Is this the perfect AP story?

Paula the penguin—kids! Can you circle the page affair in this photo?

As readers of The Onion know, AP is a peculiar style. Its combination of affected objectivity and years of layered convention make it the prose equivalent of a straight man, with the banana man being world events. The solemnity of AP style makes kind of funny occurrences very funny, like when a nun throws up. My brother sent me this AP article, headlined “Newport Aquarium Penguin Poops on Ky. Senate Floor,” with the speculation that it may include the best lead ever written. To wit:

A penguin named Paula had some business to bring to the Kentucky Senate floor on Tuesday.

Boom! But I think the perfection of this AP story extends beyond its perfect lead.

The tone of that lead is the equivalent of that transcendently wonderful sight in the contemporary mediascape, the smirking news anchor. The voice of an AP report is an official voice. That’s the whole point of AP style. A double-entendre lead like the one above is therefore a titillating acknowledgement of humanity from a writer working to disguise himself as much as possible.

Since it comes at the beginning, this lead charges subsequent paragraphs with that same sense of humanity. Things that aren’t actually funny become mildly amusing, because we are now aware of the conventions of the form. The next sentence—which is also a paragraph, itself a kind of funny convention of AP style like the single-action panels in a comic strip—reads “The African blackfooted penguin from the Newport Aquarium had been brought in by Senate President Pro Tem Katie Stine of Southgate.”

Who cares what species of penguin it was? Answer: AP reporter, because that’s his job, and now that’s kind of funny, too. In theatre, Bertolt Brecht called this process of bringing attention to conventions of the form verfremdungseffekt, or “alienation effect.”* The idea was to take the audience out of the world of the story being told so that they would concentrate on its telling. Brecht used verfremdungseffekt for didactic social commentary, but it is an indispensable tool of modern comedy as well.

A penguin pooping is not funny; a reporter having to write seriously about a penguin pooping is. If you believe the event itself is hilarious, I respectfully direct you to the Raw Story version, which A) blatantly plagiarizes several sentences from the AP and B) completely fails to deadpan. “Penguin literally takes a crap on Kentucky senate,” the headline blares, further distending the definition of literally. With the exception of the second paragraph, the Raw Story story is all jokes; the author appears to have excised every part of the AP original that wasn’t a gag. The result is a contextless series of punchlines, like if the Smothers Brothers were just Tommy talking about how he couldn’t work a microwave.

The AP story’s reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, too. Near the end, our anonymous writer makes the child’s error of deploying a previously successful joke again. Quote:

After she finished her business, an aquarium worker put Paula on the upper part of Williams’ desk while Stine finished presenting her resolution amid jokes about “business on the floor.”

That doesn’t work. It’s probably because we’ve already seen the business gag, but note also that this construction violates AP style, along with English syntax. The “she” in the initial dependent clause “after she finished her business” must refer to the first noun after the comma. Presumably she is Paula the penguin, but in this sentence she is an aquarium worker. Any AP editor would catch the misplaced modifier, but this one slipped through—probably because the editor thought the joke was worth it, too.

But the joke is not a pun on “business” and the senate floor. The joke is that this event is presented in the same tone as news of earthquakes and diplomatic conferences, of whatever else happened in the Kentucky senate that day.* It is a snapshot of a moment that transcended the mundane formalism of the capitol, when various lawmakers and beat reporters were united in their shared humanity. As readers smirking at a straight-faced lead clearly designed to amuse us, we get to share in that humanity, too.

The outro joke puts a button on the whole thing. The senator’s remark about Miss Kentucky is not that great of a line, but I bet it killed in that room at that moment. The genius of this unsigned AP article is that it makes us feel like we’re in the room, too. It follows the shape of a funny anecdote, the kind of story that ends with “you had to be there.” The AP is wonderful, because it waits in the places we had to be.


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