Rationality of the Conchords

[Content note: over-analyzing comedy with the result that it starts to seem less funny; discussion of sex work and homophobia.]

And now for something a little lighter.

I’ve always wanted to see more analysis on humor.  What exactly is it that creates the oftentimes-subtle line between something totally hilarious and something that’s just plain not funny, and why does that line often fall in completely different places for different individuals?  There ought to be some scientific results (employing tools from both “hard” neurological sciences and sociology) on how taste in humor is determined.  I’ve never been one to browse scientific papers, but nowadays I do follow a lot of rationality and rationality-adjacent blogs and haven’t seen much of it in the subject matter.  I hope to make this the first of a number of posts on this sort of theme.

But even by the standards of how light a subject humor is, this post will be quite light.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever be up for coming up with more rigorous analysis of what makes things funny.

One very basic question to ask here is “What makes good comedy?”  Probably the second most obvious answer (behind “Being really, really funny!”) is that good comedy, like all art, should reflect something meaningful about life, or convey some sort of moral or rhetorical point.

However, some comedy, including some very dry comedy, comes off as rather amoral.  One of my very favorite sitcoms of all time is Flight of the Conchords; with a few exceptions, I can watch each episode for the tenth time and still find it freshly hilarious.  The Conchords are best known for their songs, many of which are silly parodies of a various musical genres or of particular hits.  While I enjoy many of their songs (sometimes considerably more than the “serious” musical works they’re parodying), my favorite aspect of their TV show is the dry and deadpan-sounding but delightfully absurd dialog.

At the same time, Flight of the Conchords is not generally considered to constitute the sort of television where deep insights into the human experience or moral points are being made.  A small cast of confused and bumbling characters are just there, navigating ridiculous situations with a flavor of surreal humor reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.  There are a few episodes that appear to have some sort of moral theme like “racism is bad” or “try not to hurt people’s feelings” or “it’s not nice to run away while your friend is stuck on a fence with dangerous muggers in pursuit”.  But these obviously valid messages are preached by the characters in ironic ways which are either over-the-top or drily understated (Jemaine refers to the running-away offense alluded to above as the “height of rudeness”).  One is left with the impression that in these cases, the writers were not exactly making a goal of voicing their own opinions on such uncontroversial matters, but instead were using these moral “dilemmas” to drive funny plots which act as backdrops for witty songs and enjoyable back-and-forth between the characters.  Meanwhile, there are somewhat trickier moral conundrums (for instance, involving drugs and sex work) which are alluded to in the storylines, with no apparent endorsement of any position regarding them.

Or isn’t there?  I think some rather subtle points are being made in relation to some of the heavier issues that come up in the plots, but they are not necessarily points that come down on one particular side of any of the usual debates.  My feeling is that in certain cases, the writers, whether conscious of it or not, were trying to push…  Well, it should come as no surprise from the title of this post that I view the writers’ message to be that we should all be a little more rationalistic.

My favorite example of this is in the episode “The New Cup”, in which Jemaine decides to become a prostitute.  He is very defensive about his choice of a new profession, insisting over his band-mate Brett’s skepticism that working as a prostitute isn’t “degrading”.  The dispute over the merits of sex work culminates in the following dialog, which takes place in the band manager Murray’s office, where businessman (of the online “send me $100 to my account in Nigeria and I’ll invest it” variety) Nigel Saladu is staying as a guest.

MURRAY:  Where’s Jemaine?

BRETT:  He’s out working the beat.

MURRAY:  Working the beat.

BRETT:  Yeah.

MURRAY:  Drumming.

BRETT:  No, he’s a gigolo.

MURRAY:  A what?!

BRETT:  He’s a prostitute.  Jemaine’s a hooker.

MURRAY:  A whore?  Is he?

BRETT:  A prostitute.

MURRAY:  A male prostitute.

[NIGEL makes disapproving noise.]

BRETT:  I think so.

MURRAY:  Jemaine shouldn’t be doing this.

NIGEL:  Indeed he should not.

. . .

MURRAY:  Brett, you’ve got to get out there and stop Jemaine, all right?  He shouldn’t be selling himself to the street!

BRETT:  Well, Jemaine, he doesn’t think it’s degrading.

NIGEL:  It is degrading!

MURRAY [gesturing towards NIGEL]:  It is degrading!  He’s just putting on a brave face; no one likes being a prostitute!

BRETT:  Jemaine likes it.

MURRAY:  Oh, why don’t you become a prostitute?  Why aren’t I a prostitute?

NIGEL:  Why aren’t I a prostitute, Brett?

MURRAY: Good one, Nigel.  Why isn’t Nigel a prostitute?  We could all be in a prostitute club.  It’s because of that cup.  You should never have bought that cup!…

On my first watch-through of that episode, there was apparently no message concerning the morality of prostitution.  Usually the debate surrounding sex work revolves around questions of whether it is unethical and/or unhealthy for the worker, wrong on the part of the client, whether or not everybody would be better off if it were legalized, etc.  In the episode, even while the characters keep arguing over Jemaine’s recent life choice, none of these nuanced discussion points even come up.  That is, not beyond the question of whether or not selling one’s body is “degrading”, which is a word that’s used over and over.  The whole thing is quite funny for some reason, even while it doesn’t quite seem to be satirizing any particular attitude about the sex industry.

Then I realized that this is entirely the point: the characters’ debate avoids all nuanced discussion points and concentrates only on the whole “degrading” thing.  The back-and-forth arguments boil down to Jemaine insisting that it isn’t degrading, Brett not being sure whether or not it’s degrading, Murray claiming it is degrading and having Nigel back him up (which is presented as a devastating blow to Jemaine’s position), and so on.  Not once does anyone specify what exactly is meant by “degrading”, which aspect of sex work deserve that description, or why.  If everyone would step back and at least try to taboo the word “degrading”, then they might be able to have a productive discussion on this contentious topic.  But instead, they are doing no more than throwing around a meaningless word, in a scenario which is only a slightly exaggerated version of how many debates progress in real life.

There’s another, perhaps less blatant, example of this type of satire in a much earlier episode, “Bowie”, in which Brett is feeling insecure about his body and Jemaine wants to restore his confidence but is worried that anything he does to encourage him might be “gay”.  (Not even that it might come across as gay, but that it might be “gay”.)  He and Brett both wind up mulling over Jemaine’s behavior with other characters, repeatedly seeking their expert assurances that his actions aren’t “gay”.  Nobody ever addresses what it means to be “gay”, why those meanings might or might not apply to Jemaine’s proposed actions, or why being “gay” is something to be so ardently avoided in the first place.  As with the debate over whether prostitution is “degrading”, underneath the surface, the entire discussion amounts to senseless wordplay.

Now unlike with the whole becoming-a-gigolo conundrum in “The New Cup”, the dialogs over whether or not it’s “gay” to for a guy to give compliments to another guy do appear to convey a certain message against homophobia.  But what is the content of the message really?  It has nothing to do with, for instance, any invalid arguments or hateful attitudes behind religious fundamentalist opposition to homosexuality.  It instead is saying that one should try to apply more rational thinking when contemplating whether some behavior is bad, not pattern-match it to some abstract “state of being gay” which for some reason one has a kneejerk negative response to.

The dialog quoted above between Brett, Murray, and Nigel about Jemaine’s new job takes a slightly new turn when another supposedly devastating point against sex work is made: if prostitution is so great, why don’t we all become prostitutes?  (The point is apparently strengthened impressively when Nigel points out that he also hasn’t chosen this profession.)  I’m not really sure what to call this excuse for an “argument” — maybe a strawman or a false dichotomy?  It is echoed in another exchange from the very last episode, “Evicted”, where band members Brett and Jemaine have to stay at the house of creepy fan Mel and her husband Doug.

MEL:  Okay so, um, another rule: there will be no bringing girls back to the house.  I know how you guys are.

DOUG:  Actually Mel, I don’t see any reason why they can’t bring girls back here to visit if they want.

MEL:  Uh, do you want to bring some girls home too, Doug?

DOUG:  No, but I don’t see any reason why they can’t.

MEL:  Yeah, maybe I’ll just bring some girls home, too, just find some real authentic sluts and just turn this house into a whore-home.  Is that what you’d like, Doug?

This type of reaction in the face of disagreement is a little sillier and more over-the-top; it’s extremely obvious where the fallacy lies, and I expect that it’s more commonly depicted in comedy or even in drama.  But it too is essentially a satire of the kind of poor rhetoric that is pretty common in real-life disputes.

I’ve seen other moments from Flight of the Conchords where the flavor of humor seems to come from a feeling of “people treat these complex matters in such an oversimplifying way” — their song “Albi the Racist Dragon” comes to mind, although that is so silly that I’m not sure if it can be said to be anything other than a parody of children’s television.  But I don’t really know of any other shows or comedy which lampoon our unreasonable approaches to debating serious issues in quite this way.

I mean, Seinfeld is probably the sitcom most commonly labeled as “amoral”, and indeed, one common aspect of its humor is the frequent arguments between the characters over what one can or cannot do according to seemingly arbitrary societal rules.  But the message there usually seems to be that it’s ridiculous to feel bound to debate such meaningless rules as a substitute for actual moral introspection, rather than that our methods of actually trying to debate the morality of something so often avoid the real questions.  On the other hand, the humor South Park does have somewhat of a more rationalistic feel.  I’m pretty sure that in some episode or other one of the characters preached in favor of better argumentation in an “I think we learned something today” speech, although I can’t come up with any good example from my memory.  Either way, I think there are interesting things to be investigated in the (perhaps not consciously intended) messages present in even the comedy which looks the most absurd and devoid of morality, and I hope to write more about it in the future.

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