I have this old favorite joke that almost no one else knows or gets, but I can’t stop thinking it’s funny, so I’m going to do my best to rid myself of it by the only method guaranteed to destroy humor: dissection.
Like many things stupid but great, and most things Devon Sawa, I would never have seen the 2002 comedy Slackers if not for its champion, my brother Ian. It’s a pretty slight movie and as teen comedies go it is not exactly shifting any paradigms, though it does feature some ringers in the cast, all of whom appear in the above clip. Yes, that’s Michael C. Maronna, Big Pete from Pete & Pete, playing a character (Jeff) whose sexuality is part of a slow-burning running gag throughout the movie. Here’s what makes it interesting: none of the jokes are homophobic. His friends know he’s gay and they’re fine with it. The target of the joke is repression, not sexual orientation, and it benefits greatly for that. (Note that this movie predates the genesis of Tobias Fünke by two years!)
Besides less-obvious targets, here are some things that I will always think are funny:
- People trying to insert their own stupid agenda at moments of tension
- People who are oblivious to their own transparency
- Clever plans that go wrong before they even get started
- Utter commitment to a character, rather than joke salesmanship
I don’t think the clip needs much context, but here it is just in case. Maronna, Sawa and Jason Segel are the scheming heroes, who have been milking the creepy Jason Schwartzman for money. Schwartzman comes to Maronna and Segel with evidence that Sawa has betrayed their confidence to his love interest (Jaime King). Upon seeing it, the guys are infuriated, and in a three-camera sitcom we would already know where this goes: they turn on Sawa together, then eventually they realize that Schwartzman is the real problem, kick him out and reunite. In fact, you can already see this playing out in Schwartzman’s head! Just before the clip begins, he sputters “he betrayed you! He stole my girl! He’s not our friend!” He’s transparency-oblivious character one.
Then Maronna starts his monologue, and it follows that scenario… for exactly five seconds, before veering off into his desperate fantasy of male bonding. He has rehearsed this speech, he has seen an opportunity, and now he siezes the moment to execute his pitch. He knows they will object–this sounds pretty gay!–but he has anticipated that, and before they can get a word in, addends that it is in fact not gay. Triumph. There is no way they can resist now.
In thirty seconds, Maronna covers all four of the humor angles listed above. The first three points are all basically about the tension between expectation and reality, which is also the root of all suffering, which in turn goes back to the old axiom that comedy is pain happening someone else. The magic of point four, commitment, is that he makes the other three completely implicit. Nobody hands him a straight line to set up the zinger. Nobody winks at the camera.* There’s a lot of trust in the audience here, and for me, at least, it pays off in a way that I’m still giggling at ten years later.
Okay, I think the frog is dead now. Mike Maronna is very talented and should get more work. This is all to explain why, whenever I express adulation bordering on the ecstatic for a male role model, I will make a sly face and add “but it’s not gay” after describing how I want to suck his cock.
* For a perfect example of how literally winking at the camera can undercut flawless commitment, see the last forty years of Dwight-and-Jim gags in The Office.