When ‘Bones’ Tried Standup
Many episodes of the long-running procedural Bones follow the same formula: the grossest corpse you’ve ever seen on television is found by two dinguses. Turns out, this dead person was involved in a freaky-deaky subculture. Forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (nicknamed Bones because she works with, um, bones) and FBI investigator Seeley Booth (who is related to John Wilkes Booth, don’t act like they don’t go there) search for the killer while wading through this subculture. Booth is yucked out, and Bones tells him he’s being uptight and bringing his hegemonic norms where they don’t belong. Someone finds a kerf mark or hemorrhagic staining, and the killer is brought to justice. Besides all the maggots, it’s a very cozy hour of television.
All sorts of niche groups were considered in the 12 years Bones was on the air. Norwegian death metal, pony play, the Jersey Shore — they did it all! With varying levels of accuracy. I can’t speak to the veracity of the Jersey Shore episode, or the one about amateur pro wrestling, but there’s one episode of Bones that still baffles me in how wrong they got it: season 8, episode 8, “The But in the Joke,” AKA the standup comedy episode.
I highly recommend that you all watch this episode of Bones, which is on Netflix in the US. But here’s a brief summary in case you don’t: A skeleton is found with its face smashed in, wearing a fake arrow through the head ala Steve Martin. The victim turns out to be DC comic Morgan Donnelly. Donnelly was doing well in the local scene, but had made enemies by stealing jokes and girlfriends and generally being a dick. Criminal psychologist Lance Sweets identifies which jokes in Donnelly’s set weren’t written by him, and Booth does an open mic using those jokes to flush out the original author. More wackiness ensues, a Gallagher rip-off is the prime suspect for a hot minute, and there’s a scene where the trace evidence guy has to swab a whole bunch of toilets. I’m not even going to get into the Banksy subplot because we don’t have time but it’s just insane. Seriously, you should watch this episode. Honestly you should watch every episode of Bones; it is a delight.
It’s hard to know where to begin with how “The But in the Joke” fails to jibe with any local comedy scene I’ve known. It might be easier to list what Bones gets right. Most — but not all — of the comics are white dudes. The victim and some of the suspects work a shitty telemarketing day job. The open mic audience is half-full, and mostly made up of comics and comics’ coworkers. And they pick exactly the right recurring character to secretly be a local comic after hours. Fisher is one of Dr. Brennan’s interns — more specifically he’s the one who was hospitalized between seasons for severe depression. During the course of the investigation, it turns out that Fisher is an “underground sensation” in the comedy scene, mostly for how funny he isn’t. When asked about his comedy, Fisher says “My routine is dark, disturbing, and uncomfortable. Just the way a comedy show should be,” which is exactly what you’d expect a young Sad Boy who just finished watching a Bill Hicks documentary to say.
But all these grace notes don’t cover the completely bonkers portrayal of standup in the rest of the episode. In the world of Bones, more than one person does the Gallagher routine of smashing stuff as a “joke.” OK, in our world there are literally two Gallaghers, but in the world of Bones there’s a completely unrelated guy doing it on the local level. This comic also regularly performs with an arrow through his head. The arrow-through-the-head bit is apparently still a going concern. In Bones, local comics are given Friday night headlining spots, as opposed to the touring comics who actually work weekends at clubs. All hecklers are audience plants that genuinely want to help the show. And weirdest of all, someone brandishing a gun at a heckler gets a huge laugh instead of being the worst thing to ever happen at an open mic.
The open mic scene has got to be the centerpiece of “The But in the Joke.” Booth reads jokes from note cards provided to him by Sweets. Some are jokes Sweets has written (including my favorite joke in the ep, “Is it just me, or are circles pointless?”), some are by Fisher, and some are stolen bits in Donnelly’s act. When Booth is heckled, he threatens to shoot the audience member, showing everybody his gun to prove he can do it. If this happened at a real open mic, somehow I don’t think it would go over well. On Bones, it’s the first laugh Booth gets all night. The audience laughs even harder when Booth arrests someone on stage.
“Humor is a kind of violence,” Bones says near the end of the episode. That is certainly how humor is portrayed on the show. From Fisher laughing at the victim’s perimortem injuries because the death blow followed the Rule of Threes to when the victim’s girlfriend thinks his death is an elaborate prank, comedy is made synonymous with cartoonish violence. The mildly amusing jokes Booth tells at the open mic don’t get even a chuckle, but actual threats of violence against audience members are a laugh riot.
There’s a common misconception among non-comedians that a joke is just saying something mean or untrue — that there’s no difference between surprise and humor. I can’t count the number of times coworkers have told me plausible lies, then explained that they were making a joke. A joke has exaggeration in it, a joke has a thesis statement. As Fisher says, jokes aren’t merely amusing, they’re “darkly illuminating in a manner which allows us to laugh defiantly into the yawning abyss.”
So I guess that’s something else Bones got right.