Fucked-Up Little Sentences

Fucked-Up Little Sentences
Image via James Meekey/Flickr.

Like everyone else on the internet, I enjoyed Kyle Gordon’s video “Planet of the Bass,” featuring himself and Audrey Trullinger. I am not remotely acquainted with the genre of music it’s parodying, which I understand to be called Europop or possibly Eurodance (do NOT tell me which), but I am familiar with the English language, which I think is all you really need to vibe with it. As the writer Rory McCarthy pointed out, the song harnesses a special sort of comedic energy, the energy of fucked-up little sentences:

McCarthy and various people in the replies observe that this is the same energy fueling online comedy phenomena like Dril, Horse_ebooks, ClickHole, and countless canonical viral tweets. I wouldn’t describe it as a uniquely online sensibility, though. I’ve certainly encountered a great deal of fucked-up little sentences in live work by artists like Conner O’Malley, Dan Licata, Three Busy Debras, and Patti Harrison. If we adopt a generous understanding of fucked-upness—not just bad grammar but also mispronunciations and general failures to cohere—there’s probably a decent case that fucked-up little sentences are a defining feature of shows like I Think You Should Leave and Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, as well as podcasts like Comedy Bang! Bang! and Hollywood Handbook, which have their own intricate canons of nonsensical one-liners. The sentences in “Planet of the Bass” are probably more memeable than most, but I think they ultimately reflect a very old artistic impulse.

I am referring to defamiliarization, the rendering of familiar things in unfamiliar ways such that audiences may perceive them anew: making the stone stony, as Viktor Shklovsky put it. My theory about fucked-up little sentences is that they’re a way of defamiliarizing language, probably the most familiar thing we have. I don’t present this as a radical or even particularly novel idea. Really I’m just observing that fucked-up little sentences are poetry, which is what Shklovsky was talking about in the first place. I think it’s useful to apply this framework to comedy, though, because it helps us understand how certain jokes act on us and why they have such lasting power. Delivered in the right context, lines like “Women are my favorite guy” or “I thought there was monsters on the world” shake us out of our ordinary consciousness. They only do it for a moment, but it’s a very important moment, because it’s the one where we discover that words can still do new things. The fucked-up little sentence reorients our relationship with language, which in turn reorients our relationship with everything language reveals—you know, the world.

I sometimes chafe when I hear certain comedians described as “pure joke” comics, or sitcoms praised for their joke-a-minute writing. This isn’t totally reasonable of me: jokes are great, I love jokes, no disrespect to jokes. I think I’m resistant to what can feel like a narrowing of the term to encompass only the setup-punchline structure, casting comedy that emerges through more slippery means—character, atmosphere, tone, situation—as something alternative, and implicitly less pure.

I am being pedantic about a useful enough aesthetic category, but categories give way to hierarchies, and I hope you’ll agree that popular culture places a premium on observational humor with setups and punchlines—as opposed to, say, character routines or elaborate tone poems. But these all take equal craft, and they all ideally bring the audience to the same place, a heightened state of consciousness towards all that’s absurd in the world. Which is also all that’s beautiful and all that’s ugly and unjust.

Lately I’ve been trying to think more expansively about humor and the million little things that create it. By expansively I mean less scientifically and maybe also more spiritually—I haven’t decided yet. It’s very strange, though, isn't it? What jokes promise is an overwhelming sensation of pleasure; what they ask in return is temporary but complete control of your mind and body. Not to get too “guy doing drugs and looking at his hands for the first time” here, but it's no wonder people form such attachments to the comics who give them this experience. It's practically religious, even carnal. The more I think about it, the more awesome I find it, in the “inspiring awe” sense of the word. And the more awesome I find it, the scarier it seems. I can’t separate the joy and magic from the darkness I know is out there, the masses flocking to propagandists and hatemongers, the vile messages I still get from fans of comedians I won’t name. The energy that moves through them—it's not anything I recognize in my relationship with the art form. When I try to understand it, I feel like I’m staring at an optical illusion whose hidden image never reveals itself. I have no reference point, the whole thing is alien. And yet it’s out there all the same.

But we were talking about fucked-up little sentences. I love them for the same reason I love good poems: you never would have seen them coming, but once they arrive it’s like they were always there. Life, it never die—well, yes, obviously, that’s just common sense. I read a poem once that I’m about to horribly misrepresent because I’m away from my bookshelves. I want to say it was written by either Mark Leidner or Elisa Gabbert. It proposes that everyone spends their entire life reading one book, a book that is the summation of every individual book they ever read, in the order that they read them, such that nobody ever truly reads the same book as anyone else.

I adore that idea. It makes me ponder the unique canon of jokes we each carry around in our heads, and by jokes I mean capital-J Jokes but also podcast bits and silly things our friends said, lines from TV and film and live comedy shows from years ago that only 20 other people saw, the tweets and memes and yes, the fucked-up little sentences that burrow into our psyches, incantations to be called on anytime we need their special power.

All the unlikely pieces that coalesce into a sense of humor, no two the same.

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