austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

My grandpa said go out and tell 'em a joke but give it plenty of hoke

Futurama wrapped up its new season recently in fairly good shape; although the episodes started out a bit rusty, as if they were out of practice (including one which was startlingly cruel and unfunny despite bringing out a V'Ger parody), but it improved dramatically, producing at least one outstanding episode --- a body-swap farce --- and a few that I feel like are going to rerun well. Plus, of course, they had several appearances by the Harlem Globetrotters, a minor set of super-scientist basketballers who just never get old.

Which is something I wonder about: why don't they get old? The Globetrotters were introduced as, I'm sure, one-shot characters, for a basketball contest of phenomenally slight importance which parodied, among other things, their multiple cartoons (among the most inconsequential ones Hanna-Barbera ever produced in the 1970s, and think about the challengers for that title, considering that if I remember right in a single year Hanna-Barbera produced a cartoon about small-town life in 1890s Midwestern America and also The Partridge Family 2200 AD), with their astounding scientific development thrown in as a bit of goofy weirdness to carry the plot onward. And the concept hasn't really grown much more sophisticated, except now and then they appear, combine basketball greatness with mathematics, and it just works every time.

You could say the first appearance was funny because of the surprising absurdity of it all, and that probably helped. And they don't appear that often --- maybe once or twice a season --- so they keep some element of surprise whenever they do show up. I find surprise to be generally an overrated component of humor, though. A well-crafted joke tends to stay funny, sometimes get funnier, with familiarity. Surprise can help --- I went a couple years deliberately not watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail so I could hear the jokes again --- but I don't think it's determining.

If surprise were all-important there'd be no such thing as a running joke; to an extent, familiarity makes the joke work, even work better than it would if it came without forerunners. And yet many of the best running jokes are presented the way The Jack Benny Program would try to slip in Frank Nelson's ``Yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyess?''. It might be coming, but they'd try to keep the setup in an unpredictable yet logical spot every time.

bunny_hugger has pointed out an important part of the Globetrotters schtick is that it's played utterly straight and sincerely, and that by its repetition (which is not all that often) the Globetrotters-as-characters become part of the universe's setting. And perhaps that's part of it; while there is some surprise where they show up, that they do at all has this familiar logical background, so it has the warm presence of a running joke.

And they don't appear that often, so they don't need more personality traits than they've been given, and don't wear out their welcome. That's perhaps also necessary; Fibber McGee didn't open his closet door nearly every episode, either. Still, this combination works, so very much better than anyone might expect. Maybe there's a lesson to learn about how to be funny in that.

Trivia: The University of Utah stopped fighting for cold-fusion patents in 1998, after accumulating more than a million dollars in lawyer's fees. Source: Sun In A Bottle: The Strange History Of Fusion And The Science Of Wishful Thinking, Charles Seife.

Currently Reading: Hallmark: A History Of The London Assay Office, J S Forbes.


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