It takes a lot to make me laugh. It always has. As a kid, I remember many adults telling me to smile. Didn’t they know that smiling on demand is required only by adult women? Jeez.
Anyway, I can still be a tough audience. I see a lot of jokes, sitcoms, improv shows, standup comedians, and other jesters, and my response is often, “Eh.” But there’s a guy on Twitter with a criminally small amount of followers whose jokes are consistently surprising, inventive, and funny. The guy is River Clegg, who you may know from standup, humor pieces (in the New Yorker and here in McSweeney’s), and the animated comedy Betanauts. Clegg has to be one of the top joke writers in the tri-state area.
Like the great Ted Travelstead, Clegg is able to suggest a vivid, unhinged worldview with a short tweet: “In my day, Sloppy Joe was a man. And, boy, did you want to steer clear of him.” Sometimes River gives you the burst of inspiration you need to get through the day: “Individually we are powerless. But together, we can create a diversion and then steal that happy family’s picnic supplies.” I particularly enjoy the following joke, which starts out like so many tweeters who complain about poor customer service as if they had emerged from an internment camp: “Yes, hello, Tide? I’ve been on hold for twenty minutes; it should not take that long to inform you that your detergent is delicious.” He even has important suggestions on foreign policy: “I’m not saying the president should have sex with the turkey in front of everyone before he pardons it. I’m not saying that.”
Clegg’s jokes roam all over the comedy map, but there are a few themes that make Clegg’s feed more than a collection of strong jokes. Like Jack Handey’s recurring topics — such as his funny cowboy dance, best friend Don, and nemesis Dr. Ponzari — Clegg has some obsessions that give his jokes cohesion. The first theme is eels. Sometimes the joke is that not everyone is as enamored with this noble beast: “My ventriloquist dummy says he’s tired of discussing the majesty of eels. But I’m the one calling the shots here.” Such dismay can veer on the political: “Two debates and barely any mention of eels.” The purity of this character and his eel obsession is wonderfully ludicrous: “Wrote a so-called ‘eel expert’ asking why their souls are so much purer than ours. Still nothing.” Clegg’s eels give me all the feels.
Clegg’s other favorite joke subject is Pa, and that one dumbass syllable allows him to explore a world of bogus memories, mind-bending stupidity, and glorious comedy. Clegg’s Pa is always quick with a reassuring word: “Oh, don’t be afraid, son. This ax is just for cutting trees I deem my enemies.” He’s equally quick with insane advice: “Pa didn’t trust hammocks. Said only a fool would ensnare himself in a net on purpose, and you know what? He had a point.” In some of these tweets, Pa is implied: “Son, road trips aren’t about the destination. They’re about praying to roadside Paul Bunyan statues for rain and the deaths of our foes.” The following tweet is one I’m thinking of making my voicemail message: “Sorry, Pa’s not in. Should I ask that he call you once the moon shows its coward face?” One thing I know, if I ever run into Clegg’s Pa, I would not mess with him: “Pa was tough. Once he ate a whole bunch of potpourri for no reason.”
With so much Pa and so many eels, it’s tough to pick a Best Joke Ever for Clegg, but I’m going with this: “All due respect, being an Olympic archer takes no skill and only cowards do it.”
Clegg utilizes a fairly common technique by saying something like “All due respect,” then following it up with something totally disrespectful. But that juxtaposition is just the beginning of why this joke is cool: in a brief tweet, that contrast sets up one lie and one preposterous statement, and together they suggest a world of lunacy, like a Gary Larson comic about a duck.
The statement “being an Olympic archer takes no skill” is a great lie, which is maybe my favorite thing about writing comedy. It’s a license to lie. But the addition “and only cowards do it” takes this joke to a sublime level. What sort of fellow (Pa perhaps?) has a bitter, twisted grudge against archers? Does he really think it takes no skill? What makes him equate Olympic archery and cowardice? Was he betrayed by an archer? Is he a conspiracy nut who believes archers are in the alien pocket of the space lizards? In just 15 words, Clegg suggests a character I wouldn’t want to meet but love to think about: an anti-archer loonball.
Fortunately, such illogical madness could only exist in the fun world of comedy. Thank goodness no one is that angry and unhinged in the real world.