Making jokes is not a simple business. I’m not really too sure how they work – why people laugh, and at what. It’s a part of human art that’s not really studied with the seriousness of tragedy, and I think it may be because tragedy is in some ways more reliable, and probably because we lost Aristotle’s chapter from the poetics on comedy while retaining tragedy. I think if you take art seriously, it’s reflection is taking yourself seriously, whereas I think comedy and joking invites the opposite conclusion that if you like to laugh, you’re not very serious. In one interview Jon Oliver denied being “news” by pointing around his office and saying “this is not the office of a serious person”. It’s not that convincing though, is it? In fact, jokes are really important, and I’ve been avidly consuming a couple of new media streams that really look into how and why jokes work, especially Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and Good One: A Podcast About Jokes. If you’re interested in the why of laughter, they’re really great resources.
I thought I’d offer a really brief theory of my own and explain my favourite joke that I kind of “wrote” – though what I really mean by that is probably that I stole it from somewhere and just tried to make it my own. The joke is just this:
Damned foreigners, coming over here and stealing our jobs and our women.
It’s not that easy to untangle all the reasons that I love this joke, but first and foremost, I love that I’m a foreigner, and the overt text here is framing myself as “one of you”, when despite 30-odd years in the country, I still haven’t ever really internalised some of Aotearoa’s quintessential things. I never call anyone “mate”, for example. I am most often quickly spotted as a foreigner in conversation, even now, on account of not having the right accent, I talk funny. Canadian has become the most popular guess for anyone who’s never met a Canadian. I love Canadians.
I’m white and male and I have a professional job, so for me the second layer of the joke is that there’s foreign, and then there’s Foreign – I’m really English because the English are everyone. As as a WASP, I’m basically a man of the world, the universal norm. This is derived from a book I read when I was a kid about an Englishman who lives in Spain and basically moans the whole time about how strange everyone is, how they don’t conform to his expectations of behaviour – the book read perfectly straight, but you just knew that the author was aware of the absurdity of the position and the target was obvious English colonialist behaviours. The whole idea of this doubling identity is silly, of course – like the cat who thinks they’re a person. (I’m the cat in this analogy).
The next layer down for me is that I find complaining at least faintly comedic. It’s not right, it’s not fair, it’s just that it’s so pointless, so futile, and usually so self-indulgent without being self aware. Obviously genuine grievances tend not to be that funny, but I think about 95% of complaints I hear are just wasting air. Maybe I should have been a stoic philosopher instead of an engineer.
Taken in total, the idea of the statement is just that it’s completely absurd. I, a foreigner, complaining about foreigners in a way that’s vague and generic. Honestly, I’ve never gotten a really proper belly-laugh from anyone ever when I’ve made the joke, but it’s not really that kind of joke. It’s a satire. I think even if people didn’t find it funny per se, they at least recognised the self-aware irony.
It was a line that really worked well for me when I went to the UK. I worked at a big multi-disciplinary consulting firm with about 80 people in my building. I’d hazard there were about a quarter English-born staff when I started, about half Anglo-saxons with the rest second-generation immigrants, plus a smattering of the English-adjacent (Scots and the like). Conservatively, two thirds of the staff were outright foreigners like me, coming over there, stealing some hard-working Britisher’s job. Shocking! I think because I was a foreigner and everyone else too, I kind of always felt a bit of solidarity as a backwash – if we’re the problem foreigners, we’re all a problem together.
Nothing good lasts.
One of the recurring theses offered by both shows is the idea that nothing is off limits to comedy, that you should be able to tell a joke on any topic at all. I like this as a generalised concept, and I’ve laughed at some pretty morally questionable material in the past, for sure. I think it was Larry David who summed it up most succinctly, saying that sure, you can tell a joke about cancer – but if you do it’d better be fucking hilarious. Because unfortunately, I’ve also not laughed at a tonne of really awful jokes that were just not on point at all. I abandoned a couple of “edgy” Netflix specials because of old-school rape jokes told “ironically”. I just wanted to say to the comedian, dude, read the room. And by the room, I mean our whole civilisation right now. And then… I laughed at Katherine Ryan’s joke that she’d let Amy Schumer wear her as a watch if it’d help get a female comedian into that top tier of the entertainment world. I didn’t want to, but I did it anyway.
So I had to give up my favourite joke in about 2016 because it just stopped getting a laugh. It stopped being a mildly amusing ironic reflection and became a sore open wound in the zeitgeist I inhabited. I say give it up, but of course I just tell the version now where it used to be a joke until it wasn’t, which in my mind makes the Brexiteers the new butt of the joke, but while being down on them is great, it’s a much simpler joke and so isn’t so pleasing at all.
The “rise” and and then inevitable fall of my favourite joke did for me what I think the real purpose of comedy should be, which isn’t actually to be funny at all. Comedy is a kind of thought laboratory when it’s in its most powerful form. In that thought laboratory, you can work through ideas, connections, possibilities. It’s a space where you can play and see what happens, and I think that seems to be the most common way of writing discussed in Comedians and Good One – you think of something, you say it, if it gets a laugh you grab it and try it again with a twist. It’s playful, but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious – the process for all of the comedians sounds downright scientific, in that it’s a theory you test with an audience again and again until it works. What I saw over my couple of years joking about foreigners in the UK was a cultural movement from where the idea that foreigners were bad was ridiculous and could therefore be ridiculed, to the point where it was being taken too seriously by too many people for that joke to work that way.
The joke was a canary in the coal mine for me, and let me read the room I was in. Seeing who laughed, who didn’t, how they responded – it told me a lot. It wasn’t other foreigners who stopped laughing- it was the Englanders who weren’t sure whether it was a joke at all. I had to stop making my favourite joke because it stopped being funny because the world moved on to a place where it became less and less ridiculous every day. Context is everything. I’m not completely without hope, of course, that things will come around again, and I’ll be able to say “bloody foreigners” and the patent absurdity with my stunning delivery will once again get the wry chuckle or derisive snort that level of wit deserves.