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Home » Archives » September 2007 » Literal Thinking
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09/02/2007: Literal Thinking

Jon from Minneapolis writes in to propose my favorite type of discussion -- a little exploration of joke-types. Ooh! Fun! Thank you, Jon!

Here are two jokes that he suggests form a category. In the first one, from the movie Hot Fuzz, the small town's chief of police is talking to the newly transplanted Nick Angel:

Chief (serious): Well, there's one thing your predecessor had that you'll never have.
Nick: Oh? What's that?
Chief: A great bushy beard.

The second one comes from Victor/Victoria, in which a nightclub owner is giving instructions to a private investigator:

Owner: Now, I need you to be extremely careful.
Investigator: I always am.
Owner: That stool is very unstable.
Investigator: What? (The stool collapses and he falls.)

It wouldn't have immediately occurred to me that these are examples of the same joke structure, but I think Jon is right. I'd also add this exchange from Ghostbusters which I think is a gem of economically-applied funny:

Dr Ray Stantz: Where do these stairs go?
Dr. Peter Venkman: They go up.

These all involve a specific and extreme kind of undercutting of expectation by suddenly going very literal. They are, in fact, the same kind of joke as the horrible classic children's jokes about why firemen wear red suspenders and why chickens transverse-navigate motorways. In these jokes, you're misled into thinking that you're going to be given actual information on some topic, when in fact you're going to be told something very literal and irrelevant to the larger matter.

This kind of joke naturally has a childish feeling to it, but that doesn't mean it can't be used in sophisticated comedies. For example, a character who specifically employs this type of humor in an attempt to cheer up his colleagues in a fraught moment could be endearing and even heart-breaking. And, as Gentle Reader Jon points out in his letter, it is a powerful way to give a jolt to an otherwise gravely cliched exchange. We know that undercutting is important for keeping a script light; this kind of extreme undercutting, when used carefully, can help.

Lunch: the sourdough something-or-other at Jack in the Box. It was loaded with tomato slices and was shockingly good.


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