joke in search of a punchline

The internet likes its memes and tropes – giving kittens the language of human toddlers, putting ‘first’ at the bottom of newspaper comment columns, adapting kanji into emoticons (they’re so HIPSTER o(^-^)o)

As anyone who has analysed humour will testify, jokes are fragile creatures. Kenneth Williams would implore the importance of the punchline (“taaag, it’s all in the taaaag”); Danny Baker, Stephen Fry and Dave Gorman have all investigated how much like a fragile plant is the humble one-liner (“Dig it up to examine its roots the plant will die..”). Throw a penny into that particular pond and you’d never hear the splash – the ‘net will merrily permit its users to duplicate, replicate and murder every quip at the moment of birth. Such is humour – the joke you heard at the comedy club is the one you’ve just told at your office canteen, out into the world like so many butterflies. The important thing is the hit, the pay-off, the freshness and unexpected nature of which ensures the impact is never lost: the internet tends to dip the butterfly wings in varnish before setting them free. Up, up and… over by a mobility scooter.

“So Gazza turned up with a roast chicken and a fishing rod!” is one such pay-off which is deeper in the red than most Greek bank accounts. It may spew out from mainstream panel shows like baby sick, on-line communities have long since ruled (in that weird group-think Wikipedia excels in) that there’s more chance of getting a giggle from saying “Your mum!” and running off down the road. There was inherent surrealism, and thus humour, from the tragi-comic image at the time; it’s long since gone the way of most fads. Look out “#winning”, they’re coming for you next.

Like millions of people around the world, I watched the film Downfall in stunned silence – never knowing such an emotional film was to be hijacked by the Internet’s Culture and Humour Committee for a constant series of parodies which would define the phrase ‘diminishing return’. The infamous bunker scene, in which the ailing Hitler begins to realise the figures on his map have more life than the troops they represent, is the thousand-and-then-some duplicated subtitled meme sensation. Want Hitler to comment on your team’s latest signing, the latest film flop or a political scandal? Use Downfall, and watch Hitler garble your own subtitled outrage for much lulz and re-tweets.

Except, in reality, this doesn’t happen. Or it should not happen, at least as much, so successfully, because the Bunker parody is tired and old and unfunny. It has been misused, failing the basic test of humour. The tag, that vital element of a joke, has been flattened and squashed, with all the flavour of supermarket tortelloni. 

The Labour MP Tom Harris has been shunted out of his “Twitter tsar” role (whatever the heck that was) for posting a Downfall parody video related to the ongoing Scottish independence saga. Teh Grauniad calls him a “Twitter expert” which over eggs the pudding somewhat, though he is one of the few Labour MPs (or indeed any MP) who seems to naturally understand the microblogging service. Labour poster boy Chuka Umunna is one of the most high profile users who gives the impression of only typing what he’s told, not once engaging in discussions with people outside an acceptable check-list of contacts. Harris broke through the central party’s behaviour bubble to act like ordinary members of the public expected him to; insofar as ordinary people use Twitter, Harris behaved like one of them. To say he was “expert” is a bit much, to give him a formal role obviously too much as his colleagues continually failed to do more than type out press released. To sack him over a Downfall parody? No, I see no logic either.

The video he posted, as with so many of their kind, was dull, not the funniest, not particularly harmful to anyone’s cause. It was a bit of silly, Internet based japery. The sensitivity police have claimed another victim. However, even with that said, Harris probably could have said as much as he wanted to do with a blog, a series of tweets or even an interview – the video he posted was one of far, far too many polluting memes which damage the message and remove credibility. His sacking is an over reaction from a knee-jerk leadership. His video was a flinch from a dying corpse.

On-line humour has killed off old jokes harmlessly before (“I can see Russia from my…..Oh…”). It should see to the Downfall parodies as soon as it can – couple of gunshots and set it on fire.