I started watching an episode of Key and Peele (Comedy Central, Wednesday, 10:30) recently.
Before long I got mesmerized by a movement between two things:
1. how good the performance is, how agile is their mastery of contemporary culture, how detailed and exacting is the performance. There’s apparently no place these two can’t go. And, in the old metaphor, they go not as tourists but as anthropologists.
2. the point of the skit. It was funny. But not so funny that it rewarded the length to which K&P played it out. Like every other viewer, I could see where the skit was going and now I was obliged to sit through the mechanical production of the joke.
The smaller problem is clear. Everyone gets the joke sooner than we used to. A great river of content has run through us and we get good at consuming it. So good that we can reverse engineer most anything and see where it is going. But jokes especially in skit comedy come wrapped in a certain format. For practical reasons, and perhaps for cultural ones, they have to run for a certain duration. In the old days, this was fine. We were working hard to get the joke. These days it feels like a trial.
The larger solution is, I think, is that tension between 1 and 2 with which we opened and that mesmerizing movement between them. We need this movement and it works, possibly, because it takes us between two intellectual operations, mapping the joke and watching the performance.
Now it doesn’t matter how labored the joke is. The “other half” of the skit, the cultural performance and passage, sustains us. As does the movement between joke and performance which is just so interesting.
To say how and why the movement works so well you would have to be a cognitive psychologist or someone with ready access to a MRI. It’s something to do with the effects of a serial continuity. Two things the run against one another but in parallel. Novelty interrupting continuity and vice versa. Or something.
It’s a mystery. But an essential mystery, one that helps us see how culture works these days.