Thursday, April 7, 2011

Profiles in Commenting: MarkKelsosMigraine

Or: The Myriad Benefits Of An Olive-Oil Voice And Guinea Charm

Commenter Profile Link: MarkKelsosMigraine
Commenter Style: Dry, efficient, cultured, pop-culture-y, ambiguously meme-y

Today's topics for conversation are: control over whether a joke is funny and why; how much control the person making the joke has over those things; whether that matters when you're saying that that person is "funny"; and anyway what exactly it is that you're saying when you say that a person is "funny." I don't expect or really even intend to cover those topics fully or maybe even at all in this profile, but they are what I'm thinking about right now, and why MarkKelsosMigraine is our subject.

In this 2009 Commenter Of The Year article, in which MKM received an honorable mention, mention is made of his "bunch of swishy theatre references that have to be Googled," and these theatre/art/culture references are certainly what MKM is best known for as a Deadspin commenter. A comment like this one, referencing the epic Julie Taymor Broadway disaster Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, is fairly representative of MKM's work in that area, in that it re-purposes the content of the article to crack a joke about something related to theatre.

But is that what the joke is really about? Is the joke here, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is really dangerous for its performers"? I mean, sure, that's part of the joke, and the just-mild-enough-to-make-it-work exaggeration in the comment is plenty funny enough to stand on its own, given what anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of that troubled production brings to their reading of the joke. But there are two other key elements to the joke as well, like how a Space Shuttle launches with both its main engine and also two external rocket boosters that provide added propulsion (and here, if what you just thought was something along the lines that, in reality, the boosters provide the bulk of the thrust, while the main shuttle engine is the assistant, I say to you that the accuracy of that analogy is exactly what we are examining): the first is the seeming incongruity of a reference to a Broadway play, of all things, in the comment section of an article about football on a website dedicated to sports; the second, which adds more and more to the joke as your familiarity with MKM's body of work increases, is the there-he-goes-again-ness of MKM making yet another theatre reference in the comment section of an article about sports on a website dedicated to sports.

Who's responsible for that element of the joke? Does it exist only in the response of the reader? Because there's certainly nothing in the comment itself that contains any traceable hint of self-reference. And think of how much less funny it would be if MKM had structured the joke thusly:

"I can never get my paper airplanes to sail properly. Then again, I lost both my hands performing in Spiderman on Broadway," said MKM.

Or if he'd tailed the comment with a slashie along the lines of "/slinks back to Foxwoods Theatre." Or if he'd in any other way tipped his hand, acknowledged the unlikelihood of that joke, or compromised on the difficulty most Deadspin readers and commenters would have in fully comprehending it. (And here I must point out that, in the catalog of MKM theatre references on Deadspin, the one we're looking at is decidedly closer to the user-friendly end of the spectrum.) You know what it would have been? Lame.

And yet, the self-reference is present, and is not lame: it exists entirely in the ether, composed in equal parts of the work MKM did in establishing in longtime readers' minds that he's the guy who comfortably makes accurate and genuinely knowledgeable theatre references in the comment sections of articles about sports on a website dedicated to sports, and of the knowledge of that body of work that longtime readers bring to each new comment. A longtime reader might know more about that body of work than about Broadway - the reader might know nothing at all about Broadway - and still find the joke funny and admirable.

Think about what a trick that is. MKM has reached a point as a commenter where the impenetrability of a certain comment might actually work to that comment's favor, simply because of who wrote it. The first key to that trick, I think, is that it's abundantly clear that whoever MKM is in his non-Deadspin life, he's genuinely passionate about theatre, and not just poaching it for cheap obscurity. Otherwise his theatre references would come across as that worst and smarmiest of things: obscurity for its own sake. The second key is extreme discipline about when and how often to give any indication that he's aware that there's anything incongruous at all about making obscure (sometimes obscure-even-for-theatre) theatre references in the comment sections of articles about sports on a website dedicated to sports. He does this extremely rarely, and always with gentle, charming self-deprecation, and always when it's relevant - as in this comment, where his referencing his arts-and-culture ouvre was specifically germane to the topic of the post. And the comment was funny.

This dynamic in MKM's commenting (the funny theatre references getting funnier and funnier for the fact that he keeps making them) makes him possibly the meme-iest of all Deadspin commenters, despite the fact that, all told, theatre references certainly appear in less than half of his comments. Which brings us to that other recurring joke in MKM's body of work, which is the seemingly-utterly-random mentions of "olive-oil voice and guinea charm" (a phrase from The Godfather, in case you didn't know). Here's another joke that is A) funnier the more times you've seen it pop up, and B) only funny when MKM makes it, or when someone makes it who is clearly making an affectionate nod to MKM. Also like the theatre references, this one pops up far less frequently than you might think, given how indelibly it is associated with one of the site's most legendary contributors - but that scarcity is essential, here. Once in a blue moon, following no readily-apparent pattern, there it is.

Is that joke funny because the reference to The Godfather is funny? Probably not. The first reason it's funny, like with the theatre references, is the incongruity: the statement that, say, Paul Pasqualoni, or Jeremy Irons, possesses an olive-oil voice and guinea charm. But the second and more important mechanism for making it funny is one that only exists for people who've been around long enough to see the joke recur time and again, at odd intervals, presented completely unadorned by any overt indication of self-reference: the callback, the there-he-goes-again-ness of it.

MKM has some control over that, but not much, and what control he has is mostly through the discipline he exercises about when and how often to press that button. The life of that joke exists in the intersection of the number of times he's made it, and the number of times a particular reader has read it.

All of this talk of memes and self-reference and repetition might make MKM seem like a walking inside-joke, but he's not. This comment, which earned a mention in the Roundup, is just as representative of MKM's work as the swishiest theatre reference or the least-expected iteration of the "olive-oil voice and guinea charm" joke, in that it's well-constructed, sharp, and damn funny. But the structure that he has built over his time as a commenter, which allows him to make people laugh with the kinds of things that would get other commenters completely ignored, is one of the great accomplishments in the weird little world of Deadspin commenting.

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