By Parker Sumwalt ’18
Special to the Denisonian
I will be first to admit that I have tried, gone out and failed to get into both the eccentric Burpees and the prestigious Bullsheet. Humor is something that always seemed to be a part of my life. My intention was that when I got into one of the groups that, throughout the course of my career here, I would change them and bring them into some sort golden age of humor, for I never thought that either were very funny. I still don’t.
Before I begin, I want to say that some members are funny they are, but as a whole I think the originators of both groups would look at them today with melancholic disappointment. However the gilded nature of looking back deceives people for rarely is there any gold at all, mostly there is painted lead.
If any member of the group reads this article and wishes to say that the only reason I’m saying this is because I’m mad that I didn’t get in, I want to stress that I held these opinions long before I auditioned for either. It’s partly true though I am writing this because I didn’t get in. There’s a cowardice in written words.
Let’s begin: comedy and drama both come from the exact same root of irony. Meaning that the effects produced by each, like laughter or tears, result from a sort of managed expectation. Anybody who has taken a high school English class knows about the structure of a story. There is a set up, rising action, climax and a conclusion. In my opinion, each joke that produces a laugh works the exact same way even if we aren’t conscious or aware of it like we are with a story.
What makes jokes work is that they deceive the audience into thinking the joke is going one way, but it ends up going another. It’s like climbing a flight of stairs: you keep going up the stairs and everything is fine, but when you think there is one more step, and there isn’t, a moment of absolute terror and lostness consumes you entirely. Laughter tends to happen in that moment of unexpectedness.
Here’s a good example from The Bullsheet. It’s Thanksgiving dinner and the family gathers round the table, and the Mother Wife character says, “Can I get anyone something from the kitchen?” The Husband character responds, “Yeah, a hotter wife.” This simple joke works. It manages the reader’s expectation with two things: one, it’s Thanksgiving, so images of peaceful and loving conversations are expected, and two, when the wife asks her question people expect someone would ask for a drink or buttery rolls or something. When Husband responds, “a hotter wife,” the joke plays off of those expectations, and the fact that he said that to his wife.
Shock humor bypasses the set up and expectation by going straight to the unpredictableness portion of the joke. It still works most of the time, but what happens is that the more shock is used the more accustomed the audience gets to it, and this happens fast if it’s solely relied on. This is where the Bullsheet editors fail a good majority of the time. Shock humor doesn’t always have to mean untasteful jokes, but also using plain absurdity in attempt to be funny. Bullsheet editors conflate internet humor that could be found on any cheap thrill, soul absorbing website for quality and originality. The most irritating of their habits for me is some of their use of swears and aggression to cower people into a laugh.
The Burpees have a rule to prevent all this. The first day of tryouts they told the fresh meat their rule: “Shit ain’t funny.” It involves no swears, overtly sexual jokes, and toilet humor. I can respect the rule, but when they told us the rule it seemed they were missing the point of their own rule. They said it was in order to be tasteful and to make better jokes, but even when they were clean their jokes still relied on the same tools in order to make the “distasteful” jokes funny.
When I say all this, I am aware of the pretentiousness of all this. It’s a fault, but I write this not out of a pretentious fault but selfishness. I want to be amused. I want to laugh. The current means on campus isn’t satisfying me, and I don’t think it’s as good as it could be, and I know I’m not alone in that opinion. The only thing I ask is that when we try to be funny we should examine and ask why the joke is funny. If it’s “funny” because it’s different or weird, it is not enough. Comedy can be taken as seriously as drama. This is what I was going to offer to both groups if I was added, but I can’t do that now, so here is everything I have to offer. Hopefully it’s worth something.