Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Death of the Mother Joke

I have been meaning to post this for a while now, but the fact that it's untimely will hopefully be overshadowed by the fact that it is irrelevant. Just indulge me for a moment; I need to purge.

The Mama Joke as we know it is dead.

It was fun while it lasted. What sprung mostly from poor minority areas as "the dozens" used to be a game of cleverness and wordplay, not meant to actually insult someone's mother, but to engage in a level of creativity on a competitive level.

But now, all is lost. That which made the mother joke an integral part of boyhood oneupsmanship has become a lost art, with lesser comedic minds attempting to engage in it with limited to no success. Loyal readers may remember an old post I wrote about the then-burgeoning MTV program "Yo Momma" starring that dripping-with-street-cred hunk Wilmer Valderamma. The jokes on that show, done mostly by a collection of urbanite ne'er-do-wells was subpar and amateurish at best, painfully pathetic at worst.

But while that was a collection of high school kids trying to get on TV, an episode of "Last Comic Standing" from this past July effectively killed the mother joke. Not only were these the supposed "best and brightest" of the young comedian set, but it was televised nationally.

Before I get into that, a quick breakdown of the mother joke, and why it works. Contrary to popular belief, the mother joke is not successful because it insults the other person's mother, which is one of the worst things you can do. Instead, it creates a hyperbolic image of one's hypothetical mother, and then creatively illustrates how ridiculous that person is.

It usually hinges upon taking a particular trait of a person (their age, their weight, their intelligence) and going to an extreme to show just how _______ that person is.

My personal favorite type of mother joke is the one that uses word play and double-meanings. A few of my favorites:

"Your mother is so fat, she fell in love and broke it."
"Your mother is so black, she went to night school and was marked absent."
"Your mama so nasty, I had phone sex with her and got an ear infection."
"Your mother is like the city bus: guys gettin' on and off her all day."

Another popular type of mother joke is exaggerating a certain trait that a mother has to an absurd degree. To wit:

"Your mother is so fat, she stepped on a scale and it said 'to be continued.'"
"Your mother is so old, her social security number is 12."
"Your mother is so old, she has Jesus's beeper number."
"Your mother so so dumb, I told her it's chilly outside so she went outside with a spoon."

Even the least creative of these early mother jokes had a certain patter and construction to them that made them work on some level. There is a certain formula at least.

It must be brief, which is why no mother joke starts with "your mother is so riddled with excruciating joint pain..."

The insult must come from the mother's weakness first, rather than the other way around, which is why you never hear "Greenpeace tried to throw your mother in the ocean, because she's so fat!"

And there should be some element of exaggeration, wordplay or even an old switcheroo, which is why the insults of "Yo Mama" by The Pharcyde worked:

"Yo mama got a glass eye with a fish in it."
"Yo mama got a wooden leg with real feet."
"Yo mama got a pegleg with a kickstand."
"Yo mama got an afro with a chinstrap."

Which brings me to "Last Comic Standing." I have never been a huge fan of that show, only because I have never found too many of the comics that side-splittingly hilarious, the judges are usually assholes, and the "reality" backstage drama is often so stupid and melodramatic that it undermines any comic tone the show may have. Other than that, I'm sure it's good.

Back in July, the show had a "Mother joke" contest, complete with a boxing ring and an audience, during which time these stunning wits got to trade verbal barbs with each other. With the exception of the unusual alternative Jesus freak comedy duo God's Pottery (who at least committed to their odd material), the whole thing was the final death knell for the mother joke as we used to know it.

I'm not going to bother with names because I don't know them and most of them will probably be unheard of within a few months. But let's explore each one and why they don't work, when applicable. (I put an asterisk next to a quote from one of the people who "advanced," so you can see the real cream of the crop.)

First Round:
#1. "Yo mama so fat, even her panties have stretch marks!"

This one actually comes close to being in the spirit of an authentic mother joke. It's a little weak but at least it's a decent attempt.

#2. "Your mama's so fat, even Stephen Hawking is like [in robotic voice] 'Man that is a fat hoe!'"

This is bullshit. He could have said anyone and done any impression to get the same effect. He could have just as easily said, "...even Sylvester Stallone is like [in Stallone voice] 'Man that's a fat hoe!'" Ridiculous.

#3. "Your mama's so fat, she sweats buttermilk and cries bacon bits!"
Again, at least this guy sorta gets it, but this kind of joke could have been replaced by "sweats gravy and cries maple syrup." Just "_____ and ______."

#4. "Your mama is so fat, when the Dodgers have a rain delay they use her jacket as a rain tarp!"

Wow, brevity is clearly a lost art. And the way he emphasizes "rain tarp!" was incredibly anticlimactic. This is wordy and clumsy. Plus it would have been funnier if he had said, "...they spread her out on the field during rain delays." Subtle, pithy.

#5. "Your mama's so ugly, pitbulls run from her!"
Weak. Insert any ugly animal.

#6. "Your mama's so old, she was the waitress at the last supper!" (Note: this one really got the crowd roaring.)

The delivery on this one was awful too. The joke itself isn't bad, but the emphasis on the last part is gay. Plus, it would have been wittier had he said something like, "You can see her serving refilling waters in 'The Last Supper'" or "The Apostles gave her an 8% gratuity...." Something.

Second Round:
#1. "Your mother is so pretty, Kenny and I were just talking... we think she could be a model."*

This was two guys called God's Pottery who were basically always smiling and talking about Jesus. Given that fact, this joke actually worked. They were at least working the anti-humor angle.

#2. "Yo mama's so old, she know the recipe for dirt."

Lame. Just lame. And lazy. "Older than dirt"? Seriously?

#3. "Your mother is so funny, when she tells jokes, we could just die laughing, which is fine because we're going to heaven."*

Again, this one worked because at least it wasn't the same old shit. They actually found a fresh angle.

#4. "Your mama's so fat, her bra size is [squeeeak!]

This goes back to my previous post, which is a lazy way of not having to come up with a joke. A similar example would be, "Your mama wears tin foil around her wrist, talkin' bout bling-BLING!" It's a set up without a punchline.

#5. "Your mother is so terrific, she was elected mayor of Awesomeville... By a landslide!"*

I really thought these guys were pretty funny

Other rounds:

#1. "Your mama is so stupid, she thinks Def Leppard sings in sign language."

I know what he was trying for, but it's a weak joke.

#2. "Your mama, is so old she want to high school with John McCain."*

Holy shit, your mother could be as old as SEVENTY-ONE! (And this douche advanced.)

#3. "Your mama is so poor, she changed out a $10 bill and tried to make it rain."

This sounded dumb coming from a blonde white girl, but the joke itself was decent.

#4. "Your mama is so special, there isn't a short bus short enough."*
This goes into the say-anything-you-like school of jokes. I would have preferred -- paraphrasing the great Aesop Rock -- "Your mother is so dumb, when she was in school she used to get 'G's." This was a lame-o attempt at a joke.

#5. "Your mama is so frigid, her vagina dispenses ice cubes."

Dispenses? Not a funny word. How about "I touched her belly button and ice cubes came out." Holy shit, I could have cleaned up on this show!

#6. "Your mama is somebody I would worship, because where I come from cows are considered sacred."

This was said by a comedian of Indian descent, and though there is a joke there somewhere, the phrasing and delivery is so godawful. Even something like "Where I come from, your mother would be sacred" would be solid, since anyone with a modicum of knowledge knows the idea of the "sacred cow."

#7. "Your mother is so white, she makes mayonnaise look brown!"

Was this even an attempt? "Your mother is so brown, she makes chocolate look white!" "Your mother is so yellow, she makes mustard look white!" Did you even try?

#8. "Your mother is so Korean, she has a demilitarized zone around her waist, her breasts are ruled by a dictator, and she hosted the Olympics in her underpants!"*

This guy was kind of going for an alternative type of humor but a snappy insult should be snappy and not a paragraph long. This guy is probably a decent comedy writer and a shitty improviser.

#9. "Your mother is so Canadian, she uses maple syrup as lube!"

Again, doesn't even make sense. Syrup is sticky, first of all. Secondly, whenever someone is dying comedically, they will go the sexual route, cuz it gets the easy laugh. This girl ended up getting kicked off at the end of the show, and thank God.

#10. "Your mother is so old, she was at the shower washing, raised her breast, and a pilgrim fell out!"*

A long way to go, but not horrible I guess. Would have been good as one brief sentence, instead of adding pauses and verbal commas.

Semi-final round. [For this round, they changed it from "Yo mama" to "You are such a hack...." The basic comic theory remains the same, except for the fact that "hack" is an abstract concept and doesn't lend itself to any kind of real clever wordplay or exaggerational humor. As you can imagine, it's comedy gold.]

#1. "You guys are such hacks, you suck harder than Paris Hilton on prom night!"

That sentence doesn't even make sense. You start off a sentence one way, and then end it with a completely different thought. It's like saying "You're such an asshole, you suck!" And a dumb twat like Paris Hilton is such ripe fodder she barely even raises an eyebrow anymore.

#2. "You're such a hack, that most of your jokes come from the Old Testament!"

These guys did have a biblical theme, so it sorta made sense in context, but it's not a strong joke.

#3. "You guys are such hacks, if you were a boy band you'd be the Hackstreet Boys."

If he had just said the second part of that sentence, it probably would have worked. As delivered, it sounded clumsy.

#4. "You're such a hack, the jokes of yours that don't come from the Old Testament come from the New Testament."

God's Pottery clearly running out of steam.

#5. "You guys are such hacks, your opener and closer is, 'Is this thing on?!'" [taps microphone]

Oh where to begin. By bringing up the "Is this thing on" joke, not only was he himself resorting to hackery using that as a reference, but how "inside" do you have to get? Just... what a sad attempt.

#6. "You're such a hack, that when they opened King Tut's tomb, went in, opened the sarcophagus, the mummy was holding a papyrus scroll with a number of your jokes on it."

Again, this same Canadian guy needs to tighten up his wording. With the right wording this one could have worked.

#7. "You're so hack, that your act has cured my insomnia."


#8. "You're so hack that you once did your jokes in a forest for a number of lumberjacks, and they said a few more jokes like that, and we'll get this tree down."

Get it, "hacks"? Oy.

#9. "You're such a hack, it makes Carrot Top seem fresh."

"You are so blank, you make blank seem like blank." Holy shit, this guy ended up winning the whole thing???

Finals (This round was "anything goes," to which the instruction was given by the delightful Bill Bellamy, "Say what you want, but make it funny!"):

#1. "There's Facebook, there's MySpace. To which social networking site do you belong? Swedish barnyard sex?"

He might have had something if he had made some kind of "Face" "Space" pun. The joke itself was interesting, but it didn't fit the "mother joke" motif.

#2. "Hey Jim, you're dumber than a ding-dong in a Ho-Ho factory."

I don't get it.

#3. "Oh that was very clever, I feel I'm in the presence of the Oscar Wilde brothers after a labotomy."

The syntax of the sentence notwithstanding, this one is kind of amusing. Didn't quite close the deal, but had potential.

#4. "I've got three simple words: The Revolutionary War!"

Yikes. That's like being in a mother joke contest with Chris Rock and saying "two words, Rodney King!" More cruel than funny.

#5. "There are limitations to the human mind. You have just proven it."

Okay this line killed. But it's not anything even remotely resembling a joke. Insult? Yes. Joke, not even fucking close. It's like saying, "Humans are flawed creatures. You are an example of that." How did these people get on TV?????!!!!

#6. "Well how 'bout this? You know what Jim? I think you're the kind of person, who doesn't enjoy rainbows!"

These guys went back to their schtick but by this time it had grown stale and the audience wasn't buying it anymore.

#7. [To the audience] "Hands up if you think their father should have settled for the massage."

I'm not exactly sure what's up with this comment but he did a smart thing by playing to the crowd for the knockout blow. There is a pretty scathing joke there somewhere, but this guy is clearly not up to the task.

Okay so I probably shouldn't be so bothered by this, but two of my least favorite things in this world are people who think they are funny and clearly are not, and when a cultural elements are usurped and bastardized.

Look, I know it's hard to do comedy, but if you are going to be on a national TV show, your jokes and humorous lines should be at least as funny as the ones that I trade with my friends over a few beers every so often. None of these people even struck me as ones that would stand out as being one of the more humorous people in my group of friends.

Maybe comedy as we know it is dead. Maybe comedy is so dead that I have an urn filled with its ashes over my mantle!"

Oh God, I've become one of them. Kill me.

1 comment:

DG Dunford said...

In Russia, mother jokes YOU!