Killing a joke with Kishōtenketsu
Even though I've been very lazy in keeping up my blog posts, that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about them. I have a nifty note taking app and when not working out new plot points for books 3 and 4, I often jot down ideas for general ranting.
One of them was simply: Analyse a joke with Kishōtenketsu.
I forget what else I intended with this, and I pushed it pretty far down my list of priorities until two things happened in close succession. 1, I read a bunch of books about classic three-act structure (see previous post) and 2, I came across this article in the New Yorker.
All authors who write about writing have a stab at just what a story is, and to serve their particular thesis, they try to be specific. David Farland, in his attempt, goes so far as to say that unless a story has a particular structure, it is not a story at all. The example he gives is a Jape, or a Joke, where there seems to be all the elements of a story--character, conflict, resolution, but that these parts without escalating conflict and thematic resolution do not equal a narrative.
To me this is a tautological definition, akin to 'Art is not what art is not' By defining a story as the classic three-act try/fail, conflict/resolution cycle, he can conveniently ignore everything that falls outside this narrow selection.
Robert McKee is a little more forgiving, and though he defines a good story as the classic three act cycle, he does allow for what he calls 'antiplot' Such narratives, he admits, seem to work in a strange way that he does not delve into, but points out they only exist as a reaction to the dominant form of true story structure.
But lets get back to jokes. When I wrote that note to myself I was thinking a lot about Kishotenketsu and what it meant. I saw its structure everywhere--not just in film, but in the way we argue, the way I teach. I saw it most in jokes.
For a joke to work we must be surprised. There is a setup, and sometimes that setup is deepened. But we always have a twist--a moment of surprise that comes out of the blue and startles us with its absurdity. We then synthesis this knowledge into the setup information, and as comprehension dawns we end up laughing at the way the joke made us re-visit the seemingly mundane beginning.
Now that is a very general breakdown of what a joke is, but there are enough examples i'm sure you can think of that follow it close enough to make my point. Jokes are inherently Kishōtenketsu.
But the aforementioned writers do have a point. Jokes might make us laugh, but we want something more from narrative. Thats where the New Yorker comes in. If you haven't read it yet, go and look at this article by Simon Rich. Bonus points if, like me, you can't help but read it in the voice of Norm Macdonald.
I'll wait right here.
So in Guy Walks Into a Bar we are given something more than a typical joke. I would argue that it is a story, and yet it has none of the elements we expect. There are characters who have desires, but there is no major conflict standing in their way. There is conflict of course, but its resolution is strange and surprising. So why is it so engaging? Why is it so funny--even touching? Is it enough to say that it is just a joke and move on, or that it is an absurdist antiplot and to stop looking for deeper meaning?
No. I think this short piece has what any good narrative does. It has insight, entertainment, and then, just when I'm laughing, it has something else. It has beauty.
Not convinced? Lets dissect.
So a guy walks into a bar one day and he can’t believe his eyes. There, in the corner, there’s this one-foot-tall man, in a little tuxedo, playing a tiny grand piano.
So the guy asks the bartender, “Where’d he come from?”
And the bartender’s, like, “There’s a genie in the men’s room who grants wishes.”
So far so good. This is the Ki, part of the structure, where characters are introduced and the basic setting and premise is set up
So the guy runs into the men’s room and, sure enough, there’s this genie. And the genie’s, like, “Your wish is my command.” So the guy’s, like, “O.K., I wish for world peace.” And there’s this big cloud of smoke—and then the room fills up with geese.
So the guy walks out of the men’s room and he’s, like, “Hey, bartender, I think your genie might be hard of hearing.”
And the bartender’s, like, “No kidding. You think I wished for a twelve-inch pianist?”
So the guy processes this. And he’s, like, “Does that mean you wished for a twelve-inch penis?”
And the bartender’s, like, “Yeah. Why, what did you wish for?”
And the guy’s, like, “World peace.”
So the bartender is understandably ashamed.
And the guy orders a beer, like everything is normal, but it’s obvious that something has changed between him and the bartender.
And the bartender’s, like, “I feel like I should explain myself further.”
And the guy’s, like, “You don’t have to.”
And that is what we call the Shō, or the lead on from the intro, which leads up to the main twist in the tale. Ready?
But the bartender continues, in a hushed tone. And he’s, like, “I have what’s known as penile dysmorphic disorder. Basically, what that means is I fixate on my size. It’s not that I’m small down there. I’m actually within the normal range. Whenever I see it, though, I feel inadequate.”
And the guy feels sorry for him. So he’s, like, “Where do you think that comes from?”
And the bartender’s, like, “I don’t know. My dad and I had a tense relationship. He used to cheat on my mom, and I knew it was going on, but I didn’t tell her. I think it’s wrapped up in that somehow.”
And the guy’s, like, “Have you ever seen anyone about this?”
And the bartender’s, like, “Oh, yeah, I started seeing a therapist four years ago. But she says we’ve barely scratched the surface.”
So, at around this point, the twelve-inch pianist finishes up his sonata. And he walks over to the bar and climbs onto one of the stools. And he’s, like, “Listen, I couldn’t help but overhear the end of your conversation. I never told anyone this before, but my dad and I didn’t speak the last ten years of his life.”
And the bartender’s, like, “Tell me more about that.” And he pours the pianist a tiny glass of whiskey.
And the twelve-inch pianist is, like, “He was a total monster. Beat us all. Told me once I was an accident.”
And the bartender’s, like, “That’s horrible.”
And the twelve-inch pianist shrugs. And he’s, like, “You know what? I’m over it. He always said I wouldn’t amount to anything, because of my height? Well, now look at me. I’m a professional musician!”
And the pianist starts to laugh, but it’s a forced kind of laughter, and you can see the pain behind it. And then he’s, like, “When he was in the hospital, he had one of the nurses call me. I was going to go see him. Bought a plane ticket and everything. But before I could make it back to Tampa . . .”
And then he starts to cry. And he’s, like, “I just wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye to my old man.”
And all of a sudden there’s this big cloud of smoke—and a beat-up Plymouth Voyager appears!
And the pianist is, like, “I said ‘old man,’ not ‘old van’!”
And everybody laughs. And the pianist is, like, “Your genie’s hard of hearing.”
And the bartender says, “No kidding. You think I wished for a twelve-inch pianist?”
And as soon as the words leave his lips he regrets them. Because the pianist is, like, “Oh, my God. You didn’t really want me.”
And the bartender’s, like, “No, it’s not like that.” You know, trying to backpedal.
And the pianist smiles ruefully and says, “Once an accident, always an accident.” And he drinks all of his whiskey.
And the bartender’s, like, “Brian, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
And the pianist smashes his whiskey glass against the wall and says, “Well, I didn’t mean that.”
And the bartender’s, like, “Whoa, calm down.”
And the pianist is, like, “Fuck you!” And he’s really drunk, because he’s only one foot tall and so his tolerance for alcohol is extremely low. And he’s, like, “Fuck you, asshole! Fuck you!”
And he starts throwing punches, but he’s too small to do any real damage, and eventually he just collapses in the bartender’s arms.
And suddenly he has this revelation. And he’s, like, “My God, I’m just like him. I’m just like him.” And he starts weeping.
And the bartender’s, like, “No, you’re not. You’re better than he was.”
And the pianist is, like, “That’s not true. I’m worthless!”
And the bartender grabs the pianist by the shoulders and says, “Damn it, Brian, listen to me! My life was hell before you entered it. Now I look forward to every day. You’re so talented and kind and you light up this whole bar. Hell, you light up my whole life. If I had a second wish, you know what it would be? It would be for you to realize how beautiful you are.”
And the bartender kisses the pianist on the lips.
That is one long Ten section. The twist here is the sheer absurdity of the personal nature of these mens' broken lives in the context of a bar joke cliche. We don't get merely one moment of twist, in quick succession we see a run of deepening sincerity that is seemingly out of place in this joke about a hard of hearing genie. In fact, were it to end here, this would be like those antijokes we all found so funny in primary school... you know the ones? 'Why did the boy fall off the swing? Because someone threw a fridge at them.' In these, the absurd twist is all we get, but Kishōtenketsu goes further:
So the guy, who’s been watching all this, is surprised, because he didn’t know the bartender was gay. It doesn’t bother him; it just catches him off guard, you know? So he goes to the bathroom, to give them a little privacy. And there’s the genie.
So the guy’s, like, “Hey, genie, you need to get your ears fixed.”
And the genie’s, like, “Who says they’re broken?” And he opens the door, revealing the happy couple, who are kissing and gaining strength from each other.
And the guy’s, like, “Well done.”
And then the genie says, “That bartender’s tiny penis is going to seem huge from the perspective of his one-foot-tall boyfriend.”
And the graphic nature of the comment kind of kills the moment.
And the genie’s, like, “I’m sorry. I should’ve left that part unsaid. I always do that. I take things too far.”
And the guy’s, like, “Don’t worry about it. Let’s just grab a beer. It’s on me.”
And there we have Ketsu, the most important part of the structure, where we come full circle and the entire purpose of the narrative is made clear. All elements fall into place, and we see the true resonance of the piece. Not because conflict has been resolved, not even because some major revelation has occurred. We just see all the pieces laid out, and that perspective demands a reflection--a moment of insight that I think is the true purpose of all story telling.
Robert McKee says that we like stories about conflict because we see our own lives as a series of battles, and that watching them unfold on page or screen is a cathartic process. The very reason we are all addicted to narrative, her argues, is that we know deep down that life is chaotic and meaningless, but that we cannot help but wish it otherwise. We accept the lie of the three act structure, where meaning comes from the resolution of clearly defined problems, and that any revelation serves the central synchronistic enlightenment of a characters internal or external problems, because that is how we wish our own lives would be.
Kishōtenketsu does something else. It shows us that life is awkward, surprising, sometimes chaotic and violent, but that all the separate pieces somehow fit anyway. Not into a jigsaw puzzle clean cut image, but the way all the thousands of sounds in a forest fit together, or all the colours of a sunset or smells at Christmas. The point is, the ending of a story doesn't have to mean anything, you just have to be elevated to a place where you can better see the landscape.