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Monday, December 25, 2006


Today's episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Incongruity.

I don't pretend to be an expert on humour. I leave such things to Woody Allen. I do, however, know a few things about pacing, grammatical construction and expository devices.

During my TOTALLY NON-SAPPHIC search for videos of Natalie Portman late last night, I stumbled across something that made me think about last week's post about WARNING WARNING dicks in boxes. And you'll know I'm really a geek when I tell you that what I thought about was -- wait for it -- literary juxtaposition. I realized why last week's Justin Timberlake video bothered me more than usual. (I typically treat Mr. Timberlake with scathing indifference.)

Consider this video from the same series (SNL Video Shorts):

Now, it is probably asking too much to suggest that if NBC had really wanted to push the envelope, they should have released the uncensored version of this video rather than the J.Timb video. We all know that that will never happen. So I'll ask the same question my mother is asking right now: why is this funny?

This video is funny because of its incongruity. Harvard grads don't do gangsta raps. In particular, Harvard grads who are fluent in Hebrew and pride themselves on their serious acting work don't do gangsta raps. Videos like this are on TV all the time. They are not funny because these lines are delivered by posers who claim that they are "from the STREET, yo." This one is funny because gangsta rap is juxtaposed with delivery by a serious actress who is about five feet tall. Personally, I think that the joke is telegraphed a bit too much. I would have pulled the interview segments.

Now consider this, the first video from the series to go viral on YouTube:

This video is also funny because of its incongruity. Cupcakes are not cool. Kids' movies are not particularly cool either. The humour here comes from seeing two loser white guys rap so intensely about something that is not cool. A few months ago, Glen and I were chatting with another person about this type of contradiction. I dare not say more, lest I go too far: I just had to pull down an earlier post on this issue. I compared the topic at hand to rapping about cupcakes and The Chronicles of Narnia. They both stared at me like I was a crazy person, and said they had no idea what I was talking about. I actually had to Google this just to be sure I hadn't imagined it. Glen, I suspect that you were pulling my leg -- if not, this is the video I was talking about.

Now consider the latest digital short (uncensored version: I couldn't find the censored one on YouTube, imagine that):

OK. What to say? Justin Timberlake as a boy-band moron. Not a huge stretch. Bad music and bad lyrics. Again, not a huge stretch. The funniest part of this USED to be the bleeps, but those are gone. The problem here is that they are trying to be incongruous, but they haven't reached far enough. Put J.Timb in a Metallica cover band or an opera. Or use a word that's more shocking than WARNING WARNING "dick".

This type of humour only works when you go beyond what your audience normally expects from you. Otherwise, it's just not funny. And even worse, it's bad writing.