Anatomy of a punchline

Viral videos are unpredictable creatures. Who knew, back in my school days, that Rick Astley would have a cult status around the world as the ‘go to’ for merking friends and message board regulars alike? How did putting mints into bottles of cola develop from High School science trick to YouTube ratings winner?

The viral video we’re all waking up to this morning is a delicious slice of British humour – it’s deadpan, plays on class (an ever present ingredient in British humour), and is frankly absurd (and from the earliest Goon shows to The IT Crowd, there is always room for the bizarre in comedy here.)

It is simple, short, effective – a lesson for sketch show writers everywhere who don’t know when to stop. A man has lost control of his dog, and the dog is having a right old time chasing deer through Richmond Park. It could be The Fast Show and plays out like an alternative comedy show from a lost age. Helping the joke along is the accent – the heavy rounded vowels, deep in panic, undeniably middle-class. Who calls their dog “Benton”? People with a sense of comedy, that’s who. “Jesus Christ!” is never more funny than when shouted by a well-to-do country gent legging it through fields. This is Downton Abbey with a laughter track.

Danny Baker is always quick to criticise those who analyse jokes – to investigate the beauty of a  flower, one must rip it up by the roots and thereby kill it. Jokes are fragile and honest creatures, they don’t always need insults and swear-words and sarcasm. Sometimes they just need the beauty of human life, the ridiculousness of ordinariness.  “It’s all in the tag!” Kenneth Williams used to say, and this is exactly what “The Benton Incident” has in under 50 seconds.

You couldn’t – quite literally – write this stuff.

Michael Jackson and the strange isolation

Michael Jackson jokes flooded through the internet, and office gossip, with all the sharp wit and bad taste expected. Masturbation, Madeleine McCann, and monkeys all mixed with the still very recent (and very much real life) death of a superstar. Reality is in some form of suspension, a matter of strange isolation, in this age where death is greeted with Facebook groups and spam-email. I was invited to join a group called, “Joining the group will bring Maddy back” within days of the young girl’s disappearance, as though the act of signing up was as effective – if not more so – than going out assisting with the search. Similarly with voting too, with more anti-BNP group members than voters…

The death of Elvis or John Lennon was not greeted in ways too far removed from the massed groups seen outside the hospital yesterday. These days we have grown numb and isolated from the realities of death and injury, the main ingredients of television news, from Baghdad to the disused railway lines of a nameless town. In Derbyshire, onlookers cheered on a suicidal young person before uploading the jump on YouTube – such is the numb, almost ignorant reaction and relationship to death beyond the flickering screen.

Cracking jokes about Michael Jackson’s death before the official announcement was announced is certainly in bad taste, but gallows humour and cynical attitudes to celebrity have always existed. The celebs of today, as here-today, gone-tomorrow as they may be, are possibly disposable enough to avoid the onslaught. Of course it’s not clever or big, but a well-phrased, properly told joke has the effect of causing laughter, whether or not it’s a weak play-on-words or twisted take on current affairs. Humans don’t like knowing their celebrity icons are weak or able to die or suffer bankruptcy: jokes are the reaction, the building of a wall from reality. I cannot lie – some made me guffaw, but I would not be human if I did not have a sense of humour. Only then would I be truly isolated…