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Home » Archives » March 2008 » Spitting on Expectations (Expectorations)
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03/20/2008: Spitting on Expectations (Expectorations)

Friend of the Blog Alex Epstein sends along an interesting contemplation on a certain type of joke. I'm going to let you see his explanation and then present mine, which differs on a certain point. Here is how he explains it:

… Sometimes, I see good writers make fun of bad, obvious dialog and cliche. Saw a bit on Steven Moffat's JEKYLL, ep. 3. A bunch of suits and techies watching the usual assortment of screens tracking Dr. Jackman:

Shot of a dot moving along a drawing of a railroad track.

Technie: He's moving.
American agent: Of course he's moving! He's on a train!

We don't really need "He's moving" to tell us that he's moving, unless we're washing the dishes and listening to the TV out of one ear, or we are very, very stupid. The American agent makes that point for us.

But wait, there's the retort:

Technie: He's moving.
American agent: Of course he's moving! He's on a train.
English agent: You obviously haven't got the hang of England yet, have you?

Joss does this a lot, I think, subverting our TV viewer expectations:

Buffy: Puppets give me the wiggins. Ever since I was 8.
Willow: What happened?
Buffy: I saw a puppet. It gave me the wiggins. There really isn't a story there.

I bet that sort of retort comes up a lot in story rooms; I wonder how often it makes it to the screen. (Network exec: "But how does the audience know he's moving?")

Oh, this is very interesting. I agree that this is totally about subverting the expectations of the listener. It never would have occurred to me, though, that this had to do with a response to exec-driven overwriting. I would have taken this (at least the first joke) more as a response to the real-life human tendency to state the obvious. And the second one I take as a response to the expected structure of normal conversation (i.e. "ever since…" is supposed to lead to a anecdote.) So for me, both of these are about someone reacting to a statement that was deficient in some way, but deficient because of the foible of a character.

However, I'm open to Alex's interpretation, now that I hear it. Certainly, the first joke illustrates an excellent way to turn a "make it clearer" note into a benefit -- have someone hang a lantern on the over-clarity and then, if possible, slap a topper onto it! (So much writers' slang! Yay!)

By the way, the Buffy example reminds me of another classic Joss joke, in which someone tries to deflect a question by saying "it's a long story," only to have another character quickly sum up the situation, leading the first character to lamely say, "Guess it's not that long." The standard conventional rule is that "it's a long story" ends any discussion. To go past it and deflate it is funny.

It's making me curious about other jokes that do this. Oh! How about the Princess Leia/Han Solo moment: "I love you." "I know." That's certainly a violation of how we know that exchange is supposed to go. If you're writing a comedy or a drama with wit, it's worth doing a bit of thinking about this kind of joke since there's something so ingrained about conversational assumptions that these jokes always pack a nice punch.

Lunch: salad bar, squash soup


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