Tag Archives: Layering

Bill Clinton on His Gift from Ellen

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Here is the youtube link to today’s clip:

Context: Ellen is a talk show host whose job is to promote the guest of the show while making the guest feel comfortable and entertaining the audience.  Bill Clinton is the guest.

Let’s talk about what was funny about each Joke!

The Opening Joke by Ellen had 3 Parts:

  1. “Let’s get to something very important. I gave you a picture of myself when you were here last.”
    • Within the context of the show, the important topic is whatever Bill Clinton is there to promote: the spotlight should be Bill. However, Ellen does the opposite here and uses Bill’s time to promote herself. This is an example of Irony.
    • Another tool Ellen uses in this joke is Misdirection. She sets up the joke with the context of “something very important” which misdirects you into expecting something important when she is actually going to talk about something not important. Misdirection is commonly used in Irony.
    • Exaggeration is also used to give the joke more power. If Ellen had said “let’s talk about something. I gave you a picture when you were here last” then there would not have been a misdirection to set up the irony. If Ellen had said “let’s talk about something important. I gave you a picture when you were here last” then there would have been a set up and we would have got it, but the emotional response would not be there because the misdirection was not there. I told you I was going to tell you something and I did, no misdirection. When Ellen says “let’s talk about something very important,” she is setting up a strong misdirection and it is that strength which is the source of the joke’s power. She said she was going to turn left but then turned right, the complete opposite, the furthest point away from where she told you she was going. This exaggeration creates a contrast which creates the emotional response that can trigger laughter and humor and comedy when used correctly.
  2. “And I was just wondering which room you hung it in?”
    • Here she is drawing on the Absurdity of her question and exaggerating it by continuing along the line of thought, increasing the degree of misdirection to absurd levels.  The absurdity is funny because it is both inappropriate given the context that she shouldn’t be talking about this, but also appropriate given the context that it is harmless empty language that isn’t hurting anyone.
    • What also makes this funny is that it puts a visual on the joke, and visualization is an important tool in drawing the audience into the joke so that they can more fully experience with the joke and engage more with the joke. This is effective because the more connections you have between the joke and the audience, the stronger the impact of the comedy will be because now you can communicate across more channels than before.  The advanced concept at play here is Layering, and what separates the great comedians from the not so great comedians is exactly this ability: the more layers you create, the better the comedy.
  3. The photo is shown to the audience.
    • This is again funny because it further visualizes the joke, and we’ve now moved from the realm of verbal comedy and situational comedy to visual comedy because the portrait is ridiculously oversized and uses Irony to portray Ellen as something she is not in an exaggerated, absurd fashion that is harmless and appropriate yet inappropriate.  This adds another layer to the comedy, strengthening the delivery of the joke.

The follow up joke is that Bill Clinton is in on this joke and provides visual comedy of his own by pretending to go along with this.  He presents a picture of his office with Ellen’s self portrait on the wall.  “There it is yes”

  • This is funny due to many of the same devices as before: layering, absurdity, exaggeration, and visualization.  He builds upon the joke by agreeing to an absurd request.  This expands the joke from just Ellen talking about an inappropriate topic and making an absurd request to Bill actually granting that absurd request which itself an event that is funny because it is absurd (unrealistic) and Ridiculous (exaggeratedly over the top).

Ellen then makes the joke of saying “No, you just hung that for the photo [and] it’s not really in there.”

  • This is a joke because it is rude and inappropriate, but it isn’t rude and inappropriate because it’s so blatant that it is funny.  Ellen is doing what is blatantly rude and inappropriate: calling Bill Clinton, her guest who is supposed to be the center of attention and who she should be promoting, a liar.  Ellen is doing blatantly the exact opposite of what her job is, and the irony of that creates humor and the humor is why Bill Clinton is not insulted.

Ellen then adds more layers to the joke by following this path of blatant humor and trying to get Bill to admit the it is a ruse.  “Tell me the truth, it’s not in there all the time”

  • This is funny on two levels. One because of layering by following along the same line of thought and joke to build it up through absurdity and irony.
  • Two because we know it’s a ruse since it is on TV and we are aware that it is a comedy show.  Thus we are playing along now wondering if he’s going to admit it or not. By calling attention to the artificial construct of this story, Ellen is connecting to us the viewer by addressing our point of view. This is the most effective form of layering and connection you can make to drive home a point and a joke.  Remember for earlier that the more connections the joke has to the listener, the more the listener is engaged in the joke and the stronger the listener’s reaction to the joke will be.  Ellen has, over the course of this set up, grown from some TV show you’re watching, to a funny conversation you understand, to a funny situation you can visualize, to a funny banter that you are involved in and participating.  The world of the joke has gone from only encompassing her and her guest to encompassing your verbal and visual senses and finally to encompassing your self awareness.  This is the tool of Immersion at play.

There is then some laughter as Suspense builds on whether or not Bill is going to admit that this is all a ruse and a lie, which calls attention to the whole situation as a ruse and a lie and turns into humor for two reasons: one that Bill has been caught lying and Ellen and us the audience were the ones who caught him (and this is ironic because Ellen should not be trying to prove her guest to be a liar, she should be promoting them positively) and two because it’s self deprecating in that she’s calling herself a liar too because while she has thus far been pretending to care about this issue (starting off by saying ‘this is something very important’), she actually doesn’t because it’s just a ruse anyway.

This conclusion is particularly poignant because they finish the joke as honest people.  “It’s not in there all the time” says Bill.  Bill has confessed and Ellen has confessed.  Through lying, they have actually succeeded in convincing us that both of them are honest, and that Bill is a good person because he was being a good sport in humoring Ellen’s joke.  They also gain our trust because they end up being authentic and genuine, and that is an important comedy trick: Authenticity.  Fake humor is held at arms length: you know it’s a ruse.  The best humor is the humor you can connect with, and you connect much better with honesty than with dishonesty. 

That is the end of Ellen’s well constructed joke. Now let’s talk about why Bill’s follow up joke didn’t work as well.

“I don’t have enough wall space.  You need to get me a smaller picture and I’ll have it all the time.”

We have already established that we are going to be honest and genuine now, and then Bill goes on to continue lying.  Sure it’s for a joke and we get what he’s doing: he’s reasoning in reality to pretend like he’s honestly trying to find a way to have Ellen’s portrait in his life, but we are not convinced because he never explained the context as to why he would want to have Ellen’s portrait in his life.  Because we the viewers believe him as someone who would not want that portrait because Bill has a wife and we have no understanding as to them having a close enough relationship (family, etc.) for that to be plausible, we do not like this joke as much.  You can tell by the volume of the laughter in the video that it is more of a curtesy laugh than a real laugh, and most of the humor in this new joke comes from the previous one. It is drawing more energy out of Ellen’s joke than it is adding to it, and that is what happens when you try but fail to use the tool of layering.

Ellen, as a polite host, entertains this idea and says “I’ll give you a smaller one” and ends the topic. Notice that there is NO laughter in this case: Even though it is building upon the absurdity of the situation and request and layering as before, the context has changed and we the viewers are no longer engaged with the joke because the joke has ended.  These comments make up a separate topic called transitions which will be a segment on this website under Communication someday.

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