Recently the Onion’s AV Club ran a brief takedown of a smug self-congratulatory blog post Tyler Perry wrote to justify casting Kim Kardashian in his latest movie. The second best joke in the piece goes as follows.
Tyler Perry really does hope you understand—ESPECIALLY THE YOUTH that have for so long looked up to Kim Kardashian, and have thus been primed to learn that making the wrong choices in life always, always has repercussions. Okay, we’re being slightly sarcastic there, because sex tape.
(The best joke in the piece is “even Tyler Perry enjoys coming up with fake Tyler Perry’s… movie titles”. Oh just go read the thing.)
Maybe it doesn’t work out of context, but the final sentence cracked me up. The joke, of course, is that by starring in a sex tape Kim Kardashian made a wrong life choice for which she nevertheless has not faced repercussions. If you come out and say this in so many words, it’s merely a statement and therefore not funny. (It’s also invites the question: what are the proper repercussions for starring in a sex tape? Unrelenting public contempt? If so, should there be the same level of contempt for a minor male celebrity who appears in one? If not, could Kardashian bashing be a sneaky way for decent feminist-minded folk to experience the transgressive thrill of misogyny? Also not funny, but in a totally different way.) Humor requires indirection. A knot of puzzlement provides the activation energy necessary for laughter. Here the indirection comes from the grammar itself. Typically a complementizer like “because” takes a clausal argument, making “because sex tape” syntactically very odd. A joke-killing paraphrase would be, “Okay, we’re being slightly sarcastic there, because she made a sex tape.” Employing just the bare noun phrase “sex tape” invites the reader to engage on a couple different levels of puzzle solving at once: our interest is piqued by a formal anomaly that we resolve using our knowledge that the only thing relevant about sex tapes in this context is the fact that Kim Kardashian made one, giving rise to a satisfying click of revelation when we see that while syntactically dissimilar, the two phrases mean the same thing.
My sense is that the replace-subordinate-clause-with-its-most-salient-noun-phrase bit is relatively new. Like maybe the past decade. It doesn’t take me by surprise–I may have even used it myself a time or two–but this Onion article is the first time I’ve seen it in print. And in print is where it really lands. In speech there are prosodic and paralinguistic cues as to what is going on. You would say, “…slightly sarcastic there, because [Pause. Wry eyebrow crinkle.] sex tape.” The way writing strips away these extra channels of information, the fact that it is more prescriptively conservative than speech, even the way that at first glance this looks like a typo–all these additional factors elevate what verbally is merely snark.
Like I always say, leave it to a linguist to ruin a joke. It sounds like I’m making a big deal out of nothing–spinning two words into six paragraphs–but the amazing thing about language is that it’s all this complex. The intricate dance of grammar, world knowledge, and expectations met and frustrated is something we do every few milliseconds any time we have a chat. Everyday language is already a Rube Goldberg device. The art of comedy is to make it malfunction just so.