Splitsider

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Searching for the Naturally Occurring Punchline

Contrary to the suspicions of a particularly desperate primary school teacher of mine, I do not suffer from Pseudobulbar Affect, a rare neurological disorder characterized by unprompted emotional outbreaks. The poor woman was hoping to control my raucous laughter, which had no discernible cause and regularly disrupted her lessons. Nothing is as controlling as a diagnosis. Other teachers simply referred to it as my "laughing problem" — they controlled it by ejecting me, stricken once again, from their classrooms. In fact, I was merely sensitive to human absurdity. A sappy turn of phrase could send me spiraling into delirium. At my step-grandfather's funeral the rabbi's curious choice of idioms (notably: "he shared his insides with the people of Israel!") caused me to break out in wild snorts and instigate some minor inter-clan bloodletting.

By the time I reached middle school, counter-incentives introduced by my superiors had forced me to achieve some measure of emotional continence. Intent on avoiding confrontation, I redirected my search for everyday comedians to obscure television networks. Berlin's public access station had a rich line-up at the time: a weekly round table of retired bureaucrats complaining about noise pollution and the misallocation of flowers in their drab suburb; a firebrand speaker in Salafist garb alternating, in a castrato pitch, between reciting from his holy book and narrating bloody pictures from Chechnya; a devout Polish lady reading her weekly letter to Pope John Paul II aloud, growing, with each successive episode, evermore bitter about his failure to reply. Their moments of inanity were revelatory and fleeting. It never occurred to me to record and share them.

But my predilection wasn't as rare as I thought. Found comedy only required streamlining to appeal to the sober mainstream. By the time I enrolled in college, YouTube had made those human episodes as easy to find as sitcom episodes, and many consumers were choosing the former over the latter. The new platform gave unintentional comedy a semblance of organization. Today it has achieved enough cohesion and prominence to be considered a comedy genre in its own right. Only a fraction of the content the wireless masses laugh about today is intended to be funny.

But what is unintentional comedy? Where has it been hiding? Who are its stars? And, is it any good?

* * *

Unintentional comedy isn't a recent phenomenon, of course. It's is as old as human reason and its gawky shadow, absurdity. It has accompanied us since our ancestors first decided they were too precious to involve their hands in the walking process (which inadverdently lead to them falling on their faces). It has evolved with our pretentiousness.

Involuntary comedians were once called village idiots — a term, then considered PC, used to describe people considered just sane enough to be tolerated by village society but sufficiently loopy to provide resident pedestrians with comic relief. In the introduction to his 1907 play Major Barbara, George Bernhard Shaw discusses these involuntary entertainers. "The contrast between madness and sanity was deemed comic," he writes, referencing, among other examples, the paintings of 18th century graphic satirist William Hogarth, who depicted fashionable townspeople laughing at the mentally ill. "I myself have had a village idiot exhibited to me as something irresistibly funny." Shaw, for his part, preferred not to deal in such crude exploitation. The disorders that inspire his character's unintentional humor are more subtle, more common: they suffer from a lack of self-awareness, grave pretensions — or as he describes it, "the tragicomic irony of the conflict between real life and the romantic imagination."

Few of the unintentional comedians trapped on YouTube today are as mentally ill as the bedlamites depicted in Hogarth's painting or as complex as Shaw's delusional characters, but all of them share the massive blindspots Shaw describes — a wide abyss between who they think they are and how everyone else perceives them. That lack of self-awareness turns out to be their greatest capital when, one day, a camera catches them in blind action, and, soon after, the footage is proliferating online. They quickly find out that the public sees something in them that they had never registered themselves — an impressive ridiculousness, usually. The videos spread like bullfrogs. Millions of viewers laugh at their face and ape their unintended catchphrases. Suddenly the village idiot is standing on a global platform, a global village idiot. But remaining on that pedestal is an impossibility. Like Truman Burbank, they lose their ability to perform as soon as they become aware of their audience. Public ridicule engenders reflection, the death knell to an unintentional comedian's act.

Antoine Dodson had no intention of entertaining anyone when he stared down a news camera and threatened the man that attempted to rape his sister. Latarian Milton, the 7-year-old joyrider, is surely too young to comprehend why "I wanted to do hoodrat stuff for my friend" or "It's fun to do bad things" have become popular slogans in college dorms throughout the country. The "leave Britney alone!" guy probably feels like a lot more of an outsider since finding out that millions think his ultimate tragedy is comedy gold. The "gingers do have souls!" kid uploaded his video to put an end to his classmates' taunts only to receive thousands of comments echoing their judgement.

If one organizes these characters into the traditional categories of comedy, they surely inhabit the lowest rung: schadenfreude, the indulgence of crude stereotypes. They are the talking descendants of the speechless injury victims shown on America's Funniest Home Videos, ABC's weekly affront to good samaritan doctrine. We, their viewers, are not much different from Hogarth's ravenous townspeople.

* * *

But unintentional comedy has more to offer than objects of malicious enjoyment. It too has a gold standard; videos that, by no fault of their makers, can easily be misinterpreted as intelligent works of satire.

2008's most compelling viral comedy video came from Hungary. "Stop the War," a sanctimonious and heavily accented rap anthem protesting the most recent US invasion of Iraq, seemed too complete to be an accident of nature. The music video shows Speak, a Hungarian Mr. Clean lookalike, strolling through a barren graveyard wearing a leather jacket and a pained face, mumbling tactlessly in English as a Third Language over an I'll-Be-Missing-You knock-off beat, taking a break every few lines to fill several bars with whispered ad-libs ("uh-huh, check dis, yeah yeah, c'mon"). The lyrics center around Speak's general dislike of war; his desire to see, generally, less of it — more peace, as it were. Then he throws punchlines. He offers Bin Laden staggeringly simple advice ("Bin Laden: stop your plans, thank allah!"), drifts off point and announces his respect for several American rappers ("Tupac Shakur: my respect, you were the best"; "I hope my black brothers feel the same like me!"). The song peaks in its power chorus, sung by four scruffy, middle-aged pop crooners that join Speak around a giant cross (the rapper introduces them in one of his ad-libs: all, except the dark-skinned one, are granted last names — he is referred to simply as "Bebe"). "Sometimes people make a war," one of them sings. "Don't know what it's for," another elaborates. Speak does know what its for and completes their open-ended statement with another whispered ad-lib: "business". Millions of viewers assumed they were witnessing cutting edge parody.

Many of the blogs that circulated the video evoked the name Borat, and though "Stop the War" turned out to be a sincere attempt at artistic expression, the association is useful. When Sasha Baron Cohen debuted his Kazakhstani character he unknowingly anticipated the unintentional satire we see on YouTube today. The early Borat segments looked like short clips of found footage, like a highlight reel of the public access shows I watched at the time. His interview subjects, and some early viewers of his clips, assumed that Borat's show was genuine.

Each of Cohen's three signature characters were important milestones in the natural progression towards comedy that is indistinguishable from real life — a comedic War of the Worlds, if you will. Andy Kaufman attempted this decades before with his staged fights and Tony Clifton character; contemporaries of Cohen, Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais pursued similar goals with their understated mockumentaries Best in Show and The Office. Gervais has been especially dogged in his pursuit of that naturally occurring punchline. His 2005 podcasts introduced the world to Karl Pilkington, a Mancunian radio producer with a round head and a reported IQ of 89, whose slow speech, twisted worldview and preposterous philosophical musings ("Camels — do we need em?") seemed to hint at a history of unsuccessful lobotomies. Pilkington's idiocy is unassailable; his proximity to Gervais is the only clue that his immaculate deadpan may be affectation.

YouTube offers a great opportunity for someone blessed with Gervais's acumen and talents, but spared his compulsive hunger for attention, to introduce an elaborate satirical project under the guise of unintentional comedy. Arguably, no one would be more apt to perform that task than Sasha Cohen. If he was in good form and extremely patient, he might produce something like last year's most impressive viral videos: the trailers for an obscure dating guide about meeting European men, featuring the outlandish author in the starring role. She goes by Katherine Chloe Cahoon, a supersized name that ought to come with a side of exclamation marks. Her work is just as bombastically misconceived. It exemplifies the great possibilities of the genre.

* * *

On October the 18th of last year, one of Cahoon's trailers popped up on Gawker under the headline "The World's Craziest Dating Advisor Tells You How To Meet European Men." Thousand of visitors took part in the trip: We zoom towards her striding through Central Park in our direction, wearing a long bright pink jacket with large round white buttons, a beige bow in her blonde hair, an unyielding smile and a playful gaze. She speaks extremely slowly, with pure enthusiasm and in the most banal generalities. If apple pie could speak:

"Hi! I'm Katherine! I wrote the single girl's guide to meeting European men. From my trips abroad I learned that so many single girls wanted to meet the European men. I could go on and on about why I did. But today we're going straight to the source!"

After an abrupt cut, we rejoin her in a gym setting. She offers a sample tip to whet our appetite for the 40 tips included in her book: "a good place to meet European men is during their sports!" She studies two shirtless Eastern Europeans shooting hoops. One of them, she informs us, is from Macedonia; the other, from "I-jek" (a country that, as things stand, is a product of her imagination). It seems European men are a new phenomenon in her universe. Discussing them, she sounds like a resident of Pleasantville telling her monochrome girlfriends about a colorful group of bearded men with smelly accents that just climbed out of her television.

Conversely, in our reality, unintentional comedians are the ones that seem to arrive out of nowhere, a sensation that felt especially pronounced in Cahoon's case because she behaved so otherworldly. She announces a Frenchman thusly: "Now i'm introducing you to Dr. Francois. Yes: doctor!…Basically, he's like a French Albert Einstein in a Lance Armstrong body." Cut. We see Cahoon and the doctor standing next to each other each holding bikes, awkwardly staring at the camera (he's an odd-looking fellow, dressed in the kind of spandex body-suit common to professional bicyclists and sex slaves). She asks him what he's training for. He replies, "I am training for Ironman Germany in August." Cahoon, smiling incessantly, registers his answer and feels compelled to state what she's doing at that moment: "And I'm chilling by my bike." Yes, Katherine, we can see that.

In comedic terms, coming out of nowhere has its advantages. When we rent a comedy DVD, the affixed category functions like a wink — we prepare to laugh. YouTube videos lack the packaging of store-bought recordings; we aren't planning to hear jokes and unintentional jokesters aren't intent on telling any. That makes their timing truly unpredictable. The cuts in Cahoon's trailers defy rhythm and punctuate some of her most inane comments and conversations like drumrolls. In one scene, Cahoon asks an earnest Eastern model-type, "What do men from the Balkan peninsula love?" Without hesitation, he responds: "They love romance." Cut. Two of the six trailers Cahoon released before going viral are not especially funny. But, like in in the British Office, those lags only build up the eventual punchlines.

Cahoon and her ilk walk the line between performing and being with an ease that would make Andy Kaufman jealous. They amplify their daily performances in response to the camera's presence. Sometimes that makes their behavior hard to distinguish from acting — they appear so complete that viewers suspect strategic contrivance. The European Men videos prompted much debate about Cahoon's intentionality. Was it meant to be a joke? I had a bet going with a friend and was dead-set on finding out. Eventually, she responded to the blogosphere’s questions on her Facebook page: "Come on, friends, do you really think I am being serious?! Of course they are parodies!" she wrote. That status update cost me several dollars, and the "of course" offended my intelligence. But I wasn't convinced. Luckily, unintentional comedians are easy to get hold of.

Before I knew it, I was on the telephone with Cahoon herself. She spoke exactly like her YouTube persona. I pitched some soft questions before delving into the patently absurd. I asked her how far eastward Europe reached. She responded that she considered all countries European that were marked "Europe" on the map. I asked her whether her Europhile readers should regard Albania as a part of the sexy continent. She said that she could only recommend destinations, and men, in places she or a close friend had experienced. She remained in character even when reiterating her claim that the videos were parodies — that seemed frightfully meta. I asked her to explain the parodical aspects of her video to me. She said they were meant to be over-the-top, that they had been aiming for that "Sex-in-the-City" feel with the clothes changes, the stilettos, the poses, the model's strut. "That was all meant to be funny. The guys egged me on."

Cahoon possessed a singular conception of what was funny about her video. She assumed that viewers were laughing at her attempts to seem "fabulous", that her over-the-top dresses had earned her the "crazy" reputation. But that was merely a sliver of it. The poses and dresses were only funny in interplay with the video's more subtle elements: the absurdity of the dialogue, her delivery of it, the name like three hurrahs, that well-meaning but overeager face, the banality of the suggested strategies, the very notion that meeting European men even requires a strategy. (Isn't avoiding them a lot more challenging?)

I asked her if her book was parody also. She said that it wasn't. I paid several dollars for overnight delivery. Reading it settled the question of Cahoon's intentionality conclusively: she was not in on the joke. How could she be? Her life was the joke. She was lost in the self she'd designed, like a method actor with amnesia. I was reminded of Klaus Kinski's famous line:

"I do not play that – I am that. Otherwise, I am nothing."

People like Cahoon focus so closely on themselves that they lose sight of the greater context in which they exist. Like Robert Downey Jr.'s character in Tropic Thunder, this self-indulgence inspires revealing excesses. Antoine Dodson essentially came out in the news interview that spawned his sudden ascent to fame. Cahoon produced a far larger body of work and therein provided us with a deep insight into her narrow worldview.

Her book, The Single Girl's Guide to Meeting European Men, boasts forty "man-meeting tips" summarized in "man-meeting tidbits," enlivened with "true man-meeting stories," and sprinkled with important practical advice, covering everything from the nitty-gritty of booking flights to the sticky-icky of evading STDs. She summarizes her own naivete very quaintly in one passage in the introduction. She writes "I dream of myriads of men bringing me drinks in unison," — which, if you think about it, is impossible.

Like Disneyland, Cahoon's Europe is a kingdom of enchantment featuring a predictable cast of characters. It is a "region [that] can make you feel like every day is the perfect Valentine's Day" because the residents are full-time cornballs. Romanticism aside, her descriptions of European men remind me of the captions under Leni Riefenstahl's photos of the Nuba tribe. She consistently refers to them using ethnographic formulations ("the European male"; "the natives") and reduces them to their physical properties and stereotypical elements — she gives them a taste of their own medicine. While her book is completely useless as an introduction to European culture and society, it is a brilliant parody of coddled American fratgirls bumbling helplessly across the continent in search of excitement.

"Betsey, Carmen and Lacey were on a picture-taking high that night — posing and clicking 'til the clubs closed down."

When I moved to London after high school, I regularly encountered the demographic Cahoon describes. They could be found in sports bars, hard rock cafes, rip-off clubs in Leicester Square; in large girl packs, completely giddy and in over their heads. Many of them were Christians, few of them could hold their liquor. One got the peculiar sense that they had only come to Europe to let loose in a way that they couldn't at home. Thanks to Cahoon's book, I understand them a little better:

"There is no reason why the wonderful carefree characteristics travelers obtain overseas can't come home with them. In fact, they should. I'm not advocating being reckless. I'm suggesting that you free yourself to find yourself. If you have always wanted to join in a jam session but felt embarrassed, Europe is the best place to go. If you feel you are a bad dancer but want to hit the clubs, Europe is the perfect place to practice your moves."

Cahoon has been through those motions. Now she's passing on the wisdom to those coming after her. Part of what makes her book — or, for that matter, Dodson's news clip or Speak's video — so funny is the knowledge that it's actually intended to fulfill a constructive purpose. Cahoon's advice is so misguiding that one should consider relaying it to the European populace to prepare them for the odd behavior of her readership. That way, they might know why groups of American girls are visiting restaurants and spending the whole night waiting nearby the kitchen ("stand near where food and beverages are being served…I would advise using this tactic whenever possible"); or why American girls are peering over their shoulder as they read their newspaper, "casually dropping a pithy comment concerning the controversy" (Tip # 20: catch up on current events); or why their American girlfriend asks them to take two STD tests "in case the first (is) faulty" ("STDs aren't the European souvenirs single girls seek") or why dark-haired girls are dying their hair blonde upon arrival in Spain ("my lovely latin-looking girlfriends…had to go somewhere like Sweden where blondes were in the majority to get their Scarlett O'Hara fix").

Her stories are no less misleading. In an effort to spice up the mix, Cahoon puts her "friends" through several unlikely disaster scenarios that make them appear, for a lack of a better formulation, retarded. One of her friends tries to buy a rug and almost gets sold into marriage (the salesman is the only European minority in the book). Another ("Mrs. Angelic") flies to London on a whim, accidentally books a room in a brothel and ends up staying the night anyway. The first sentence is my favorite in the book:

"The "hotel" looked more like a strange house. It had a living room filled with sleazy men, a lot of little rooms nearby, and an invisible sign at the entrance warning, "Leave anything angelic on the doorstep"…When my friend booked the room, the proprietor assumed she wanted to make a little ho-dough on her European trip, so she quoted the standard work girl's rental fee. … In the morning they realized that the lock on their door didn't work. Many of the men waiting in the living room were only partly dressed. All of them offered to buy the girl's breakfast. Do you think maybe they wanted something in return?"

What causes such impressive accidents? The devoted hack will find little hints in her author bio, her internet papertrail, her other interviews. We discover that she was an impassioned sorority sister, a combative cheerleader and international media and management major, an overachiever who received a near perfect GPA at Vanderbilt for consistent functionality and spent her summers in Europe learning how to live. We read that she ventured to the old continent to soak up the culture — she captured commodified and consumed — she couldn't help but sample its famous wine and men. We rejoice that she decided to write a book about her exploits, producing a freak accident on every page. We thank god for her agent, who, in a moment of benign inspiration, suggested shooting some promotional trailers. We marvel at her decision to hire her dad as the director (no wonder the racier scenes looked so awkward). What appears to be satire is merely life's freakish poetry.

On the surface, the gag that runs through Cahoon's writing and performances is that she is not very smart; that she is a descendant of Dubya, just the latest model of American Idiot. Indeed, ignorance is one of her assets: Cahoon's book and videos capture, in pristine condition, a worldview so narrow, blurry, and fantastical that it may well be cited by future French historians celebrating the erosion of the American mind and empire. But it doesn't stem from stupidity.

In my experience, the density of dimwits in America is no higher than elsewhere. The new world does, however, seem to have a notable surplus of self-simplifiers, educated "folks" who dumb themselves down to widen their appeal. After a while, it becomes instinctual. Looking over Cahoon's impressive resume (national leadership honor society; dean's list, every year) it seems to me that, like Gretchen Carlson, her apparent fatuousness is just a byproduct of the cynical populism of the marketplace. In other words, Cahoon habitually panders to the lowest common denominator.

The final joke, however, is on us: Cahoon is going places. Responding to an especially cynical question of mine, she told me that she has no plans, as of yet, to write a dating guide for the African continent (a career killer). Instead, she is currently "in talks with Hollywood producers" to turn her book into a film. I doubt Hollywood will work out for her, but Washington just might. I suspect that she will someday make a highly efficient press secretary to a future Republican president. Lucky us.

* * *

While thoughtful comedians, like Richard Pryor or Louis C.K, tirelessly ponder their individual predicament and find the humor in it, unintentional comedians perform their natural routines and leave the reflection to others. In that sense, the person who discovers the unintentional comedian and repackages their work is the artist in the equation — similar to a filmmaker cutting together found footage. Viewers today not only decide which performers they enjoy, they decide what genre those performers inhabit.

Their subjects are both victims and beneficiaries of this ironic culture of re-appropriation. Like beggars, they place themselves in the public sphere for others to rate their worth. Their low stooping is rewarded. No professional comedy writer today would dare come up with a character like Antoine Dodson or Latarian Milton or the "Leave Britney Alone!" guy, because it wouldn't take long for accusations of bigotry to fly their way. But the market dictates that if you're not willing to go low, someone else will: network sitcoms have been undercut by reality shows and, as a result, are bleeding ratings. YouTube's compendium of freaks cut even lower: with evermore people choosing the internet over their television, comedy producers targeting the "thick demographic" would be wise to harness their obscene energy.

The redeeming aspect of the genre is the simplicity of its premises. What established humor writer would waste his time penning a sketch about a stoned man breaking out in tears at the sight of a double rainbow? The pieces are all heavily character-driven. In a few minutes, we get a slice of a person's life story, a glimpse of their unique set of neuroses. We get to laugh at something without the slight feeling of manipulation that inevitably results from artistic direction.

Unintentional comedy is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. It is immune to financial pressures and strategic innovation, merely a mirror image of the public and its tastes. Village idiots will keep tripping onto global pedestals, in ever larger numbers. They waddle in lockstep with these labile times, never escaping obscurity for very long.

Leon Dische Becker is a freelance journalist/critic/translator living in New York.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    You're a fantastic writer!

    "the tragicomic irony of the conflict between real life and the romantic imagination." This is why I love Yates and find him funny where others only see tragedy. All of his schlemiels suffer from this.

    And about Karl Pilkington, if his manner isn't practiced, I don't know how to feel about Gervais' exploitation. Like a child, Plinkington's realizes that people find his ideas amusing and strange, and now the rabbit hole is abysmal. Even if he just wants to please and likes the attention, he's genuinely hilarious. His observations are often pithy and perceptive and he seems oblivious to bullshit in a way that dialectic thinking doesn't allow.

    She remained in character even when reiterating her claim that the videos were parodies — that seemed frightfully meta. Sasha Baron Cohen does all his interviews in character, but that's where the convergence ends. In Mike Sacks' book And Here's The Kicker, Dan Mazer, Cohen's collaborator, discusses just how elaborate Borat's backstory is. The minutiae considered in advance. Everything Cahoon does is incidentally humorous. But each has the same effect. If Cohen and Mazer's work weren't so pitch-perfect and well-received, I imagine it'd be frustrating to witness the success of folks who happen upon their absurdity or come into it innately.

    Am I supposed to have ended this feeling bad for the blissfully ignorant? Or should I save my sympathies for those who have a chance of understanding how ridiculous they are?

    Great, great article!

    • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

      Ugh. Typos. Whatever.

  • long

    Agreed – great article!