A recent conversation between me and the missus:
“Ah, my old hockey shirt – I haven’t worn this in ages!”
“You like that thing?”
“I would wear nothing but this shirt if I could.”
“You’d be naked from the waist down – like a Frenchman?”
“But wearing a hockey shirt.”
“Like a… French Canadian?”
My wife, ladies and gentlemen – quick with a quip; quicker with a crude cultural stereotype. But it’s not her seething racism I want to talk about today – I’m back on punchlines again. As I’ve mentioned more than once here, I tend to build blog posts around punchlines, either by working backwards from one or by stapling a few together with a crude series of segues. And sometimes, when that all seems like too much effort, I’ve just thrown out a random punchline and left it up to you to imagine context for it (see above). Because it’s hard for a punchline to exist without context; without setup. Some comedians, such as Steven Wright, specialise in one-liners, building their entire routines out of them, but by and large a good punchline needs to be set in place. A context-less punchline can backfire on you in a nasty way, which brings me to the Roast Busters.
If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly familiar with the Roast Busters case in New Zealand, but I’ll recap (if only to reinforce the delusion that this blog is read by more than a handful of my personal acquaintances). The case concerns the rapetastic escapades of a couple of local teenage fuckheads who took to gloating on Facebook about having sex of dubious consensuality with drunk and occasionally underage young women. There’s a lot more wrong with the case than just their reprehensible actions: the police have been less than energetic in their responses to it (which has nothing to do with the fact that one of the guys is the son of a policeman, nosiree) and it brought to the fore a lot of the victim-blaming that’s seemingly unique to cases of sexual assault. I don’t have anything like the knowledge to say anything of value about the case that hasn’t already been said by others; it has, though, provided a nice example of the dangers of a carelessly handled punchline*.
At the time, Metro magazine, which had been quite vocal in condemning the actions of the Roast Busters group and the culture that enables them, published the following as the first entry in its regular “20 Questions” column:
After the Roast Busters saga, should there be a new criminal charge: “Drunk in charge of a vagina”?
I can see what they’re going for there. They’re trying to say that the Roast Busters case has shown that a lot of people seem to believe that being “drunk in charge of a vagina” should be a crime, but that’s not how it comes across – on first read, it sounds like Metro itself is advocating the charge. My thoughts on first reading it were “Wait, what? They can’t mean – oh, I see…” – a lot of people quite understandably didn’t get past that first reaction, and Metro copped a lot of flak. I’d have thought their stance up until then would have earned them a little more good will, but the fact remains that they misjudged their tone more seriously than the radio ad I once heard for the Auckland Drape Company** and they can’t blame anyone else for that.
I’ve got some sympathy for Metro, because I can see that “drunk in charge of a vagina” is a punchline that could have worked elsewhere. (I’ve read commentary on this joke which claimed that the humour just comes from “hur hur – he said ‘vagina'”, which I think is completely wrong. As I’ve said before, jokes seldom rely on a word just being inherently funny; this sort of humour comes from the juxtaposition of a controversial word against an otherwise innocuous phrase.) I can’t imagine that anyone would have had a problem if it had been a throwaway joke in the middle of a column – “…one thing the case has highlighted is the attitudes of some people, who seem to think that ‘drunk in charge of a vagina’ should be a new criminal charge…” or whatever. But no – whoever came up with that particular bon mot was too attached to it to not use it, and instead presented it in a format completely lacking in context where it fell flat. (Metro’s editor did himself no favours by publishing a response that amounted to saying that anyone who has a problem with the joke just doesn’t get it, which, while possibly true, misses the point.)
I don’t have enough confidence in any of my punchlines to throw them out there without context (even if that context is just “hey – look at this punchline.”) My depressingly large Evernote folder of half-developed ideas for posts includes a separate file of one liners that need a home. If I’m lucky, I’ll come up with an idea for a post that will naturally accommodate one of them, but for some of them that may never happen. They’re not all gems, but there are some I’m proud of to the point that I’d really like to just get them out there for the sake of it; thanks to Metro’s comedic fumbling, I now have more than enough incentive to make sure that I never do that unless I get really bored and lazy. Oh.
* I’m hoping that enough time has passed since the case broke last year that I can pedantically overanalyse a joke relating to it without being overly insensitive. Like I say, I’m not equipped to handle the real issues here, but I don’t want to give the impression that they’re less important than a bit of comedy theorising.