Thursday, May 5, 2011

Profiles in Commenting: AzureTexan

Or: Order, Chaos, Order, And Kirstie Alley Is Fat

Commenter Profile Link: AzureTexan
Commenter Style: Silly, wordplay-ish, cerebral, showoffy, inactive-y

[Editor's Note: I have two major criteria for selecting commenters to profile. The first thing I look for is a commenter whose body of work inspires me to think and write about a particular facet or set of facets of humor and joke-craft and Deadspin commenting. The second thing I look for is a commenter who is reasonably active on Deadspin, so that you can read the profile and, if any of the ideas in it are of interest to you, you can take those ideas into future readings of that commenter's work and hopefully find the experience enriched. You should not hold your breath for a profile of a Commenter Emeritus like Clinton Portishead, great and inimitable though he may be, unless asphyxiation is your thing.

Obviously, as things stand right now,
AzureTexan violates that second criterion: he has not posted a comment to Deadspin since early March of this year. I have three reasons for making an exception: the first is that AzureTexan's body of work is unique enough - and its terminus recent enough - that I'm willing to make a stretch for the sake of discussing something from a perspective that otherwise might not have been available. The second reason is that I entertain the vain hope that, if the man himself is actually alive, he might read this profile and be goaded into returning to active participation. The third reason is that it's my blog, and no one can stop me, no one at all, ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.]

We’ve been having an ongoing conversation about joke mechanics, about how the structure and timing of a joke deliver a laugh from what’s often a fairly straightforward idea. Let’s back up for a bit and talk something more basic: burritos.

No, not burritos. Let's ask: what is a joke?

In literature and film, the word "horror" is generally used as a catch-all categorization for anything that is intended to evoke fear in the audience, but of course that's totally inaccurate as it relates to most of the very best exemplars of fear-evoking art. Properly, "horror" is overwhelming revulsion at what you can see (or hear or touch or otherwise directly experience), while "terror" is dread - fearful anticipation - of what you cannot see (or hear or touch or otherwise directly experience). With that distinction in mind, it's easy to grasp that, while most things you'll find in the "horror" section of your local bookstore or cineplex or Netflix queue employ large doses of both terror and horror, the most effective fear-evoking books or films - the ones that stay with you later on that night, that chase you from the bathroom down the darkened hall back to your bed, causing you to move more quickly than you otherwise would, and then to chastise yourself for the silliness of it - deal primarily in terror. Horror, in fact, is a kind of relief of the tension that terror creates. Even the most horrifying sight - when the protagonist rounds that corner and sees not the innocent cat, but the grisly murder scene - is at least a small relief to the audience: well, now we at least know what it was. This is why, when you cover your eyes during the terrifying buildup, you also peek between your fingers: it's better to know - to be horrified - than it is to be terrified.

Why did I ask "what is a joke?" and then launch into a discourse of the interplay between horror and terror? Because humor, much like the terror/horror relationship, is all about tension and the relief of it. However, whereas the terror/horror dynamic creates unbearable tension, and then relieves it with a shock that confirms the audience's fear of the unknown, humor creates tension and then relieves it with a surprise that lets the air out of that tension and changes our perspective of it. Both terror/horror and humor, in their way, are at their best when the rubble of the tension forms an image that allows a moment of insightful self-reflection on the part of the audience. This is why the greatest jokes are about the most familiar things, and the most frightening moments of horror are ones that corrupt or distort what is most recognizable and comforting.

That dynamic - the buildup of tension, and the relief of it - is precisely why joke structure is so important to humor. Let's look at a classic joke by metronomic joke-machine Henny Youngman:

"A doctor says to a man, 'You want to improve your love life? You need to get some exercise. Run ten miles a day.' Two weeks later, the man called the doctor. The doctor says, 'How is your love life since you've been running?' 'I don't know, I'm 140 miles away!'"

I chose this joke for examination because A) it's a great example of traditional joke structure, and B) it's fairly easy to identify the tension/relief dynamic here, in a way that illustrates how a joke creates tension in an environment - like a comedy club or the Deadspin comment section - where the audience knows a joke is coming. The premise and setup of this joke invoke a perfectly reasonable assumption: that when a doctor says something like "run ten miles a day," his intention, and the patient's understanding, is that those ten miles should be circular, so that the patient returns home at the end of them. He's not telling the patient to run away, ten miles at a time.

But it's the perfect reasonable-ness of that assumption that creates the tension, because the audience knows very well that a joke is coming. Those two factors - a seemingly innocuous, commonplace exchange, and our anticipation that something must go awry - are at odds with each other and cannot be reconciled right away.

Let's imagine Gallagher incorporating the same premise into his routine. Here's how it would go:

"My doctor told me I'd be in better shape and have a better sex life if I ran ten miles a day. 'RUN TEN MILES A DAY'?! In WHICH DIRECTION? Are there fewer hairy feminists THATAWAY???? I guess in fancy-pants medical school, they didn't teach you to BE SPECIFIC! EVERYTHING IS WORSE THAN IT USED TO BE! BAAAHHH HATE HATE HATE! SLEDGE-O-MATIC! I LOOK LIKE DAVID CROSBY'S SKELETON!"

That is not a joke. It is a rant. The punchline is, "I am too stupid and self-satisfied for reflective thought."

Now, the small observation exploited to varying effect by these two comedians is the same: that the doctor did not specify that the patient should run ten miles in a more-or-less circular pattern per day, returning home at the end of each iteration. But whereas our imagined version of Gallagher used that observation to make the erroneous declaration that a contrary, intellectually parsimonious dickwipe is smarter than his doctor, Youngman used it to gently tweak a very tiny, very unimportant, but very common assumption in a way that will surprise and delight the audience.

And he did it with timing and structure. By packing the joke into such a tight, condensed, fast-moving packet, Youngman gets all the way to the punchline before the audience, their minds working to anticipate the joke, have had a chance to recognize the gap in that very minor assumption shared by the doctor and the audience - namely, that "run ten miles a day" implies circularity. And the punchline, rather than delivering back-patting congratulations for being smarter than the doctor, offers a moment of self-recognition (albeit one so minor it won't provoke weighty, unfunny contemplation): the patient's ridiculous behavior is funny for being ridiculous, but also funny because we can recognize that there's something pathetically reasonable about it. We are invited to recognize and identify with the common human foible of failing to read between the lines - of feeling outmatched by and unable to keep up with the complex modern world.

A balloon is less likely to pop when it contains somewhat less than its full capacity of air. Youngman's joke applies a tiny pin to an unimportant balloon with a little too much air in it, and the pop makes you laugh. That's how the best jokes work. And it's why, nearly all of the time, in the best jokes, the punchline comes at the end, after the balloon has been filled to its limit. That's joke structure for you: create tension (or invoke some that already exists), and then relieve it in an unexpected way.

(As it happens, terrorism inverts the terror/horror and humor mechanic: it imposes scenes of horror on unsuspecting bystanders in order to terrorize - to create a widespread, unbearable feeling of fearful anticipation that paralyzes a society and frays its cohesion.  This is why terrorists are never funny: their understanding of mechanics and structure is all fucked up.  Coincidentally, in comedy circles, this dynamic is knows as The Shuttledik Effect.)

Even airless, acid one-liners and sophisticated wordplays operate this way: the tension comes during those brief nanoseconds during which you try to puzzle out exactly what you just read; then the tumblers click into place and you laugh in surprise and happiness.

What to make, then, of a joke-maker who regularly seems to confound that sense of order? Whose best jokes often seem to lack any real premise-setup-punchline structure, and do not seem to create and relieve tension, and do not seem to package any observation about human behavior, and yet are funny as hell anyway?

The obvious way to handle that challenge is to accept that the preceding paragraphs of this profile are little more than intellectual masturbation. But let's not do that yet, because I think it's more interesting not to.

Let's look at this bizarre joke from several months ago, by (drumroll) Deadspin commenter (it turns out this is, in fact, a Profile in Commenting) AzureTexan, today's subject. As a first pass makes apparent, this comment violates damn near every reasonable expectation of a joke, except the requirement that it be funny. It lacks a clear punchline; it doesn't create or dissipate tension in any readily apparent way; and as a Deadspin comment, it wanders so far afield from the actual content of the post to which it is attached that, were it not funny, it seems reasonable to think it might very well have received a smackdown. And yet: it works. It is funny. It is, in fact, damn funny. How is that?

I'm not sure I have an answer, except: it is. Obviously that's insufficient. I can make some guesses, so let's do that.

Here is where we are going to talk about three concepts that haven't gotten much mention so far in our bone-dry discussions of structure and timing and mechanics: wit, mirth, and silliness. And, sadly, we are going to yet again tip our cap in the direction of the invisible boost longtime commenters (and humorists in general) get from their own body of work. Actually, let's just get that part out of the way, right here:

[tips cap]

Wit is defined by some random internet dictionary as the keen perception and cleverly apt expression of those connections between ideas that awaken amusement and pleasure. Here is where, if you are familiar with the work of AzureTexan (or Steve_U, or Eddie Murray Sparkles), you are nodding vigorously and wondering why I've continued to type.

In gentle, moderate amounts, and paired with economy of words, wit produces a big laugh, as in this spectacular pull from Always Winning.

In larger amounts, as in this gem from EMS, wit requires only the flimsiest whiffs of joke-structure to deliver a knockout. (In this case, the comment is not the punchline: it is the setup. The photograph it references is both the premise and the punchline. Think about that. When I get around to profiling EMS, the entire body of the profile is going to be an M.C. Escher drawing rendered in my ejaculate.)

In the comment we're examining, the sheer amount of wit present is so great that all constraints are tossed aside: you're amused because, Jesus Christ, where the hell did he get that from?

But appreciation (abstract, intellectual) and mirth (joyful, unselfconscious) are two very different things. A comment that elicits a mirthless nose-laugh of appreciation - "Hmmm-hmmm, mmmmyes, capital bit of drollery there, a-hmmm-hmmm..." - is fine every now and then, but nobody's getting profiled on this damn blog for making Manhattan art gallery attendees out of the Deadspin readership. The rule goes, "Be funny," not "be super-duper clever."

And that's where silliness comes in. Silliness is perhaps the single most under-appreciated element of humor. I'd go so far as to argue that, the vastest majority of the time, silliness is exactly what transmutes silent appreciation into audible belly laughs. There are lots of different definitions of silliness, but for our purposes, what I mean when I say "silliness" is the lighthearted, irreverent deployment of the absurd.

Miley Cyrus-branded crotchless hemp underwear is an absurd concept. In the context of its usage in this joke, its absurdity is underlined by the use of five-dollar language like "demarcating" and "particularly vexatious"; conversely, the presence of a word like "vexatious" becomes absurd - becomes silly - when it follows a lowbrow idea like Miley Cyrus-branded crotchless hemp underwear. Those observations are rather cerebral ways of saying that this is a very silly comment: wit, which is itself a leavening agent, leavened by absurdity.

And hey, lookit: there's your tension/relief dynamic, right there, hiding in plain sight, in that juxtaposition between the lowbrow mental image and the highfalutin' language. The Miley Cyrus sex joke, itself good for a laugh, by its sheer lowbrow silliness creates an edifice of expectation - a balloon full of air; a tension - that the phrase "particularly vexatious" pops. That's ingenious, and if you disagree, shut up.

You see what I did there? The mechanics of humor are inviolable - none are exempt from their dictates! None! THERE ARE NO LAUGHS BUT THOSE THAT OBEY.

So, back to wit. Connecting a metaphorical phrase ("a hard-and-fast line demarcating what's legal") to an absurd literalist interpretation (the U.S. border) is witty. Most commenters would absolutely stop there - something like:

"Also a hard-and-fast line demarcating what's legal? The U.S. border."

Which would be a perfectly non-smackdown-worthy comment, if hardly ambitious. AzureTexan doesn't stop there - in fact, he's apparently confident enough in his ability to steer that idea into wilder and funnier territory that he only uses it as an invisible subtext for the rest of the comment. The recontextualization - that hoary old joke format which is probably the signature move of the Deadspin Commentariat at-large - is present, but it is not itself the joke.

This touches on something mentioned by dont-forget-where-you-came-from-cheese-mac in his Guest Lecture: formulas and memes can be excellent delivery-vehicles for jokes, with their structural template and callback value, but they are not jokes themselves. Here AzureTexan demonstrates the best possible use of the recontextualization formula, using it to craft a joke strong enough to completely obscure the formula.

Of course AT certainly makes (made) jokes that more conventionally conform to the basics of structure: as here, or here, or here - yet nearly always with the same out-there, insanely-high degree-of-difficulty, and the winking silliness which acknowledges that, hey, ninjas and rules and eyeball-searingly high-toned profiles on some loser's third-party blog aside, this shit is fun. And that, ultimately, is why AzureTexan is our subject today: more than perhaps any other commenter, AT's body of work demonstrates that, while the work of crafting successful Deadspin comments is challenging, the standard of excellence astoundingly high, and the mechanisms for succeeding sometimes very technical, the effort to do it well - to be original and smart and funny - is, and should be, fun.

You have no fucking idea what a bear this goddamn thing was to write.

Commenter Rating (out of five stars): «««««

11 comments:

  1. God, this is spectacular. Please, more of this, you magnificent son of a rodent.

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  2. +1 and raises your glasses for hoping for the return of AzureTexan.

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  3. He might be newer, but can we get a Profiles in Commenting on an AzureTexan disciple, All Over But The Sharting. He "gets" the fun aspect and knocks it out the park more often than not.

    - Not All Over But The Sharting

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  4. I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me.

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  5. An in depth, lengthy analysis of tension and contrast as they relate to humor and when I click back to DS all I can see are white lines of text. That's called taking it to the next level.

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  6. +1

    Mentor. Spirit Guide. Jackass.

    He is greatly missed.

    -Bevraj of Choice

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  7. And he's back! Nice work Earless!

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  8. This is the best thing I've read here. Keep up the good work, sir.

    - fat-leaveher

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