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?

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