I’ve been wanting to write about The McElroy Brothers for a long time. I’ve been following their work for maybe five, six, years now. Every time I got get to go I stopped , where to start given the enormity of their released work? A recent piece by Jaime Green for bkmag.com covers their collected work and what makes it quite so special in far more detail than I ever could. There’s also intertwined interviews with the three brothers themselves, it’s an amazing article, do check it out.
At any rate, with the groundwork handled by a far better writer than I, let’s look at one of the most entertaining and subversive elements of their comedy, their use of cultural reference. Now, reference comedy, trying to wring humour out of a recognisable cultural artefact is pretty widely regarded as cheap humour. It kinda is too, as the audience brings their own relationship to the material into the room, at that point they’re already willing to meet you halfway, so you only gotta tell half a joke. Don’t mean the joke is going to be bad, just means it’s easier for a lazy one to skate through.
Comedy ain’t really the motivation behind reference humour anyway, not when there’s better ways to make laughs. Reference humour exists to provide definiton for your act. By curating the culture you allow your art to interact with, and the nature of that interaction, you define the position of your art in the social landscape. At the same time, to engage in reference is to be exclusionary, as it serves to alienate those who don’t recognise the artefact being referenced. Anyone who has spent enough of their life pretending to laugh at jokes they do not quite understand can understand this.
Given these two utilities, we can see what reference acts as a shorthand to: virtue. By engaging in cultural Communion a shared environment is created and, as the audience buy into the joke teller’s premises, those on the inside are bequeathed its cultural capital. This conceptual space, therefore, creates the boundaries of the acceptable discourse that can happen within it. Once this has happened it becomes increasingly hard for the artist to take control of of the discourse again.
Which finally brings us to the McElroy brothers. While other artists use this technique to create an environment of discursive security, the environment the McElroys create is one of vulnerability. Instead of engaging in referencing things that carry contexts of quality, class and value in order to place them in a position of power in comparison to their audience, they deliberately do the opposite. Their references come from the world of kitsch, of low culture, the base; places (and often involving subjects) that are culturally regarded as shameful.
By doing this though they upend they reverse the classic intent behind the gag. The discursive environment they create is not one that places them in the position of power, and so, by destabilising the classic hegemony between the artist and audience they create an effect that, rather than being exclusive, is inclusive of its audience. One is not excluded from the discourse because the cultural signifiers used to define it are so rooted in the absurd.
The fostering of this environment then invites the audience to approach the art on their own level and engage in a critical reading of the work. That’s the key, that’s where the perfection of these sweet sweet boys lies. Because critical reading of comedy and the ideas it expresses are important, as our idea of acceptable comedy informs our perception of societal norms. The McElroys build into their comedy the avenue for audience engagement. It’s almost like perfect.
I’ll probably do a roundup of their podcasts soon.