Getting the bigger picture: the joke as a revelation of reality

In a 2014 interview, the comic Emo Philips looks back at his early career, and remarks on how skinny he was as a young man.

I was 6-foot-2, 135 pounds, naked. If that scale at the train station is anything to go by.

The second of these sentences “pulls back” from the first to reveal that the spindly comic was, in fact, weighing himself naked at the train station. That’s how he determined his weight. He’s telling us a story the first half of which we spent completely misunderstanding it.

There is, from Emo’s point of view (with his greater perspective) only one story being told here: he weighed himself naked at the train station and found that he weighed 135 pounds. But for us (with our narrower perspective) there’s a revelatory jolt when we suddenly have to “reframe” our understanding of the first sentence. The “set-up” has set us up for a fall. Suddenly, when the punchline hits us, we see the bigger scene: Emo Philips, weighing himself naked in public.

There’s a brilliant example of just this kind of ‘pulling back’ towards the end of the Arrested Development episode ‘Bringing Up Buster’. A convoluted scene plays out at the Bluth Company offices between Michael Bluth, his brother Buster and his mother Lucille: “How dare you turn Buster against me!” she demands of Michael, before Buster decides he wants to move back in with his mother. Lucille, left alone with Michael, warns him to cherish the relationship he has with his own son, and in an usual display of tenderness kisses him on the cheek and leaves.

It’s an extremely intimate family moment, and as Michael stands there alone, pondering his relationship with his son (the most important thing in his life) the music rises in the mix, and the camera pulls back to reveal that the boardroom was actually packed with Bluth Company employees all along.

They, like the horrified rail travellers staring at a naked Emo Philips, never experienced the giddying shift of perspective that we the audience did. They knew all along what the situation was. No information was withheld from them, in the way it was withheld from us.

The movement from a tightly-framed scene to a wider scene is, for the viewer or reader, a journey from one “storyworld” to another. The first (false) reality is negated, overwritten by how things “really are”. By the time we get to the end of the gag we realise: the Bluth family, like Emo, were never alone. Version 1 of reality simply never happened.

In the Arrested Development scene the pull back is a gradual one, although sometimes a wider context is revealed with a cut: an example is in the Simpsons episode ‘A Star is Burns’, when we see Barney Gumble standing up and confessing:

My name is Barney, and I’m an alcoholic.

At this point there’s a cut to a wide shot of Barney surrounded by girl scouts. Lisa Simpson is one of them. She says:

Mr. Gumble, this is a Girl Scout meeting!

But Barney refuses delivery of the newly granted perspective:

“Is it, or is it you girls can’t admit you have a problem?”

What’s interesting (and quite odd) about this line is that Barney doesn’t give up easily on his misunderstanding of  the moment. He still thinks it might be an AA meeting (even though we the audience no longer do).

The shift from narrow perspective to wide shot is just one version of the same thing: new information which negates an old and incomplete understanding of events; a punchline which forces the audience to accept a new reality. Barney is at an AA meeting. Oh no, he’s not. The first reality is negated.

Here’s an early Emo Philips joke using this kind of perspective shift:

When I was a kid, my favourite time of year was that first snowfall… I’d wake up and I’d scream “yipee! snow!” and I’d run to the front door, and I’d go “you know the deal, let me in now”.

Right up until the word “in” we’re thinking that the young and excited Emo is inside the house, wanting to get out into the snow. With that single unexpected preposition everything is inverted. For us, at least. For Emo telling the story as well as for the character Emo within it, here was only ever one story, one reality, one “truth”: that Emo was kept outside by his parents until it snowed. At no point in this story was he ever inside the house, we just imagined him there: but then, only at the very end, we’re allowed to share Emo’s full and accurate understanding of events.

Of course, if this understanding had been shared at the beginning there’d be no joke at all:

When I was a kid, my parents forced me to live outside until it snowed, and so my favourite time of year was that first snowfall… I’d wake up and I’d scream “yipee! snow!” and I’d run to the front door, and I’d go “you know the deal, let me in now”.

Later in his career Emo refined this particular perspective shift into one of his best gags (although obviously framing the joke in this way rather ruins it):

I was about 4 years old, and I was playing one day, and I saw the cellar door open, just a crack. Now, my folks had always warned me: “Emo, whatever you do, don’t go near the cellar door” but I had to see what was on the other side if it killed me, and I went to the cellar door and I pushed it and walked through, and I saw strange wonderful things, things I had never seen before, like trees… grass… the sun. That was nice.

In this very brilliant joke, the word “trees” is the trigger that resets reality: everything flips back to front and we realise that the 4 year old Emo was never outside the cellar, fascinated by what was inside. He was inside, fascinated what was outside.

A recent example of this device (again, rather to give away the joke) is this perfectly poised line by Anthony Jeselnik:

My sister asked me to babysit my two year old nephew, so I had to baby-proof my apartment. And thank god I did too, because that little bastard ran around my place all night, but he never got in.

At the outset, quite naturally, we understand “baby-proofing” an apartment to mean cushioning sharp surfaces, that sort of thing; however, once the new information of the punchline is delivered, we realise that “baby-proof” must in the context have meant something more like “waterproof” or “sound-proof”, proof against something. A similar kind of flexibility is given by the word “around”: someone can run around inside an apartment, or they can run around the outside of an apartment. As Jeselnik’s unfortunate nephew did in this case.

Again, the nephew was never inside the apartment: our false understanding is shattered by the punchline “he never got in”. We’re tricked by a mirage; we stumble towards it thinking it’s an oasis, but when we get there it turns to dust. With our new perspective, we see clearly: Jeselnik is not being conscientious. He’s a monster. Just like Emo’s parents.

Jeselnik uses the exact same inside/outside flip in another joke, told in his Thoughts and Prayers special:

My brother’s been staying with me for a couple of weeks now, which has been awful. My brother’s crazy. Even my neighbours hate him. The other day, I opened up the door, I caught him masturbating. He looks me right in the eyes, and goes: “shut the door”. I said, “get inside”.

The doorway between inside and outside is the barrier between the two opposite ‘storyworlds’: it holds them apart. In each inside/outside joke the tension between the two worlds is set up and then reversed. You think the characters in world A, in fact they’re in world B (and were all along). Jeselnik’s brother was never inside the apartment, he was always masturbating outside.

This realisation is related to the “bent stick in water” illusion which Bertrand Russell talked about a few times. We might think a straight stick is bent if half of it is refracted through water. In his essay The Relation of Sense-data to Physics he says:

There is no ‘illusion’, but only a false inference, if we think that the stick would feel bent to the touch.

What we’re dealing with is all these jokes is a “false inference”. Except that in the case of all of them, it’s a bent stick that we’re led to perceive, incorrectly, as straight.

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