Getting the bigger picture 2: “what an important joke”

Anthony Jeselnik tells this joke in his 2010 special Shakespeare:

I had to break up with my last girlfriend because she lied to me, and told me that she’d been molested by her neighbour. But I know her neighbour. He’s a really cool guy. Not like her creepy-ass other neighbour.

After the laughter dies down, Jeselnik remarks: “what an important joke”. This important joke hinges on the word “neighbour”. Your neighbour, in everyday speech, is simply the person who lives next to you, and can perfectly well be understood as a single person. As in this remark by the singer Morrissey:

My neighbour is the very famous Johnny Depp, who looks away should I ever appear.

Or in this lyric from the band Bowling For Soup:

My phone just died, and my neighbour is a dick.

But hidden in the word “neighbour” is a linguistic quirk, which is you can properly speak of your neighbour in the singular even though you very likely have more than one of them. In the most simplistic layout of a street in a town most houses sit between two other houses — a neighbour to the left, a neighbour to the right. But you can still say “my neighbour is a dick” or “my neighbour is Johnny Depp” and not beg the question about who your other neighbour is.

The fictionalised character of Jeselnik within the joke (which becomes, for the duration of the joke, co-extensive with the fictionalised character of Jeselnik on stage) is outraged that his girlfriend would accuse “her neighbour” of molesting her, because he knows and likes him — “he’s a really cool guy”. Right up until this point in the joke, the audience shares Jeselnik’s understanding of the basic structure of the situation: his girlfriend accuses her neighbour of molesting her; Jesenik likes the neighbour and thinks the girlfriend is lying; so he breaks up with her. We don’t know who’s right or wrong exactly, but we think we have a grasp of the layout of the situation. But then comes a line which explodes our understanding:

Not like her creepy-ass other neighbour.

With this line, our perspective widens, we see the situation as it “really” is: Jeselnik’s girlfriend was speaking about her “other neighbour” all along. Like terrible detectives investigating molestation, we’ve cast our net too narrowly, and have been focusing on the wrong “neighbour”.

Never mind the dizzying impossibility of the girlfriend never explaining to joke-Jeselnik that he’s thinking about the wrong neighbour, the joke follows a basic structure of reality revelation: the false/misunderstood reality of the set-up is shattered by the punchline. The joke performs a classic “pull back and reveal” of the bigger picture, from reality #1:

[girlfriend] — [cool neighbour]

to reality #2:

[creepy-ass neighbour] — [girlfriend] — [cool neighbour]

with the added twist that joke-Jeselnik knows reality #2 pertains, but acts as if reality #1 is the totality of the situation. Or rather, he’s holding both realities in tension. He has all of the facts and none of the understanding. The angry, self-righteous tone of the joke is part of the humour: Jeselnik is furiously, resolutely wrong.

It’s the same resolute idiocy that Barney Gumble displays in the Simpson’s pull back discussed here, where Barney declares: “My name is Barney, and I’m an alcoholic”, but then refuses to accept that he’s not in an AA meeting even though (as the pull back reveals) he’s surrounded by girl scouts, not alcoholics. It’s a meta-joke: the refusal to accept delivery of a newly revealed reality, that we find funny in addition to the pull back itself.

Although obviously jokes about molestation aren’t funny.

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