The scene above is from the “Last Exit to Springfield” episode of The Simpsons, in which Homer becomes head of his union and negotiates a new contract with Mr. Burns on sheer strength of idiocy. Dorks will remember it as episode 9F15 of season four, which my college roommates and I remember as the Era of Big Pupils. This model style roughly coincides with Conan O’Brien’s tenure on the show and, probably not by coincidence, some of its most surreal gags. For example: On a tour of his mansion, Mr. Burns shows Homer a thousand monkeys typing on a thousand typewriters, who will soon produce “the greatest novel known to mankind.” He checks one monkey’s progress. “‘It was the best of times,” he reads, “it was the blurst of times?’ You stupid monkey!” That was your last chance to enjoy this joke, because I’d like to talk about why it’s so funny.
Obviously, what’s funny about this joke is how close the monkey came to synthesizing the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, an extremely unlikely thing for him to write by arbitrarily pounding keys. As usual, the obvious answer is incorrect. I submit that this joke would not be as funny if Mr. Burns pulled the paper from the typewriter and we cut to a first-person closeup of a page reading It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times.
John Cleese said that in the early days of Monty Python, the troupe thought comedy was watching someone do something funny. They quickly realized, however, that comedy is watching someone watch someone do something funny. In the scene above, Mr. Burns’s reaction to the monkey’s work is the heart of the gag. He loses his temper and calls the monkey stupid, because he has been disappointed.
His angry disappointment is funny, because the monkey has done something pretty impressive. What was Mr. Burns hoping for? Evidently he is spending a lot of money to provide these thousand monkeys with cigarettes and typewriter ribbon, and his tantrum suggests that only the best novel will do. But the “greatest novel known to mankind” need not be original. His hopeful tone as he reads the first few words suggests that he would be happy to replicate an existing masterpiece, so long as it was written by a monkey. He doesn’t want the novel; he wants the process. Somewhere Mr. Burns heard about the infinite monkey theorem, and by gum, he’s going to do it.
Probably, this scene is so funny because it manages to suggest that whole complex scenario in about four seconds. The viewer’s brain is inundated with insights on an absurd situation, and they all make sense together. It is incongruous that Mr. Burns would be angry at his monkey for almost typing the first sentence of a great novel, but within our developing understanding of just what’s going on here, it makes sense. The feeling is not unlike discovery, specifically the discovery of order or rationale behind some baffling phenomenon. Also, the monkey can’t stop smoking.
Anyway, that’s how jokes work. What we have here is not so much a theory of humor as a deconstruction. You know because you can’t reverse-engineer anything funny from these insights. But this is a mightily efficient gag that starts from a commonplace and takes the audience somewhere bizarre but not the least bit cruel. The tone of this joke reflects an eccentrically generous spirit that characterized the first six or seven seasons of The Simpsons, which made its characters funny but never sold their dignity for a laugh.
Although this gag turns on Mr. Burns getting angry at a shackled monkey, it is not the least bit dark. Part of it is Homer bearing mute witness to it all, assuring us by his impassivity that nothing really bad is happening. But part of it is Mr. Burns’s tag at the end, after the monkey has stopped shrieking.
“Oh, shut up,” he says, and we see that although he is exasperated, Mr. Burns knows this is his best monkey. He doesn’t say “shut up, you hack!” or otherwise bend the situation toward cruelty. In that “oh,” we hear Mr. Burns and the monkey’s long working relationship. They don’t always see eye to eye, but they are both committed to writing that novel.