other says “Great!”
Tristan, this is too far afield. Stay focused. And remember what happened when you told that joke to the two Jewish partners at your law firm?
Yeah, they didn’t get it. But the non-Jewish partner thought it was pretty funny.
That’s almost certainly worse. That means the Jews are the butt of the joke. And it’s not even clear to you or anyone else that YOU are Jewish, which gives the joke a mean-spirited edge.
I’m Jewish enough to tell that joke.
In your own head, maybe, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good decision. And again, they didn’t get the joke when you told it to them.
Maybe, but I think they liked that I told it, anyway. How about we just table the Tristan’s-Relationship-to-Judaism issue to the next guest blog post.
Which voice am I in? Do I still need to close my parenthesis?)
And so the third level of the joke is really the subversion of expectations about what the setup even is. The setup is not so much the hobby or the beekeeping, it’s that Morty has become happy. And what makes Morty (individually, or as a Jew, or as a human) happy? Causing pain and death - to bees, or possibly to anything.
There are other jokes that use this same setup and punchline a lot more obviously. For instance, here is a version I just thought up (AN ORIGINAL JOKE, FOLKS):
A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar. Father O’Murphy says “Rabbi, on this day you look joyful - radiant, even. Truly, you have become one with the Lord.”
The Rabbi responds “No, God is a lie and all religions are scams, but I just made a bunch of money killing a guy. How’s the boy-rape?”
Or you could just watch the movie Grosse Pointe Blank, which contains elements of this joke, although I think ultimately neither that movie nor its characters assert that murder per se brings happiness. Really great movie though!
There you go. That’s the thing I love to an extent that embarrasses Sarah - jokes that are so far up their own asses that they try to transgress our expectations about our everyday lives, the act of telling jokes, and the meaning of life itself.
BUT WHY IS IT EMBARRASSING
I know a fair number of people who find these jokes mildly funny in the right context, and a small number who find them wildly, life-affirmingly hilarious, and the latter tend to be among my close friends. But generally, I think this kind of humor is often poorly received, for a few reasons:
It’s difficult to appreciate this type of humor if you haven’t already spent a fair amount of time thinking about why things are funny at all. I mean, you may have noticed I use the term “subversion” a lot above, which speaks to a certain scholarly definition of humor that not everyone knows or cares about, and I’ve clearly googled and read hundreds of bee jokes before I even wrote this blog post. And I get the sense most people don’t do that. Even among my social circle of relatively wealthy, white East-coasters with a liberal arts education, it’s a minority. There’s an argument to be made that Western culture has systematically underexplored and undervalued both genre writing and humor at a critical level; Umberto Eco makes that argument in an interesting way in The Name of the Rose and I think Sarah has devoted a lot of her academic and non-academic work to that argument.
Bad delivery. I mean, I don’t think that’s usually my problem, but who knows.
Wrong context. Not every occasion when we tell jokes is the right occasion to tell a joke that is about why we tell jokes.
As you well know, this is usually what embarrasses Sarah about these jokes. Everyone is having a perfectly good, NORMAL time, and then you tell a joke and everyone is like “ok well that was funny but I don’t want to read your fucking dissertation, so how do we move on from that…” and Sarah is like “this is the person I chose to marry, and I’m going to have to justify that to these people, again…”
Yes, but often the impropriety of the context is another level of subversion that adds to the humor, as with the Moth Joke.
As if that’s an excuse? What is worth sacrificing, to deliver a good joke? Was it worth it that time when your entire extended family was gathered for a meal before your grandmother’s funeral, and you told them the story of how she saved a Christmas party from East German terrorists at the Nakatomi Plaza in 1987?
Yeah, that was definitely worth it.
Half the room had never seen or had forgotten the movie Die Hard, and had no idea what you were talking about, and the other half was only mildly amused when they figured out the joke.
I sure thought it was funny.
This is exactly what Sarah finds embarrassing. When you’re laughing so much harder than everyone else it feels like the joke is on them and you’ve just been a self-centered ass. That’s not comedy.
I deliberately played it straight though, at least that time. I didn’t laugh. And frankly, it was a very cold room until that joke. People were entirely too serious about all this death and money stuff. If you recall, Mom had tried to warm up the room with some jokes she found on the internet, which weren’t really transgressive in any way, and nobody was getting into it and there were still some bad feelings about stupid shit from the past.
Even if that’s true, your joke went nowhere, there was no followup or deeper meaning - arguably no Level Three, you just told the story of Die Hard as if your grandma were John McClane, and then you sat down.
I think the deeper meaning was “chill the fuck out, everybody.” The meaning comes from the impropriety of the context.
True, but going back to your other point, landing a joke like this takes absolutely perfect delivery. And you know damn well that some people didn’t even get that message, and the message they DID get was “god damn, my nephew Tristan is one hell of a bougie East-coast intellectual jerk-off.”
FURTHER DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
There is one individual who has utterly, thoroughly mastered this kind of joke. His name is Norm MacDonald. I could really write another 10,000 words about his jokes and his delivery. And I did, in an earlier draft of this, and Sarah was like “this is literally four times too long.” So for now I will let the work stand for itself.
Here is the joke that is regarded, by a small but by no means negligible subset of humanity, as one of the greatest jokes ever told, the “Moth Joke.
Another personal favorite, the “Dirty Johnny Joke.”
Now, worth considering that these, like The Hobby, are “jokes” told as such in a particular context of joke-telling. This type of joke, or this type of humor generally, is extraordinarily difficult to sustain in a longer work of art. But it sometimes happens, and here are a few specific works that you may not know well, that I love so much that Sarah finds it a bit embarrassing:
The Aristocrats. It is a documentary about a single joke, told dozens of different ways by very talented comedians. This in itself is a tremendous lesson in the art of comedy. The Level Three aspect of “The Aristocrats,” the joke itself, is that it is the most foul and profane joke that the joke-teller can imagine or bring themself to tell. Which, I have to say, is very funny for, in my case, about 25 minutes, and probably a lot less for other people. It’s a 90-minute movie.
The films of the Coen Brothers generally, and particularly The Big Lebowski. Loving The Big Lebowski is pretty cliched, and it’s an incredible film for a lot of reasons. But as relevant to this essay - The Big Lebowski has a lot of great Level One and Level Two humor. At Level Three, though, it’s about the pointlessness of war. It’s not a coincidence that the movie is set during the first Gulf War, and one of the main characters is a sociopathic Vietnam vet. That aspect of it often gets played for laughs, but in typical Coen Brothers fashion, the movie makes a very serious political point.
Ugly Americans, Season 1, Episode 14, “The Manbirds.” Ugly Americans was a show on Comedy Central that I don’t generally recommend and is not available for streaming. However, this particular episode I find myself re-watching constantly, and I think it works well enough as a short film on its own. At Level One, it is perhaps the single most insane piece of art I have ever seen (see synopsis below). And yet it ties together in the end in a really sweet, optimistic way--one of the few works cited here that isn’t deeply cynical.
Synopsis: the city of New York is overrun by “Manbirds,” which are human-bird hybrids with wings and bird-heads and a sort of large, sheathed penis used for boxing. The Manbirds speak only in subtle variations of the phrase “suck my balls,” they eat only spare change, and they have no purpose and do nothing but piss, shit, vomit, and fight. The episode is about a sort of social worker who attempts to teach a baby manbird to sing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby Stills & Nash and also reunite the baby manbird with its father, who is a famous penis-boxer training for a title fight against a human who has been enslaved and dressed as a manbird as a self-imposed punishment for killing the baby’s mother.
Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 8, Episode 3, “Palestinian Chicken.” This is an approximately 20-minute episode with literally dozens of motifs and plot points that intersect absolutely perfectly. At Level One, it’s an episode about a golf tournament, and all Larry has to do to win the tournament is not utterly ruin his three closest friendships. At Level Three, it’s about Judaism, the Israel Question, money, sex, death, and how to live a good life in a complicated world. If you have to ask about Level Two, you haven’t seen Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Daniel Clowes, Ice Haven. This is a graphic novel that I’m not sure is entirely humorous. I think at Level One it’s mostly about a child who is kidnapped from a small town, but is so unpleasant in appearance and manner that nobody really wants to find him. At Level Three it’s about the meaning of life. But I have to say, I re-read this book and I still am not totally sure what it’s about. And I really like that.
You get the picture.
Thanks, Sarah! [Editor’s note: Thanks, Tristan!]