Today, Dave Batho made the point to me that jokes function like the duck-rabbit: that they exist at the boundaries of our ability to make sense of them, that we can fit them under one concept or the other but they struggle at the boundaries and never quite fit. And that this is why they can seem to have a socially subversive or critical function: because they tell us where the boundaries of our linguistic community lie and tantalisingly offer the possibility that they might be set otherwise.
But then I started thinking, why is it that I have recently been thinking that the funniest thing in the world, is this short ‘bit’ from The Simpsons (clip below), where Homer is so excited by the prospect of a FREE TRAMPOLINE, that it blows his mind in the sense that he can no longer use words properly anymore, that his gait becomes twisted and strange, and that he assumes everyone else is after the trampoline, to the extent that, without a moment’s thought, he deliberately endangers the life of a ‘rival’ by shunting into and flipping over their car?
The answer (along the lines of the account set out in the first paragraph) seems to be that: in this ‘bit’, Homer behaves absolutely nothing like a member of our linguistic community would. A normal person might well want the free trampoline, but he would not be so stunned by the sheer prospect that he loses his mind and is prepared to kill for it. This is why it is funny for us; but it is also socially subversive, in a way, because it suggests to us that we might behave otherwise: it is not so far removed from our experience that we are unable to conceive of being like Homer Simpson, prepared to throw ourselves with giddy carnivalesque joy and anger into almost every situation we are presented with (of course there is also an element of escapism).
It is this sort of subversion, understood as a pushing up against the boundaries of our community, that makes our laughter less than hollow. We can compare this to the polite stand-up of a Michael McIntyre. In his stand-up Michael McIntyre (I’ll save myself the indignity of posting a clip) sets himself up in the Homer Simpson role, the subversive clown who in the extremes of his wacky behaviour manages to subvert the norms of his society. Only, he is not really doing this. He presents himself as doing this, but in none of his polite anecdotes does he actually ever do anything that is analogous to having one’s senses destroyed by an advert for a free trampoline and killing a man who is not even after it in the mistaken belief that they must be, so excited are you by the prospect of getting this trampoline for free. Rather, they are something like (I recall from memory), driving a bit wrongly or getting annoyed at a holiday website. And these very normal activities are presented in such a way that the audience is told they are existing at the boundaries of good or common sense. And in this way, it is not hard to extrapolate, the boundaries are pushed that little bit closer to where the authorities want to set them.
And this is why the laughter of the audience at a Michael McIntyre set always sounds so empty and so forced, as if it is being created by people who do not really know how to find anything amusing.