The Opposite of a Joke

I like thinking of objects’ opposites because they can be a form of definition. That the square root of two is an irrational number is proven by revealing the contradictions arising from its being rational. The story I wrote that’s the most hearable (because voicey and full of jokes, tellingly) at a reading is centered on a game that begins with someone asking “What’s the opposite of a gun?” I could play this game with everyone.

Years ago, DFW was interviewed for German television. The earnest lady asked him if his source of humor comes from darkness. Here’s what he said:

There are forms of humor that offer escapes from pain and there are forms of humor that transfigure pain. I know that very often humor is a response to things that are difficult. In the U.S. there’s a strange situation where in some respect humor and irony are political responses, and they’re reductive, and in another sense—particularly in popular entertainment—irony and a kind of dark humor can become a way of … pretending to protest when [one] really isn’t.

Last night I asked on Twitter what the opposite of a joke was. Responses varied from a koan or jazz to a poem or a legend. These felt close but weren’t fully satisfying. This blog post is to try to pin down what I was looking for. Now, if we’re being forthright and expansive about it, the opposite of a joke is probably what the body does through a night of fitful sleep, but I need here to keep things in the realm of utterances. Because whatever the opposite of a joke is, I want to try tweeting it.

Two things brought this on:

  • My pal Sara mentioned yesterday at the unbeatable[1] Lincoln Farmers’ Market that these days her Netflix queue is pretty much all comedies. N agreed: we have far too many documentaries on there we don’t take the time to watch.
  • “Don’t remember any close interactions w/ my dad — too busy nagging him to acquire more wealth.” — Toyota Highlander kid at 47. This is the tweet that got me to join Twitter in January of 2011. It was Patton Oswalt’s. You can Google the original (wretched) Toyota Highlander commercial he was writing in response to. I found the tweet on some blog, and that’s when I discovered that comedians are on Twitter, and that they tweet jokes, and that 140 characters is a productive formal constraint.

On Twitter, I tweet jokes because it was joke-tweeters who taught me how to tweet. I experience the life I live and I keep an eye and ear open for ways to form these experiences into tweets that evoke in my 100-some followers a laugh. Is it my contrarian nature that’s making me tired of this? I wanted to see what would happen if I took an opposite approach to tweeting. But what’s the opposite of a joke?

One immediate question became what the opposite of a laugh is, because a joke is a statement intended to produce a laugh (to what end that laugh gets directed [satire, absurdism, hate-mongering, etc.] is another matter). Is crying laughter’s opposite or, as the always-insightful Mike Scalise called it, its cousin, because both are responses to emotional discomfort of one form or another? David Hadar pointed out that jokes are folklore, which made me think of reverence v. irreverence. What is it anymore that causes reverence in us? Let me be more specific: what’s palatable that can cause reverence in us?

It’s true that jokes take audiences to places where they have fear and foreboding as a form of therapy, as Louis CK once said. But it’s also true that jokes can be an extremely sad acquiescence posing as protest, short personal victories masking self-defeat. When I stood in line last month at a Rob Delaney show, some dudes behind me were asking each other about good TV shows to watch.

Dexter‘s one,” said one.

Dexter’s Lab?” said another.

“Yeah,” said the first, getting the jokey reference, going along with the joke. “Dexter’s Lab.”

Within seconds this conflation of TV titles had been consciously group-workshopped into a bit. “Do you like Dexter … ‘s Lab?” one said, having finally worked it out, timing and all. “That’s my cold open,” he added.

Who knows if they were comics, or wanted to be? My point in this post is who isn’t these days? Why aren’t we in the middle of a tragedy boom? Why is even asking that question stupid and hilarious in 2012? It remains unclear to me, but whatever the opposite of a joke is, it’s untweetable. And now we come to the exciting part of the problem.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Seriously: other cities are welcome to step up and fail.

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