There are many variations on the old saw that there are relatively few patterns in human communication. Some examples:
- Jack Benn told only six jokes.
- There are only 10 basic plots for all stories.
- The theory of Theophrastus (371 b. c. e. – 281 b. c. e) that there are only 30 basic character types in drama.
A Doonesbury that I saw earlier this week reminds me that there are only a limited number of jokes and punch lines. It represents a perfect example of reinvigorating a basic cartoon joke, one that has been around for millennia and is an important building block in the language of the cartoon.
I remember first seeing this piece of cartoon rhetoric in the late 60s: Under a voluptuously wide tree, a young man and woman sit on a blanket. His balloon is crowded with images that show he’s talking about everything from the theory of relativity to the possibility of happiness in a world haunted by death, his total monologue covering perhaps 25 distinct topics. Her think balloon is a photo of the two of them making out on the blanket in the buff.
The trope is the dissonance in thinking between two people who share a moment together: one has his head in an ethereal and rather wordy place, the other is fixated on a basic instinct. The joke relies on irony and the restatement of a widespread belief.
Garry Trudeau does an admiral job of breathing new life into this old trope, putting his new wine in an old rhetorical bottle. His version comprises four panels, in each of which a CIA station chief wearing a cowboy hat makes a series of depressing comparisons between our current war in Afghanistan and the Viet Nam war. He speaks a total of 54 words, which is really a lot for a newspaper weekday cartoon. In the last panel, the think balloon above the incompetent slacker kid to whom he’s talking reads, “I could go for a kebob.”
Same joke delivered using the same rhetorical device.
Note that Trudeau communicates as his subtextual message one of the mainstays of ideological subtext in virtually all periods and all societies about which I remember reading: That the young are less competent and have less drive to succeed than their elders. Interesting to note, in many civilizations such as our own, major subtextual themes involve both despising and worshiping young adults.