On The Unsung Humour Of Wikipedia

Because it applies the same encyclopaedic voice of reason and authority to the realm of pop culture, Wikipedia regularly comes up with some deadpanningly humorous phrasings.  Often, part of the general knowledge of a personage or event will entail the inadvertent recounting of a joke, albeit in an utterly, and not unironically, matter-of-fact manner.

This results in something somewhat similar to Principal Seymour Skinner’s hilariously botched answer to Supernintendo Chalmers’ query as to who’s on first: “Not the pronoun, but a player with the unlikely name of ‘Who’ is on first.”  Now, of course the humour in the Simpsons bit is that Skinner is blowing the joke and ruining the routine at a school talent show (in this sense, it operates rather like the anti-comedy of Neil Hamburger).  Nonetheless, even stripped of this context, the simple summing up of the extended sketch packs all the humour of the joke – the “one joke” of the bit – into one distilled and, yes, witty phrase.

This occurs throughout any descriptive catalogue of comedy in The Great Wiki.  F’rinstance, an entry for a recurring sketch featuring Late Show announcer Alan Kalter from “List of David Letterman sketches”:

“Alan Kalter’s Campaign Roundup”

A near-daily running gag presented late in the 2000 presidential election season began with Letterman introducing Kalter, who would ostensibly give a summary of the latest campaign news. Instead, Kalter would perform an energetic rendition of the chorus to “Who Let the Dogs Out?” which was a popular and ubiquitous song at the time, and walk across the stage. In the skit’s later occurrences, Kalter would sometimes rip off his shirt as he sang (revealing a pale and flabby physique), while adding a manic and deranged tone to his performance. Kalter has demonstrated a compulsion to disrobe in many of his other segments before and since.

In many respects the deadpanned – and slightly disgusted, it seems – recounting of the bit is funnier than the actual sketch itself was.   I particularly liked the reference to “Who Let The Dogs Out?” as “a popular and ubiquitous song at the time” as if Abraham Simpson was describing an old vaudeville act.  The last sentence with its clinical and precise phrasing provides a perfect, understated punch line to the piece.

More evidence. From “List of Seinfeld minor characters”:

Poppie (played by Reni Santoni): Owner of an Italian restaurant who disapproves of abortion, is known to not wash his hands after visiting the bathroom, believes a pizza is a pizza when you put your fists in the dough, rejects cucumbers as a pizza topping, and once urinated on Jerry’s brand new couch. The “Poppie couch” turns up in “The Doorman“.

Seinfeld fans will easily pick out that the “fists in dough” factlet refers to the pizza-as-analogy-for-abortion bit, and by using it as a biographical descriptor of the character, gives the joke a new humorous twist.  After all, Poppie believes a pizza is created at kneading as strongly as the staunchest Pro-Lifer believes abortion is homicide, so it is a good piece of information regarding his character.  Compare this to the other descriptors which simply describe various notably funny incidences in which he incurred himself in the plotlines (such as peeing on Jerry’s couch); for these, the humour does not carry over as well precisely because they don’t really have that ulterior, encyclopaedic function.

Elsewhere, the dry tone of the site gives a perhaps not-unexpected witty effect to entries in a manner not dissimilar to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide.  In fact many of Wikipedia’s entries on comedic subjects read like entries in the fictitious Guide.  Viz. this selection on the Total Perspective Vortex from Wikipedia’s “Technology in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”:

Located on Frogstar World B, the machine was originally invented by one Trin Tragula in order to annoy his wife. Because she was forever nagging him for having no sense of proportion, he decided to invent something that would show her what having a sense of proportion really meant. Unfortunately the shock of being placed in the Vortex destroyed her brain, but Trin Tragula’s grief was tempered by the knowledge that he had been right and she had been wrong.

Of course, this is really just a summary (perhaps of an almost plagiaristic nature) of Adams’ already funny writing.  Still, the blurring of realities entailed by describing pop cultural lore in an encyclopaedic manner means that fictional, and sometimes silly, subjects are discursively treated with the same scientificky methodicalness as a good, authoritative textbook.

The page for the Living Dead franchise of zombie movies has a large section distinguishing the depiction of zombies in the two divergent continuities in the franchise (George A. Romero’s Dead series, and John A. Russo Return Of The Living Dead series).  The subsection “Locution” makes the following observation:

In the Return of the Living Dead series, a zombie can speak normally (even if its lungs, trachea, and facial muscles are largely missing) but any conversation will tend to lean towards their attraction to the listener’s brain, how good it must taste and the speaker’s overwhelming desire to consume it.

It starts out in a straightforward, reliable manner – noting the discrepancy between the abilities of zombies in a certain film series and the established real world laws of vocal biomechanics. However, the entry quickly takes an abrupt turn into the absurd once it starts to explain the actual content of zombie speech – ie. their repeated and earnest declarations of love for the taste of sweet, sweet brains.  Yet all along, the tone is consistent.  The gap between the absurdity of the “information” and the seriousness of its delivery (after all, the above is a perfectly accurate description of fictional phenomena) is where the funny is.  Though the zombie movies in question aren’t really comedies (well, Return Of The Living Dead series kinda is…), the translation of the make-believe world – be it of zombie movies, sitcoms, or variety show bits – into the “factual” world of an encyclopaedia generates a form of humour in and of itself.

Of a different mode is the inadvertent humour one sometimes finds in otherwise well-meaning prose.  While it’s perhaps mean spirited to laugh at people who are not, we presume, writing in their native language, this passage from the Wikipedia page for the Russian (Tatar) city of Kazan seems a little, well, off and, if you imagine it being read by Borat, quite funny:

Immigrants in the 1990s

One of the biggest Kazan communities is the Azeri community. Most of them are unregistered and work illegally. Azeri tradesmen control all the bazaars. They often sell imitation clothes of famous trademarks or fruits. The number of Azeris is very big. Interestingly, Azeri speak both Russian and Tatar well.

Other Caucasians come from Dagestan, Georgia, Armenia and others. They often own cafés or work in construction.

Another big community is the Central Asian community, which includes Uzbeks, Tajiks, Roma (Lyuli branch) and Kyrgyz. Some of the Uzbeks and Tajiks own cafés or fast-food restaurants; they sell dried apricots, popular among Kazan citizens.

Now there’s nothing wrong with the language of the above, although its somewhat childish, truncated cadences are a little bit off rhythm.  Still, no grammatical schadenfreude here like those sites making fun of “English” signs in Asia.  Instead, the humour here derives from the subtle comment it makes on the author.  Y’see, in European Russia, immigrant communities from Central Asia and The Caucasus (in the case of Kazan’s Azeris) are regarded with suspicion by the native Russians (or, in Kazan’s case, Tatars) and there is something grimly amusing in the way this selection shows this prejudice.

Let’s take a deeper look.

First off, we’ve got the typical “they took our jobs!” declaration (“Most of them are unregistered and work illegally”), but then things get a little weird when, during the required accusation of shady dealings, we are informed that, “They often sell imitation clothes of famous trademarks or fruits.”  Or fruits?  Not sure how fruit’s related to designer knockoffs, but OK.   Perhaps they’re in league with the dried apricot dealin’ Uzbeks and Tajiks.   And of course, all bigotry should come tinged with conspiracy paranoia for not only do the Azeris “control all the bazaars,” but “Interestingly, Azeri speak both Russian and Tatar well.”  Yes, very interesting.  They’re up to some thing alright, those bilingual bastards.

And yes, Wikipedia is unfortunately (and somewhat unfairly in this correspondent’s view) criticized for its biases and is often accused of unfairly maligning things.  When this does actually occur, however, the results can be somewhat amusing as in this entry (from the “The Greatest Canadian” page) regarding a poll for the worst Canadian:

As a response to the Greatest Canadian, The Beaver ran a poll to find Canadians’ opinions on the “worst Canadian”, and as a way to get Canadians talking about Canada’s history. The top ten were:

  1. Pierre Trudeau, prime minister
  2. Chris Hannah, musician
  3. Henry Morgentaler, physician and abortionist
  4. Brian Mulroney, prime minister
  5. Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, serial killers
  6. Stephen Harper, prime minister
  7. Céline Dion, musician
  8. Jean Chrétien, prime minister
  9. Clifford Olson, serial killer
  10. Conrad Black, convicted fraudster

Now, it is perfectly reasonable to call Clifford Olson and Paul Bernardo & Karla Homolka serial killers; that is, after all, what they are known for.  The labelling of Henry Morgentaler as an abortionist (as opposed to a more neutral euphemism) nudges towards some kind of incitement.  The last entry, “Conrad Black, convicted fraudster”, however, is nicely done.  Succinct, yet skewering; still maintaining that dry understatement illustrated previously.

The entry then goes on to conclude, with beautiful – and properly cited – self-referentiality:

The Beaver’s poll has received harsh criticism. For example, Vancouver’s Only Magazine stated that “Publishing such a poll in a history magazine officially makes The Beaver about as trustworthy as Wikipedia.”

It should also be noted that the entry is accompanied with a picture of David Suzuki from the actual Greatest Canadian list (carried over from that list’s description).  He is captioned as “#5”, the position of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.  Whoops.

Anyway, so here is a challenge to any and all faithful reader(s) out there.  If you stumble across an amusing Wikipedia entry, cut-n-paste it on over here. Well, down there.  Whatever.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on August 26, 2009.

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