Thursday, March 31, 2011

Carr Crash

So, over the past few days, rather than dealing with the case of G-Lo, we turned to someone who is actually funny?

Here is Jimmy Carr’s line again:

Say what you like about these servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’re going to have a fucking good Paralympic team in 2012.

You know what hit the fan after this. Conservative politicians, right-wing editors, moralizing journalists—they hit the fan. Mocking wounded soldiers, no respect for the lads, this man’s career must come to an end.

Now, here’s Carr’s apology in full (or at least in as full a form as I could find online; maybe he prattled on for ages, but from the articles quoting variants of this mea culpa, here is the longest):

I’ve got nothing but respect for the young men and women who put their lives on the line for this country. I’ve visited the military hospital in Selly Oak, Birmingham, and the rehabilitation centre in Headley Court on many occasions to meet seriously injured young men. I will continue to support them in any way I can. My thoughts are with the servicemen and their families, especially on Remembrance Sunday. I’m sorry if anyone was offended but that’s the kind of comedy I do. If a silly joke draws attention to the plight of these servicemen then so much the better. My intention was only to make people laugh.

It’s pretty awesome, isn’t it?

The apology itself is self-negating: he says sorry for something and then says that he’s done it, is doing it, and will continue to do it. I’m sorry, but that’s what I do. I’m sorry if anybody is missing their jewels, but that’s the kind of robber I am. I’m sorry if anybody lost their life, but that’s the kind of murderer I am. And you might have noticed that he wriggles a slippery little "if" in, even though the media shitstorm revolved around finding those people who were offended, or whose offence was stoked by prying journalists, and whose offence is sacrosanct (which is why conniving twats like to stand in the holy wafting vapours of sacred victimhood so we don’t smell the sour sweat emanating from their greedy bodies). The apology isn’t; it doesn’t really exist.

There are other traps here. Listen closely. “My intention was only to make people laugh.” Only. As if making people laugh is insignificant, trivial, and harmless, all the more so because the joke was silly—like the kind of jokes you get on children’s television shows where fat blob-like creatures put their hats on their bottoms or sit on a flowerpot and go “ooeee.” And in the very sentence when he dismisses the joke as “silly”, he indicates something, something very serious, something not-so-silly. It hardly went unnoticed that his joke was a rare mention of amputees in the public: is the media coverage of the consequences of war as anaemic and censored in the UK as in the US? I would assume so. The joke is not silly at all, of course; it’s about young men and women whose bodies have been violently, irrevocably, awfully mutilated, and Carr knows it. In fact, he may well be saying that only in his purportedly silly joke is the subject broached at all. The silly and the only double back as lethally critical of the media that is hounding him for a joke.

Carr is having it both ways: he’s saying he’s sorry, but that he’s not going to stop; he’s dismissing his comedy as trivial, unimportant, just a few laughs, while quietly noting that his joke is anything but trivial, that it speaks about the consequences of war; and all the while, as he dismisses his comedy, he’s pointing out that in his comedy he’s saying something that almost nobody else is: young men and women are getting their limbs torn off in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But then surely this is one of the exciting quagmires of comedy, isn’t it? That it can do all these things at once. It’s a sort of apology, but one that will not revoke itself, even as it disavows itself; it’s facile, puerile, silly, and so easily dismissed, while it speaks of evil and murder and war and mutilation when nobody else will.

We will go on with this again tomorrow. I promise.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Comedy means never having to say you're sorry

In my penultimate post I made a promise I didn’t keep: I said I would explain why George Lopez should not have apologised for his piggie jokes about Kirstie Alley. I began to construct an argument making this case, and then abruptly turned my back on it and walked off with the casual insouciance of a preacher exiting a massage parlour with bloody fingers and a slight limp.

It is tempting to apologise for not keeping this promise, especially after Sven’s outburst in the comments section. Why do we apologise for not keeping promises? Steven astutely pointed out that George Lopez “accepting” a kidney from his wife implies a transaction, in which Lopez contracts to, say, keep his side of the deal, like, say, not divorcing her once her kidney is no longer filtering her blood and is now filtering his. A promise is a kind of contractual obligation, based not on legal technicalities but on honour and the conventional balustrades of a social relationship: trust, the enduring significance of words, the value of intent. An apology for a broken promise is an attempt to restore those social virtues. I can acknowledge my failure and humble myself in a dignified manner; my words do have enduring meaning; my intentions are good.

So what is the problem with a comedian apologizing?

Let’s clear one hurdle: if a comedian, in the course of his or her daily life, runs over your dog, pukes in your lap, steps on your foot, stabs you with jake shears, or lets one rip in the elevator, an apology is in order (although if I were in an elevator with Steve Martin and he let one rip, I’d take the hit and apologise. Even if it was only the two of us.) I’m not saying that a comedian qua human being has carte blanche to go through life without saying sorry; I will say that a comedian qua comedian has carte blanche to go through life without saying sorry.

So perhaps this might be rephrased: what is the problem with a comedian apologizing for a joke, a gag, a routine, a caricature, a comic reference, an act of comedy?

Okay, there’s another hurdle. I suppose that if a comedian makes nobody in the audience laugh, he or she might consider apologising for failing to deliver a chuckle, for being unable to incite even a bemused glance across the table at one’s dinner date. At least on the surface it makes some sense: an audience pays money to be amused, the entertainer fails to amuse, an apology of sorts might be in order. This doesn’t quite stymie our concerns: jokes, gags, routines fail; a killer joke one night leaves the comedian dead the next. Furthermore, comic performances of all sorts involve the audience as part of the context: the audience is not a passive crowd of innocents being strafed by funny thought-bullets; the audience is prompting and provoking, reacting and responding, the individuals in the audience incriminating themselves with laughter. The failure of a joke is not entirely the responsibility of the comedian.

And please note, therefore, that we have already discovered two things through these caveats: the comedian is not responsible, which is not to say the person is not responsible; the failure of a joke is not entirely the responsibility of the comedian. Do these statements remind you of anything? Do they remind you of some questions? (Here's a hint: Does it matter who tells the joke? What is it to be funny?) In any case, we'll go on, but we'll refine the issue further: what is the problem with a comedian apologizing for a joke, a gag, a routine, a caricature, a comic reference, an act of comedy, if it offends somebody?

Let’s face it: when comedians are called on to apologise, or feel the urge to apologise, it’s usually for offending people, right?

But what if the social promise you are making is to offend? How can you "misjudge" offence if this is what you have promised to do? How can you say you have no malicious intent if you intend to offend? Whenever comedians get in trouble, we get to hear the yawn chorus chirping about how funny comedians used to be; how their jokes were as gentle as a newborn lamb's lips and as sweet as a Yorkshire ewe's milk after a feast of sugarsnap peas; how you’d have been proud to bring your mum to see them, and now the only place anybody respectable can take their mothers is to a gay bar. Of course, this is all phony nostalgia. Obviously, not every comedian makes scatological, racist, misogynist jokes in public; but one doesn't have to be a Freudian or Bakhtinian or Shakespearean to be aware of the fool's license, of comedy's transgressive powers, of how the illicit is conventionally packaged in comedy: all of which mean that someone, somewhere will take offence.

We'll pursue this further with a gag by one of the funniest, most brilliant comedians presumed alive :

Say what you like about these servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’re going to have a fucking good Paralympic team in 2012.

Here's a snippet of his subsequent apology:

. . . I’m sorry if anyone was offended but that’s the kind of comedy I do. . .

Jimmy Carr, as we will see over the next few days, gets caught in a number of (instructive) traps. But if an apology means I can acknowledge my failure and humble myself in a dignified manner; my words do have an enduring meaning; my intentions are good, how can this be consistent with comedy: a proud celebration of the loss of dignity, playfulness at the expense of conceits of enduring meaning, and where intentions are always ambiguous at best and at worst, far worse? How can one be sorry for causing offence is that is what one does?

Monday, March 28, 2011

All Apologies, Cont.

In my last post, I described the sorry tale of George Lopez's comedic encounter with Kirstie Alley, in which the jester made fun of the actress by calling her a pig three different ways during a commentary on her performance on Dancing with the Stars. She then played him like a cheap guitar. She made him dance and huff and puff and buy her flowers while she sat on the twitter-sidelines landing cruel tweet-jabs to his soft spots.

The New York Daily News, which deserves none of the respect it doesn't get, ran a poll in their story about this celebrity huff-fest. Let me see if I can copy it here:

Lopez vs. Alley

What do you think of George Lopez's comments about Kirstie Alley?

So, let's just run through the options.

"If it walks like a pig and talks like a pig..." it's . . . George Lopez? No, no, no. I see. Okay. Let's play along. This option is presumably for people who think Kirstie Alley is actually a pig.

"He's a comedian. It was just a joke that he didn't really mean." I'm coming back to this one.

"They were rude and unnecessary." Right, very interesting idea. As opposed to jokes that aren't rude and are necessary?

You don't have to know anything about online polls to know that you don't have to know anything to answer them. But giving people an option of "I don't know" in a poll of this nature is just cruel.

Obviously, this poll was not designed and implemented by geniuses. It switches from a singular to a plural tally, and, weirdly, all four options can be equally true. I answered the poll (I won't say which button I pushed) in order to see the results. Approximately 70% of respondents committed themselves to the belief that the joke was "rude and unnecessary". 25% were under the impression that George Lopez is a comedian. 4% thought Kirstie Alley was a pig. And 1% had expended the energy to click on a button that would signify to the entire world that they just did not know where they stood on the whole George Lopez-Kirstie Alley conflict. We'll call them "independents."

Three things we know: 1) Because this poll does not give us crude data about answers, we are unable to draw scientific conclusions; 2) This poll is written by dolts for dolts; 3) Everybody answering this poll is wrong.

Okay, so this poll was probably not written by dolts for dolts; it was probably written by some flustered, stoned intern between blow-jobs, who had to come up with something for the online edition or else the editor was going to give him another blow-job. We know some other things as well: we know that online polls are enticing fluff to make the whole experience seem interactive; we know that they're so pseudoscientific they make regular pseudoscience look sophisticated and empirical.

But there's something interesting in flaws. We're offered a pair of opponents right at the outset, "Lopez vs Alley". But this ain't a fair match. In the first option, a woman is turned into an "it" and a pig, and we're given the ellipsis of insinuation; in the second option, the man remains a "he" and is granted a profession, all of which is delivered in not one but two crisp sentences. This ain't a level playing field.

And what about that second option? "He is a comedian. It was just a joke that he really didn't mean." I wonder if the three parts of this defence ring any bells?

  • Does it matter who tells the joke? "He is a comedian."
  • What is the role of ambiguity in comedy? "He doesn't really mean it."
  • What is it to be funny? "It's just a joke."

  • At the end of the last post I promised I would explain why I didn't think George Lopez should apologize. But I've become bored with the story, so I'm going to deal with comedians and apologies with another example. That'll be the next post.

    All apologies

    If there is one Hollywood career I’ve had no interest in following, it’s Kirstie Alley’s. Her sour presence on Cheers made the show’s inevitable decline particularly pungent, and I’m not sure I’ve seen anything she’s done since then. But today, she gets a nod of respect.

    The other night, “comedian” George Lopez did a little routine about Alley’s performance on Dancing with the Stars, a series of jokes limited to comparing the famously “overweight” actress to a . . . pig. I don’t know which is more archaic, the joke or the attitude? Either way, Lopez stuck to the joke through its several iterations: the fat actress has hooves; before going on the show, she went to the market and had roast beef; and cut to a video clip of a pig with its head out of a car window going "Wheee".

    I can’t imagine who Alley’s devoted fans are, but I am entirely sympathetic to what they did next: they began haranguing Lopez, who subsequently cowered in the shelter of a tweeted apology:

    I misjudged the joke. No malice was intended and I apologize to Kirstie.

    He “misjudged” the joke? What sensitive moral antennae are required, what exquisite ethical reasoning goes into judging or misjudging a series of jokes that liken Kirstie Alley to a pig? And really, no “malice” was intended? By whom? Well, maybe he personally cherishes Alley, but did he really think that anybody who could cough up a laugh at his jokes would be entirely free of malice? Alley didn’t buy it for a minute.

    She subsequently tweeted:

    I don't need or want ur apology...I want your kidney dude..on behalf of ur X and all women uv insulted...give it back

    Apparently (gosh, this gets really gets good), Alley was making “fun of the comedian for accepting a kidney from his wife and later divorcing her.” She gets rough. The comedian’s little piggie jokes suddenly pale by comparison and look even more puerile and unimaginative.

    The conclusion is not an unhappy one, though. Alley let us all know that

    In fairness.. Mr. Lopez sent me a HUGE Slew of flowers today... I formally accept your flowers and your regards...heres yur kidney back..;)

    Slam. Dunk.

    In my next post, I'll explain why I don't think Lopez should have apologized at all.

    (By the way, I have to say, I love the idea of Lopez “accepting a kidney” from his wife. Apparently the conversation about a kidney transplant begins with “Darling, please, please accept this kidney from me” and not “Hey, your kidney is going to be cut out of your gut and sewn inside of me, okay?” Is that some serious unspeak or what? And, man, when the divorce came . . . cue jokes about who gets custody of the kidneys.)

    Sunday, March 27, 2011

    Stuck in Traffic

    So, in a few short days, we’ve encountered a lame joke, the relationship between comedy and reference, and what it means when we’re not sure if something is a joke or not. To put it another way, what happens on the edge of comedy? What do we learn about comedy when we spend time on the margins? Three fundamental questions have come up in one form or another in all three posts, questions by no means restricted to the edge of comedy:

    1. Does it matter who tells the joke?
    2. What is the role of ambiguity in comedy?
    3. What is it to be funny?

    Before stepping out past the edge of comedy, I want to revisit these three questions in relation to something I linked to yesterday, a line I couldn’t stop thinking about. It was one of Kanye’s tweets.

    “Boyfriends are like rush hour traffic . . . ALWAYS IN THE FUCKING WAY!”

    The first thing that occurred to me when this tweet skittered across the iced-over pond of my mind was how much it approximated wit: incongruous categories are suddenly shown to be cleverly related, the ellipsis creates a tension-inducing pause that is then resolved by an escape-valve, a furious ALL-CAP venting of anger. But something didn't work . . . rush hour traffic isn't really “in the way.” When something gets in the way, it is interposed between you and your destination. But if you’re in a car and in rush hour traffic, you’re actually part of the rush hour traffic. And then, to make matters worse, the tweet conjured up an image, presumably not one intended, of a very frustrated Kanye West hopping up and down at the back of a throng of boyfriends, trying desperately to elbow his way through to the hottie on the other side.

    Functionally, as a one-liner, it seemed like a dud; but the more I thought about it, the more I loved it.

    I found it amusing to think about how frustrating rush hour traffic must be to rich people chauffeured around in a limosine. I found it amusing that I was focusing on the rush hour traffic part of the line and not the boyfriend part, and after thinking it was funny, I felt a little sad that I had never been in a situation where I was competing with a pack of nominal boyfriends for somebody’s attention, like Odysseus or, apparently, Kanye. Slowly, the line began to make sense. If you are Kanye West, you are never part of rush hour traffic any more than you would be part of a pack of boyfriends. Traffic jams and boyfriends are indeed things that exist quite simply and "ALWAYS" as entities between you and your destination - no more, and no less. And then I understood. This wasn't a one-liner manqué that Kanye West tweeted hoping that one day it might make it into the Great Book of One-liners (orig. ed. Bob Hope, rev. ed. Jimmy Carr). It is not a one-liner. It is a statement of fact. From Kanye West. And at that point, the line suddenly became very funny. The jester isn't funny until he stops being the jester and becomes authentic.

    Out on the edge of comedy, you're dealing with bad jokes, things you're not sure are jokes, references that act like jokes. So what happens when you take one step further, one step beyond the edge, to take a look back inside? That is what I was wondering this afternoon as I waited for a bus after seeing a film about boyfriends and rush hour traffic, one of the three key American films of the 1970s.

    Taxi Driver tilts towards the comic in scene after scene. Travis Bickle takes Betsy on a date . . . to a porn film. Travis asks to speak privately with one of his fellow drivers, named the Wizard . . . and, Oz-like, the Wizard is not only incapable of giving him advice, he's nervous and embarrassed to be put in a position where somebody wants more from him than his usual bullshit. A bodega owner examines the corpse of the man who was trying to rob him . . . and then starts beating the body with a crowbar. Travis goes up to meet a secret service agent . . . and starts teasing him. The thirteen year old prostitute keeps trying to perform sex acts on a man who is there to rescue her. Harvey Keitel is a long-haired pimp with about a dozen different accents; Albert Brooks is Albert Brooks; Cybill Shepherd previews the Cybill Shepherd of Moonlighting. Martin Scorsese shows up in the backseat of the cab . . . to spy on his wife who is meeting a . . . and do you know what a gun would do to her face, or to her . . .

    There are little moments of bare comedy, like wisps of hair on a mummy's dessicated corpse ("organizized", Doughboy trying to sell a piece of bathtub), but they all double as warnings, re-appearing in grim ways or compromised by active proximity to the horror (Travis organizing his assault with the "organizized" gag written on the wall beside him; wheeler-dealer Doughboy is the first to ask him if he needs a gun).

    It may be obvious to say that Taxi Driver looks back over its shoulder at comedy but then veers away from the sentimentality of comedy; that disappointed expectation and bathos are not only comic motifs, but also the motifs of gritty realism; that some of the film's darkness and aggression and pathos is caught in the stunted, cold, eerie laughter it staunches in your throat; that the film is perfectly paced so that just when you think you're going to get a rewarding laugh and a moment to relax, you find you've been tied up into an unhappy little knot.

    In the director's cameo, we want the fast-talking, fidgety New Yawker to give us a little light relief and perhaps an amusing commentary on the art of the film: what we get is sourly racist, violently misogynistic voyeurism as two men huddle in a dark, confined space to watch a glowing white screen with a woman's silhouette. The psychological, moral, and aesthetic reassurances of comedy are stripped away.

    This was only the second time I'd seen the film, and the first time on the big screen, so I probably need to see it a few more times before I can talk intelligently about it. But I'll pose a question anyway: if the film is a sequence of comic vignettes drained of comedy, is the post-bloodbath finale a punchline? Is Travis Bickle then the authentic jester?

    Saturday, March 26, 2011

    Taking the twit out of twitter

    Twitter demands a new style of reading--at least for me as I somewhat belatedly try to learn how to follow the stuttered cascade of references and slap-and-forth responses; it's even harder to follow because I'm still a little starstruck: not only do I get a dribble of insight into my favourite star's minds as they jot down their thoughts, but they actually talk to each other across twitter, so it's like I'm sitting next to Bruce Willis at a restaurant and watching him lean over to the next table to say "Thanks for the concern, my Mom's better now" to Thom Yorke.

    As I begin to accustom myself to the churning text of Twitter, I come across a problem far from unique to twitter: what do you do when you're not sure something is a joke? Of course, you get some clearly great comic material on twitter - the flood of one-liners from Colbert, the occasional splash-in-the-face from Steve Martin or Jimmy Carr. But what about those lines that are not . . . quite . . . right.

    Bret Easton Ellis asks if Susan Boyle really understands her version of Lou Reed's Perfect Day but then says he guesses it doesn't matter because it's the best cover version of the song he's ever heard. But her version is not better than this; it's not better than this; and face it, it's not better than this, which might actually be shite. Boyle's version sounds like something cut from a mid-1980s Andrew Lloyd Weber play. But here's the rub: if ever there were a song that really doesn't need to be "understood", it's Perfect Day. It's not like Boyle has invested time and energy into Legendary Heart but not cottoned onto the fact that at least one of the lines comes from Shakespeare; she hasn't taken on Halloween Parade, without quite realizing that it is not really an elegy for trick-or-treating or apple-bobbing (unless by trick-or-treating and apple-bobbing one means something we can presume is not what Simon Cowell ever wants to discover is something Susan Boyle is fond of); it's not like Boyle has a version of I Wanna be Black or has tried to cover Metal Machine Music. It's Perfect Day. Everybody understands Perfect Day. So is Ellis saying Susan Boyle has such a cud-chewing, bovine intellect she doesn't understand Perfect Day? Or is he saying that she has done something so subtly astounding and yet so revolutionary to Perfect Day she couldn't possibly understand what she has done? Or is the tweet just a chance to say a really snotty thing to say about Susan Boyle (which is about as hard as throwing darts out of a window and hoping they'll hit the ground)? Or maybe it was a way of saying that she's so uncool she doesn't even realize when she accidentally does something cool, and he wants to admire the latter accidental coolness? I don't know.

    You might say: it's just a tweet. You can't take these things seriously. Sure, some people are taking twitter too seriously (Sarah Palin has learned that journalists will report her tweets, so her half-formed thoughts can be immediately channeled into the national discourse) but they're usually the fools for it. So, get over it; give the man a break; tweets aren't lines in a novel, they aren't performed on stage, they're a bit like e-mail messages where you have to hit Send before you can even begin to consider finishing the thought. So, forget about it. Go to bed.

    Fine. I can do that.

    But . . . but then what do we do when we can't just shrug something off the way we can with the Boyle-Ellis-Reed tweet-incident; what do we do when the marginal ceases to be marginal and, the more you look at it, the marginal strikes you as quite possibly central?

    In other words, what are we supposed to do with Kanye West? Now, I'm no fan of Kanye West. Fans are wimpy little bitches who buy records and want signatures; no, I'm a student of Kanye West. I'm at the back of his classroom, scared to raise my hand but watching wide-eyed as he drops mad science from the blackboard up front.

    When it comes to Twitter, he's operating on some metatextualist level, constantly re-thinking his own voice, obliquely but insistently critiquing twitter at its essence; all of this is fair enough. But there is also a steady stream of jawdroppingly almost-one-liners, and suddenly the marginal becomes central: is Kanye West parodying the entire world or is he the most damningly earnest product of that world? Not knowing whether or not something is a joke can be of no importance whatsoever, but it can also be a dizzying misunderstanding of, or inability to understand, the world.

    Friday, March 25, 2011


    In an episode of South Park, there's a brilliantly catty assault on the writers of Family Guy. Wandering into the studio where Family Guy is produced, Cartman discovers the writers' secret: in a vast tub filled with water and white balls, on each of which is written a cultural reference or a noun or verb, manatees use their noses to bobble the balls up out of the water into a chute. Family Guy writers then simply put the balls together to make a gag. In effect, they have created an elaborate random cultural reference generator using lovable water-based mammals.

    Out of context, this joke might itself seem to be randomly generated: Volleyballs + Family Guy + Manatees . . . Hey, the writers for Family Guy get their ideas from volleyballs selected by Manatees! However, in the context of a two-part episode about the art of cartoons and censorship, the joke doubles back on itself: one defence of comedy is that it is exempt from moral opprobrium and deserves to be judged lightly if at all because comedy is about the accidental, the frivolous, the wild and witty and rapid and excessive connection of things that are not usually (or ought not be) connected, and so cannot be held entirely responsible for its hubris, its exaggerations, and so on.

    As an attack on Family Guy, though, the point is clear: the show's script is simply reference masked as comedy. And it's a solid criticism, one that might be levelled elsewhere (I seem to remember thinking that the second Shrek film was nothing but what was at the time contemporary references to popular icons - although I'm not entirely sure I saw the second Shrek film). But what is the relationship between reference and comedy? That's the question I'm curious about here.

    First, Categorical Distinction: a reference is to something that is (for a moment at least) categorically distinct as a concept; that is, a reference evokes something that is understood, in that moment at least, to be whole and meaningful and boundaried. Herman Melville, Family Guy, Conrad, Al Pacino, Don Corleone, Don Draper, Lassie, Sarah Palin, Jesus; or voodoo, skyscraper, pawn; or genius, tree-huggers, Dylan fans, etc. . . . A reference, on its own, may evoke any number of different and misleading agreements about a unique meaning, and simply throwing a reference out there - Henry IV, Ronan Keating, chastity - confers no guarantee that the visceral, even stereotyped or archetypal sense that the reference generates is shared; but whatever subsequent connotations, uncertainties, confusions might occur, there is a moment when we (think we) agree upon a unique meaning, the quiddity of the reference. In comedy, quiddity is not enough: there must be a twist where the impersonation brings someone to life in unexpected ways; the gag twists and toys with our expectations about that person or that type of person; parody sticks a rubber dagger deep into the quiddity (cue Craig Brown's parody of Martin which begins - and might as well end - with "I am a serious.") Reference alone is not enough: the essence, the quiddity of the reference must be rattled, transformed, skewered or exploded.

    Second, you have to Get The Reference. A reference is something that needs to be caught: metaphorically (and sometimes literally), the name must have a face, the place must have a geography. Similarly, something is always unspoken or submerged in a joke, which is why one gets the joke, doing the silent but active work of getting it (and this is why a simple explanation of the joke, which contains all the same material, tends not to be funny). And both getting the reference and getting the joke can be accompanied by laughter. When I laugh at a joke as part of an audience, I can only assume that the other members of the audience and I are laughing at the same thing, that we have agreed upon the passing of a reference and are enjoying the witty way in which the reference has functioned in the comic context. But the fact that others are laughing suggests only that they know there has been a reference. (You know this laughter, maybe you've laughed in this way - it's a public signal that you have spotted a reference embedded in what someone has said). And, of course, there are social conventions around this laughter of recognition: we might laugh because other people are laughing, or we might laugh because we think there's been a reference which we might have missed and we don't want to look like the buffoons who missed it. Laughter's ambiguity clouds the distinction between a reference per se and a comic reference: in both cases, a mental line has been drawn between those partaking in the present act of communication and an Other, encapsulated in the reference; the laugh of recognition and the laugh of comic appreciation cannot be easily disentangled. Anyone who has laughed at a reference that wasn't supposed to be funny, or who has laughed because other people are laughing, will be aware of how isolating and confusing the distinction can be. The point here is not a normative one: I am not trying to distinguish how we should laugh or when we should laugh. Rather, it's to highlight that one of the most extraordinarily potent features of comedy, the intimately detailed and ecstatically brilliant use of reference (in impersonation; in jokes, whether about blondes or Obama or Moses or porn stars; in parody and satire; in caricature), fundamentally relies upon a subjective response in the audience, getting it, that cannot be wholly distinguished from any other form of reference.

    So we can look at South Park's attack on Family Guy and say "oh snap!"; we can engage in a debate about the use of cultural references in 30 Rock vs Community (I have not read the link because I have not yet seen the 30 Rock episode, though I have no doubt it will be better than the Community episode; I actually enjoy Community, but don't think it has ever ascended to the sustained, snow-capped ridge of genius that 30 Rock has planted its flag in and commandeered for the past few years); but we are put into an awkward position: on the one hand, a reference is a categorical distinction, and, furthermore, comic reference is a distinct contextual manipulation of reference; on the other hand, these two domains (reference and comic reference) are not necessarily categorically distinct and, furthermore, the manipulation occurs, at least in part, but necessarily, in the audience.

    I'd be curious to hear your thoughts about this.

    [Edited to remove "The" from Family Guy - sigh]

    When is a gay joke gay?

    I woke up this morning to find a tweet to kick off this blog:

    Rise to find @EvanHD on #r4todaytalking about an organisation called, apparently, Low Cock. May be a support group for small gay men.

    What an amazing tweet """joke"""? It is presumably intended as a joke, because it has the formal properties of a pun: the delivery, the pace, the staged distancing from the word that suggests one is about to analysis it ("apparently"), the ersatz suggestion of an alternative meaning ("may be").

    So, based on this, we'll decide it is a "joke". Now, "low cock" could have a number of easily-found puns: massive cocks that swing low would be my first thought, though I can see why small men have "low cocks". Clearly, a support group for men who have MASSIVE cocks is a much funnier idea than a support group for men who are small and whose cocks are therefore relatively low, but it would require a bit more irony, a bit of a lighter touch.

    The issue, however, is whether it is a "gay" joke or a "homophobic" one. One's instinct is that one must defend against the "homophobic" charge, rather than begin from a position of the joke being "gay-friendly" for one simple reason: if you're going to talk about a support group called "low cock" with a pun on height, surely it would be a support group for gay dwarves. Not "small gay men". Gay dwarves. But Aaronovitch refuses to go there; he is being sensitive about how people describe themselves and avoiding pejorative terminology when it comes to stature, but he is willing to make it "gay". This suggests that he has some sense that the comedy may be pejorative, but he's going there anyway. He's going there.

    Based on this analysis, we can see that he is being sensitive to the possibility of a pejorative connotation but, when it comes to gays, doesn't care. Fair enough? Now, here's the issue: why is "gay" there at all? Of course, small details make a joke come to life; we accept that. But the question remains. Why is "gay" there? There are at least a number of possible answers insinuated by Aaronovitch: Gay men are defined by their cocks, and so a support group for short men would never be called "low cock" unless those men are gay; or, gay men are interested in cock, and so a support group is really an opportunity to find more of it. In other words, to justify the "sexualization" of the support group as one that might be named "Low Cock" and to justify the "sexualization" of "Cock" itself, he slips in "Gay". Is this homophobic? Suggesting that gay identity is a sexualized one in this casual, probably stereotypical way, with the underlying belief that "man" is not a sexualized identity in this way, is not akin to queer-bashing, but it's a bit feeble, isn't it? Does it matter if Aaronovitch is gay or not? Actually yes: if he is gay, then this reference to gayness may be a _personal_ touch; if he is not, it is a depersonalizing touch.

    What do you think?