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Dumb and smart, at the same time

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The Observer spent the week at a bar and thought a lot about a joke and its writer.

Here's that joke: Homer Simpson stands atop wooden barrels and addresses a crowd. "To alcohol!" he yells. "The cause of — and solution to — all of life's problems."

The joke was written by John Swartzwelder, but it does not feel like anyone penned it. This joke strikes The Observer as funny in such a clear manner that it rings as cliché. How could we, as a society, not come up with that joke earlier? No, there is no way he wrote it. No, it's an old adage, one thinks.

The contradictory joke was Swartzwelder's specialty. In the writer's room at "The Simpsons" a high compliment was for your work to be called "Swartzweldian," meaning it was "uniquely dumb and smart at the same time," according to a former writer. These jokes, to The Observer, are also about sadness. They highlight futility.

Here's another of his, and my favorite, to show you what is meant by this futility thesis. It is from a little-known but much-loved comedy magazine called Army Man that had many writers of "The Simpsons" as contributors before they joined the show. Swartzwelder wrote, "They can kill the Kennedys. Why can't they make a cup of coffee that tastes good?"

Read it twice. The first time it's a bit weird on the brain.

Here's a breakdown from George Meyer, the editor of Army Man and the writer often given credit for making "The Simpsons" the show of the zeitgeist: "It's a horrifying idea juxtaposed with something really banal — and yet there's a kind of logic to it. It's illuminating because it's kind of how Americans see things: Life's a big jumble, but somehow leads to something I can consume."

Tons of those jokes made it onto "The Simpsons." It is why, The Observer thinks, A.O. Scott got caught playing the contradiction game in trying to explain the sitcom. He called it "brainy and populist, sophisticated and vulgar, gleeful in its assault on every imaginable piety and subversively affirmative of the bonds of family and community." I'd just say Swartzweldian, and again add that show is often built on sad jokes — graveyard humor about alcoholics and the death of the American Dream. Life is much sillier than we give it credit for, Swartzwelder's work says to The Observer.

Sitting in a bar alone for many nights, one has time to see the way life happens all at once in this ridiculous manner. People struggle, and yearn, but then they order too many shots and look like they might throw up. It's funny and it's not funny and often we have to choose how to view it. For The Observer, Swartzwelder allows a bit of both. It's amusing, but it does not lose its importance.

Swartzwelder now lives somewhere in the Pacific Northwest and is a legendary recluse, churning out short comedic novels out of a self-publishing press. Not literary comedic novels — the ones where you sit in English 101 and someone explains to you where to laugh. Instead, these are genre-heavy, quick-driving books with tons of jokes. They usually, in as little words as possible, make a fool of human behavior. He used to tweet out lines from them. The Observer scrolled through them one of the nights in the bar. They are reported as dialogue devoid of character titles, like this:

"But, what about our convictions? Our personal honor?"

"We'll have to set those aside until this money emergency is over."

Maybe all those jokes mean nothing to you. To some whom The Observer showed this work there was ambivalence or even hatred. But that is life. One of the plain and unavoidable disappointments is people not loving what you love. The unnecessary hurt feelings from someone without the same preferences could probably be made into a Swartzwelder joke. The Observer will keep watching "The Simpsons" again to see if he's already written it and report back.

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