Thursday, September 04, 2008

McCain: comedy killer

Grice's maxims focus on the pragmatics and semantics of an utterance. Some people believe that the potential for humor can be semantically mapped. So can we apply Grice's maxim of relation to the following exchange?

Leno: For one million dollars: how many houses do you [have]?

McCain: {laughs} You know I di… Could I just mention to you Jay that um-- at a moment of seriousness --I spent five and a half years in a prison cell without … I di… not a … I didn't have a house. I didn't have a kitchen table. I didn't have a table. I didn't have a chair. And I spent those five and a half years … uh … because … not because I wanted to get a house when I got out.

[A few readers might have access to the video on YouTube. Copyright issues have disabled embedding.]

Jay Leno has clearly established a context of facetious interaction. And there's sometimes a point in an interview where either party can introduce a change in tone. But that works best when there is a reasonable break in the topic. An elegant segue is both smooth and well-placed. The joke has to be over.

But this is of course not a true non-sequitur. McCain does laugh. And there is a conversational implicature. Leno has introduced a joke regarding McCain's inability to remember how many houses he owns. This lapse in memory has been used by some critics as evidence that McCain lives a privileged life. This then implicates the claim that he cannot understand the experience of many Americans. This is then used as a parallel contradiction of McCain's claims that he is not the type elitist he believes Barack Obama to be.

McCain's response to Leno's joke has processed that line of implicature and it introduces a new implication. He would rather talk about the time when he was a prisoner of war. During which time his concerns about a comfortable residence were irrelevant. Further implicature is hazy. Does his experience counter any claims that he is as much an elitist as Obama? Is he simply trying to remind us of his suffering because it made him the type of man that could be wealthy while staying in touch with those who are not?

Is it just an attempt to change the subject without saying something offensive to Jay Leno? Well it's not a real change of subject because he purposefully connects his new topic to the topic of houses and living quarters.

It's conversationally inelegant. And it sounds like a canned response. He was just waiting for a chance to respond to this topic wasn't he? Look at the "I di..." disfluencies. Was he was planning on the "I didn't have a___" lines early on? By the beginning of his statement it sounds like he's champing at the bit to get to his money shot. I have no political commentary because that's neither my task nor my skill. But this does remind me of a line from Seinfeld.

Priest: And this offends you as a Jewish person?

Jerry: No. It offends me as a comedian!


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  2. Robbie is very persistent, isn't he - speaking of non-sequiturs.

    I like the faux disingenuousness of that "Could I just mention to you...?"

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