A Blog Post About Jokes About Jokes

“The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes.” ― Nikolai Gogol.png

When I first started following Deadpool as a character in the 2000s, he was really a interesting but far from the only character doing what he did. 4th wall breaks were somewhat common in comics and She-Hulk was much better at breaking the 4th wall than Wade Wilson ever was. It may have been my love of manga and anime which is full of meta humor and puns that made me sour on the whole thing faster than the average American, but I’m frankly quite tired of meta-humor. Here’s why I dislike meta humor and some practical examples of how it actively usually hurts the narrative its in.

Let’s take a moment to discuss some vocabulary, because once I get started, I will not be slowed down. Meta-humor as currently defined is humor at the expense of the subject. For instance, Scream calling out all the logical fallacies in other horror movies makes it metacritical and metatextual while still being at the time subversive. To subvert or be subversive is to undercut or defy the expectations of a medium or genre. For instance, Rick and Morty subverts the sci-fi genre by being mostly bleak and entirely nihilistic. Meta-humor like this has been popularized for decades and is a vital part of the postmodern culture we live in: thanks, late-capitalism. Meta humor is said to be funny at all because it’s calling out the tropes we know and hate now because they are so overdone. A 4th Wall Break (an instance where a show or piece of media admits it isn’t real and breaks the wall between performance and audience) is rare in theater and was rare in other pieces of media but got more popular with comic books. This is different from being an anti-joke or even surrealist as the goal with these is to defy expectations by being either entirely serious and completely doing something out of the norm. Think of the Lobster Telephone done by Dali. Again, to give credit where credit is due,  the earlier runs of She-Hulk was full of 4th wall breaks but let’s be honest; when you think of a 4th wall break currently, you think of Deadpool.

Deadpool as a movie franchise is interesting, really the character is a hard sell if you aren’t super into comic books. Wade Wilson is a character who cannot die and essentially has gone crazy due to his mutation and is in no way a cheap rip-off of Deathstroke. That being said, the whole idea around his particular version of meta humor is actually pretty strange, Wade Wilson knows he’s a comic book character and knows he isn’t real but most of that is chalked up more to mental illness or lazy writing than it is to anything else. The movies ignore that aspect of canon keep him as every teenage edgelord who thinks he’s funny and too good for the humor of the common folk. This worked in the first movie that came out just after the first big wave of superhero movies. It was funny to have a character comment on the logical fallacies in superhero films. It was great to have jokes lobbed at the film’s own expense, it was, at first incredibly refreshing. By the time we reach Deadpool 2, it’s simply tired. The superhero movie bubble has started to burst and since Avengers: Infinity War had ripped the hearts out of most fans, his humor was just tired. It was no longer new, refreshing or subversion: it was a chore and that movie was mostly a slog for me except for a few scenes that genuinely almost made me spit out my overpriced cola in the theater. Because by the second time Deadpool is commenting on Cable’s weirdly limited time travel abilities or the fact that there are still very few people of color in comic book movies despite there being several people of color in comic books: it just feels like it’s exposing a plot hole. That is a problem.

A 4th wall joke is funny the first time, the second time may even be insightful but the third or fourth is just tired and if anything can take you out of the film. It’s no longer subversive once the trope has already been subverted. Think of the last post we did on the Trope Trope: once being subversive of tropes is established, it then becomes a trope.

It’s especially difficult when a large company tries to comment on the tropes they established. Disney has recently gotten very meta about Disney and it’s infuriating. I grew up with Disney movies and while I didn’t notice many of these errors as a kid, I certainly don’t bat an eye at them much now as an adult. It doesn’t bother me that Beauty and the Beast was full of plot holes: it was a beautiful movie. It doesn’t matter to me that Cinderella isn’t “feminist” enough, she was engaging and the animation on the older movie is gorgeous. But the newer Disney movies have been determined to comment on the tropes that made the movies famous. Don’t like Disney princesses falling in love? Frozen is here to comment on that and then cop to Anna falling in love with her new disposable boyfriend. Disappointed that Belle didn’t fight back more? Beauty and the Beast (2017) is here to make her extra “feminist” and actively weaken her character with an invention subplot that goes nowhere and a total lack of performance or chemistry from Emma Watson. Tired of all those pesky cookie-cutter princesses? Here’s Moana with a character (in the form of Maui who is supposed to be our secondary protagonist) who is literally every teenage edgelord of a kid to undercut the serious moments to the movie’s detriment.

It’s just exhausting. The reason why it’s such a cheap shot is because rather than, you know, fixing the narrative issues; writers assume that calling it out acts as a blanket to cover them instead of just being better. So when Deadpool calls out Cable having a crappy motivation as an antagonist, guess what. I’m aware of how crappy his motivations are. When the new trailer for Wreck-It Ralph makes a jab at how horribly Disney treats its princesses, I’m not laughing. I’m just hyper-aware of how terribly they are all treated and how repetitive it is. When you intentionally poke a hole in the curtain, it becomes easier to see all the other holes in it. Do you know what would be actually subversive? Doing the right thing. In this age of cynicism and senseless cash-grabs, what would really be shocking and subversive would be to just write well. It’d be subversive to have a princess with two loving parents and a stable home life. It’d be subversive to have a gay character who is complex but not magical, a martyr or a token. Sincerity in this cynical postmodern age would be more unique and special at this stage and I can’t believe I have to say that now.

 

A Casual Relationship with Death

_Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality._If you look at modern meme culture (which I do because it’s a nice ephemeral distraction from our current hellscape) there’s a lot of talk about death. Responses like “At least we all die.” and easily and casually referencing death as a way to handle any inconvenience or slight no matter how small. “I guess I’ll just die.” has been a rather convenient form of shorthand for a while now referencing how difficult and herculean some tasks in life can be and it’s even one that me (someone who works in the death care industry) use when talking about how hard it is to set appointments or even stay on the line while I wait to refill a prescription.

But I wonder why we have such a casual relationship with the concept of mortality despite death denial never being stronger with all the detoxes and fad diets.

It’s easy to chalk this up to the hyperbolic nature of language now. Death is the ultimate end: it doesn’t get more hyperbolic than saying that going to Trader Joe’s will literally kill you.

I think it goes a little deeper than that. I think it has to do with our current epidemic of anxiety and nihilism in the face of our current climate.

Let’s step back in time: it’s just after World War II in Paris. A city that is still in places rebuilding and is full of wine, absinthe, smoke, bread and ennui. The new wave of existentialists had taken root in Paris and with minds like Sartre and Camus looking at the works of Kierkegaard and Freud. Both come to similar but somewhat differing views on death and meaning. Sartre was more hopeful, a little like Kierkegaard while Camus was incredibly nihilistic about the whole thing like a strange fusion of Freud and Nietzsche. But both saw death as a drive we moved towards and dealt with. Existentialism is being very aware of mortality to a nearly terminal (pun intended)  way. Death hangs round like a passive ghost here to remind you that meaning is useless and we all perish: it’s simply a matter of time.

There’s a line in an early episode of Lore where the brilliant host Aaron Mahnke discusses the Afterglow Vista (which is an amazing episode and one of my favorites) and one of the features of this strange mausoleum are pillars: most of the pillars are finished except for one and the construction note on that is “because Death never lets you finish your work.”.

Existentialism was a direct response to how hollow Romanticism seemed and the Romantic notion of how glorious death and the afterlife must be seemed to only accelerate the death drive. Romanticism fits in with a great deal of the Victorian era and that’s where we really start to get a romanticization (lower case for a reason) with death and memento mori and modern funeral culture. So while the Romantics saw death as a friend who hangs around waiting patiently for you to be finished with your meat prison, Existentialists saw death as a forever looming ghost that you had to fight off daily because existence is painful, useless and never-ending until it, well, ends.

And while we are technically in a Postmodern age (a word I hate), I don’t think that Existential relationship with using dark humor to cope with our current existence. The internet (which seems to be mostly people who have some form of anxiety [because that’s very human and fine]) has perpetuated that feeling. Dark humor, memes and more is how we deal with all that is going on and woah, boy, it’s a lot going on. And it is in dark humor that we return to our relationship with death. Death is a lot to deal with, mortality is not something that’s fun or exciting to meditate on: trust me, I am surrounded by death daily for work and it doesn’t get easier.

I’m proudly mostly Death Positive and one of the main tenets of The Order of the Good Death is confronting mortality but facing it: often, daily. And no member of The Order will ever tell you that such a thing is easy. I joke about it to make me aware and maybe, just maybe to take a small shot at something we are all hurtling towards.

That is one of my favorite things about the French Existentialists, using humor to defuse our fear. Camus was huge on using humor and wit to demystify and remove the wonder from the world and in facing and coping with the absurd, even large things seem less large. It reminds me one of two of my favorite pieces of humor ever: The Galaxy Song and Always Look on the Bright Side both from two old Monty Python movies. Both songs take a firm look at how silly and stupid life is and can be and encourages you to overcome that feeling with a laugh.

There is a lot to be overwhelmed with in our current world. Climate change is nearly paralyzing, world governments are a hot hot mess, the economy is bad and apparently everyone in Hollywood is a garbage human. All of it seems hopeless and futile and the sweet sweet embrace of the quiet, stillness of an eternal dirt sleep seem almost like a comfort.

And our media seems to enforce this narrative. With the influx of genocidal themes and generalized themes around death and dying as aspects of movie plot lines, it’s easy to see a much more casual if not entirely fictive relationship with The End. Comic books and video games make death seem like an inconvenient bump in the road and lord knows that anime has a bad reputation with character deaths meaning next to nothing. One of the biggest things I’ll always say about the earlier runs of comic books is that most of the time, death mattered. When House of M happened, those characters stayed dead. When Crisis on Infinite Earths happened, those deaths mattered and when The Great Blue Boy Scout stopped flying around Metropolis, he stayed gone for a while. Each one had weight and meaning until it just didn’t.

Music seemed to take the opposite direction with pop songs encouraging almost destructive levels of Carpe Diem via excessive drinking, partying, sleeping with strangers, driving fast cars and generally not giving a hoot and a half. Drake said “YOLO” Ke$ha says act like we’re going to “Die Young” and Avicii encouraged all of us to create more of “the nights that never die”. Death stops the party but if you get there faster, you might as well have gotten there faster but doing a kegger in a parking lot after seeing your favorite band one more time.

This isn’t to belittle the actual suicide crisis in the U.S. and around the world. There is a huge different in joking about death casually than those who actively do not see light at the end of the tunnel. And that’s always a tricky line that I am not professionally equipped to answer for you. To each person, a joke or a cry for help are likely very different lines and cues and I am not the one to say there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to it.

For those of us who are anxious, depressive, melancholic, malcontent, filled with ennui and malaise; joking about the end makes it easier to face the end and with our current state of inflammatory language, using The Grim Reaper as a stand-in for a myriad of other issues that oppress, confine and exhaust was a logical step in the right direction.

It’s a road we all reach someday: might as well have a good time while on it.