Anatomy of a Joke: I Lie To Myself

30 Rock is a show where jokes fly at you so quickly and so consistently that you’ll find yourself still laughing at the last one that registered 3 jokes after it was told. Sometimes though, there are jokes that force you to sit and really think about them, jokes that will eviscerate you time and time again, jokes that you can re-watch endlessly and find something new to rave about… This here is one of those jokes. Allow me to break it down for you.

The Context: The show is late in its run, with well over 100 episodes. Jack, played by Alec Baldwin, is the stressed executive asking how Kenneth (The NBC paged turned janitor) could continue to smile on and be happy despite having such a terrible life. Hoping to receive an answer that would motivate him to deal with his own daily stress, he asks him what his secret is. What we know of Kenneth, who is played charmingly by Jack McBrayer, is that he’s a simple and humble man that is happy as long as he is busy with something; that nothing could possibly keep him down. It makes perfect sense for Jack who is always worried about everything to asked the lowly but seemingly happy Kenneth for advice.

The Framing: The music is whimsical at the beginning because of the expectation that we will receive a flighty answer from Kenneth, but is then cut the second he begins to give his dark answer. Afterwards when he resumes his facade (that we did not know was just a facade until this joke) bouncy music can be heard.

The Execution: Jack McBrayer’s facial expressions tell the whole story. The moment before he drops his facade, his face is filled with so much joy, and then it suddenly becomes overcome with pure rage and bitterness. Alec Baldwin looks like he’s totally terrified but is trying desperately not to show it, and when he nervously tries to leave he is shoved right back down to his seat, forced to endure more of the horror. Afterwards, McBrayer audibly reverts his character back to his regular self with a terrifying squeal and a forced contortion of his face and leaves. Baldwin remains seated and stunned.

The Implication: The dialogue here is just frightening, with Kenneth revealing all the darkness he faces every day. Suddenly, he stops being the brightest character on the show, and before you even have time to process it all he became its darkest. The fact that Jack wanted to leave and Kenneth forced him to sit in order to make sure Jack hear the most terrifying aspect of his darkness makes this all the more funny. Something compelled him to tell Jack that he doesn’t know how much longer he can keep his facade up. This brings up the question of what happens when he reaches his breaking point, and it’s something I’m both desperate to find out and too scared to think about.

In less than 30 seconds, Kenneth’s entire character was turned on his head, which makes this joke ripe for some serious analysis. It’s been over a year and I’m still thinking about it, since after this one 30 second scene, my view on a character that has existed since 2006 was changed forever. On top being gut-bustingly funny, that is one impressive joke.

Quote of the Day:

“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, ‘Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.’ Man bursts into tears. Says ‘But Doctor… I am Pagliacci.’ Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.”

– Rorschach, Watchmen

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