March 07, 2009

What are you boys laughing at? And if you say Jimmy Fallon, I'll know you're lying!
- Homer Simpson, Home Away From Homer, first aired May 2005

... which btw is a vastly underrated episode. Broad satire and stereotype is largely replaced by irony and a deeper examination of human nature, so it is criticised for slowness and lack of humour. Even the pseudo-"porn" scene is criticised for, well, not being more pornographic ... on a prime time show aired without parental warnings!

Because the objection to Ned's moustache has no grounds beyond "hippie lip" it is seen as pointless and humourless, when in fact the humour lies in its being one of many equally pointless social taboos, in real life as throughout the Simpsons canon. (Remember Don Mattingly's sideburns in the Simpsons softball episode?) This time, it happens to be perfect Ned who runs afoul of it ... for no reason whatsoever.

Reasons are easy ways out, which allow us to laugh and point at communities whose reasons we don't share and therefore find absurd, without ever having to question our own a prioris. The Simpsons chooses the more challenging road, not once, but repeatedly.

Of course, if you take that line of thinking just a little bit further, the point hits very hard: why should some social taboos be proper and others be pointless?

Another common objection is continuity: why should Ned object to shaving his moustache off in Humbletown, when he did not object to shaving it off over a deal with Homer? But ... a deal he made of his own free will, as opposed to a policy socially forced upon him. Should that make a difference?

Why this particular straw that broke the camel's back? Surely Homer has done worse things to Flanders, repeatedly? The proverb itself calls it a "straw", something of negligible weight that makes no difference by itself, but all the difference when added to the rest. Nor is this particular straw such a negligible one: not when, for the first time, Ned realises that the entire community shares Homer's values more than his, and that Ned himself is so far outside them as to be a common target of mockery. No longer is it simply Homer who takes advantage of him. In one step, he has gone from simply Homer's dupe to utterly alone in the entire community -- and at that point, what remains to anchor him to it?

Having decided to leave, having joined a community that he discovers too late shares all his values but a single key one (and which chooses to ostracise him for it), Ned now faces a new choice: to stay in a place where everyone else looks down on him, or to return to a place where, even being alone, he can claim the moral high ground over everyone else? Lisa has also faced a variant of this choice when she was jumped to third grade, and quickly found that she was no longer at the top of her class. Would she choose to stay in third grade?
Principal Skinner: And Lisa, you have a choice. You may continue to be challenged in third grade, or return to second grade and be merely a big fish in a little pond.
Lisa: Big fish! Big fish!
Why do we want to be spoon-fed everything? Why do we come to the television determined to turn our brains off? It is not as though most of us worked all that hard during the workday. Eight hours a day of desk work? and over a quarter of that spent slacking on the Internet? Talk to me after you spend dawn to dusk for even one harvest week working in agriculture.

But Fallon's humour ... sorry, I don't see it. Even when you tell exactly the same types of jokes as those which had been written for Conan O'Brien, you manage to wring all the laughter out of it, mostly because you laugh so hard at them yourself. Your Saturday Night Live co-actors did not care for this habit either. Do you intend to keep being the guy next to the water cooler whom everyone avoids because he keeps laughing uproariously at his own weak jokes?

To you, o Roots, you are not legendary. Max is legendary, he worked with Bruce Springsteen as part of the E Street Band long before he ever set foot on Late Night With Conan O'Brian -- and he was wise enough to understand that "legendary" is never something you call yourself, only something you can earn. You have not earned it. Maybe someday you will, but that day is not today.

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