What’s in a one-liner—just a wry and witty take on the world, or something more serious? Everyone knows timing makes the joke, but what do jokes do to time? This essay, addressing recent trends in criticism towards the study of the comic, treats the one-liner joke as an important philosophical and poetic phenomenon.
Two recent works, Simon Critchley’s On Humour and Andrew Stott’s Comedy, signal a renewed critical interest in different formations of humour and the interpretive models used for understanding it. This recent trend inherits from Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson and other previous theorists of the comic its inattention to the importance of language to comedy in general and the phenomena of the joke qua language in particular. Drawing on Alain Badiou and Friedrich Hölderlin, I will resituate the joke as an ‘event’ whose operative function is to ‘rupture’ the linguistic and temporal ‘order[s] which support’ it. It is language and time which both make the joke possible and are subject to the proper force of comic. I will analyse one-liner jokes from Milton Jones, Stewart Francis and Tim Vine since these jokes, being only superficially observational, always manipulative of meanings and wholly dependent on timing, are most demonstrative of the joke as an event in itself and not as something related to or representative of the world. First, using Badiou, I will show how the return to comedy has reiterated a central assumption of comic theory, that the joke addresses itself to and works upon an external social world. I will then offer a new scheme for analysing the joke which dispenses with the need to relate the joke to the world.
Jokes and the World
The idea that the joke reorganises, reimagines or in some way transforms a ‘real’ social world is the orthodox critical position in the study of the comic. For Critchley, comedy creates:
a disjunction between the way things are and the way they are represented in the joke. […] The comic world is not simply the inverted or upside down world of philosophy, but rather the world with its causal chains broken, it social practices turned inside out, and common sense rationality left in tatters.
Critchley reworks George Orwell’s pithy assertion that ‘every joke is a tiny revolution’ and the assumption in both cases is that the object of the joke is the external world represented therein. Stott concurs with Critchley, concluding that comedy is either:
Employed as a form of castigation, a means of imposing normative values on those who deviate from agreed standards of citizenship within communities whose membership is well defined, [or] works in a way that is antithetical to the maintenance of the status quo.
For Stott, the ‘status quo’ is always the object of the joke, just as Critchley notes that comedy, whether orthodox or subversive, is concerned with ‘common sense rationality’. In this, both critics reiterate much of the theoretical work already done on humour. For Sigmund Freud, jokes allow the assertion of authority for particular individuals in social situations: ‘by making our enemy small, despicable or comic, we achieve in a roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him’. More broadly, Freud situates the comic as having ‘something liberating in it […] humour is not resigned, it is rebellious’, manifesting a vision of ‘overcoming’ the social order more generally. Likewise, Henri Bergson insists that the joke is always concerned with the social world:
To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all must we determine the utility of its function, which is a social one. Such, let us say at once, will be the leading idea of all our investigations. Laughter must answer to certain requirements of life in common. It must have a SOCIAL signification.
Bergson clearly emphasises the relation of the joke to the ‘social’. Critchley translates Bergson’s ‘life in common’ into his own ‘common sense rationality’; Stott reiterates Freud’s idea of comedy as ‘overcoming’ and ‘rebellious’ with his own notions of ‘castigation’ and the joke as ‘antithetical to the maintenance of the status quo’. To distil the philosophical structure of this mode of thinking about the joke, and how it might be challenged, I turn to Alain Badiou’s concept of ‘the event’. Badiou uses the term ‘event’ to describe a ‘type of rupture which opens up truths’. The ‘truth’ of any event, Badiou argues, ‘is solely constituted by rupturing with the order which supports it’. In other words, two things are necessary for an ‘event’: an ‘order which supports’ the event, which comes before it, and a ‘rupturing’ intervention in and of that order. Insofar as jokes, as Critchley says, leave ‘the world with its causal chains broken [and] in tatters’, jokes are Badiouian ‘event[s]’ because they ‘ruptu[re]’ an existing ‘order’.
For Freud, Bergson and Orwell, and for Critchley and Stott who follow them, the ‘truth’ of the joke as an event—what makes a joke a joke—is the intervention made by the joke in the ‘order which supports’ or makes possible the joke. For Bergson, the comic ‘must have a social signification’, and so ‘the order which supports’ the joke must be the world of social order outside it. The social world is ‘the order which supports’ even subversive jokes, since the object of comic subversion is ‘common sense rationality’ and therefore what ‘supports’ the possibility of the joke as an event, radical or not, is an external ‘status quo’. Likewise, Freud’s ‘liberating’ joke is an event which ‘overcom[es]’ the social ‘order which supports’ and necessitates the joke in the first instance. For Stott, it is ‘agreed standards’ which are given orthodox or radical comic treatment and so the event of the joke, whatever its political effect, is ‘support[ed]’ by the status quo. In other words, jokes are definable only in their dependency on the presence of a world outside the joke which comes before, and which emerges transformed or ‘ruptur[ed]’, following the event. Yet, there are two other elements essential to jokes: language and time. I want to consider the joke as an event whose objects are language and time, rather than the social world. By this is meant that language and time are also ‘order[s] which support’ the joke, since the joke could not exist without either. I will demonstrate how jokes causes a ‘rupturing’ which transforms language and time even as they rely on those ‘order[s]’ for their existence as ‘event[s]’.
Badiou and Hölderlin: Jokes, Time and Language
For Friedrich Hölderlin, caesura is central to any event involving language:
In the rhythmic sequence of the representations wherein transport presents itself, there becomes necessary what in poetic meter is called caesura, the pure word, the counter-rhythmic rupture; namely, in order to meet the onrushing change of representations at its highest point in such a manner that very soon there does not appear the change of representation but the representation itself.
Just as Badiou sees ‘rupturing’ as crucial to any event, Hölderlin situates ‘rupture’ as a key element in language. Just as, for Badiou, events are always ‘multiple, composed of [different] elements’, Hölderlin, sees language as ‘change’ which is understandable as a discrete event only insofar as a ‘rupture’ occurs within it. Hölderlin seems to call the event of language ‘representation itself’, since all language is representation. Crucially, language only represents itself. The idea comes from Ferdinand de Saussure, who noted that ‘in language there are only differences, without positive terms’, meaning that linguistic signifiers do not point to anything in the world, and refer only to other signifiers. In the case of the joke as an event, language does not point ‘positive[ly]’ toward the world, as Freud and Bergson would have it; rather the joke points towards language, to what Hölderlin calls ‘representation itself’. In studying jokes as Badiouian events (we can call jokes a type of ‘language-event’) attention should always be paid to the work – Badiou’s ‘rupturing’ and Hölderlin’s ‘caesura’ – wrought upon language as it exists in the event of the joke itself. Hölderlin, in linking caesura to ‘rhythm’, also suggests that timing is central to ‘representation itself’ – in other words to any language-event. Timing is central to comedy, of course, and so time, like language, is another ‘order which supports’ the joke, and is therefore also subject to the ‘rupturing’ which inheres in every joke as an event of language. Accordingly, my reading of jokes will be formal, making little of the content of the joke and more of the joke as an event, the ‘truth’ of which ‘is solely constituted by rupturing with the order[s] which support it’. What needs to be analysed in order to understand the function of a joke as a language-event and not as a picture of the external world, are the effects of the ‘rupturing’ (caesura) which the joke performs on both language and time.
Reading the One-Liner as a Badiouian Event
J. Whitrow notes the consensus of the philosophical and ‘scientific idea of homogenous and continuous time’. Time, that is, always moves steadily and ‘continuously’ into the future. Yet, the one-liner suspends time through caesura, before contracting it at high speed with an ironic peripeteia at the punchline. That contraction refigures temporality as cyclical, not accelerative, because the new meaning which the end of the joke confers on the beginning calls for return to the set-up. For example, Milton Jones (pictured, above) jokes:
About a month before he died – my grandfather – we covered his back with lard. After that he went downhill pretty quickly.
Two caesural pauses are present: within the set-up itself, ‘[a]bout a month before he died –my grandfather-’; and between the set-up and the punchline, ‘we covered his back in lard. After that…’ The initial caesura suspends temporality, deferring the punchline – this is common to all one-liners. But it also ‘ruptures’ time in other ways, both splitting and refiguring time as cyclical. The splitting comes from the pause, making the joke ‘multiple’, which is a central feature of the Badiouian event. Insofar the punch-line is what makes the set up make sense, the set-up comes back into a now clearer focus as the punch-line takes effect, transporting the joke back to its beginning with a new understanding, now humorous, of the transformed premise. Time, in the one-liner, becomes cyclical, always inviting a re-reading of the start of the joke, after which the joke must be followed through, beginning the cycle again; and time becomes split, as the ‘rupture’ of the caesura splits the event – Hölderlin’s ‘rhythmic sequence of […] representations’ – into multiple parts.
Language is also transformed because the phrase ‘[a]fter that he went downhill pretty quickly’ takes on a completely different meaning, shifting from ‘he died shortly after’ to ‘he slid down a hill’. ‘He went downhill pretty quickly’ is metaphorical, but in the joke that language is literalised. As with time, language is split, because the signifying phrase ‘[a]fter that he went downhill pretty quickly’ is ‘ruptured’, split into a multiplicity of meanings. In contrast to Critchley and Stott, then, the joke as an event functions not as a re-imagination of the world but as a re-figuration of time and language in which metaphor becomes literal and temporality becomes erratic and flexible, not ‘homogenous and continuous’. Stewart Francis has the following joke:
I like what mechanics wear, overall.
As in Jones’s one-liner, ‘overall’ signifies two things at once: a mechanic’s attire and an abstract term of general assessment resonate from a single signifier, producing humour. As with ‘downhill’ in the previous joke, the signifier ‘overall’ ‘ruptures’ language by splitting into multiple signifieds, vacillating between the two. A caesural pause again suspends time before the punchline, and the ironic peripeteia of the pay-off contracts time and returns to the now transformed set-up, inviting the joke, and time, to be replayed incessantly. Tim Vine delivers rapid-fire, caesural one-liners which all disclose this same multiplicity of meanings:
I was steering a yacht with my stomach, y’know, abseiling.
A farmer said to me, ‘I’ve got 68 sheep – will you round them up for me?’ I said sure, 70.
One day I’ll wind up and old man. And he’ll attack me.
As with Jones and Francis, the joke is centred on ambiguous phrases whose multiple significations are disclosed in a ‘rupturing’ of signifiers into disparate signifieds: ‘abseiling’ becomes split into to abdominal muscles and steering a yacht, despite being neither; ‘round them up’, becomes ‘assemble in the same location’ and a mathematical manoeuvre; ‘wind up’ is split into both ‘ageing’ and ‘annoying’. What the one-liner does is disclose the multiplicity of signifieds which resonate from any given signifier; the event of the joke involves a manipulation or ‘rupturing’ of language into multiple parts which makes visible its equivocating character. As with Jones and Francis, Vine also ‘ruptures’ time, since the caesura before the punchline again transforms our understanding of the set-up, which becomes the site of a plurality of significance and also the site of time as cyclical, since a return to the set-up invites the consummation of the punchline. The comedy relies on ambiguous language, so ‘rupturing’ occurs even in the ‘order which supports’ the joke. Equally, the joke is dependent on timing, which is also radically altered. The one-liner, therefore, is a classic Badiouian event.
I have tried to open up a different way of analysing the joke to that of Crithcley and Stott who, despite their recent publications, rearticulate the key assumption of previous theories of comedy: that the joke has as its object the social world it depicts. Using Badiou’s notion of event, I have situated the joke as phenomena of language – or language-event – which is both dependant on and transformative of those ‘order[s] which support’ it. Drawing on Hölderlin, I have identified two ‘order[s]’ central to the joke: language and time. In my Badiouian manifesto for reinterpreting the comic, what needs to be analysed in order to understand the function of a joke – as an event of language and not merely as a picture of the social world – are the effects of the ‘rupturing’ (caesura) which the joke performs on language and time. Seen as a Badiouian event, the one-liner splits and multiplies the meanings associated with given signifiers, disclosing language as a fundamentally equivocating system of differences and not as a scheme of discrete, positive entities. Time is similarly ‘rupture[d]’ because caesura suspends time within the joke, before the punchline, and then causes a cyclical temporality by forcing a return to the set-up through ironic peripeteia.
Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder and editor of New Critique.
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