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.


James said...

I actually really enjoy breaking down the minutiae of jokes, and analyzing why they're funny. Good job on this one.

Dan said...

I'm with James. Breaking down jokes is as valid a critical form as anything else. And fun too.

More please, Geoff.

Darius Kazemi said...

Great idea. And great joke to start with!

Jason Powell said...

Also: "poetry is another form of rap" is a funny formulation, reversing the more conventional, expected way that I presume it is "taught" in all those cliché movies, i.e., "rap is just a contemporary form of poetry."

scott91777 said...

I teach "Humor as Argument" in my Engl 102 classes. We don't get quite as specific as THIS but understanding why a joke is funny is important (e.g. why is Dave Chappelle's white KKK leader so funny?) And this just proves my point that 30 Rock is perhaps the best comedy on the air right now next to The Office.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Nice analysis. And the great thing is that every episode is just packed with lines like this. Tina Fey has turned into a comedy genius with her writing (and having Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, and the other stars reading it definitely helps).

Here's another one I liked, even if it's not as dense: Jane Krakowski's character is talking to Tina Fey's Liz Lemon about dating younger men. She states that they are "cougars", saying "Didn't you read that article about cougars in the Africa issue of Vanity Fair. It makes me so sad that more people don't know about cougars." I love that; the setup is that the issue of the magazine was a well-regarded look at the problems of Africa, and a normal person would say that they are sad about the problems of that continent, but she's self-absorbed and only interested in shallow stuff that relates to herself. Funny!

Chuck said...

Fantastic analysis. It definitely goes to show how intelligent the writing is on the show. Thanks.