The structure of a joke

This piece contains spoilers, if you worry about that sort of thing.

Groans were heard ’round the internet when a final trailer for Todd Phillips’ Joker went viral among a mainstream audience. Just months after Endgame had ended an 11-year run of cyclically structured cinema in the Marvel universe, it raised the question: weren’t we all ready to be done with spin-offs of the same old story structures? Couldn’t we finally accept that remakes and sequels were stifling the creativity of Hollywood?

And of course, plenty of uncreative reboots do seem to be stifling the movie industry. Trailers alone suggest several are simply more highly CGI-ed takes on old classics, such as Jurassic World (2015) or The Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). Even the hype surrounding the new Star Wars trilogy seems fast to be flopping among large swathes of the fandom. On the other hand Joker, upended expectations by daring to be, well, good.

But despite popular sentiment set against re-hashing the familiar, drawing from formulaic storylines and familiar casts of characters is not inherently inimical to good storytelling. In fact, our allergy to it is a fairly modern phenomenon. Some of the greatest stories we hold dear don’t hold up as “original” under any kind of scrutiny. The Iliad and Odyssey are simply the definitive (re-)tellings of a tale sung in ancient Greece for hundreds of years. Anyone hearing these tales in any rendition would have already known the basic list of characters and the outcome of the story. It was up to the poet to arrange the parts in a way that was fresh, pleasing, and still ingenuous upon each re-telling. For ancient Roman playwrights, it was simply standard practice to use the same short list of character types in developing a list of dramatis personae: there is always the goofy old man, the intrepid young lover, the cunning slave, the braggart soldier. In medieval times, re-hashings of the Arthur story were so many that the death of Gawain becomes a simple point of laughter. Shakespeare’s plays drew from recently-published plays and old mythological stocks (for example, Romeo and Juliet comes to us courtesy of the beloved Pyramus and Thisbe story related by Ovid). Even in our modern era, we love to dissect an artist’s “influences,” but when they elect to be overt about what their influences are by simply using the same character mold, we somehow recoil. Formulaic structure has always supported our storytelling.

What matters is not how formulaic a tale is, but how well it uses that formula. The common thread binding Arthur and Penny Fleck with Arthur Pendragon is not just that their stories are retold, but retold well. Joker is not a canned supervillain origin story meant to tickle fans and give mainstream audiences the illusion of familiarity Clown Prince of Crime (a complex figure in the DC canon). It is instead a deep look into the human psyche in 2019, and it simply uses pre-existing tropes and characters, decades old in the DC universe, to tell this timely tale.

The divide between Arthur and his parents is perhaps the pivotal point of the whole story’s rotation. His mother is mentally absent, clearly suffering from some unnamed ailment of the mind or body even as her son is on seven medications for his own mental illness. His father, too, is absent, and by the end of the movie, we still have no clue who he is. Father figures do cross the screen, however, and each illumines different parts of Arthur’s plight. We are first led to believe he is the discarded illegitimate progeny of Gotham billionaire Thomas Wayne. We have no evidence for this, however, besides Penny’s delirious testimony that Wayne covered up Arthur’s birth for the sake of his reputation (which she too is strangely desperate to protect). “He’s a good man,” she says from the living room of their rotting apartment, speaking with admiration of a man she may or may not have ever slept with in the wistful tones of one who is either far too devoted so simply insane.

The gap between Arthur and his (so-called?) mother (we learn she may have adopted him) represents with black-and-white clarity the cross-generational divide of old trust and fresh disappointment. She places her heart in continual devotion to Wayne and the whitewashed, safe, and corporatized world he represents, though she was cast out from this world and his employment 30 years prior. Penny displays clear problems with her perception of reality—she even did time in Arkham due to neglect of the young Arthur. His heart, black from countless betrayals, is the polar opposite of her pure unblemished trust for the workings of a world clearly hostile to them both. She insists Wayne considers them family even as her son has to scrape money by playing a clown. “He’s such a happy boy,” she says countless times of her son. “I’ve never been happy,” he confesses towards the end of her life, thus rejecting Penny and her fantasized worldview.

Whether Arthur is the offspring of high society or some absentee poor schmuck, it matters not: both worlds have betrayed him. Joker has no origin in any real sense, only theories about his parentage that are vague at best. It is this vacuous origin, the void of a place in the world, that frames his descent into madness as chronicled by the movie.

But in his madness, his murders are not always without clear intent. He suffocates his mother as an act of vengeance on a woman who mistreated him immensely. He knifes the co-worker whose gift of a gun damned Arthur to a life of insanity and crime initially. “You get what you fucking deserve!” Joker cries as he assassinates Gotham late-night comedian Murray Franklin on air, who had dared mock Arthur’s stand-up routine in a previous episode.

Yet this semblance of sense—even justice—in Arthur’s actions only contradict his own assertion, delivered to his dying mother. “I used to think that my life was a tragedy,” Arthur says, “but now I realize it’s a comedy.” In his perception, he’s entirely accurate: Aristotle says in his Poetics that comedy is “where, at the end, the good are rewarded and the bad punished.” In this framework, Arthur is almost sane in his assessment of himself as a comic hero—never mind that, in the meanwhile, he’s committing matricide, cited by Aristotle in the same treatise as one of the hallmarks of a tragedy (consider Orestes and Electra slaying Clytemnestra).

The stock character of the Joker is framed cyclically in this descent narrative. The movie deploys clever elements of a ring structure. Arthur’s fall into madness takes on a horrid, cyclical shape—he spirals downward, if you will. His first murders fall almost by accident when he shoots two young investment types who attack him on the subway. In the penultimate scene to the climax of the movie, he lures two detectives onto yet another subway train, who in their hunt for him fatally wound another passenger. At the start, he fantasizes about walking on set during his favorite comedy show to applause from the audience; in last minutes of movie, he murders Murray in cold blood on air. We first meet him in what will become his iconic makeup, shedding a single tear that streaks black mascara down his right cheek; the last time we see him in this guise, a tear falls on the left.

“My life is a joke,” the newly christened Joker declares in his full array of makeup. In setting up this cycle of descent and insanity as a ring narrative, Phillips arranges the whole of Arthur’s tragedy into a kind of joke. Each death at the climax becomes a kind of vicious punchline in their callbacks to earlier portions of the movie. Arthur’s matricide removes what bare traces of parentage he had to start with. The second series of transit deaths turn echo Arthur’s first murders on another subway car. His assassination of the popular comedian becomes his final rejection of his own expectations for himself; and the deaths of the Waynes, though not at his hands, signal the destruction of the old financial and political order that has so rotted the world he and his fellow clowns inhabit. (This last slaughter is, however, tinged with a note of hope, as young Bruce survives, as he always does.)

All jokes are formulaic. Take the classic case of the knock-knock joke, like the one Arthur tries to tell before committing his final murder, or even the repeated image formats used for memes (many of which have sprung up around the character of the Joker over the last several years). Humor makes use of a structure familiar to the audience, and yet can be remixed and re-imagined by the comedian to effect. Structures don’t inhibit art and entertainment—in fact, they’re sometimes necessary for it.

Yes, Joker re-hashes an old character. The fact that it still manages to be successful art despite so many previous iterations (especially in such close proximity to as defining a performance as Heath Ledger’s) is a testimony that our modern aversion to “remakes” is a misguided view of entertainment. Joker turns many things on its head in the story it tells, but its sheer existence manages to upend our notions of what innovative and interesting cinema is. The story is a formula, like the twisted jokes its protagonist tells: this is Joker’s trick to successful storytelling.