The Greatest Joke Never Told

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September 6, 2012 by NowhereButPop

By Andrew Doscas

The greatest joke ever told is the one that no one gets.  The point of a joke is to fool people, it’s a con, and if no one gets the joke then you’ve effectively pulled the blinds over them.  Each generation has their own comedic magnum opus; for our generation that joke is reinvention.  To be able to constantly change the self is just the beginning, for it to truly work one has to dedicate themselves completely to becoming this new person and then just as easily discard it when it doesn’t work anymore.  The goal is to convince people that you’re something that you’re really not and then have them adore you for it.

This is an outgrowth of the culture that surrounds us.  This need for instant gratification and a shiny new toy has always been around, it’s just that they’ve become more accepted to openly desire.  We live in a very chaotic and fast-paced world.  Our society is basically one big type-A microcosm.  Now more than ever we receive information faster, people are expected to do more, and everything is interconnected.  The only way to stay relevant is to change, to mutate, to be ahead of the curve and make everyone catch up to you.  The moment that people catch up is the moment that the person or style or trend becomes obsolete.  The best example of this are entertainers.  If a band puts out music that sounds the same, then it becomes stale and no one cares for it anymore because we’ve already seen it.  It’s the same reason why the only people who like Rush are Rush fans.  It’s also the exact same reason why everyone loves the Joker, but no one gives two-shits about Calendar Man.[1]

The Joker isn’t insane; if anything, he’s actually super-sane.  This is a relatively new concept brought up by the disturbed yet insightful mind of Grant Morrison.  If you look back at old Batman comics nothing could be closer to the truth.  Is he crazy? Without question.  Is he out of his mind?  Absolutely not.  In fact, he’s entirely into his mind.  The Joker has a sense of self, and a strong one at that as well.  He knows exactly who he is, what his role in society is, and the importance of his relationship with Batman.  Unlike most other villains, he understands that it’s a two way road.  He knows that society and Batman have a huge impact on himself as a person, and it’s for this reason if no other that the Joker is super-sane.

He gets the big picture.  He knows that we live in such a chaotic world despite our best attempts at structure and organization and he chooses to reflect that.  One day he’ll be a murderous psychopath (the canonical Joker), another day he’ll be a harmless court jester (Cesar Romero), and on another day he’ll actually try and relate to people (albeit in his own sick twisted way a la The Killing Joke).  The point is, Joker instinctively knows that he has to change who he is everyday to matter in his society.  If he did the same old shit, it becomes routine and it stops having any sort of shock value.  It just becomes a thing, a part of life and nothing more.  It’s very similar to the way my generation views the wars in the Middle East: yeah it sucks, and it’s unfortunate what’s going on there, but because it’s been going on for so long it just becomes background noise in most of our lives.  That’s why no one cares about Calendar Man.  He’s routine, we know what he’ll do.  He commits murders on holidays…..that’s it.  I don’t know if it only applies to American holidays or if he goes for a more international approach.  If it’s the former, it really only relegates his criminal activity to about 30 days a year.  And what about holidays that last for more than one day like Passover?  Does that mean he would commit crimes on all the days of Passover or just one?  It’ raises too many questions and it doesn’t reflect our society.  No one cares at all about him, and frankly if it wasn’t for The Long Halloween no one would even know who he was.

The Joker, on the other hand, is adored by everyone because we get him.  He’s a murderous clown, which that right there is probably gonna scare the shit out of most people, but he’s so much more.  He has to change himself for fear that he’ll become as irrelevant as Calendar Man.  That’s why he hates it when people try to steal the limelight from him, because he knows that as soon as people look away from him, they won’t ever look his way again.  To have this knowledge of who he is, what society demands, and how to satisfy that demand is incredibly profound.  Most people don’t have that insight, and that’s why Joker appeals to them.  He’s a direct critique of the world.  Yes, I’m well aware that he is a fictional character whose attitude depends on the writer, but I really believe that the Joker is a character with a life of his own.  Every good writer of Batman, whether they know it or not, understands that the Joker has to constantly change to remain relevant.  He’s the easiest character to change because it’s expected of him to be dynamic and come up with new ways to defeat the Dark Knight.

If the Joker fears anything it would be a life without Batman.  At that point he would have no reason to literally be who he is.  He would have no need for the schemes, the crimes, and personality he has.  If there is one fundamental flaw to who the Joker is, it’s that for all his insight on society and himself, his identity will always be defined and dependent on Batman.  To paraphrase The Dark Knight, what would Joker do without him.  He’d either go sane and become a regular jack-off, or go catatonic.  But why is the Joker so dependent on Batman?  Well it’s because Batman is the only one who understands who he is and why he does what he does.  They’re polar opposites.  Where Batman is organized and operates within a specified moral boundary, the Joker is loose and filled with discord and has no inhibitions whatsoever.  They’re equal and opposite forces who represent contrasting viewpoints on society.  For this reason, Batman will never kill the Joker, and the Joker would never let any harm fall on Batman’s cowl if the harming hand did not belong to him.

In real life application, the closest person on Earth to the Joker is Madonna.  I don’t think anyone else on the planet understands their own role in society more so than she does.  To fulfill that role she completely comprehends her necessity to constantly change her image to stay relevant.  She is more than a musician; Madonna really is an artist.  She’s someone who channels her very identity and her sense of self into her work.  It is at that point where her work truly transcends itself as a medium of entertainment, and becomes art that influences the times.  The quickest way to sum this all up is that to remain relevant as an entertainer one has to have the times be reflective of your art and not have your art reflective of the times.  For example, Michael Jackson transcended the 80s.  80s pop music was defined by Michael Jackson and not the other way around.  Knowing that the 80s were essentially bookended by Michael Jackson albums is almost all you have to know about the 80s.  And that’s the point; the times become recognizable because of the artist and not the other way around.  The same applies to Madonna. She knows exactly what she has to do, who she has to be in order for her music to transcend decades of trends.

More often than not her reinventions work.  They succeed in refreshing her to the masses and making it seem like this new and different version of the same person will be better than what came before.  She’s basically an iPod.  I think people forget that she’s gone through so many iterations of herself all to remain interesting and relevant to a society she knows could very well forget all about her.  Each album is a new facet of who she is as an artist and it’s too important not to list them here:

  • She starts off as a typical pop/dance singer
  • With Like a Virgin she explores sexuality albeit with restraint and really becomes the first female artist to do so
  • Due to backlash, she reinvents herself with True Blue, a homage to 50s bubblegum pop
  • After reaching the pinnacle of celebrity, she comes to terms with this by pouring her heart out with Like a Prayer.  This is the beginning of mature Madonna, and it is to date her most mature, introspective and insightful album
  • By the early 90s she’s accepted her role in our popular culture and embraces it via the Blonde Ambition Tour of 1990
  • In 1992 she decides to turn heads by going all out with the sexually explicit Erotica and the accompanying book Sex which feature Vanilla Ice and the dying gasps of his career
  • This didn’t go over too well, so she goes for the more conservative, less provocative Bedtime Stories.  While she is less sexual than in Erotica, she is more sensual because of the sense of mature intimacy of the album.  Also my favorite version of Madonna[2]
  • In real terms, Madonna matures some more after having a kid and releases Ray of Light, wherein she ushers herself in as the rave matron of the late 90s club scene.  Also this is typically regarded as her comeback album.  My second favorite version of Madonna
  • Here is where she falters in trying to remain a dominate force of entertainment within our society.  By the mid 00s she starts to try too hard to connect to the younger generation.  She’s not being herself.  She’s not forcing everyone else to catch up to her.  Here Madonna is trying to appeal to everyone by doing what she thinks she has to do to remain relevant.  This includes making out with Britney Spears, speaking with a British accent, and culminates with her trying to rap.  This is Madonna at both her most inauthentic and sincerest
  • Finally we get to today.  She has gone back to her roots as a pop/dance singer who writes music for the clubs.  This works because of everything she’s done prior.  Because there are so many different Madonnas, people forget what she did 30 years ago, and so when she does it again it comes off as fresh and new.  This is probably because the younger generations don’t even know what she did prior to Ray of Light

Many of the good musicians change and evolve as artists, however, not many of them are cognoscente of the necessity for change.  The only band that comes to mind who’s been aware of the implicit yet imperative need for change is U2.  The difference between them and Madonna however is that they realized they had to change 10 years into their careers.  They waited until people got sick of their act before they went out and tried something new; this ultimately culminated in the production of Achtung Baby.  Madonna, on the other hand, never settled too long on a routine, she constantly pushed everyone else by staying one step ahead of everyone.

Some band, I forgot which one, but a relatively recent band did something on their album because “that’s the kind of shit hipsters eat up”.  That’s why I can’t remember who they are, because they cater to people just for sales.  Now, I’m not calling them sell-outs, but they’re confining themselves into a role that they think they should play.  This band isn’t doing their own thing, or making it up as they go along.  That ultimately is going to be the reason why 30 years from now some disillusioned 21-year old isn’t going to be writing an essay about their ability to stay relevant.  Despite her shittiest attempts at making music, Madonna never gave us shit to eat.

Sixty years ago change was seen as a negative, something that wasn’t to be trusted, case in point Elvis Presley.  The older generation didn’t like him because he was too sexual and because he was playing black music.  Now, times are different, we need constant changes and new experiences that are better than the last ones.  Madonna knows that and whether or not she succeeds or fails at delivering a new experience; she still gratifies that hunger for the new and different.  That’s why she can be all of these different things and yet still be Madonna as a singular identity.  And it’s the same reason why the Joker can be whoever he wants on any given day and still be a holistic character.  They essentially become understood as an unpredictable and indefinable force that still manages to turn heads.  And in reality, whether we love something or hate it, we just want it to turn our heads if not for a scant second.  Let’s just hope Madonna’s next phase won’t be as a murdering psychopath.

[1] Julian Day – a criminal who commits crimes to coincide with holidays.  He is essentially the Steve Sax of Batman’s rogue gallery.

[2] The video to “Take a Bow” is what without question incited my attraction towards older women.

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