Ruses de guerre: the joke as a campaign of disinformation

The comic Anthony Jeselnik tells this joke about his girlfriend and her love of chocolate:

My girlfriend loves to eat chocolate. She’s always eating chocolate. She likes to joke she’s got a chocolate addiction. Like, “keep me away from those chocolate bars, Anthony, I’m addicted to ‘em!” And it is really annoying. So I put her in a car and took her down town. And I pointed out a crack addict. And I said, “you see that honey? Why can’t you be that skinny?”

Everything (including Jeselnik’s deadly serious tone) leads us to believe that he’s driven his girlfriend down town and is pointing out an emaciated crack addict so that she can appreciate what genuine addiction looks like, as opposed to her “joke” addiction. We assume (we can hardly help but assume) that he’s going to end the sequence by saying something like “you see that honey. That’s what real addiction looks like”. We may not come up with the exact words, or any words at all, but we have a pretty good (and entirely false) idea of how the story ends.

Our brains have sped ahead, during the pause between the penultimate line, in entirely the wrong direction. Jeselnick was showing his girlfriend an emaciated crack addict not as a solemn warning about the seriousness of addiction, but simply so that he can tell her that she looks fat. The result, presumably, of all the chocolate she’s been eating.

It’s the comedy equivalent of a “dummy” in sports: giving your opponent enough false signals to convince them to move off in the wrong direction. E.g. in Rugby Union (as described by BBC Sport):

You must fool your opponent into believing you are actually about to make the pass… The defender will be drawn to your team-mate – the target of the intended “pass”… Sprint into the space you have just created.

The “dummy” and Jeselnik’s “chocolate addiction” joke have the same logical structure as Operation Mincemeat, an Allied disinformation operation in World War 2, which was recounted in the 1956 film The Man Who Never Was. The body of a homeless man was dressed as a Royal Marine officer and set adrift off the coast of southern Spain. He was carrying fake documents which suggested to German Intelligence that the Allies’ plan was to invade Germany and Sardinia, rather than Sicily (which was invaded by the Allies in 1943).

In the foreword to the book The Man Who Never Was by Ewan Montagu, the originator of the plan, Lord Ismay, who served as Churchill’s chief military assistant during the war, says:

To mystify and mislead the enemy has always been one of the cardinal principles of war. Consequently, ruses de guerre of one kind of another have played a part in almost every campaign since the episode of the Trojan horse, or perhaps even earlier. The game has been played for so long that it is not easy to think out new methods of disguising one’s strength or one’s intentions.

In this case, says Ismay, “The operation succeeded beyond our wildest dreams… even to the extent of sending German vessels away from Sicily itself”. The Allies sprinted into the space they’d created. The same dynamic is at play: misdirection, movement (of the opponent’s body / enemy forces / audience’s brain) in the wrong direction, victory.

Jeselnik’s punchline in the chocolate addiction joke is his invasion of Sicily: it’s where he was headed all along. The way he misdirects the audience away from the actual endpoint towards a false assumption can be seen in the way the joke discreetly shifts in its references, from chocolate to addiction.

The top half of the joke is thick with references to his girlfriend eating chocolate. Once this idea of his girlfriend’s love of chocolate has been hammered home, Jeselnik moves away from it — as his girlfriend says: “keep me away from those chocolate bars”. This dummying movement “away” from chocolate towards addiction is reinforced in the narrative by Jeselnik actually getting in a car and driving away from the chocolate bars: he physically shifts her (and the gravitational centre of the joke) “down town” to the crack addicts. Which is where he wants our brains.

The biggest misdirection of the joke is the innocuous sounding line in the middle: “And it really is annoying”. This is the big lie, the annoyance that never was. Jeselnik isn’t “really” annoyed by his girlfriend’s pantomime addiction to chocolate. He’s “really” annoyed by her weight gain.

But by the time the punchline comes, he’s focused our attention on the crack addict for all the wrong reasons (reasons which are actually chocolate-related, not addiction-related), and then, once we’re fully mystified and mislead, he’s ready to launch his brutal attack: “Why can’t you be that skinny?”

And it’s too late. He’s got past us with the ball. And we can only stand there dumbly and admire his skill.

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