Tag Archives: Jokes

Being (Funny) and Nothingness: Phenomenology of the Poop Joke

To be who you are is to avoid the itch: (as in):

Who knows dot dot dot. (Y’know.)

-Robert Ashley, Perfect Lives: The Church

Jokes work in a variety of ways far too numerous to be summed up in a blog post, and their manner continuously changes at a speed where it’s difficult to keep up with the new manifestations; yet at the same time, they’re recognizable as such in a manner that suggests a deep undercurrent. By the same token, over time jokes are torn down by culture until only their architecture remains to be fully examined. What passed for jokes at the time of the first popular joke book, Poggio’s Facetiae are by now far less recognizable as jokes than as simply horrible circumstances the writer escapes abruptly without cleaning up. An example:


A friend of ours related at a party that one night he had found gold in a dream. “Mind,” said someone, “mind that the same thing does not befall you that befell one of my neighbours, whose gold was turned into muck.” Being asked to relate that dream, “My neighbour,” he said, “one night dreamt that the devil had led him into a field to dig out gold. When he had found a good lot: ‘You are now not allowed to carry it away,’ quoth the demon, ‘but mark the place, that you may be alone to know it again.’ The man inquired what sign he could well use: ‘Cack here,’ replied the devil; ‘it is the best way that nobody should suspect there is gold; none but you will have cognizance in the matter.’ The man thought that a good plan and, awaking forthwith, became aware that he had abominably loosened his bowels in the bed. Rising amid the muck and stench to leave the house, he set on the crown of his head a cap wherein the cat had just done its needs. Enraged at the horrible smell, he had to go and wash the filth off his head and hair. Thus the golden dream had turned to turd.

I’d here separate-artificially because the discourse of our time makes little distinction between the two forms-the joke and the pun so that I can point to their similarities as tools of expression-the procedure of masking as realization as masking. The pun holds for Robert Ashley, similarly to how it did for James Joyce, the possibility of breaking open the language-a forced epiphany, a realization a phrase or term or action has more in common between its disparate contexts than would seem to be present in their usual staid contextualization in functional discourse.

But then, the narrative joke works similarly. In the joke above, the gold of the dream becomes the turd of the cat. The clean resolution, complete with something between a moral and a punchline. But moral and the punchline are the same phenomena in separate guises: a means to derail the narrative off the track of the infinite into the chasm of set meaning, a ribbon bow to tie up the gift so that the debt can be incurred in the receiver. Who’s to say the next night the turd might not again become the golden dream?

The joke means its meaninglessness; its a quarantine of sorts. The joke stands as the refuge in which the body reacts or doesn’t; to analyze or explain a joke is one of the least attractive social tacks that can possibly be taken. The joke is the way to approach the possibility of having been fooled in the various guises in which the phenomena of disappointment can be engaged; synechdoches for the greater possibilities of meaninglessness. The marriage of Kafka’s nightmares and slapstick comedy seems natural. Kafka’s most faithful children are the visual comedians that probably never read him.

In Ernie Kovacs’ silent Eugene special from 1961, he visualizes the seduction of sense, culture, truth, beauty, and whatever else the comedian and philosopher share in common as the unseen partner in their conversations that keeps evading them or that they in turn have run away from in terror. It seems easiest to get this across as a series of screenshots with commentary underneath.

The comedian approaches reality in the manner of a phenomenologist; they grasp it loosely with no special sentimental attachment to procedure and in fact an outright hostility toward the possibility there could be a standard procedure in the coming into being of the gag. I used to work as a stand-up comedian when I was 16 and most comics would only explore the mechanics of the joke in clearly circumscribed territories; the life stories of other comedians and superstitious mantras about what constitutes “funny.” Their writing style seemed very much the product of carefully manicured automatic writing. They were probably wise in taking this strategy.

The intellectual is the enemy of the comedian and as a person given to both tendencies I feel very much like a house divided. Tellingly, despite a good head start, I have not advanced especially far in the comedy world. I recorded a comedy album which has been very popular with the five people who’ve heard it and otherwise ignored. At a house party some people in a circle were competing to see who had the most offensive joke. I won this competition by some margin with a 400 year old joke about two nuns in the woods which was promptly met with horror, killed the conversation, and left me very much persona non-grata for the remainder of the evening. There isn’t much steam left in the “they were asking for it” self-defense, but I feel compelled to defend myself by saying such. They literally did ask for it.

Nevertheless, I learned my lesson and won’t repeat the joke here. All I can say is read Gershon Legman and whichever joke you think it is, that’s probably it.


The trajectory of the joke or gag can run in two directions-toward the possibility of sudden clarity or out from under the entrapment of a confining clarity. This is compounded exponentially by the place of the audience, who have a much larger position in relation to the joke than to other forms of discourse; their laughter is the tightrope the comedian walks between “greatness” and the sprawling Siberian no-man’s land of the faux-pasian failure. In the comedian the audience looks for the forceful validation of the comic as a secular preacher whose dictum can be taken or left a la carte because “Hey, it’s just a joke!” or the deflation of a threatening or disliked rhetoric. Comedians exist whose acts revolve around lazy smarm in the form of witticisms; they seek the validation of applause under the guise of seeking laughter. There is an audience for this sort of spectacle, and a lot of them really like Bill Maher.

Because the comedian’s success with the audience is reliant on the ability of the audience to read their performance at lightning speed as a confirmation (by transgression) of the bounds of their shared discourse, a confirmation created by the presentation of the negative definition of said discourse, the comedian acts as a gatekeeper. However, in the the comedian’s constant necessary engagement with the discourse outside the bounds of the cultural discourse represented in the figure of the comedian, the comedian plays loose and risky with the possibility of falling over either side of the line.

The comedian as little Shiva, destroyer of “sense”, has a long and respectable history. From the fictional Svejk upon whom my username is derived to Cantinflas to Professor Irwin Corey to Steve Carrell’s winding, collapsing monologues on the US version of The Office, this archetype has existed in numerous incarnations, each with their own distinct characteristics as contenders in the battle over what constitutes the culture. This is feigned powerlessness as a means to question the possibility of sense or relevance of a style of language. A monologue delivered by Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s Love and Death illustrates this line of comedy well:

To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you’re getting this down.

The line of thought here, like the golden dream become cat turd at the beginning the essay, is wrapped up neatly in the stylistic rupture of the final line, “I hope you’re getting this down.” Another dialogue from the same film that illustrates as well or better:

Russian gentleman: So who is to say what is moral?

Sonja: Morality is subjective.

Russian gentleman: Subjectivity is objective.

Sonja: Moral notions imply attributes to substances which exist only in relational duality.

Russian gentleman: Not as an essential extension of ontological existence.

Sonja: Can we not talk about sex so much?

In the case of Woody Allen and in the literary world, Stanley Elkin, the language moves very rapidly as a means to keep running around and thereby avoid falling into a void; a nothingness; the equally disturbing possibilities of ones thoughts having set meaning and their being meaningless. In this passage, the opening to Elkin’s The Living End, the rapid riffing against the solidifying toward sense is itself a narrative of rapid disappearances and the crumbling of a everything around the protagonist that would signify reconciliation with civilization, as the statue crumbled when Kovacs attempted to kiss it earlier:

Ellerbee had been having a bad time of it. He’d had financial reversals. Change would slip out of his pockets and slide down into the crevices of other people’s furniture. He dropped deposit bottles and lost money in pay phones and vending machines. He overtipped in dark taxicabs. He had many such financial reversals. He was stuck with Super Bowl tickets when he was suddenly called out of town and with theater and opera tickets when the ice was too slick to move his car out of his driveway. But all this was small potatoes. His portfolio was a disgrace. He had gotten into mutual funds at the wrong time and out at a worse. His house, appraised for tax purposes at many thousands of dollars below its replacement cost, burned down, and recently his once flourishing liquor store, one of the largest in Minneapolis, had drawn the attention of burly, hopped-up and armed deprivators, ski-masked, head-stockinged. Two of his clerks had been shot, one killed, the other crippled and brain damaged, during the most recent visitation by these marauders, and Ellerbee, feeling a sense of responsibility, took it upon himself to support his clerks’ families. His wife reproached him for this, which led to bad feelings between them.

The more and more rapid escape into noise, sense, nonsense, and any sort of life raft that might stroke one’s shoulder seems to be the defining broad striving of our time. Away from the neuroses and the possibilities of entrap in being something or being nothing.