Dissecting The Troll

There is a truism in popular culture that the best way to kill a joke is to explain it and that any joke which needs an explanation isn’t a good one. For those who come from the kick-to-the-nuts school of comedy, this is likely true. Aristotle’s explanation of comedy in Poetics isn’t likely to make ball-kicking more funny unless it’s the illustrated version. But for the sliver of jokes that fall outside the formula of Balls + Moving Object = Adam Sandler, there is a wealth of humor that could and should be examined.

Most jokes can withstand analysis, and some can be improved with an explanation. The classic “Why did the chicken cross the road?” is slightly better when one understands that a chicken will cross anyone because a chicken don’t give a fuck. While a joke like “what’s black and white and read all over” only makes sense if one knows that newspapers were once for reporting the news of the day and not as a substitute tampon for women in poverty. However, these are old fashioned jokes one might read out of a salt-water taffy wrapper from the 1990s. What about recent jokes based on contemporary subjects like female ejaculation or Saudi Arabia bombing Yemeni hospitals with arms purchased from the US? Can these types of jokes endure analysis and remain funny? Can they be improved? The truth is that dissecting contemporary jokes is the only way they can be funny.

For instance, in 2014, Suey Park ignited an internet firestorm when she tweeted the #CancelColbert hashtag on Twitter. Ms. Park objected to Stephen Colbert’s use of an Asian stereotype to demonstrate America’s hypocritical treatment of Native Americans, and in doing so Ms. Park became an unwitting but necessary part of the joke.

What makes this joke particularly relevant to the dissection of humor is that the joke relied on Ms. Park “not getting it.” Not only did she not understand the joke, but, in fact,she could not understand the joke because the joke, as she first saw it, was incomplete. Here’s the setup:

I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.

That, by itself, is not a joke. It’s a setup with no turn, no observation, no punchline. To be complete, the joke required the participation of someone with the moral outrage and/or cultural/historical ignorance of Native American mistreatment to tweet the hypocrisy the original joke anticipated. In other words, Ms. Park tweeted the punchline necessary to make Colbert’s joke work. Her #CancelColbert is proof that in American popular culture Native Americans don’t have many of the social protections enjoyed by other minority groups (including Asians). Chris Rock made a similar joke about the Washington football team’s name in 1990, the year Suey Park was born, when the N-word could still be heard on network TV.

While many think “troll” refers to a creature living under a bridge, the term actually comes from the fishing technique of dragging a lure behind a moving boat.

Ms. Park failed to understand the joke because of its particular design. The joke was meant to be offensive and to illicit a response. That form of joke is called “a troll.”Invented and perfected by the early pioneers of cyber-degeneracy in the 1980s and 1990s on sites like Usenet and LambdaMoo, a troll is a call-and-response style joke where the call is an over the top or offensive statement which is meant to illicit a response whose content, tone, and/or meaning is disproportionate to what is warranted by the original statement. The joke is almost always at the expense of the respondent, and in this way a well executed troll is like a verbal, self-inflicted kick to the nuts.

In this case, the troll was the original Colbert tweet, and Park kicked her own nuts with #CancelColbert, a demand both unrealistic and unreasonable Sadly, Ms. Park wasn’t the only one to not get the joke, and she suffered quite a backlash for those who couldn’t truly appreciate her role in creating comedy and exposing hypocrisy.

As most people recognize, a good deal of humor is dependent upon pain, but many have rightfully criticized the troll for targeting those most often injured by our dominant culture and those least in a position to hit back; However, this isn’t a function inherent to the troll, but merely how it’s been mostly used and who uses it. That’s what makes Colbert’s troll particularly effective and worthy of study. While the setup uses an Asian stereotype, its absurdity could only attract the type of response from someone blinded to the plight of Native Americans by their own privilege and self-importance. Ultimately though, the joke is at the expense of Park’s critics at least as much as it is at her expense. While she provided the punchline, Colbert’s joke was on privileged hypocrisy. Lots of people were kicked in the balls the day #CancelColbert trended.

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Originally published at bionicprose.com on August 22, 2016.