Monday, May 23, 2016

Explaining the Joke

This essay was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on September 28, 2011.

Many of you have probably seen this. It was created by the blogger D. B. Echo, who posted it online on August 15, 2010. It has since gone viral. Paul Krugman himself posted it to his New York Times blog on September 18. I saw it a little while later when Warren Craghead added it to his Facebook page. Nearly everyone I know thinks it’s the most laugh-out-loud funny thing they’ve seen in a good while. I believe it might be worth discussing why.

For those not familiar with Paul Krugman, he’s a Princeton economics professor who received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008. He is also one of the most prominent journalists in the United States. Since 1999, the New York Times has published a biweekly column by him. It was joined a few years ago by a frequently updated blog. Krugman is also a mainstay of news-discussion programs on television. He most frequently appears on ABC’s This Week.

Krugman’s prominence as a journalist comes from his being one of the few genuinely contrarian voices in the U. S. establishment media. He’s a knowledgeable principle-before-party liberal, and he’s not afraid to call anyone out. Democrats, Republicans, his peers in the press and the economics profession--none are exempt from his incisive and occasionally polemical critiques. Krugman was George W. Bush’s most consistently outspoken critic during his presidency. During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, it often seemed Krugman was the only figure giving a public voice to those who objected to the administration’s conduct. He has also proved a thorn in the side of Barack Obama. Krugman has frequently criticized the inadequacy of Obama’s economic policies and legislative strategies. A good deal of his writing for the Times these days is concerned with puncturing right-wing economic arguments and disparaging the international trend towards austerity policy. His views are so much at odds with others in the U. S. media and political establishment that he may be the closest thing we have to a latter-day Cassandra. The only consolation is that he speaks for the multitudes that have found themselves marginalized by--if not outright victims of--the political discourse in both the U. S. and abroad.

The picture above isn’t of Krugman, of course. It’s of actor George Clooney, in what is probably the most famous still from the 2005 film Syriana, which Clooney starred in and helped produce. (He won an Oscar for his performance.) It’s probably Clooney’s least glamorous role. To play it, he gained 35 pounds, grew a full beard, and shaved his hairline. The character is a middle-aged CIA operative in the Middle East who grows increasingly disgusted with the shortsightedness, double-dealing, and overreaching tendencies of his superiors. The moment depicted is when he reaches his breaking point and turns on the agency. One wouldn’t normally think of Clooney and Paul Krugman as lookalikes, but the beard, paunch, and salt-and-pepper hair make them all but indistinguishable from a distance.

Humor is rooted in dissonance, and a good deal of what makes D. B. Echo’s effort funny is the contrast between the Clooney character’s affect and Krugman’s normal public demeanor. Krugman’s detractors often characterize his writing as “shrill,” but he’s a polite, genial fellow in his public appearances. No matter how pointed his arguments with George Will (his usual TV foil) and others get, he never raises his voice or acts rudely. He’s by no means passive, but he’s hardly intimidating, either. One looks at the Clooney character’s ticked-off, don’t-mess-with-me attitude, and one can’t help but think that’s what’s simmering underneath Krugman’s calm exterior. The burning car is the icing on the cake. It’s a sensational trope for a mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore moment. The frustrations of arguing in vain are recast as violent, action-adventure melodrama.

What pushes this piece beyond funny and makes it outright hilarious, at least for some of us, is that Krugman has become an icon of liberal politics in this country. He’s become an identification figure--a synecdoche, if you will--of liberals in the contemporary U. S. If one considers oneself liberal, or at least to the left of the establishment political discourse over the last decade or so, one likely sees Krugman as one’s voice in the debate and champion in the arena. One feels the frustration of seeing one’s objections to the military actions and oligarchic economic policies borne out by what has followed, and one imagines on some level (with justification) that Krugman shares these views. One gets tired of the talk--the efforts “to reason with you people”--and one imagines oneself saying the hell with it in a spectacularly defiant moment. The identification with Krugman that one brings to the image becomes one’s identification with the scenario it shows. It’s quite cathartic, but the absurdity of imagining Krugman playing out that large-than-life situation is compounded by the absurdity of seeing one playing it out oneself. Like much great humor, the piece invites the viewer to laugh at both what it depicts and oneself as well.

The D. B. Echo piece is text and imagery working together, and I can’t help but think of how its sophistication relates to comics. It does something one rarely sees from comics creators: the words decontextualize an image and recontextualize it in new terms. D. B. Echo treats the image poetically; he uses the text to transform the visual scenario into an allegory of an unrelated situation. Most comics treat the image as an end in itself; they don’t use it as a signifier that can be exploited for multiple meanings. What you see is what you get; everything is literal, and nothing is ambiguous. The D. B. Echo piece makes me wonder if that’s a distinction between comics that are mediocre and comics that offer more. Great comics should do what this piece does: transform the image to create a resonance that is both wide and deep.

However, all this pedantic analysis aside, D. B. Echo has given us something that’s brilliantly funny. I wanted to share it with those who haven’t seen it.

No comments:

Post a Comment