I myself can't believe I'm writing another of these stupid essays, but it seems desirous to tease out some previous remarks concerning joke-craft and funny-making. Let's talk about DougExeter, then.
Before you vomit or flee in nausea, hold on. I'm not even gonna start with Doug, who doesn't require lengthy preamble, to be honest. He's merely tangential to what we need to talk about at the outset. Sit down, Doug. We'll get to you. Christ. In fact, this piece began as a rather mundane discussion of Exeter's wit and the comedy of punchy one-liners, but, in light of the conversation we're having today on Sidespin, it seems advantageous to expand our discussion on the nature of over-the-line jokes and dark humor in a general sense. As I write this without an end in sight, I hope not to arrive at an aporetic "be funny, don't be unfunny" or "you better work extremely hard to make those kinds of jokes funny" statement. People want closure, resolution, and I won't presume to offer you the closure you want, but I do hope to offer a counterpoise to what has already been said. I also don't want to speak in generalities. I want to dissect specific examples and show how they can be construed as funny and constructive, even when the worst of human actions lie at their center.
What I want to talk about first is creation. That's right, the beginning of everything. Take a second and think about creation. Did we come from nothing? If not, if we came from something, what was that something? Wherever you fall on the spectrum of religiosity, this is one of the original questions, because creation drives to the heart of intellectual activity. It's creation that prompted the first human to raise a hirsute face to the sun and ask "why? what does it all mean?" It's creation that kick-started our need to find meaning and order in this crazy fucking world.
Ok, by now you're scratching your head and cursing Your Curator for waxing esoteric. I get that. I also say, "Fuck you, and hold on, I'm getting to the point." Remember the terror-horror discussion a few weeks back? Let me refresh your alcohol-addled memory. Terror relies on the "not yet" or tension nerve, while horror relies on the "there it is!" that accompanies the end of suspense.
Creation stories are helpful to think about here because they all boil down to more or less the same type of tale: there was nothing (or an inchoate something), and then—through some act of divine intervention or random chance—there was our universe. What was chaos became order. Meaning-making—on the human intellectual plane—works in similar fashion: presented with a string of letters, words, and sentences (or, if you're Earless, a cow carcass), you, the butcher/joke-writer, must put those symbols into recognizable order so that we, your readers, can make meaningful sense of the whole. YOU, dear butcher, in a sense perform an act of creation every time you offer up a comment on Deadspin. And we, your audience, also perform an act of creation when we make meaningful sense of your comment. In short: cow carcass : filet mignon :: chaos : order.
The terror experience sits on the chaotic, pre-creation side of the great divide. Terror—prompted while our heroine approaches the closet door—admits infinite possibilities for comprehension; what could it possibly be? you ask over and over and over. Terror—while we imagine what lurks beyond the closet door—yields a glimpse into that gaping maw of chaos. Terror in fact defies our ability to make meaning. To be sure, it opens up the ineluctable specter that intellectual activity will fall short of its task—or worse, that intellectual activity may be rendered altogether pointless.
Horror, on the other hand, rests on the post-creation, meaning-made side of the split. We succumb to horror when the big bad monster comes blasting out of the closet; so that's what was in there, runs our thinking, and goddamn is it hideous. Horror is in a way comforting, or cathartic, because it helps us control what was previously an unknown quantity. The suspense is done, and we can grasp the severity of the situation. In short, the puzzle pieces have fallen into place.
As I said in Echo's Profile, humor and joke-writing transpire along both currents: generally, longer comments make use of tension-based response, while shorter ones require the suspenseful-build element. SSE's quack comment is good example here, because we can't be altogether certain of what is happening before our eyes. Perhaps Echo has some loose idea of what the ducks are "saying" to one another, but that's not terribly important for the humor of the shtick. In fact, the gag is all the more funny without a full picture of what the ducks are talking about. In this way, we're peering into that meaningless void and in part laughing at our own inability to understand.
Where Same Sad Echo writes tension-based lunacy with the best jokers, DougExeter wields hammer-headed suspense with aplomb. Not that Doug can't write excellent longform comments; he can. Like SSE's ridiculous duck vignette, who the hell would think to stage RGIII's appendages in protracted dialogue? A veritable maniac, that's who. But, to my mind and for my money, Exeter's shorter efforts are more indicative and comprehensive of his body of work. (FUN FACT: Doug's body, such as it is, stands only about 4 feet tall, rendering him a "little person" in American P.C. parlance. So, when we talk about his shorter efforts, we're really talking about his day-to-day existence.)
The beauty of many an Exeter comment is its ability to toe the line between ignorant halfwit and laser-straight erudition. I'm thinking of his infamous Josh Lueke about-face, in particular, where the paragraph's concluding sentence went clearly unread by a large number of readers. Now, an argument can might be made that, in context, a joke is not the appropriate reaction to the story of a known rapist, especially since a reader coming fresh off what is a horrendous exposé is already tuned into a visceral, angry reaction (which is what Doug received head-on). Yet, I'm of the mind that humor can help deflate the anger there, displace it, and offer up an opportunity for perspective. That Josh Lueke is a rapist is not a recent story; to be sure, Stacy May Fowles makes clear that Lueke's dark past is just that, the past, and we need to remind ourselves—in the present—that this asshole has been convicted of sexual assault. (Go ahead and type "Josh Lueke rape" into Google, and her Deadspin piece is the first hit.) In fact, for this reader, Doug's setup—that Lueke should be allowed some sort of redemption—only reinforces how vociferously we need to remind ourselves that Josh Lueke is a sexual assault case of the worst type. Here's this asshole commenter trying to find forgiveness for Josh Lu—oh wait, nevermind, holy shit that's funny and goddamn if Josh Lueke isn't a fucking prick; and LOL Rangers. All of those responses are running in tandem, which makes the comment and the experience of that comment all the more memorable. Fuck Josh Lueke.
Doug's Lueke fiasco is representative of his propensity for making light of tragedy, which brings me around to Emilio Delle Banjo's thought-provoking piece from yesterday. A number of the responses to Banjo include a preponderance of first-person declaratives: "In my opinion …"; "I believe …"; "It's funny to me." That's fine, I'm not here to indict anyone. One of the goals here is to gain a rough picture of the various lines of thought on the matter of jokes surrounding the Janay and Ray Rices of the world. What the I's and Me's here belie is just how subjective humor is. One might say that humor is the most particular of human traits. It varies from person to person, from age to age, from continent to continent. Yet, at the risk of flying off into a radical form of moral and ethical relativism, there is plenty of overlap between individuals when "do you think that's funny?" is asked. Hit Bull Win Steak's all-time rec-leader demonstrates that fact unassailably.
But then emotionally and morally charged stories come along that drive a hard wedge between people. Some will flee in terror; others will dive headfirst into the deep end without a lifesaver; and still others will sit calmly back and watch the firefight in detached dismay. I tend (there's that damn first-person) toward the last of these groups, and that's because I've been taken to task before (and rightfully so) for making a reprehensible joke that, looking back now, makes me feel embarrassed all over again. I can no longer find it in myself to theorize a joke when I imagine Ray Rice dragging his fiancée out of an elevator after punching her in the mouth, because my first reaction is one of empathy for that poor woman. I eventually arrive at anger for Ray Rice, but only circuitously, once I remember that he will receive relatively trivial punishment in the grand scheme of things, and that the industry in which he works has issued a toothless, bureaucratic word-salad about "behavior inconsistent with league policies." Some fucking consolation.
And yet, from that anger comes a pang to satirize, to make light of, to flay the skin off of Ray Rice. Attached to that pang is a desire to read others' lambaste and anger. I need to wrap myself in a protective blanket when confronted with bald violence and hypocritical wrist-slapping, and yes, patches of that blanket include laughter. I need to see others' anger like my own, lest I turn that anger into an irrevocable loss of faith in my fellow humans.
To take an example, here's pkellen2313's comment on the Pink Jerseys post from yesterday, which Banjo cited as indicative of his larger complaint:
It starts pink, then turns a weird shade of purple, then green, and, finally, black.
Alright. We all know what this comment is referring to. It's a bruise. It's a bruise on the body of a battered woman. The sentence is just oblique enough in gesture that the reader is called upon to put the unspoken pieces into place. Now, Shitehawk earlier asked that we think hard about whether a comment can continue and reinforce the outright or systemic oppression and violence done to historically maligned groups of people. In the context of that post, in the maelstrom of Ray-Rice-Suspended-Only-Two-Games-And-That's-Fucked-Up stories from yesterday, pkellen's comment is quite funny in its ability to channel rage into a moment of release and re-stability.
Let me explain. Samer's framing of the story ("Ladies, Buy Your Pink Ray Rice Jerseys Today!") opened wide the floodgates for a comment like pkellen's. Indeed, a number of commenters went this route, since Samer laid the groundwork for such satire by exposing bald duplicity in the NFL. "Here's a Ray Rice jersey specifically targeted for female customers." That's enough to make your head spin on its own. pkellen pinched that nerve as hard as he could. Banjo criticized pkellen's joke, but the same line of interrogation could haul Samer's headline in for harsh questioning. In fact, the post's entire raison d'etre could crumble under what I view as too hardline a stance, Banjo. Shouldn't Deadspin be calling attention to the league's hypocrisy at every level? Who will watch the watchers?
(As an aside, I find it troubling that we—the Sidespin faithful—have in a way turned the focus of this tragedy back around to us. There's a very real story of a man punching a woman and dragging her out of an elevator, and our conversation now concerns boundaries on a sports blog? I know that everyone to the person condemns Ray Rice and the NFL for this fucked up news cycle, and in the confines of our personal relationships, home life, and twitter conversations with one another, we can lament the tragedy that is at issue. We are not the story.)
Let me tell you all a tale. A long time ago, there lived a king with very clear notions of what his citizenry should look like. For a time, he allowed everyone to reside in his kingdom unmolested—gay people, people of color, the mentally and physically handicapped. One day, the king woke up and decided that certain undesirables needed to be done away with. Over the next few months, this king carried out a bloody and cruel purge of his subjects under the guise of "social sanitation." The kingdom was sick, he said, it was diseased and infested, and the only way to heal her was a thorough white washing. Fathers died, as did their sons. Mothers were ripped from the hands of their daughters. In many cases, the king personally oversaw and participated in citizen executions. He loved the feeling of beheading a human being: the blood on his face and clothes; the jerky, kicking legs, the thunk of skulls striking stone. This was power.
At the end of these expurgations, the king stepped before his now-decimated subjects. He looked across their weary numbers, took off his blood-stained robe, and brandished it at them. "You should be thanking me!" he shouted. "I have done you a service, and aren't we better for it?" He received only silence in answer. Then, slowly, laughter rose from the people. They couldn't believe that this arrogant prick had the balls to cast the blood of loved ones in their faces and demand thanks for it. Here was the very banner under which state-sponsored murder had been carried out, and here was their asshole king asking that they kiss that banner. It was so absurd to be laughable.
Later that night, the king was assassinated in his bed.
The Tyrant's Bloody Robe story is a favorite among the sorts of people who talk about violence and human experience: violence as a breakdown in communication, or violence as a means of communication in its own right. An old saw in those circles involves how writers should cope with the atrocities of the Holocaust, and at the center of this debate is the "Poetry after Auschwitz" question. On one side of the dispute are those who argue that poetry (and thus art) died at Auschwitz, and any artistic attempt at coping—let alone recreating—the horror of that place is moot. The more compelling line of thought holds that it's not poetry that is impossible after Auschwitz, but rather prose, since cold, hard, linear narrative of the event deflates the horror of that place into rote nihilism. Art, it has been said, captures the universals of human experience. As aesthetic beings, art brings us into more direct confrontation with joy and suffering. Art is visceral.
Take another example. Certainly Jonathan Swift needed to deal with the horror of famine taking his countrymen on a daily basis, and the beauty of A Modest Proposal lies in just how immodest a proposal it is. "People are dying in droves, so why don't we speed that process along by eating the young," is irony of the finest kind, and the irony is built on Swift's postured insensitivity to human suffering.
What we have with the Ray Rice and NFL non-punishment situation is a microcosm of these questions. Samer's Jersey post is a mediated rehash of the Tyrant's Bloody Robe. "Ladies, make sure you get your lady-beater jersey and declare your support for your favorite lady-beater!" the league store is saying. The very face of violence made revenue, and that is fucked up. It's fucked up and it needs to be satirized. "It's difficult not to write satire," Pleatherface pointed out some months ago.
If you've read this far, thank you, and I'm sorry. This Profile in Commenting is nominally about DougExeter, and here I am waxing on about boundaries in joke-craft. As a way to conclude what's come thus far, then, I'll say this: I can't think of many instances where humor is entirely off-limits. As Shitehawk and Echo pointed out, though, be sensitive in your angle, punchline, and delivery. (The flip-side of this coin, of course, is that you should be prepared for the fallout should your comment land D.O.A.) Exeter's comment up there? Hilarious. pkellen's I also find perfect in the context of Samer's post. The terriblehuman comment is, well, terrible, Banjo. We're in agreement there. The violence is explicit, Janay is named, and the whole ordeal more or less plays out before our eyes. I've stressed context throughout here. When he wasn't busy writing novels or denying climate change, Michael Crichton famously said, "If you extrapolate the form enough, Bambi looks like the life of Adolph Hitler." Each Deadspin comment is a localized event, tied to a specific time and place and post. No one cow carcass is the same.
I hope I've demonstrated two localized instances that you and others can hang their hats on as viable examples of humorous reactions to admittedly tragic situations. And hopefully, together, we can call out insensitive submissions on a case-by-case basis. Or if we disagree on those cases, we should absolutely keep the floor open for discussion. We all do right by one another over here, and this is a constructive conversation to be having, y'all.
Let's move slowly away from joke boundaries and toward DougExeter's PiC. While we still have jokes about tragedy on the brain, recall this simple line from the Caleb Moore X-Games Death so long ago. Now again, we're dealing with making light of tragedy, and perhaps the tragedy is mitigated here because Moore's accident was just that: an accident. If we can't find humor in the foibles and happenstance of life, we would lead a miserable existence. And further, Exeter's joke here is so disarming and quaint in its cartoonish imagery. X's on his eyes? Really Doug? Are you Daffey fucking Duck now? Regardless, the comment stands up as a wonderfully cathartic response to, yes, loss of life, but there's still a tribute in Doug's voice, as the symbols of Caleb's athletic field become badges of honor as he passes on into the world beyond.
I'll bring this meandering post to a close with three of my favorite Exeter comments, since they'll hopefully go some distance toward deflating the high intellectualism of all that shit-spitting up there. Exeter has a far-reaching memory, and he can rework past material for hilarious effect. So take a gander at this little scene from (gasp) almost two years ago. Clearly, Doug finds humor in the imagined collision and stereotype of Russian careless indifference to automobile safety. Now, take a look at this more recent offering, where Exeter restages an entire chaotic scene from the previous compilation video for one of the best punchlines I've ever seen out of him. This here is suspense-based humor (pun intended), where the long, drawn-out setup on the Speaker: side of the dialogue format carries the burden of the joke. There's an inversion here that gives a novel take on the scene-construction meme, and the "Strip bars are irresponsible" kicker lends the absurdity of what's come before all the more oomph. That's how you slam on the brakes, folks.
Finally, consider this classic slapstick in the Chicago Running Horse post. A number of comedic tools are at work here: a slimy car salesman, a bickering middle-aged couple, and firm engagement with the already hilarious embedded video. I seem to remember this one requiring some mental lifting on the part of readers, when the punch of the joke is simply that this idiot got duped into buying a car he thought didn't require any literal horsepower. Horsepower, literally. A horseless car. That's it. It's so profound in its simplicity, and it's that profound simplicity that, for me, typifies DougExeter's finest comments. Thank you, Doug. And thank you all for reading.