It’s been a while.
Norm McDonald famously remarked that, for him, the perfect joke has the same setup and punchline. Two examples-
“Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts got divorced today. The reason? He’s Lyle Lovett, and she’s Julia Roberts.”
“This week it was revealed that OJ Simpson refused a lie detector test. OJ’s reason? It detects lies.”
While this type of humor isn’t for everyone, this type of humor (some might call it deadpan) certainly appeals by upending the traditional idea of what constitutes a joke. The twist of the joke ... is that there is no twist. The joke itself is a joke about jokes (a meta joke); the incongruity is that there is no incongruity.
And that brings up to the present. Based on ratings alone, an independent observer might opine that our current state of political disarray is giving us a golden age of comedy. More people than ever are watching (either through traditional means, or through clips on the internet) the latest comedic “takedowns” of this administration done by late night talk show hosts, Saturday Night Live, or your friend Brad on youtube. And that’s before getting into memes, twitter, and the myriad other ways people can, and do, consume content today.
But if reality itself if the perfect joke, what is really that funny?
I was thinking about this while contemplating the performance of Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump. The cast members of SNL had complained that it was difficult to do a good impersonation of Obama because, well, he was so boring. There was very little to sink their teeth into. With Baldwin as Trump, you get the recognition, then the laughter at the absurdity of the performance, but as time goes on, that eventually curdles ... because the setup is the punchline. We already saw the joke when we saw the original; repeating it with fidelity doesn’t make it any funnier.
The reason that Norm McDonald’s perfect joke works is that it assumes a world in which the normal is the default. Where the person is waiting for the “joke,” for the incongruity, and finds that the real joke is that there isn’t a joke. That the punchline already occurred. But when reality itself is both the setup and the punchline, what’s the joke, and who is it on?