Linda and the jokes we don’t get

I am going to talk about one of Linda Hutcheon’s ideas.

Ever notice that some jokes make you laugh, and some don’t?  Of course you do.  You probably would say it’s because some jokes are good and some are bad.  Fair enough.

But the way jokes work is partly a matter of good construction, and partly a matter of the audience.  One of my favourite sayings is “there are no bad jokes, just bad audiences”.   It’s another way of saying that a joke that works is understood to be good, and one that falls flat to be bad, even if the problem was with the match between the material and the audience.

I am no doctor of joke-ology.

Let me illustrate with something a bit different.  I was in a production of The Biggest Noise, a children’s musical I wrote a very long time ago.  In one segment, two of the actors do some acrobatics.  I taught them phonetically how to count in Hungarian as they marched (because i thought it would be really cute): “egy, ketö, harom, négy; egy, ketö, harom, négy; egy, ketö, harom, négy.”  We performed it all over Toronto, and I suppose it did okay.  One magical day we took it to a library on Roncesvalles, in the west end of town, in a neighbourhood full of eastern Europeans….(!)

WOW. The kids came to life during “egy, ketö, harom, négy”…as if to say they recognized our Hungarian acrobats, perhaps even felt they were among family.  Same performance of the same material, but different audience? bang! a very different response.

Linda Hutcheon’s book Irony’s Edge exposed me to some wonderful ideas.

Someone tells a joke.  Depending on how i understand its nuances and implications, i will or won’t laugh.  Hutcheon talks about “communities of discourse”, which is to say, areas where language and imagery and myths overlap.  When we speak the same language (share the same values & imagery), we will understand one another.  For example,  as a man, i think i understand male things, whereas i miss nuances that women get; and vice versa, right?

As a Canadian, I share certain commonalities with Canadians.  MOST Canadians love to ridicule Toronto (ha some of them seem to HATE toronto), so while i understand this, as a Torontonian i don’t usually participate.  I shared a video from a Canadian comedy program (Rick Mercer Report) doing a deadpan news report about the horror: that snow had fallen in Toronto. 

Part of the subtext was that in 1999, after our silly mayor had made huge cuts to our budgets, we were completely overwhelmed by a snowstorm, unable to dig ourselves out.  The Mayor called out the military. And ever since, the rest of canada has been laughing at us (and no wonder!).

But notice that it depends on a set of knowledge?  Americans might get the idea that it’s absurd to be so worked up over snow, but miss out on the we-hate-Toronto subtext.  Discursive community is part of anything cultural.  When i write a play and put it before an audience, i have to be mindful of how it will be received; otherwise they may not “get it.”

The thing is, people often say “that movie is terrible” or “lousy joke”, aka a judgment about what they’ve heard, when what they really are having is a response based on their discursive community.  Imagine a man thinking of telling a joke that usually would have his pals screaming with laughter; but he’s on a first date with a woman.  WARN HIM! this woman is not from the same discursive community as his pals, or in other words, the joke that has his friends high-fiving and screaming with laughter might lead to the premature end of his date.

Sunday is super sunday, the day when much of America and indeed, Canada too, come to a halt while 22 men at a time struggle for 100 yards of real estate and a hunk of pigskin, while millions watch.  To some it’s a big deal, a matter of honour, manhood, the right to claim they really understand football.  To anyone who thinks football is a stupid past-time, of course, this notion will probably seem neanderthal in the extreme.  But football is just another context for discourse.  Those who “get” the NFL will be plugged in, whereas those who do not will be oblivious.

Within the large group of football fans are micro-communities.  Some of us love the ballet of the athletes in motion, pinpoint passing, strategy.  Others love a good hit, the pure violence of the game.  Some come to the game as an arena to express their civic pride, loyal to their team whether good or bad.

Some people will wear yellow triangles on their head.  This is a visual cue meant to suggest “cheese”, which is one of the chief exports of Green Bay Wisconsin.  Loyal fans of the Packers are known as “cheese-heads”.   In the big game Sunday February 6th, the Packers face the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have their own coded fan paraphernalia, as particular as the accoutrements of a medieval pilgrim, as specific as the fashion choices of rock music fans.  While i believe it’s possible to enjoy football, rock music or a pilgrimage without declaring your allegiance in the way you clothe yourself, those who wear their discursive community on their sleeve represent a different type of fan/pilgrim.

I consider myself very fortunate that I’m a bit of an omnivore.  This past week I’ve seen operas (Tales of Hoffmann, The Magic Flute and Pelléas et Mélisande, a broadway musical (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), a blended family comedy (Cyrus) and a silly superhero film (Green Hornet) and enjoyed them all.  I got to sing Haydn and Handel in church, played Bach & Busoni on the piano, listened incessantly to Nixon in China (a new CD i just bought), and will be singing a spiritual in church as part of our celebration of February (Black History Month).  And I will be watching the Superbowl on Sunday.

Debussy’s opera was written for a tiny group verging on a cult, namely the Symbolists.  They shared a set of assumptions.  They could be understood as a discursive community. It was (and is) a small community because most opera fans really don’t like — or get– this opera.

The opera I watched Thursday–Mozart’s The Magic Flute— has been presented in many different interpretations.  Some people insist on doing the opera exactly as written (and there’s a similar insistence in some people when you talk about film adaptation or other similar phenomena). The willingness to accept new and even radical interpretations is more likely among some people than others.  I find that some people are more resistant to radical re-imaginings of opera, just as some people are resistant to change, resistant to radical political ideas, or radical new fashions.  I don’t know how consistent these patterns are in people, but i do think there’s probably a correlation between discursive community and cognitive styles.  ‘Do mathematicians prefer Escher to Aeschylus?  I can only speculate, and admit that i find it great fun to think about such things.

I was fascinated that a film receiving terrible reviews —Green Hornet–could be so well received at the box office (it’s done rather well, last time i checked).  I confess that the main reason i went to see it is that it’s the only film at the Beach cinemas –near my home– that i either wanted to see or hadn’t yet seen.  Why Beach cinemas?  i wanted to go to purchase a ticket to the high definition Nixon in China to be shown Feb 12th (success!), and I knew i’d like the movie.

Seth Rogen is in it, and i’ve liked everything of his i’ve seen, even if goofyness is normally present in abundance (eg Superbad and Funny People).  Tom Wilkinson is in it, and in my experience absolutely everything he does is brilliant, from Batman Begins to In the Bedroom to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Shakespeare in Love.

Why did the critics hate Green Hornet?  i think critics are especially unhappy with films that they don’t understand.  No i don’t mean in the Ingmar Bergman – Spike Jonez – Charlie Kaufman sense of not understanding.  No, if we fail to get someone deemed to be brilliant (like that trio) we shut up about it and nod respectfully, possibly genuflecting in their direction.

On the other hand, when a self-respecting critic is mystified and sees no brilliance, they need to assert their own wisdom, and that means, according to the discursive foodchain, that they will do everything they can to devour the one to make them feel incompetent.  I believe something like that was at work with Green Hornet.  The film is sometimes hard to decode, because of its blend of styles and codes.  It crosses Rogen’s very natural comic gift with the slick procedures of super hero movies.  Rogen brings a wonderful lightness to the film, regularly saying and doing things so politically incorrect as to suggest they are mistakes.

In fact Green Hornet treads a path very similar to Batman Begins.  We get the life story, complete with a rationale for the craziness that follows.  It’s not profound.  It’s as light and disposable as a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Considering the polished surface of the film, this is very expensive junk food.  Clearly the producers & writers assessed the audience very cleverly, and in the process may even have decided that having the critics on board wasn’t necessary.

But the audience gets it.

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