One of the clichés about humor is that it works best as a communal experience as the level of mirth is raised by a shared understanding of a joke. A person alone may merely smile or nod at a funny comment heard on TV, but laugh out loud at the same joke in the company of people who are also expressing their amusement. In that sense, the practice of mainstream humor, in standup comedy or a sitcom, is a quintessentially middlebrow art. To capture as significant part of the audience as possible, most jokes are designed to appeal to the worldview of the average. Consequently, the butts of ridicule are often those of extraordinary stupidity as well as of intelligence, the unusually ugly as well as the beautiful, the very poor as well as the rich. By denigrating them, mediocrity is affirmed as normal, sensible, and natural.
There is, however, a peculiar type of humor that functions in exactly opposite way, namely it draw its power to amuse from the exclusivity of the knowledge that is required to understand it. A joke that partakes in that form of amusement works because only a few people with the requisite understanding can ‘get’ it. The term ‘inside joke’ is often used to describe this phenomenon, but that usually refers to a comment that arouses amusement among those who shared a common experience – for instance, the unusual nickname of a person that is funny only to those who have witnessed that person behave in a certain way at an event. An inside joke may involve exclusive knowledge, but its exclusivity may have nothing to do with what makes it funny. In fact, the nickname might be just as funny if everyone was brought ‘in’ on the joke by being told what that person did to earn that nickname. The phenomenon I am interested in here is based on exclusivity, or the pleasure of the obscure. Unlike the inside joke, which can retain its power to amuse even after it is no longer ‘inside,’ the obscure joke is one that works because it is funny to the few, in direct contrast to the nature of the mainstream joke. In other words, its obscurity lies at the essence of its humorous value.
I began thinking about this subject after I came across two rather obscure references in a single day. A few months ago, I was eating lunch at the food court of the university where I teach when I happened to look up at a TV set on a wall that was playing music videos. My attention was arrested by images from, I found out later, the video for ‘Calamity Song’ by the Decemberists, a band that I had heard of but whose music I was not familiar with. As I watched a group of youths playing a very strange game of tennis, until they suddenly went out of control and attacked one another, I knew that the scene was in reference to something I had read about. Just before the video came to an end, it came to me. David Foster Wallace, in his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, spent many pages describing in detail an elaborate game played by the prodigies at a tennis academy. Because it had been over ten years since I had read it, I was rather surprised that I ‘got’ the reference at all. The music video confirmed it at the end by revealing that it was inspired by the novel.
That evening, I returned home and watched the pilot episode of the Netflix Original adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle (1962). In a scene that takes place in a diner, which I do not believe occurs in the novel, a man makes a unicorn origami and puts it on the table. This one I ‘got’ immediately. A unicorn origami is also made by a character in the film Blade Runner (1982) which is also based on a Philip K. Dick novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, 1968).
Neither of these references were ‘jokes’ in the usual sense of the word, so it made me wonder why the feeling that was aroused by my understanding them was that of amusement. The tennis game in the ‘Calamity Song’ and the appearance of the unicorn origami were not in themselves humorous in nature, but there was something definitely funny about them. And it had to be about the fact that they both pointed to exclusive knowledge.
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest has not only been lauded as a modern classic but it is thought to be a notorious difficult novel to read (though I have always suspected that those who describe it as ‘difficult’ have never actually read it or finished it, since I found it to be quite readable, just very long at over 1000 pages). So the obscurity of the reference in the video for ‘Calamity Song’ lies in the fact that it can only be understood by those who managed to get through the tome. And the exclusivity of that company is at the heart of the pleasure of ‘getting it.’ It is also ironic that the novel is thought to be a favorite among ‘hipsters,’ a vaguely contemptuous term that point to the urban young who indulge in a culture of eccentricity that, in direct opposition to mainstream culture, value the esoteric and the obscure. And the Decemberists have sometimes been denigrated as a hipster band.
The unicorn origami speaks to readers of science fiction, but more specifically to the fans of the works of Philip K. Dick and the film adaptations of his stories. The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep are regarded by many as Dick’s best novels. And Blade Runner has been a perennial favorite with enthusiasts of science fiction cinema. The appearance of the unicorn origami, therefore, is a form of in-group signaling, among those who are cognizant of PKD lore in both literature and film.
To reiterate, even though these references were not meant to be jokes as such, they arouse amusement on the part of the person who ‘get’ them precisely because of their obscurity. It is a pleasure that comes from both being in on a secret as well as being part of an exclusive group that possesses knowledge that most do not. In that sense, that peculiar joy of getting the obscure reference comes from the simultaneous desire to be exceptional and to belong to an imagined community of the exceptional.
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This is my favorite obscure joke from American popular culture, one that has brought me an acute sense of pleasure not only as a film buff, but also as a cultural historian and a Korean immigrant to the United States.
The 1977 comedy film Kentucky Fried Movie, directed by John Landis, consists of a series of sketches parodying different movie genres. Its centerpiece and the longest episode is entitled ‘A Fistful of Yen,’ a takeoff of the successful Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon (1973), about a martial artist named Loo (Evan Kim) who is sent on an espionage mission into the lair of the evil Dr. Klahn (Bong Soo Han). Some of the humor is fairly basic (like the names of the three henchmen Well Hung, Long Wang, and Enormous Genitals), but because most of the jokes are direct references to specific scenes in Enter the Dragon, only those familiar with the Bruce Lee movie could really ‘get it.’ For instance, in Enter the Dragon, the villain Han (Shih Kien) reveals a private prison on his island where he keeps drug addicts who are described as “human refuse” who “do not know where they are and do not care.” In ‘A Fistful of Yen’ Klahn describes his prisoners in exactly the same words, but then he also presents separate prison cells where he also keeps those “who do not know where they are but DO care,” and those “who DO know where they are but do not care.” Also, while Han has a prosthetic hand which he replaces with blades before he fights his final duel with the Bruce Lee character, Klahn is shown using an electric toothbrush and a hairdryer attachment to groom himself.
The ‘Fistful of Yen’ episode ends in a hilariously absurdist manner that shifts the parody to another movie. In the final fight, Loo kills the villain Klahn by throwing water on him, which inexplicably makes him melt. This reference to the demise of the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz (Klahn also cries out “I am melting!” as he dies) is carried even further when Loo realizes that what he really wants now is to go home. He is told that all he has to do is tap his shoes together three times and say “There’s no place like home.” The scene then turns black and white, and Loo, dressed up as Judy Garland playing Dorothy, finds himself in bed at his aunt’s home in Kansas and realizes that the whole thing was a dream. This bit of silliness is actually revelatory in the sense that it points to a similar theme in The Wizard of Oz and Enter the Dragon. Both Bruce Lee and Dorothy go on a perilous journey to the realm of a mysterious man of great power, meeting companions along the way (in the case of Enter the Dragon, the Caucasian martial artist played by John Saxon and the African-American martial artist played by Jim Kelly) who become his allies. Just as Dorothy ultimately exposes the Wizard as a fraud who uses visual trickery to create the appearance of power, Lee overcomes Han’s trickery in the maze of mirrors and defeats him. That makes Han and Klahn the kung fu Wizards of the martial art Oz.
So to fully appreciate the humor of ‘A Fistful of Yen,’ one has to be familiar with two other movies, Enter the Dragon and The Wizard of Oz (also at least an awareness of the Spaghetti-Western movie title A Fistful of Dollars). Despite the requirement of external knowledge, one might object that the episode’s jokes can hardly be regarded as ‘obscure’ since both films they reference are highly popular ones that are still regarded as classics in their respective genres. In other words, too many people have seen those movies for the knowledge of their contents to be described as ‘exclusive’ and humor based on parodying them as ‘obscure.’ But a truly obscure joke occurs unexpectedly toward the beginning of the episode.
The villain Klahn is played by Bong Soo Han (1933-2007), a Korean martial artist and popularizer of hapkido in the United States. When Loo and other visitors arrive at Klahn’s realm, they are welcomed by the villain who delivers a bombastic speech which starts off in English. As Loo then starts flirting with the female guide, the speech switches to Korean as it becomes the background noise to the ensuing comic scene. What Bong Soo Han says in Korean roughly translates as follows: “I was told to just say something in Korean without being given any real direction. This is ridiculous. If there are any Koreans listening to this, they’ll think that I’ve lost my mind. But what can I do? I have to do what I’m told. So ridiculous. Working on American films, this is hardly the first time something like this has happened. Anyway, for any Koreans who understand this, I deeply apologize for this farce.”
The fact that these lines were left untranslated (i.e. no subtitles) leaves open the possibility that Bong Soo Han made the remarks on his own initiative (though it would have been no less funny if the director had told him to say those things in Korean), solely for the enjoyment of those who understand Korean. That exclusively is at the essence of what makes the comment so hilarious. To fully appreciate the joke in the context of the entire episode, one has to be someone who is not only familiar with Enter the Dragon and The Wizard of Oz but also a Korean speaker who can comprehend it in the context of the American brand of satirical humor. And that requires a truly exclusive knowledge at the heart of the strange pleasure of the obscure joke.
Minsoo Kang is a historian and a fiction writer. Due to his father’s occupation as a diplomat for South Korea, Kang has lived in Korea, Austria, New Zealand, Iran, Brunei, Germany, United States, and other places for shorter periods. He served in the army of the Republic of Korea and earned his Ph.D. in European History at UCLA, with a specialty in the intellectual and cultural history of Western Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He is currently an Associate Professor in the history department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He is the author of a book on the history of automata Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the short story collection Of Tales and Enigmas (Prime Books, 2007), and the translator of the classic Korean novel The Story of Hong Gildong (Penguin Classics, 2016). His story ‘A Fearful Symmetry’ was included in the 2007 Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror collection. He has also published fiction in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Azalea, and the anthology Shanghai Steam, and has fiction forthcoming in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.