The best joke of the year wasn’t told by a comedian. And it’s only kind of funny. It goes like this: on New Year’s Day, Netflix released “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” introducing to the widest audience yet Kondo’s theories about decluttering domestic spaces and retaining only items that “spark joy.” The great junk purge commenced, as people resolved to be better by throwing (or giving) away the things that they didn’t love. Then, in November, came the punch line: having spent the year convincing us to clear our houses of useless consumer goods, Kondo was now, in a new online store, selling potential replacements—“a collection of my favorite things and items that spark joy for me.” Seventy-five bucks would get you a metal tuning fork and a rose-quartz crystal—which can spark joy twice over, once when you buy them and again when you throw them out.
Marie Kondo, Inc., may have got the last laugh of the year, but it wasn’t the only source of humor. Here are some other jokes, gags, sketches, and self-owns that stood out.
The Focus Group on “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson”
Any list of what was funny in 2019 has to include something from “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson,” the Netflix sketch show that Robinson co-created with Zach Kanin (who is a cartoonist for The New Yorker). There’s a lot to choose from—like a country song about skeletons that use bones as money—but the most memorable and memed bit was about a focus group for Ford which is hijacked by a demented old man (played with deranged specificity by Ruben Rabasa), who mocks an earnest participant named Paul (“teacher’s pet”) and turns the others against him. The man accuses Paul (played by Kanin) of loving his mother-in-law (“He admit it!”) and, later, after thoroughly rattling him, whispers, pausing between each word, “You have no good car ideas.” The line became shorthand for our many failures this year.
The Shocking Slapstick of “Parasite”
It’s fitting that one of the funniest movies of the year is also a Hitchcockian thriller about the dehumanizing effects of capitalism. In what has become the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s highest-grossing film, a struggling family of four, the Kims, who live in a semi-basement apartment in a forgotten warren of Seoul, ingratiate themselves through lies, document forgeries, and beguiling charm into service roles at the pristine home of the rich Park family. Things go operatically wrong, and throughout Bong uses grim slapstick to show how people are driven to mad lengths by money. In an opening scene, the Kims, sitting together on the floor, notice someone fumigating the street outside for insects. The kids run to close the windows, but the father (Kang-ho Song, with a blank affect) stops them. “Leave it—we’ll get free extermination,” he says. The cloud drifts in, leaving the four heaving and choking.
Natasha Lyonne, Entomologist on “Russian Doll”
Speaking of bugs, of the many remarked-upon aspects of the comedy series “Russian Doll,” created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler, and starring Lyonne, the most pressing was not the show’s mind-bending metaphysics or Lyonne’s delightful physical comedy but, instead, the way that she said the word “cockroach”—as “cock-a-roach.” Weird, oddly delightful, a laugh every time, but why? When asked by Poehler, in a promo video, Lyonne explained, “ ’Cause they’re made of doodies.” O.K., sure.
There’s nothing quite like a good two-man bit. In September, after the whistle-blower’s report about Donald Trump’s Ukraine call became public, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who later in the fall was revealed to be a master butt-dialler, went on Chris Cuomo’s CNN show to defend the President and malign the Biden family. The interview produced numerous comedy gems and culminated in a moment of high-vaudeville patter. “So you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?” Cuomo asks. “Of course I did!” Guiliani answers. “You just said you didn’t!” Cuomo exclaims, exasperated. The routine has it all, captured in handy split screen—bug-eyed derangement from Giuliani, squinting bafflement from Cuomo, testosterone-fuelled shouting from both. When the Trump era finally burns out, one way or another, these two should hit the road together. Who’s on first? You are, punk!
Jean Smart’s Wisecracks on “Watchmen”
The F.B.I. agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) makes her first appearance in HBO’s “Watchmen”—which extends the world created in the pioneering comic book—during the third episode, when she steps inside a phone booth designed to make calls directly to Mars and tells a long joke to her former lover Dr. Manhattan. Blake, who earlier in her life was a masked superhero named Silk Spectre, is the dark show’s funniest character—bitterly ironic, clever, and, having seen it all, unimpressed by each new oddity that she encounters as she travels to Tulsa, where the show is set, to investigate the murder of the city’s police chief. Smart gets many of the show’s best lines, including one after her rookie partner suggests wearing a mask, like the Tulsa police officers do, in order to protect their identities. “When in Rome, right?” he says. “Tulsa’s not Rome,” Smart responds. “And you’re a federal agent, not the Lone fucking Ranger.” Jean Smart, run me over with a car.
“Alternatino with Arturo Castro” and the Cage-Free Child-Separation Policy
“Alternatino with Arturo Castro,” on Comedy Central, had a handful of pitch-black sketches that commented on the darker themes of the past year, especially the perilous situation of immigrants in the United States. (Jay Martel, the showrunner, wrote about how the series has dealt with the comedy problem of “too soon.”) The best, and most cutting, sketch was one in which Castro plays a blond-haired ICE agent named Bryce J. Korn, who describes the public’s response to children being detained while separated from their parents as “some humanitarian concerns over our methodology.” The solution: cage-free, or free-range, confinement, in which the children are allowed to wander in a fenced-in yard and eat all the grass they want. It’s a risky joke, in obvious bad taste, but the show commits fully to it, recognizing that reality is already plenty grotesque. “We’ve also read the reports about health concerns at our facilities,” Korn says. “So we’ll be raising all our cage-free children with absolutely no antibiotics.”
David Berman’s Parting Shot
The singer David Berman died, of suicide, in August, leaving behind the self-lacerating, often gleefully funny music that he made while fronting the bands Silver Jews and Purple Mountains. His final album, which was released a month earlier, after Berman’s protracted hiatus from recording, is at once a window to his hurt and an essential guide to making sense of his genius. The first track, “That’s Just the Way That I Feel,” with its typical Berman lo-fi catchiness, merges the tragic and hopeful and contains what is, for my money, the cleverest and most efficient sentence of the year: “I’ve been forced to watch my foes enjoy / Ceaseless feasts of Schadenfreude.” It’s Berman thrashing against a world that witnessed his various failures—basically, I fucked up and then had to watch my enemies like it—and responding with a twisty and twisted last word.
Gary Gulman on Shooting Hoops
Gary Gulman’s HBO special, “The Great Depresh,” centers on the comedian’s hospitalization, two years ago, for depression. It also contains what is, these days, an exceptional argument from a guy in his late forties: maybe young people, with their participation trophies and heightened empathy, are actually onto something. It’s Gulman’s own generation that he finds lacking, and, as he talks about being dragged from an early age into the macho realm of organized sports, he recalls that his only refuge was basketball—a game with a kind of softness baked in. “If someone so much as slaps you on the wrist, they stop the game,” he says. Free throws, he jokes, are a chance for everyone to take a moment to think about the violence that’s been done. They also are something that lonely kids get really good at. “Free-throw shooting is a direct function of childhood loneliness,” he says. “If you tell me you were a good high-school free-throw shooter, you can give me your high-school free-throw shooting percentage and I can tell you what time your single mother got home from work.”
The second season of “Succession,” on HBO, about a leaky media empire and the terrible people trying to keep it afloat, inspired a whole host of Internet humor this year. (It pairs especially well with the Trump impeachment hearings.) Some of the best piggybacked on the humiliating rap performance that Kendall, the beaten-down second son of the Roy family dynasty, delivered to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his father, Logan, starting the company. Other jokes riffed on the series’ memorable opening theme—and the best of this bunch was created by Jon Harvey, who invented credits for a fake show called “Recession,” starring the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Using archival photos and home-movie clips of Johnson through the years—from him as a husky kid with a Prince Valiant haircut flexing for the camera to him fopping about at Eton and Oxford, then him in the mad Brexit present—the video reminds us that, for many high-profile members of the Western political élite, what it takes to succeed is a big boost from birth, followed by persistence and shamelessness.
Elon Plans, God Laughs
In November, for the launch of Tesla’s new Batmobile-style pickup, the Cybertruck, Elon Musk arranged a series of rather preposterous onstage demonstrations of the vehicle’s toughness. Those included having the company’s chief designer, Franz von Holzhausen, whack the truck’s door with a sledgehammer (no problem) and then, fatefully, throw a small steel ball at the driver’s-side windows (little problem). Rather than bounce off, as it had done, we were later told, during the test backstage, the ball instead cratered the glass, cracking it into a spider-web pattern. “OhmyfuckingGod,” Musk muttered from where he stood nearby. Members of the audience gasped. The two men then circled each other awkwardly, and von Holzhausen, like a robot whose programming could not adapt to the new facts on the ground, proceeded to throw the ball again, this time at the back window—which also shattered. His brutal work done, von Holzhausen fled the stage, leaving Musk to stew his way through the rest of his spiel, the cracked exterior of his latest creation looming in the frame behind him. “Ah, not bad. Room for improvement,” he said, trying for a laugh. The cosmic joke, however, was the better one.
Let’s block ads! (Why?)