Monday, January 28, 2008
A 30 Rock Joke
[I have been thinking about doing a short series of posts on jokes but I am worried that "explaining" jokes will not be any fun to read. This is a test balloon. This is also from memory and may be inexact.]
In an episode of 30 Rock uber-corporate guy Alec Baldwin wants to teach comedy writer Tina Fey about the fine art of negotiation (I think). Trying to convince her, he says "I want to teach you Lemon! Let me be the Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who learns that poetry is just another form of rap."
Like a lot of jokes, this is funny because it compresses a lot in a small space -- here an absurd image and a movie critique. To start with, the "casting" is funny: the rich, aggressive, threatening Alec Baldwin will be the slight, physically intimidated white woman, while the little white woman Tina Fey will be the "angry black kid." Doubly funny with Baldwin is that he dated Michelle Pfeiffer, and they starred together in Married to the Mob, which comes close to just short circuiting the whole thing.
The phrase "Let me be the X to your Y" creates a metaphor that is usually pretty general, as in "let me be the lyric to your song" or something. Even when it is more specific (e.g. "let me be the Romeo to your Juliet") it is usually so famous it has the quality of a generalization -- Romeo and Juliet being the archetypical lovers.
The first thing that strikes you with Baldwin's formulation is that it is absurdly specific -- a Michelle Pfeiffer character in a moderately popular movie ten years ago.
The second half does two things. "The angry black kid who learns that poetry is just another form of rap" importantly does not have a name we remember off the top of our head -- he is not specific at all. This critiques the movie, which claims to be all about a white teacher inspiring these under-privledged kids, but treats the kids as such stereotypes they might as well not have names.
The second half of Baldwin's line also makes you realize that your initial feeling that the reference is absurd because it is specific is only part of the joke -- the real joke is that the movie about teaching angry black kids that poetry is just another form of rap is virtually a genre: off of the top of my head Freedom Writers and the shows Boston Public and an episode of Judging Amy come to mind. I am sure there are others. So in a way Baldwin's reference, which at first seems absurdly specific, turns out to be perfectly general, in part because it is ten years old and makes you think of more recent examples that would have been closer to hand.
The whole joke manages to be absurdly random, but also in an odd way perfectly intelligent, all at the same time.