You’ve heard the old adage: “If you have to explain a joke, it isn’t funny.” Well, that adage is old for a reason, and this week on Speedrun, we did our best to disprove it.
To do so, we brought in the big guns: comedians Adam Conover and Reggie Watts, along with veteran comedy writer Mike Drucker. They each picked a game to play that best illustrates the potential — or lack thereof — for humor in games. In the process, we had some cerebral, and frankly profound, conversations about what we find funny and why we gravitate toward the things that make us laugh.
Drucker played the absurdist and decidedly wonky Goat Simulator, giving him the chance to explain how, at the heart of things, most video games are kinda ridiculous. Goat Simulator is just pointing directly at the elephant in the room. What’s more, he likened the thrill of Goat to that of a blooper reel, where the joke lands right before the moment where things careen off the tracks.
.@Polygon asked me tussle with Dark Souls bosses while explaining what makes emergent comedy work in video games. Forming coherent sentences while getting smashed by Iudex Gundyr is harder than you'd think! https://t.co/qCDPaUhRsu— Adam Conover (@adamconover) August 5, 2020
On Wednesday, Conover continued this theory by celebrating the gut laughs of Dark Souls 3. With such a puny character and such imposing enemies, it’s impossible not to laugh as you’re thrown off a cliff, wondering why you ever expected anything else. The best humor in games, Conover explained, is unintentional: it comes as a result of the player’s actions, not the developer’s. By leaning more into emergent comedy and touting the proverbial “interactivity” of the medium, we can create funnier stuff.
As a counterpoint, Conover mentioned Borderlands 3, a game that tries extremely hard to be funny, but ends up falling on its face instead — like it was written by “someone who saw Deadpool once and thought they could be a comedy writer.”
.@Jimbasco plays Borderlands 3 with @reggiewatts and gives Reggie some tips to beat the boss he has been so hung up on — The Agonizer 9000. Will they defeat the giant murderbot?— Polygon (@Polygon) August 7, 2020
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On today’s episode, Watts offered a different take on Gearbox Software’s loot shooter. Borderlands 3 is funny because it doesn’t try too hard. In fact, it doesn’t take itself seriously at all. It’s content to get out of its own way so you can shoot and loot and finally beat the boss that’s been giving you grief for weeks on end (Watts also mentioned that he’s usually had an edible before he plays. He then launched into a diatribe about the best edible/video game pairings on offer, and we walked away with a not inconsiderable amount of wisdom from the encounter).
So, if you have to explain a joke, does it cease to be funny? I don’t think so. Listening to Drucker, Conover, and Watts wax poetic about the inner workings of comedy while they jet-packed a goat across a suburban neighborhood has me convinced that we’re nowhere near the peak of video game humor. And it’s only by overthinking things at every step of the way that we’ll finally reach it.