In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”, there’s a gag where the villainous protagonist, when asked how he’ll save his wife, says “There are ways,”and silently climbs the stairs. Mike riffs, “Lots of ways. Many ways. Did I mention there are ways?” When he gets to the top of the stairs, he turns back and looks at his assistant, and Crow throws in “Ways.” As you can tell from the dry way I described that, it’s utterly impossible to explain why that’s so fucking funny despite it reducing me to tears of laughter. It’s not really a joke in the sense of being a setup and punchline – many MST3k riffs work on this logic, with the movie having a character say something serious and the bots and their human immediately undercut it (the same movie has a character say “He’s dead. I can’t do any harm,” with Mike responding “But what does turning them into clowns do, John?”). It also doesn’t really fit Rowan Atkinson’s definition of funny, where something is too big, too small, or in the wrong place – a principle that sounds too generic to be useful but ends up describing quite a lot of genuinely funny comedy, including many MST3k riffs where our heroes dub over the movie to turn it into a domestic drama; my favourite example is the runner of a character and the monster of “Night Of The Blood Beast” being a newlywed couple, and “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” has the bots spontaneously deciding a random character looks like Mel Blanc (“Yer comin’ up with me, varmint!”). No, it’s just something many have tried and few have succeeded at: an almost random assortment of words that happens to be gut-bustingly hilarious.
Related to this is one of my favourite jokes on Arrested Development. It has one similarity with the “ways” joke in that, like most AD jokes, it has an almost musical effect, and the closest it comes to having a traditional punchline is Michael quipping “GOB’s not on board.” It neatly stops the gag and it works as a summary of the absurdity, but there’s also, like, nothing funny about it on paper, and that’s true of the whole gag. It’s not really indicative of who GOB is as a person (beyond that he can sometimes get angry about weird stuff) and the basic idea is bizarre even for this show. If someone who didn’t get the joke at all asked me to explain it, there’s absolutely nothing I could say, no justification I could give for why I fall to the floor clutching my chest because of it. It’s really a testament to how unified this show was that the writers could throw that in and the cast and crew could deliver. So what are your favourite examples of things that are funny that can’t be explained or understood? Jokes that don’t really fit the traditional concept of a joke?