Comedy Is Hard

by John Holbo on August 23, 2008

From Powerline: “Being consumed by hate is damaging to your sense of humor.” Well, I have to admit it. I didn’t get the joke myself. Go ahead and read hindrocket’s original post and his somewhat petulant (so it seems to me) update.

I’m trying to figure out the joke’s nub or ‘cracker’ (I’m using humor lingo here!), the necktie-house analogy – which the author now claims was obviously supposed to poke fun at “how weird it seems, to us non-rich people, for someone not to know off the top of his head how many houses he owns” – can simultaneously obviously function by poking fun at the very idea that it seems weird not to know off the top of your head how many houses you own. This is some superfine complex irony conservative minds can parse with ease, which is lost on the plain people of liberalism, e.g. me.

But seriously, folks. I can at least analyze what properties the joke must have, even if I don’t get it: it is some sort of superpositional quantum irony, which depends for its appreciation on a given proposition P – in this case, P = it’s weird not to know how many houses you have – being self-evidently true and absurd at the same time. This superposition can only be maintained so long as the joke is unobserved (except by its author, who does not count as conscious – otherwise why would he have written such a thing?) Once conscious observers, e.g. liberals, took a look-in to see what was going on, the superpositional irony was bound to collapse into a state of grievance. And bob’s your uncle.

I have been obliged to invent a new blog category to cover this circumstance. I apologize for the complication this entails, but the universe is a rich, strange place.

UPDATE: Hey, categories aren’t showing any more, are they? (Am I missing something? Kieran?) Anyway, the category was supposed to be: ‘the water pitcher is both broken and unbroken.’ Get the picture?



belle waring 08.23.08 at 7:46 am

buh…wuh…but if it were self-evidently ridiculous not to know how many houses one owns then surely…but….aw, never mind.


John Holbo 08.23.08 at 7:51 am

Silly wife. Go count my ties and trouble not the still, domestic waters of your mind with further bafflement about quantum ironies.


Dave Weeden 08.23.08 at 8:12 am

Powerline is evidence that we’re being experimented on by vast alien intelligences. It has to be satire, but satire taken to such levels that it’s unbelievable that it’s written by mere humans. First, they had the brilliant idea of referring to themselves by ridiculous phallic monikers (‘Hindrocket’, ‘The Big Trunk’) and then, and this was complete genius, they denied any intent behind the double entendres.

Assrocket’s capacity for cognitive dissonance (or doublethink) may be rivalled by supercomputers in the late 22nd century if Moore’s law holds true. I loved his quoting the McCain spokesperson: “Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year, just got back from vacation on a private beach in Hawaii and bought his own million-dollar mansion with the help of a convicted felon really want to get into a debate about houses? ” Only $4 million? But that’s middle-class according to McCain.

“Given the number of nights he’s spent in hotels or on military bases over the last few years, it’s no wonder he hasn’t seen much of his wife’s condos.” The very thought of a McCain sex scandal turns the stomach, but what a great set-up. Seriously if this story is true, no wonder McCain spends so many nights in hotels.


Katherine 08.23.08 at 8:13 am

Would it be breaking the party line (as it were) to say I got the joke. Although it panders to the man-child-need-looking-after-by-wife/mommy paradigm. And wasn’t that funny anyway.

Or at least, it could have been a bit funny if it was trying to poke fun/critcise McCain for not knowing how many houses he owns (look I own lots of ties, that’s the same, ah, no it’s not because ties aren’t houses, how can he not know!?!). Except that he seems to be trying to defend McCain.

Okay, looks as if I’m with you after all.


abb1 08.23.08 at 8:14 am

…he cares little about material things, and for many years has devoted his extraordinary energies not to enjoying his wife’s money, but to serving the American people.

Greandpa Lenin was like that too – everything for the people. Especially the children.


John Holbo 08.23.08 at 8:46 am

Katherine: “Except that he seems to be trying to defend McCain.”

NOW you see the violence inherent in the quantum system!


bad Jim 08.23.08 at 8:48 am

Laughing at McCain is ageist. Laughing at the inadequacy of his responses to any question – how many houses he owns, how we should handle Iraq, how we should respond to Russia’s Georgian incursion – is simply ageist and impermissible. So is his incoherence with respect to taxes, deficits, the economy, employment, health insurance. He doesn’t know, he can’t remember, and it’s ageist to suggest that this ought to disqualify him. It’s not his fault that he’s old!


lisa 08.23.08 at 9:33 am

At first I was thinking, ‘consumed by hate? Me?’

But gosh, maybe he has a point there. I’m not sure I’d call it hate. Disgust? Horror? I laugh, but it’s a bitter, choked laugh. And I also cry. My sense of humor has been impaired as of late, alas. Torture, the Iraq war and so on. It’s that liberal thing where we get all upset about widescale death and unnecessary and unjust suffering.

50 or 60 ties seems like a lot of ties to me. My dad wears suits and is a natty dresser and I’m sure he doesn’t have so many ties. I’m puzzled by the fact that his wife would somehow know how many ties he has but he would not know. It’s that liberal thing where we just want what other people say to make some sense.


John Holbo 08.23.08 at 10:07 am

For my part, I confess to being nom-nom-nommed on by hate, in a cuteoverload sort of liberally way.


peter ramus 08.23.08 at 10:35 am

the water pitcher is both broken and unbroken will have broken the water pitcher

There it is in the RSS feed, though.


rz 08.23.08 at 11:10 am

This superposition can only be maintained so long as the joke is unobserved (except by its author, who does not count as conscious – otherwise why would he have written such a thing?)

AHHHH! Destroying a Superposition of a quantum state through a measurement has nothing to do whatsoever with the consciousness of the observer. As the superposition is created by Assrocket, it is obviously an eigenstate on his observation basis.


Z 08.23.08 at 12:00 pm

Credit where credit is due: quantum ironics has been developed primarily by Ann Coulter. The fundamental principles are quite simple: if something bad is done by the right, say that the left has done the same bad thing. In classical ironics, you then can say that both left and right are bad but at the Coulter constant scale, this justifies the action of the right. Powerline is late to the game, and a bit amateurish if I may say so, trying to explain the joke in classical ironics term was bound to fail, Ann would have said something like “So liberals don’t understand my joke? In other news, a stiletto-wearing intern accused Bill Clinton of rape”. And that would have made sense.


thompsaj 08.23.08 at 12:00 pm

Also, what’s the joke then about the kids’ wii games? If the neckties thing was the joke, then why throw that in there?


rea 08.23.08 at 12:27 pm

“Being consumed by hate is damaging to your sense of humor.”

A defining characterisitic of the American right is that it is always, always about projection with these people . . .


bdbd 08.23.08 at 12:28 pm

the water pitcher is half broken, or half whole. I particularly like “half whole”


Seth Finkelstein 08.23.08 at 12:56 pm

This is an example of the problem of Irony – it doesn’t work if there’s a non-trivial possibility in the reader’s mind that the statement was meant seriously, especially if one has a reputation as a partisan political hack of absurd extremes. You could play a game of “Irony Or Serious” with many posts on that blog:
“It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can’t get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.”
“Waterboarding is denounced by critics as a form of torture. In fact, though, it is harmless, and we reportedly waterboard our own military pilots to acquaint them with the sensation of drowning after they bail out of an airplane.”


apthorp 08.23.08 at 1:35 pm

“always about projection”
Projecting onto an eigenstate is what happens when the wavefunction collapses. The observer does this, so projection is not a property of the original state. You have proven another coulteristic ironics maxim that “it’s your fault, I’m good”

As an aside with suppressed first order ironics, study of the systems that can create such superpositions is worthwhile. More particularly looking at the systems where such superpositions retain their eigenfunction status and interact strongly. With a strong “clan idendification” field to break the free space symmetry the problem reduces to a one dimensional “us” or “them” space. Minor dimensions like brokenness of pitchers, ties, economic utility or objective reality are perturbations forced into what ever superposition is required by the strong field. One could probably even talk about how ensembles of such superposition conceptual states are actually the source of the strong field, but that would probably collapse back into first order ironics, snark or plain old WTF.


P O'Neill 08.23.08 at 2:01 pm

For extra laughs, go read the rocket man’s Q&A with Norm Geras. Apparently his dream is to live in London.


bicycle Hussein paladin 08.23.08 at 2:04 pm

@ lisa #8, I’m with you there, I think the “liberating power of humor” (preferably at the expense of somebody you also happen to be bombing) is a ripe target for some really cutting satire. Actually, it was a ripe target for cutting satire 3-5 years ago. Now it almost feels like old news. Borat Goes to Baghdad: coming soon?


Michael Drake 08.23.08 at 3:01 pm

This is not a quantum phenomenon, but a case of IOIYAR relativity.


Rick Dubin 08.23.08 at 3:30 pm

American politics is unbelievable crap. We are about to elect arguably the most powerful and influencial person in the world, one who will be charged with repairing the incalculable damage our current and embarrassing Chief Executive has wrought. Yet we see an electorate arguing about houses and such.

I have seen the enemy and it is us. The very wealthy, among whom the McCain family occupies a lower rung, live lives unfamiliar to the majority . I know this old money billionaire who drives a Prius and distains the Bentley Coupe ($250,000) as gauche because too many of the “new money ” sort drive them…..Are these really the issues we should dwell upon, is this how we select our leader?

You know, retirement to Costa Rica sounds better and better to me.


Righteous Bubba 08.23.08 at 3:54 pm

Also, what’s the joke then about the kids’ wii games?

Dear god.


sdh 08.23.08 at 4:51 pm

Right wing pundits routinely use the ‘it was only a joke’ line whenever they receive push-back on something that was egregiously racist, indefensible, or insane. This is an example of that (I’d put it in the insane category myself).

RE: #22… whoever claimed that democracy was rational? Or that the parties involved were altruistic?

The ‘how many houses’ story is brilliant campaign theatre, and it would be electoral malpractice for the Obama campaign not to seize on it. That they have done a tremendous job in propelling this story and carrying it over several news cycles actually shows a fair amount of savvy, and has quieted doubts about their ability to counter-punch (the McCain’s celebrity ads were taking a toll on Obama’s poll numbers, after all).

What is more, it is a perfect ‘gotcha’ moment: because in one instant it shows the gigantic disconnect between Republican policies and the needs and lives of ordinary voters—in a way that is more illustrative and more engaging that a thousand town hall meetings, or any number of wonky policy speeches. This story will die and will be subsumed by the party conventions. But expect to see it again in the weeks before election day—I have no doubt that the Obama campaign will want to use this example of McCain’s out of touch style to drive undecided voters to their side.


abb1 08.23.08 at 5:38 pm

I don’t think the substance of this particular incident shows any “gigantic disconnect”, or much of anything, really. FDR was a rich guy, Friedrich Engels owned a textile factory, so what. It’s just cheap political theater. This is how politics are conducted in the US, that’s all. There are no meaningful political parties with meaningful platforms, it all is based on which individual politician has better hair or bigger flag pin or some such gimmick. And that’s exactly how they like it, people/institutions in power. It’s like that almost everywhere, obviously, but more so in the US.


bianca steele 08.23.08 at 7:12 pm

But, John, you’re being unfair to Republicans. They are the majority of American voters. They are regular people and have robust, normal senses of humor. To whale on Republicans is classist. The regulars on this blog are members of the elite who have abandoned the heartland for the big city in order to pursue goals most people rightly don’t understand and — even if you put forward reasonable arguments on occasion — are wrong and will always be wrong unless and until they switch sides.

I bet my dad could have accumulated close to 50 ties over the decades. Of course, several of them were four inches wide.


Thon 08.23.08 at 7:46 pm

But this is actually the joke, right? “McCain’s out of touch with his own domestic arrangements because he cares little about material things”. Because otherwise, somebody would seriously be saying that knowing how many houses you own is crassly materialistic…I really need a physicist to explain that for me…


cpareader 08.24.08 at 1:59 am

Has anyone done a title search on the McCain-related real estate? It’s possible he doesn’t own any of it, that it’s all Cindy’s separate property and that some of it is in the name of one or more of her business interests. That should be interesting to discover, and it could cut different ways in the campaign. He!!, I wouldn’t let him near my estate, if I were she.

For a guy to know immediately how many ties he owns is akin to a woman’s knowing on the instanter how many pairs of shoes she has. I would guess that in the closet in both cases there are some that haven’t been donned in five years (or ever).


bad Jim 08.24.08 at 8:26 am

I’m a few weeks short of 57 years old. I routinely dress up to accompany my mother to performances of the Pacific Symphony, Opera Pacific, and symphonies visiting under the auspices of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. I own 18 ties, two or three of which I’ve never worn. I would probably have guessed I owned more before I counted them.

My first home was in Cottage City, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. Then College Park. Then a cottage in Laguna Beach for two months, then the place I still call home.

In Berkeley, the apartment on Adeline one year, the one on Roosevelt the next, then sharing half a flat on College Ave, then the Whitney St. menagerie in North Oakland, Edith in North Berkeley, Ellis in South Berkeley, McCall in North Oakland, Hidden Valley in Laguna, and back to the ancestral homestead.

I’d have to refer to my notes give the name of every hotel in which I’ve lain my head since, but I can note the cities: Alessandria, Milano*, Fremont*, Bethesda, Reno*, Tokyo*, Fort Wayne, Cambridge*, New York*, Chicago*, San Rafael*, San Clemente, Cambridge*, Atlanta, Las Vegas*, San Diego, Phoenix, Seattle*, Essen, Amsterdam*, Quebec, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, Buzios, London*, Paris*, Venezia*, Firenze*, Roma, Alexandria, Santa Barbara, Monterrey, Donostia/San Sebastian, Barcelona, Madrid, Edinburgh, Inverness, Berlin, Praha, Wien, Copenhagen, San Luis Obispo, Novato, Santa Maria. (* means more than once, and I’m not counting camping trips which would fill in much of both coasts).

How hard is it to recall every place you call home?


noen 08.24.08 at 9:36 am

You know, when the Illuminati seize global power and create a one world government in which all nations are states, every election campaign around the world will be like this. So there’s that to look forward to.


John Emerson 08.24.08 at 4:42 pm

Off topic:

John McCain: I did not spend five years in the Hanoi Hilton…..
The American People: I don’t see any connection to Vietnam, John.
John McCain: Well, there isn’t a literal connection.
The American People: John, face it, there isn’t any connection….. Everything’s a fuckin’ travesty with you, man! And what was all that shit about Vietnam? What the FUCK, has anything got to do with Vietnam? What the fuck are you talking about?


Martin James 08.24.08 at 10:17 pm

Re: ‘If you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can always count on the support of Paul.’>

Rea you’re so right, I robbed Peter to pay Paul and Paul still hates me…no wonder I’m conservative.


Nabakov 08.25.08 at 7:59 am


“…unfair to Republicans. They are the majority of American voters..”

Not at the 2000 Prez election , only by a margin of 3% at the 2004 Prez election and not at the 2006 Congressional elections.

“…are members of the elite who have abandoned the heartland for the big city”

And they’re not alone. 70% of the US lives in urban areas and the number keeps growing.

“in order to pursue goals most people rightly don’t understand ”

like pursuing an education or career?

“are wrong and will always be wrong”

Well you’re only one here making errors of fact.


Nabakov 08.25.08 at 8:01 am

Opps, just realised Bianca was taking the piss. Sorry about that. I had a long lunch. Do carry on.


bianca steele 08.25.08 at 4:56 pm


No problem. It’s nice to see some facts.

But didn’t you notice it was a joke thread?

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