Is This Some Kind of a…
For someone who has written an exciting new collection of short humor that you should buy immediately, I’ve never been particularly adept at writing, or even telling, jokes. Jokes are rigidly formalist and require a kind of ingenuity in the telling that I’ve never quite been able to master. You’ll never catch me calling the likes of Rodney Dangerfield a hack, because while I can engage in lexical ambiguity, literary irony, and the mini-arsenal of rhetorical tricks I copped from my betters until the cows remember they left the oven on, the old-school pros possessed a structural genius that has kept me out of the better class of smokers and strip clubs. While Louis CK makes millions with his insightful observations and killer punchlines, I spend my food stamp money on Little Debbie Star Crunch snack cakes and then delight my cats by observing that, package copy to the contrary, there is actually nothing “cosmic” about them.
What I am good at is taxonomy. While others make millions crafting pop songs, I fritter away my time defining various subgenres of pop; while others pour their hearts and souls into the creation of brilliant cinema, I whittle away at the pointed stick of my mortality by arguing with myself over the difference between realism, neorealism and magical realism; while others cash in their chips at the poker table of life, I sit in the corner abusing the free drinks policy and explaining to no one why a spade is not always necessarily a spade. With that in mind, and in the interest of continuing my habit of clarifying some of the finer points of our culture for a posterity that may or may not give an airborne screw, I offer the following explanation of various sorts of jokes in our lost post-modern muddle of a society.
The Joke. A joke is, of course, a verbal, physical or lexical construct that is intended to deliver a humorous effect. I trust that my audience needs no further definition of jokes, but should I be wrong in this assumption, I direct it to this helpful and illustrative Wikipedia article on Latvian humor.
The Non-Joke. The non-joke is something that is, simply, not a joke. It could be a fact (“James Monroe was the fifth president of the United States”), an opinion (“I enjoy living here in Wilkes-Barre”), an observation (“Looks like rain”), or a statement (“Officer, I appear to have been shot in the leg by a villain”), or indeed any kind of utterance at all that is not produced with humorous intent. The majority of human communication, with the exception of the interaction between men over 60 and their grandsons, consists of non-jokes.
The Not-a-Joke. When something seems as if it is a joke, but is in fact a non-joke, it is categorized as Not-a-Joke. While this occasionally takes place in other contexts (“Now pitching for the Mariners, Charlie Furbush”), the Not-a-Joke is not largely contained to discussions of the activities of members of the U.S. Republican Party.
The Unjoke. Familiar to generations of grade-schoolers, the unjoke sets itself up as a joke, but delivers a punchline that is not funny, thus becoming funny through the frustration of expectations. Examples include the classic why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-road poser, as well as the question of why firemen wear red suspenders. When an unjoke is altered to have an actual funny punchline, it becomes an undead joke.
The Anti-Joke. Somewhat difficult to distinguish from the Unjoke, the Anti-Joke is one in which the traditional expectations of a joke are subverted, but in a metatextual way that, rather than simply making a funny joke out of an unfunny or obvious punchline, makes a comment on the nature of jokes. Examples include one of the earliest jokes which gives this post its title and formulations such as “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” “That’s not funny!” Anti-jokes are about the closest I can come to actual jokes, which is unfortunate since they’re easy to abuse and have become some of the most tired and uninteresting forms of humor. That said, some people make a career out of them; Andy Kindler in particular has mastered the format.
The Pseudo-Joke. A staple of absurdist humor, the pseudo-joke is something of an elegant variation of the Unjoke, where something approximating the size and shape of a normal joke quickly veers into surrealism, and the punchline has no apparent relation to the set-up. Example: “Did you hear the one about the Jewish pizzeria? Horace Greeley.” Many people react with violent revulsion to the pseudo-joke, making it a favorite of provocateurs, agitators, and Futurists.
The Nega-Joke. One of the most difficult to define forms of humor, the Nega-Joke is one that begins as a traditional joke structure and then veers wildly into an entirely different category of humor. Many practitioners of the form occupy the gray area between stand-up comedy and performance art; although this is not always the case, if you find yourself unsure whether what you are seeing is supposed to be funny or not, you are likely the target of a nega-joke. As Potter Stewart’s relationship with pornography, so is the comedy critic’s relationship to the Nega-Joke: one may not attempt to define it, and might never successfully succeed in doing so, but one knows it when one sees it.
The “Korolenko Reversal”. This is a form of joke where an observation about a common activity is made, and then the subject and object of the previous observation are reversed in order to make a contrasting observation about the same activity in differing circumstances, particularly those of Russia during the Soviet Era. It is named for its founder, Yakov Smirnoff, and science has proven that all forms of the Korolenko Reversal — not only ones presented sincerely, but also ones mocking, parodying, subverting, or deriding the normal intent of the joke — are the funniest kinds of jokes in the world. I am sorry if this is upsetting to you, but it is science. What can we do?