Though Sigmund Freud would never have made a living as a stand-up comic, his remarkably unfunny Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious offers some interesting insights into that curious human construct of wit—not to be confused with gut-busting hilarity, but the intelligent manipulation of concepts. Wit, Freud suggests, is a mixture of careful “condensation” (hence the saying “brevity is the soul of wit”) and the surprising juxtaposition of ideas. In other words, the greatest wit makes you look at something from a new perspective, whether by placing an idea in a new context or by putting two contrasting ideas together, all delivered with concision of expression. The result may not make you piss your pants laughing, but it should elicit feelings of discovery and self-awareness.
Freud could well have been writing about the short film and video work of Spike Jonze. While most know him as the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Jonze initially gained his reputation as one of the most celebrated video directors in the business. Now a selected collection of his work is available as part of a series covering outstanding short filmmakers. His gathered work is notable for how it consistently delivers the truly unexpected, putting the familiar in a totally new context, toying with the language of film, and considering media and pop culture from a truly witty perspective.
In the case of videos for Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” and the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” Jonze took all-too-familiar imagery and motifs from ’70s TV (Happy Days and cop shows respectively) and played up the inherent artifice in both genres. The fact that Jonze is never snide or condescending in his approach (indeed, both videos play as loving tributes to the genres) makes them that much more enjoyable. In both his video for Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” and the “mockumentary” of the fictitious Torrance Community Dance Group, Jonze skewers the fetishism of fame and media while keeping a completely straight face as the leader of a guerrilla community dance troupe that makes it to the MTV Video Awards.
But Jonze’s true gift is creating moments of the truly unexpected. Just as he did in Being John Malkovich, Jonze takes the everyday and makes it something truly remarkable. From Christopher Walken’s joyous dance routine in “Weapon of Choice” to the startling violence of his short “How They Get There,” Jonze proves that the true essence of wit is to never go for the obvious.