Multi-Level-Headed: The ins and outs of humor

Multi-Level-Headed: The ins and outs of humor

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Last week I wrote about insider and outsider status within popular songs. I ended by extending that theme into humor. There is a lot of humor in which we watch to see whether the insider or the outsider prevails in status. Who’s in first place? Who’s in second? In picaresque humor like Beverly Hills Cop for example, Eddie Murphy, the outsider is clearly cooler than the insiders. A street-savvy outsider dropped into Beverly Hills, wins first place status among a bunch of second place insiders.

Of course, not all humor speaks to whether it’s cooler to be inside our outside. Still, an amazing amount plays with shifts between insider and outsider perspectives. We’re fascinated by the relationship between inside and outside because it plays off the most amazing commonplace we ever ignore: We act levelheaded but we’re really multi-level-headed. (See Going Meta, Upleveling, Four I’s. )

At its simplest, multi-level-headedness plays out on two planes: We’re either participating as insiders or observing from the outside. When things are going smoothly we’re just in it, doing what we’re supposed to be doing. When we encounter resistance, ambiguity, strangeness, or ambivalence, our perspective shifts from being in it to being outside observing it. When a relationship starts to feel less like a groove and more like a rut, we start to think about it rather than merely being in it. A lot of humor plays with the jumps we make between being within it and about it–up out of it.

Multi-level-headed humor starts early. Peek-a-boo is a teasing bounce between in and out. “I’m in here with you. No I’m not. Yes I am.”

Are you laughing at me or with me? If you’re laughing with me, we’re in it together. If you’re laughing at me, you’re outside, observing and parodying me.

A lot of puns are built on this inside/outside tension:

What do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhino?


Is “elephino” an answer within the context of the question or is it about the question’s unanswerability? It sits unsteadily on the ridge between inside and out.

Abbot and Costello’s “who’s on first; what’s on second” is the same game: Is “who” a reiteration of the question or an answer within the context of the question. The skit is thoroughly implausible–really, whose name sounds anything like “who’s”?–and yet it remains a classic. We’re as enchanted as babies watching the reference point shuttle between in and out.

Parody plays with the jump from inside to outside. You know what it’s like to accommodate someone’s eccentricities up to a point beyond which they feel like parodies of themselves. That is, you’re in it with them until their eccentricity pops you out, and you laugh a little, “sorry, you lost me there,” laugh. Parody takes that outsider perspective to its logical extreme. The characters are all the way inside, and you’re outside observing and laughing.

Austin Powers has no capacity for self-exploration. He never doubts himself, but we do throughout. He’s drawn so eccentrically, with all the features of a secret agent distorted by exaggeration, that the audience is completely outside observing him. Never while watching an Austin Powers movie are we on the edge of our seats rooting for or identifying with him.

If life were all lived at one level it wouldn’t be funny. Cows live at one level. Cows can be funny, of course, but only in the context of our multiple levels. Gender aside, cows are straight men. Cow-tipping, for example, wouldn’t amuse us if the cows were multi-level-headed and saw the humor in it. It’s only funny (to those who think it is) because the cows are so oblivious.

Wallace and Gromit offer an interesting division of labor on multi-level-headedness. Like Austin Powers or a cow, Wallace, the cheese- and invention-loving middle-class British gent, thinks at one level. Though he’s very bouncy, he never bounces out of the action to observe himself. Gromit, the mute (and in fact mouthless) dog, is the sophisticated and multi-level-headed character. He’s often put in compromising situations and we see through his eyes as he bounces from inside his relationship with Wallace to outside observing it. So who is the straight man? By lack of expression it’s Gromit; by lack of self-observation, it’s Wallace.

And if it weren’t tickle enough popping in and out between two levels, there’s the uber-tickle of multiple or infinite levels. The classic is Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic .” A guy goes to the clinic to buy an argument and falls into argument with the service provider about whether they’re having an argument, and then about whether they’re having an argument about having an argument. Abouts about abouts, pushing us ever further up and out.

But mostly, bouncing between a couple of levels is tickle enough. The deadpan delivery of the last word that pops us out of the mainstream game reveals our unedited perspective, as with Oscar Wilde’s line, “Nature is a dark damp place where birds fly about uncooked.”

But seriously (inside), I’m only joking (outside). . . no, but seriously (inside), I’m reminded of Eeyore’s birthday in Winnie the Pooh, a story that I always thought ended very strangely, very uncharacteristically, but now seems to make cosmic sense.

Eeyore the donkey is a beast of burden, a straight man in a state of permanent disappointment. MOGIBO: Me Out. Good In. Bad Out. Because nothing ever goes right for him, he’s always in a rut, and therefore always stuck between levels. He tries to stand outside his circumstances, calmly observing his own misery. When his friends forget his birthday, he says, “After all, what are birthdays? Here today and gone tomorrow.” But really, he’s neither resigned nor grieving, with no signs of shifting reliably to accepting his fate or fighting against it. His standard greeting is “Good morning, if it is a good morning which I doubt.” It’s right on the edge between hoping it’s a good morning and giving up on its being good.

Piglet and Pooh remember Eeyore’s birthday at the last minute. They run home to get him presents. Pooh gets him a pot of honey, but on the way to Eeyore’s house, he forgets that it’s a gift. He eats all the honey and at the last bite suddenly remembers. He decides to just bring the empty honey pot anyway.

Piglet gets Eeyore a leftover balloon from someone else’s birthday party, but on the way to Eeyore’s he trips and the balloon bursts. Piglet decides to bring the balloon shrapnel anyway.

We see what’s coming, another Eeyore disappointment and disaffirmation, another reason for him to half-resignedly bemoan an unjust world.

Pooh and Piglet try desperately to persuade Eeyore that they really meant well but Eeyore is uncharacteristically oblivious. For the first and only time in the book, he is really at peace, joyful in fact. He has discovered a new game.

“Why!” he said. “I believe my Balloon will just go into that Pot!”

“Oh, no, Eeyore,” said Pooh. “Balloons are much too big to go into Pots. What you do with a balloon is, you hold the balloon.”

“Not mine,” said Eeyore proudly. “Look, Piglet!” And as Piglet looked sorrowfully round, Eeyore picked the balloon up with his teeth, and placed it carefully in the pot; picked it out and put it on the ground; and then picked it up again and put it carefully back.

“So it does!” said Pooh. “It goes in!”

“So it does!” said Piglet. “And it comes out!”

“Doesn’t it?” said Eeyore. “It goes in and out like anything.”

“I’m very glad,” said Pooh happily, “that I thought of giving you a Useful Pot to put things in.”

“I’m very glad,” said Piglet happily, “that I thought of giving you something to put in a Useful Pot.”

But Eeyore wasn’t listening. He was taking the balloon out, and putting it back again, as happy as could be. . . .

Eeyore is mesmerized. It goes in and out like anything. Like us wondering who’s on first and what’s on second.