Anatomy of a Joke: I Have the Same Name as a Celebrity

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Feb. 17 2011 3:03 PM

Anatomy of a Joke: I Have the Same Name as a Celebrity

One of themore dismal gags in the wretched new romantic comedy Just Go With It involves a character posing as an Austrian sheep importer named Dolph Lundgren.Yes, just like theSwedish action star from the 80s and 90s, except this Dolph wears aneckerchief and Harry Potter glasses, smokes a pipe, and refers to his manlyparts as "the schnitzel":
 

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Of all thepossible meta-casting jokes having famouspeople playthemselves , casting them in roles that recall theirpast roles , or exploitingthe "celebrity paradox" this one is the easiest to pull off. It doesn'trequire any fancy casting stunts or complicated narrative work: All you do istake a regular old character, give him or her an unlikely celebrity name,and presto! comedy .

It's alightly postmodern bit that seems well suited to our self-referential comicera. It can be a throwaway punchline (like the black , heavyset Rebecca De Mornay on Seinfeld ) or a more developed runninggag (like the downtrodden,cubicle-dwelling Michael Bolton in OfficeSpace ) but it always relies on some perceived gap between the character andthe celebrity, often taken from the reliable comic trio of gender, ethnicity,or hotness. The celebrity name itself must be perfectly calibrated: It shouldbe someone faintly ridiculous in his own right, familiar enough to ring a bellbut not so famous as to be an obvious choice. It should be just obscure enough to make the viewer feel rewarded forrecognizing that she's supposed to laugh.

But just asreal people with celebrity namesakes find their situations exhausting , frustrating ,and only intermittentlyfunny , this gag is wearing thin.

The alwaysreliable TVTropes.com reminds us that the joke goes back to at least the early1990s, when Cool Runnings featured abald, hotheaded Jamaican bobsledder named Yul Brenner ,recalling the bald Russian actor best known for playing a hotheaded Siameseking. Seinfeld had John Voight a fewyears before it had Rebecca De Mornay. Then there was Jackie Chan's Chinesecowboy ChonWang (a.k.a. "John Wayne") in ShanghaiNoon , Bill Murray's aging lothario DonJohnston ("with a T") in BrokenFlowers , and of course Michael Cera's twerpy George-Michael Bluth on ArrestedDevelopment. The writers of 30 Rock areso enamored of the joke that they've given us not only a pale, British WesleySnipes but also a Tea Party-ish political candidate named StephenAustin .

The writersof 30 Rock have the chops to pull thejoke off, in large part because (a) they are very funny and (b) the show is soself-aware it's practically sentient. "Wesley Snipes" works especially wellbecause "Wesley" is an inherentlycomical name that fits the character exactly: supremely English, a little pretentious,and not especially virile. But the writers also push the joke one step further than most :

Liz Lemon : Wait, your name isWesley Snipes? That's insane! 
Wesley : This is insane? You know what's insane? That the actor is namedWesley Snipes! If you were shown a picture of him and a picture of me, and wereasked "who should be named Wesley Snipes," you'd pick the pale Englishman everytime! Every time, Liz!
 

The gag isusually about the cognitive disconnect between the character's image and thecelebrity's, but 30 Rock goes on topoint out that Wesley Snipes himself is an absurd juxtaposition. The concept of "Wesley Snipes" folds in on itselfand implodes. We can never take Blade seriously again.

Can we alljust agree that this is about as good as this joke is going to get, and declarea moratorium on it from here on out? Otherwise, lesser comedy writers are goingto keep thinking they can pull it off, too condemning us to a desperatelyunfunny future of scarf-wearing Dolph Lundgrens and lithe young AndiGarcias . Let's just let this bit shuffle off in peace to the culturalgraveyard where it belongs: realitytelevision .

 

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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