Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Douglas' Inadequate Jokes

Douglas’ theory on joking takes Freud’s theory and reaffirms it while adding a particular emphasis on the social situations and implications of joke telling. He argues that a joke is essentially a play upon form that subverts the natural form or order. The joke is achieved by juxtaposing control against controlled, and then overturning that relationship. In this way, the joke provides humans with a welcome freedom from what seems to be a rigid form by showing the ability to overturn such structures.
While this definition does seem accurate for many jokes, it seems as though many others are not included. Jests seem to really be the only jokes covered in this model. One can even imagine the jester in court, bells jingling on his hat as he mocks the nobility. Douglas’ assertion that jokes are frequently free from moral judgment holds up here too, as the jester can make derogatory comments about a king or queen to their face, but they are understood simply as jokes, thus removing such harmful implications from them. The jester, as a jokester, is given license to mock. This is perhaps the clearest model of the joke form proposed by Douglas as the jester is employed and controlled by the nobility but upturns the social structure to put himself above the seeming controller.
An example given by Douglas himself though seems to disprove his point, and in fact could give some credence to the earlier idea that Douglas rejected, that all utterances have the potential to be jokes. Douglas gives the example from the Iliad as a situation in which it is possible that a joke comes from the controller at the expense of the controlled, when Odysseus strikes a common soldier for speaking against authority and the other soldiers laugh. Douglas argues that this situation is different because although Odysseus held an officially controlling position, the soldier was actually in control because the soldier represented the threat of mob rule and thus Odysseus is not in control. From my analysis, Odysseus’ swatting of the soldier implies that he had control the whole time. Moreover, if we are to use such a broad interpretation of controller and controlled to allow us to say that the common soldier controls the general simply by speaking up, then there is no form to subvert. If the structure can change based on one utterance, then the joke no longer is playing off of a form but rather creating its own. Moreover, it seems as if in identifying the controlled and controller Douglas is forcing his definition to fit the situation. If we create reasons in every case to make a definition fit, of course it will work, and we open up the possibility that in fact “every utterance” can be a joke.
I think Douglas brought some new things to the table in his piece, but his seeming revert to the superiority model is a bit confusing. If the incongruity model makes up for the inadequacies of the superiority model, then why is the concept of controlled and controller arising yet again?
I originally read Douglas incorrectly. I thought his reference to the social structure was more related to an awareness of audience, in which case I agreed with Douglas that this is integral to humor. However, his emphasis on social caste threw me off a bit. I think relationships are important to evaluate when making a joke, but to evaluate them as superior/inferior isn’t the whole picture. For example, I think it is legitimate to say that in the relationship between my parents and I, I’m currently the controlled. Because of this, I might not tell them the dirtiest joke I know. However, with other superiors, such as my boss, I really don’t have a problem telling dirty jokes because I have evaluated my individual relationship with her as more acceptable for these jokes. Joking is not a power struggle, at least not always. Recently I went to a mandatory meeting where the “controlling” speaker of the meeting was constantly trying to make jokes. They were horrible. Nobody laughed. Despite being wildly unfunny, the speaker’s fate was sealed by being unaware of her audience. The audience is there because they are required to be there. They want to get in and out. They do not want to hear her jokes. At many points, the speaker was self-deprecating. This should be a great joke according to Douglas, as it puts the controlling speaker below the controlled audience. Despite this, not a soul laughed. It was a tragic sight really, and in retrospect, it was funny, as the controller slowly became controlled by the audience when her jokes didn’t land at all – the joker was so desperate for a laugh that she just kept going.
I propose that a joke does not have an absolute form. It doesn’t require defining characteristics. It is not a power play between two people, parties, or ideas. The success of a joke does not depend on the upturning of the established hierarchy. No. The success of the joke depends upon execution and awareness. Twain was onto something. He spoke of the importance of the length of the pause and the manner in which a joke is told. The funniest stories can have zero subversion whatsoever, zero purpose really, but still produce laughter. For example, a high school classmate once gave a “class-opening speech” by repeating the words “ping” and “pong” over and over with different inflection as if they were parts of a sentence. The room was roaring. This is a clear example of how there need not be a superior-inferior inversion in order to create a joke.

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