It is really hard to write a joke.
Popstar, the new movie by The Lonely Island, has more jokes than I’ll ever be able to count. I would know: I’ve seen it 3 times.
I am a comedian, which is tough to talk about because you have to write the phrase “I am a comedian.” When you say the phrase “I am a comedian,” which I have to say somewhat often when I’m explaining what I do or what I am, people will inevitably ask me for a joke. (I have never once asked a mechanical engineer for a robot, or an educator for some homework. You get it.) This is an expected and trivial burden of being in the arts—proof that the artist can do what they say they are. My resume looks different from most people’s; I guess it’s only fair to ask for some kind of verification.
A bartender asked me this at the most recent show I did. I was backstage, looking over some notes, sipping on a ginger ale. He tapped my notepad (rude) and told me to tell him a joke.
Over the years, I’ve developed multiple versions of telling someone no. That night, I opted for, “I don’t really tell jokes,” and then proceeded on stage to do just that.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is the second feature film by The Lonely Island, best known for years of comedic digital shorts on Saturday Night Live. The trio—consisting of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone—have worked together for nearly two decades. I’ve written extensively about their past work, so I’ll avoid that here, but suffice it to say I am a longtime fan.
Popstar is the a concert-mock-umentary about the rise and fall of a fictional pop star named Connor4Real (Samberg) and his DJ (Taccone) and lyricist (Schaffer). If you’ve seen any of those concert-documentaries—Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, One Direction, what have you—then this format is well-worn and easy to understand. It’s not original and it doesn’t have to be; The Lonely Island needed an easy to understand plot structure in order to execute the sheer number of jokes in the film. It had to be simple. You won’t see anything new in terms of storytelling or narrative arcs. The Lonely Island isn’t concerned about experimental storytelling—that’s fine—because they’re writing jokes.
Nearly every line in Popstar is a joke: it’s a reference, it’s a misunderstanding, it’s wordplay, it’s a physical gag. Never have I been able to write or say the phrase “Chekov’s robot head” before now, but once you see the film, you’ll understand.
When I was starting out as a stand-up, I took a workshop on the form. This was unnecessary, I learned. Stand-up and jokewriting are not like piano; you do not do better with lessons. You do better by doing worse, truthfully. You do your best work when you’re bombing on stage in front of audience of seven other people.
I cut my teeth in southwest Michigan. I don’t remember the name of the bar but it was a man’s name—one syllable, I’m certain—something like Joe’s or Ned’s or Todd’s. It was a big game bar. I don’t mean that in the way that my twenty-something millennial friends interpret the phrase “big game bar”, which is to say “has at least 10 copies of the game Cards Against Humanity and some sets of Connect 4.” I mean, big game, like, big game. Like you did your five minutes in front of a giant dead bison head. Big game.
I tanked every single week at the big game bar. I really just did not connect to the audience at all. It was men, mostly: big, bearded Michigan men. There was a guy who inexplicably had two broken arms. I really can’t make it up. They were the burliest, nicest guys. They did stand-up about chopping wood and their farms and working at Lowe’s hardware. I talked about abortions to total silence. They were lovely to me, but they never laughed. “Keep trying,” they told me, “you’ll find a joke sooner or later.”
I really want to tell you my favorite jokes in Popstar but I don’t want to spoil it. There are countless funny parts in the film: a scene played out entirely in subtitles on a black screen, a totally on-point Macklemore parody, someone driving into a potted plant. There are mispronunciations—those shouldn’t still get me, but damn it, they do—and there are cameos. Someone is told to “cut carrots quieter,” there’s an old album cover called “I’M A NERD FOR ASS.” It’s wrong, really, to list them like this.
We think because we have Twitter accounts that we’re good at jokes. Those aren’t jokes. They’re just words. When I took that stand-up workshop, there was one class where we were asked to come in with 50 one-liners. Set up, punchline. That’s it. 50 of them. I faked sick.
A joke is an expectation that is never met. A joke is a misunderstanding. A joke is a set-up and a punchline. A joke is a visual gag—a caption that doesn’t match an image or vice versa. A joke is a mispronunciation. A joke is an incorrect explanation. A joke is all in the timing. A joke is a punch up (or down, but preferably the former).
Start with a premise: a girl sits down to write an essay about jokes.
We like comedies because they make us laugh. That will sound basic and stupid. It’s not a particularly new development or realization. I think comedy is the purest form of escapism because it gets an involuntary reaction—laughter—out of us. I laughed harder at Popstar than I have at any comedy in a long time. I don’t know if that means it’s better. It just means I laughed a lot.
We’re living in a golden age of comedies that are no longer funny. We seek truth in comedy. It’s fine. It’s allowed. But that gives way to shows like Love or Horace & Pete—deep and true and introspective comedies with outstanding writing, no doubt, but (and now I’m dropping my voice to a whisper): where are the jokes? I can be sold on the premise that not all punchlines are funny. Sometimes they are achingly sad. Sometimes they hurt more than they comfort. But still.
Give me a guy falling down a flight of stairs in a giant robot head any day. It seems weird to have to defend laughing, but that’s where we’re at.
It’s extremely gauche to explain why a joke works, but here is my favorite joke I wrote in the past year.
The premise: Two girls moving far away from each other plan out what the next five years of their lives will be like.
The expectation: At some point, we have to say who won the 2016 election—something neither of us wanted to think about.
The inversion: What if none of these people become president?
The punchline: “Thompson is elected president.”
Who is Thompson? He’s no one. He’s a stock photo. He’s a line. But it’s an expectation that doesn’t deliver. It’s a misunderstanding of what’s occurring. It’s stupid. It’s really stupid. It’s so stupid that when I got on stage to say it, I couldn’t stop laughing. I tried: I pulled on my face, I shook my head. This is what jokes do to us. This is the expectation.
The thing is: I understand why bartenders, cousins, friends of friends, whomever ask me to tell them a joke. We like to laugh. I think everyone thinks they are a little bit funny—they just want to see a professional do it close-up. See if they can see how it works.
When I found myself face to face with the members of The Lonely Island—it’s a long story—I couldn’t bring myself to ask about jokes. I’m still kicking myself for it, half-heartedly wishing I had cited work of theirs I love the most. I couldn’t bring myself to ask: “How’d you decide that shot? That cut? Explain that reference? This felt improvised; was it improvised?” I didn’t ask any of those things. It’s not that I couldn’t know the answers—I’m sure there are well-reasoned and smart answers to all of those questions and then some—but the knowing wouldn’t make me laugh any harder than I already had. Jokes are what they are. They work or they don’t.
Instead, I asked them what they’re doing this summer.