Alright friends, let’s pick up where we left off. During our last time together, we discussed a few things that are important to understand before we wrap up our journey back to 2019. If you’re just jumping in, you might want to go back and read part one first.
All caught up? Great. Let’s keep going
Since we talked mostly about noise last time, I want to talk about my favorite joke of 2019: “car pranks” from The Righteous Gemstones. I’m gonna go deep on this joke, so there are going to be spoilers everywhere. But since this show came out last year it no longer matters and is dead to me and the rest of the world. I spit on its grave and will never speak of it again. Except for all of the times that I do.
To understand why I loved this joke so much, though, we need to go back to Lakoff and Johnson and their idea of a conceptual metaphor. Like I explained previously, a conceptual metaphor acts as a foundation for making sense of the world. Understanding an argument, for example, only happens because we understand war and we can take that understanding and apply it to this new and different form of conversation. And it’s playing with this metaphor that leads to new stuff I really find interesting. Noise music does this by shifting away from an understanding of music as written communication and, in some cases, towards a theatrical or sculptural metaphor. New metaphorical foundation, new kind of music. Presto.
But Lakoff and Johnson also make the argument that subcultures (or, in this case, subgenres) often don’t completely replace a metaphor but, instead, just rework or adjust parts of an existing/more common metaphor. Going back to the music example, Christopher Small argues that experimental music doesn’t rely on a new metaphor, but instead just trades some stuff out: the “words” of music-as-communication (which he calls material) jump from a note to an actual sound. And this is enough to give you something weird and new and exciting and scary.
So why does this matter for car pranks? It’s because car pranks ties back to one of the foundational metaphors that build all understandings of the entire social world: position. Stuff being above and below each other doesn’t need a metaphor, but we understand so much of the world because we can see and experience that physical reality as a metaphor in other scenarios (i.e. the economic ladder puts rich people on top and poor people on bottom, people climb up the ladder as they amass wealth, etc.).
Lakoff and Johnson said this and they wrote it in a BOOK. So they have to be right.
Comedy relies on this metaphor too, specifically when discussing the rule of threes. For those who don’t know the rule of threes because they didn’t think they were super hilarious in high school and spent their free time doing shitty improv, the rule is a pretty basic guideline for (re)using jokes to maximize impact: when you’ve got a scene going, the third time you make a joke is going to be the funniest iteration of that joke. Say that joke a fourth time and it bombs.
Thinking metaphorically, this works because of how the scene or movie or comedian positions these jokes. Imagine these jokes as doors lined up in front of you. The first time you hit the joke/door, you’re not expecting it. It’s new! It’s fresh! It’s novel! What fun! You go through the door and BOOM. There’s another door. This time it’s nice because it’s familiar. Oh yeah! A Door! I’ve seen this before! I can apply my previous knowledge of door! And once you go through door number two, well hey look at this, it’s door number three. But you knew that door was there! You EXPECT the door! And when a door is there, it meets your expectations, and that is GOOD! What a feeling! Wow!
But if you go through door three and there’s a fourth door? God help me, I will burn this endless string of doors to the ground. Christ, why are there so many doors? Who designed this dumb, piece of shit hallway?
So that’s the rule of threes. Joke one lands because its new, joke two lands because it’s familiar, and joke three lands because the audience anticipates it. Let’s see how this lines up with car pranks. (And heads up- this is where the spoilers start)
Much like Dyers’ Hands, The Righteous Gemstones largely lives off of fabricating and exploring an entirely new language shared between the characters. It’s one of my favorite categories of jokes: get a bunch of obnoxious idiots who you have to deal with in real life and just trade out the vocab they use for made up words and suddenly it’s hilarious. Probably because they sound like the idiots they actually are and they don’t hold any power over you and they won’t kick you in the Bojangles on the playground any more. Judy’s monologue at the end of episode nine is a perfect example of this. Phrases like “full lightning bolt through my slit,” “there were snail trails on my chair,” “after he shot (and he shot a lot),” and “you jacked him” all communicate exactly what’s happening, but they are all off by just enough to heighten the ridiculousness of the scene. It’s all just so much weirder and stranger because people say “jacked him” instead of “jacked him off.” It’s delightful.
And also kinda gross.
Car pranks is one of these phrases. We first run into the phrase car pranks during episode two as the three Gemstone siblings are trying to track down the van of the people trying to blackmail Jesse Gemstone. They start looking through DMV video footage, which they get access too because Jesse tells Keefe Chambers (friend/roommate/disciple of Kelvin Gemstone and DMV employee) a lie about how he and his friends like to play car pranks on each other and that’s why he needs to look through all of this footage. Again, it’s a Gemstones phrase. It doesn’t actually make sense, but it makes enough sense for the audience to follow along. But by the middle of episode two, this is just the new normal. We’re totally expecting weird phrases like this and this one just falls in line.
Car pranks makes its second appearance during episode four when Jesse and Amber Gemstone get in a car chase with the blackmailers. Amber has no idea why Jesse is getting into a high speed car chance with a random van that ends with the van flipping over into a ditch. Jesse’s explanation? Well, he and his friends just like to play car pranks on each other. The line cuts through the gravity of the scene, especially since Jesse delivers it in front of an overturned car with a gun in his hand. But we recognize car pranks at this point since we already saw it a few episodes ago, so it doesn’t pull us too far out of the gravity of the scene.
Finally, the third iteration of car pranks shows up in the final episode of the season. The van in question, which was moved to a garage on the Gemstone property, is found by one of the blackmailers. He drives the car through the garage door with two of the Gemstones tied up in back. Keefe Chambers sees this from outside of the garage, shakes his head, says “car pranks” to himself, and turns around. This last reference to car pranks is what killed me. It comes out of nowhere, with the levity of Keefe’s iteration sitting completely at odds with the gravity of the last iterations of the joke. Also the fact that someone other then Jesse is saying the phrase also caught me totally off guard. Despite the fact that we’ve heard it multiple times, it seems completely fresh.
Now, compare car pranks to the rule of threes: the first mention of car pranks feels expected (since we’ve already gotten so much ridiculous new language already, so why not just add something else), the second mention feels familiar (since we’ve hear that exact phrase before), and the last iteration of the joke is the one that is unexpected or new. The positionality behind the rule of threes is reversed. But the joke still kills, partly because this reversal of expectation makes it feel so fresh despite the fact that we recognize the format. In other words, it does exactly what the Righteous Gemstones does best: creating something that sounds totally new but easily recognizable at the same time.
In drawing this connection between Gemstones and Pedestrian Deposit, another connection between noise and jokes form. Mess with a metaphor (via replacement or reorientation) and a whole new exciting world opens up for artists to explore. I’m sure I’ll be back here with more metaphors to explore soon.
Sit tight. And watch those snail trails. That’s way too weird of a final line.