Friday, September 07, 2007

Wit Without Wit

I read that a crew of comic geniuses did a most unoriginal thing the other day and confused a bad joke with a good one, and had the whole awkward and unfortunate business blow up in their faces.

'Salright, lads. We've all been there before. Chin up! There'll be other, better, inspirations.

What's fascinating though is the impulse amongst some people to maintain that this decidedly bollixed attempt at a frolic still somehow managed to be funny. They don't seem to grasp that there wasn't, actually, a joke.

To be sure: whatever the talent from The Chaser's War Against Everybody comedy team might have intended to do--having got one of their party dressed-up as Osama bin Laden, and blagged a three car faux-motorcade through various check-points on their way to the APEC summit--it wasn't to be arrested and thrown in jail before they got there. Why? Well because there's nothing especially funny about watching a grown man in an Osama bin Laden costume getting arrested. One assumes this is a not uncommon occurrence at anti-Iraq war rallies the world over, and reactions to such politically controversial displays tend invariably to be divided between either serious approval or serious disapproval. Serious, you notice.

No. For the action of this elaborately staged attempt at a joke to have been funny and not just boring (or worse still: political), the performers needed to have gotten away with it! That is: they needed to have gotten away with OBL's apparent attendance of the summit--not some (for all we know) activist's. It was, as is all true comedy, an all-or-nothing proposition. The fact that these amateurs only got as far as nearly having it appear that OBL attended the summit means, then, that the joke didn't work.

And it really didn't. For my own part, I can say that my immediate reaction to the news was not to laugh, or even to smile, but to cringe. There's nothing worse than watching somebody going to such lengths for a joke only to have the thing fall flat on its face (particularly when one considers how easy--if incredibly ill-advised--it would have been for the OBL-impersonator to salvage the situation by, say, just looking confused at all the policemen and repeating "Where is the water closet?" over and over again in Arabic). That the Chaser's team were apparently aiming for humour's higher-brow brother, satire, only makes it worse. One goes from feeling bad for the clowns with the bad luck, to being a little bit resentful of the morons who, by the sheer magnitude of their failure, somehow managed to make you--thousands of miles away--feel embarrassed too.

And yet, like I say, there are some who are very keen that it should be known that they got the joke. An editorial appeared in today's Sydney Morning Herald insisting that a "verdict of laughter"--whatever the hell that means--could not be denied. Well, sorry, yes it can. As I say, there was no joke; there was only a bit of scaffolding for a joke accompanied by a lot of nervous looking comedians apparently feeling in well-over their heads.

But to not be "in on the joke" turns out to be one of the greatest and most alienating of humiliations of our age, and thinking before you laugh can be a dangerous business in a clever clot world where even irony can be ironized. It's a risk that many won't take ... But it's a good rule of thumb, having thrown caution to the wind and committed yourself to one, never to then try to explain a joke you're not entirely certain you understand. Else you say things like this (my emphasis):
But the Chaser boys got to something even sillier yesterday: motorcades. What a fabulous joke. How can anyone need all those cars and vans and trucks? If you have 20, why not 40 or 60? Why only ambulances? Why not a couple of fire engines and a Mr Whippy van?
That's ranking up there in the top five of the saddest things I've ever read.