What’s so funny? Reflections on jokes and short films
The short film is in many ways the neglected stepchild of cinema studies. And yet, much like the figure in the fairy tales, this type of film-making does, in fact, warrant critical attention. Indeed, a careful scrutiny of selected short films can contribute usefully to ongoing research programs having to do with the cognition and aesthetic appreciation of cinematic images. The annual Short Film Symposium held at Aarhus University and organized by Richard Raskin has helped in recent years to bring this kind of film into focus. At the same time articles in p.o.v. by, among others, Johannes Riis (1998), Bevin Yeatman (1998), and Richard Raskin (1998) have identified a number of key questions having to do with how the constraints characteristic of short-film production provide the conditions for creative practices that are guided, ideally, by certain narrative parameters.
I would like here to continue this promising line of work by looking briefly, not at a type of film-making – the short – but at a genre within that general type – the comic short film. Many short-film directors interested in prompting laughter gravitate toward forms of narration that bring to mind the organizing principles of verbal jokes. On closer reflection this is anything but surprising, for in jokes, much as in shorts, the act of telling typically unfolds within a highly restricted temporal framework. As a result the successful joke teller tends to pursue the goal of laughter with a single-minded intent that is quite different, for example, from the multiple intentions that might guide the comic novelist. The latter, after all, has time to foster a far more differentiated set of cognitive and affective responses. Indeed, a more generous temporal framework for narration seems to dictate a variety of communicative intentions, otherwise the result would in all likelihood be overwhelmingly monotonous. Jokes, then, be they narratives or riddles, are highly streamlined, efficient instances of verbal communication. And this narrative economy, I want to argue, appeals naturally to directors interested in contributing to the genre of the comic short film.