Pat Kane on Play, Humour, Frankie Boyle and Old Jews Telling Jokes at Playful '10
HOW OLD JEWS TELLING JOKES HELPED ME UNDERSTAND AND ENJOY COMEDY AGAIN / PAT KANE THEPLAYETHIC.COM
I'm speaking at a conference (Playful '10) dominated by gamers, but for me games are a subset of play – play being the adaptive potentiation that humans (and other complex mammals) do in order to pre-imagine and rehearse their dealings with the complex world of other social human beings. We mimic, mess about, configure, fantasize, spin through possibilities, without there needing to be agon or contest. This adaptive potentiation can be dark as well as light (as the human condition and its challenges of survival and thrival are). There can be a(nta)gonistic triumphalism as well as bucolic sociability; one can throw oneself recklessly upon chance, as much as steadily unfold a rich educational experience. So I've become interested recently in 'dark play' – those potentiations that are interested in power-over, disruption of the norm, the relentless pursuit of fantasy-logic to its end-point. As a caution to our happy-clappier visions of play. Humour and wit is undoubtedly an example of dark play – what Wittgenstein called “a momentary anasthesia of the heart” (thx @moongolfer for that). And in the contemporary comic landscape of British television, there is surely no more dispiriting heart-stopper than...
Mock The Week runs on BBC1 on Friday nights. For a post-work, post-I'm-fed-up-putting-on-a-happy-face-in-the-service-economy workforce – probably mostly male, kicking back on their couches with beer and carry-out in hand – this is the show wherein they can indulge their dark self-loathing about the deep trappedness and conformism of their lives. Two rows of mostly middle-aged men (with female leaveners), hosted by Dara O'Brien, take potshots at the headlines of the week – large clay pigeons of obviousness (involving celebrities, lifestyle quirks, fondly remembered crisp flavours) blasted into pieces by human joke machines. These machines know how to take a banal reality, counterpose it with an extreme reality, and thus produce the jolt of consciousness (if Wittgenstein is right, perhaps a refusal of conscience) that is the moment of wit. No-one executes this more notoriously than the bespectacled man on the bottom-left of the previous picture. Frankie Boyle, a 30-something Scottish comedian, always “crosses the line in the sand” (as O'Brien puts it) in terms of the brutal negation that jokes can bring. Enjoy, if that's the word, this YouTube fan's loving curation of 'Frankie Boyle's Four Most Offensive Jokes.
Frankie Boyle's Top 4 offensive jokes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzV6fpSnkh0
So what with yearly media-Scot duties at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival (like a cattlemarket for sociopaths), and the ludicrous Lee Mack story in which he destroyed an audience member's smart phone because he feared they were “putting his material on the net” (sorry, I thought comics were inexhaustible streams of invention, like Billy Connolly), until a few months ago I had almost washed my hands of comedy. A tiny, temporary pressure-release, a momentary rebellion in the form of little linguistic cocaine-shots, an ineffectual leeching of the poisons of the informational, careerist psyche. Er... I had fallen out of love with modern comedy. And then (hail a posting on the compendious website Boing Boing), comedy was restored to me. The link was to a site called OldJewsTellingJokes.com (subsequently I found it on iTunes). Each clip of video is one joke: it begins with some rinky-dink cabaret music at the beginning, and ends with the same. In between, there is, well, an old Jew telling a joke. And all telling jokes like this:
Here's what I loved about these jokes : 1) Where Boyle's sexual humour is about power-over, fuck or be fucked, all these older men are telling jokes about their weakness, their yearning for something special from their partners in the last laps of their lives. 2) I love the sociology of the show. The show started recording its jokes in Hollywood, so about half of the joke-tellers are agents, writers, studio people. But there are no professional comedians here: and the rest are salesmen, rabbis, teachers, physicists, public transport workers, mostly men, but several women. 3) There is a sense of each joke being lovingly recalled from the past – techniques, obsessions, themes being passed down through the generations. None of the just-in-time flexible production methods of the Mock The Week-style comedy – precision tools responding effortlessly to the information from that week's headlines. 4) And I love the ethnicity in much of the humour: a group wryly reflecting on the limitations and pretensions of their creed, yet affirming their belief in it as they do so. This works for any ethnicity, of course. But for these old Jews, the jokes go into dark places..
l “ TWO JEWS ARE WAITING TO KILL HITLER....” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VfLrRW6iemE
Now this joke – which is retold here ; quite a few of the OJTJ jokes are retold by others, like collective property – took me back to a realisation that I've always been fascinated with Jewish culture and identity, even as a (now secular) Scot with Irish-Catholic upbringing. Other than laughing with my dad at Woody Allen, I came into the Jewish condition via big thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt , while doing film studies at Glasgow University. I read books like Zygmunt Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust , or George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobel of A.H ., or much later Douglas Rushkoff's Nothing Sacred : towards an open-source Judaism. The whole idea of the pragmatic, witty, book-learned, mobile, 'soft-powered' Jew, at home everywhere and nowhere, is what I took from these writings – the 'rootless cosmopolitan' of Goebbels' imprecations as (for me) a completely positive ideal Rubin's Hitler Assasination joke is funny because it says that Jews, even if they posit themselves as assassins of their greatest foe, are still guided by their nervy anxiety about everything in their social lives fitting together, coming together well.
Yet does the Jewish identity of OJTJ – celebrating male weakness, wilyness, lack of potency – fit together all too well with the extreme displays of intransigence and potency currently displayed by the Israeli state, against those who present any challenge to its status or borders? “ We know we were too weak to defend ourselves against the worst. For all the jokes, that will never happen again”
But could the jokes be a strength, not a weakness? A basis for sharing fragilities across borders? ` “ I think it's a Jewish thing, masochism, a strategy for survival. You know disaster is going to befall you if you're Jewish, or you must be mad. So you preempt it. I've argued that is what a Jewish joke is. 'We will make more fun of ourselves than anyone can, but we will do it intellectually'". H. Jacobson http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booker-prize/7987651/Howard-Jacobson-on-being-shortlisted-for-the-Booker-Prize.html
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYy_cH9a3kc PROOF POSITIVE – A JOKE FOR THE POPE'S VISIT...
FROM MY RELIGION (ITALIAN AUTONOMIST MARXISM) “ Wit is the logical and linguistic diagram of enterprises that interrupt the circular flow of experience in situations of historical or biographical crisis. It is the microcosm inside which we can neatly discern changes in the direction of arguments and shifts in meaning, that in the macrocosm of human praxis cause a variation in a form of life. In short: wit is a circumscribed linguistic game with its peculiar techniques and its eminent function is to exhibit the transformability of all linguistic games .” Paolo Virno, 'Wit And Innovation' http://www.generation-online.org/p/fp_virno13.htm MEANING... If two parties are laughing together, they both accept that they're flawed, that mistakes and misunderstandings and fears will always subvert them, and that no position is so fixed and intransigent that it cannot be mitigated or “transformed”, thru more imaginative discourse.
l FRANKIE BOYLE CODA Boyle is rebuked by BBC Trust for anti-Israeli forces jokes: "I've been studying Israeli Army Martial Arts. I now know 16 ways to kick a Palestinian woman in the back. "People think that the Middle East is very complex but I have an analogy that sums it up quite well. "If you imagine that Palestine is a big cake, well... that cake is being punched to pieces by a very angry Jew."
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/7660232/Frankie-Boyle-letter-about-BBC-in-full.html “ A few years ago I watched a documentary about life in Palestine. There's a section where a UN dignitary of some kind comes to do a photo opportunity outside a new hospital. The staff know that it communicates nothing of the real desperation of their position, so they trick her into a side ward on her way out. She ends up in a room with a child who the doctors explain is in a critical condition because they don't have the supplies to keep treating him. She flounders, awkwardly caught in the bleak reality of the room, mouthing platitudes over a dying boy. The filmmaker asks one of the doctors what they think the stunt will have achieved.He is suddenly angry, perhaps having just felt at first hand something he knew in the abstract. The indifference of the world. "She will do nothing," he says to the filmmaker. Then he looks into the camera and says: "Neither will you". I cried at that and promised myself that I would do something. Other than write a few stupid jokes I have not done anything. Neither have you” [aimed at the BBC Trust, but I guess also all of us] BUT AS VIRNO SAYS – NO JOKES ARE STUPID: ALL OF THEM ARE PLAYFUL ACTS THAT KEEP OPEN THE POSSIBILITY OF A NEW DESCRIPTION OF REALITY, EVEN AT THE MOST BANAL AND EVERYDAY LEVEL. MORE 'STUPID' JOKES, PLEASE, ON ALL SIDES.... FRANKIE BOYLE FINDS A REASON TO TELL JOKES
SO WHAT I'M LOOKING OUT FOR NOW... OLD ARABS TELLING JOKES... OLD TAMILS TELLING JOKES... OLD REDNECKS TELLING JOKES... OLD CIA OPERATIVES TELLING JOKES... OLD COMMUNISTS TELLING JOKES... OLD CAPITALISTS TELLING JOKES.... OLD FEMINISTS TELLING JOKES.... AS LONG AS THEY FOLLOW THE RULE OF JACOBSON: “We will make more fun of ourselves than anyone can, but we will do it intellectually” (or at least wryly)
THANK YOU PAT KANE @THEPLAYETHIC THEPLAYETHIC.COM [email_address]