Recent coverage of the internet’s reaction to SNL character David Pumpkins and debate commenter Kenneth Bone prove that there’s no faster way to kill a joke than by analyzing it.
On this week’s Saturday Night Live, David Pumpkins* graced the world with his weirdness, and the Internet rejoiced. Obviously Twitter and Reddit lit up with tributes to Tom Hanks’ spooky pumpkin-suited star of a ‘Haunted Elevator’ bit. Online conversation proceeded to transform the Halloween…icon(?) from a character on a sketch to a bona-fide topical internet artifact; a meme, if you will.
As appears to be the media’s habit, outlets from Vulture to USA Today to The Atlantic picked up the David Pumpkins-baton and covered not just the sketch but the internet’s reaction to it. Salon recently ran a headline ‘Rita Wilson loves husband Tom Hanks’ David S. Pumpkins character as much as the internet,’ in which Hanks’ wife succinctly explained “whenever I see it, it makes me want to laugh.” Yass, Rita. She gets it.
Unfortunately, many publications did not exhibit Ms. Wilson’s restraint. The Atlantic’s David Sims penned a 750-word piece scrutinizing just what made David Pumpkins so hilarious. The sketch’s commitment to its characters, in sync dance moves, “gleeful tone,” and self-reflective quality account for David Pumpkins’ success as a sketch and its internet virality, he said. Sure, maybe. I think Twitter user @vannieolitz might have put it better, though: “This was weird… but then it was funny…”
As an internet user who stakes her flag in LiveJournal forums and trending twitter topics, the tendency to think piece-ify spontaneous moments of collective lolling personally enrages. There’s no faster way to kill a joke—especially of the “random” variety, a la Pumpkins—then to analyze it. For clicks, ad impressions, and the constant losing battle to “stay relevant,” blogs and cable news channels alike strip-mine the internet for Content.
Coverage of the “David Pumpkins sensation” is by no means the first instance of news outlets finding online conversation or internet artifacts and calling them news. Recently, when Kenneth Bone became Twitter’s latest phenom, it didn’t even take 24 hours for CNN to pick up the story (“internet finds man in red sweater hilarious”). Even radio DJs spend their airtime talking about content on the internet like YouTube videos. They actually describe what they’ve watched to listeners, and then instruct their audience to go check it out online. Aside from the idea that this sort of media cross-pollination just feels wrong, I wonder, don’t you have better things to talk about than the latest accident-prone local celebrity caught on camera, Ryan Seacrest? You’re right, stupid question.
Perhaps media outlets are correct when they deem memes, YouTube videos, and trending twitter topics worthy of coverage. According to Nielsen’s Total Audience Report, Americans use electronic media including Social Media more than 11 hours per day. Despite its origins or seriousness, if a piece of culture consumes this much attention, maybe the media even has a duty to cover it. Certainly when Donald Trump tweets a lie or an insult, the news-consuming electorate is hungry (and deserves) to know about it. Entertainment reporting is a genre of coverage, and maybe memes are just digital celebrities.
For phenomena like David Pumpkins or Kenneth Bone, though, the coverage feels like a joy-suck. I don’t want to know why David Pumpkins is funny, he just is. The internet’s response to Kenneth Bone was arguably funnier than the man himself. But breaking Kenneth Bone down to his component parts to understand why we all responded makes the gag stick in your throat rather than elicit a laugh: the glasses! The name! The sweater! The… body type? Perhaps with a character (human) like Bone, it’s worthwhile examining what makes us laugh. Examining Bone prompts consideration of whether the joke resulted from a fat shame disguised as praise. But, if your allegiance is to the LOL, looking too closely undoubtedly kills the joke.
When saying “random!” became all the rage in the early 2000’s, it banished “random” humor like Pumpkins or even last week’s SNL “The Sink” sketch in favor of disenchanted irony for a decade. When comedians (or tweeters!) deploy “random” humor too often it fails, and when the media looks too closely it quickly flattens. As Sims points out in his piece, “viewers will probably be sick of David Pumpkins in a week,” so now is the time to cherish the character, he says. I agree. Love David (S!) Pumpkins, dress up as him and his skeleton beat boys for Halloween, watch the sketch again and again (somehow it gets funnier every time). But please do not “cherish” him by dissecting him in print several days after the fact, or nothing more will remain of this perfect Halloween joke than its ghost.
*David Pumpkins is a character on an SNL sketch played by Tom Hanks. One twitter user suggested that a sketch on next week’s SNL would be trying to explain David Pumpkins to someone who hasn’t seen the sketch. So, David Pumpkins, best understood here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rS00xWnqwvI