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Monday, October 24, 2005

Will Bringing Opinions Online Make Them Funnier?

This (boring) article in the NYT on Steven Colbert reminded me how difficult it is to explain why jokes are funny.   I shouldn't need much reminding: this week in Contracts, I teach Leonard v. Pepsico, in which Judge Kimba Wood evaluated plaintiff's claim to have relied on Pepsi's "offer" of a harrier jet in a promotional campaign.  As Judge Wood explained, it was a difficult opinion to write:

Plaintiff's insistence that the commercial appears to be a serious offer requires the Court to explain why the commercial is funny. Explaining why a joke is funny is a daunting task; as the essayist E.B. White has remarked, "Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process. . . ." The commercial is the embodiment of what defendant appropriately characterizes as "zany humor."

You can watch the commercials for yourself at the bottom of this page. It strikes me that Judge Wood would have had a much easier task on her hands had she been able to issue her opinion (only) in electronic form, and embed a quicktime movie into the text instead of undertaking a lengthy play-by-play.  Such e-opinions - the wave of the future - will be more efficient for appellate courts to review, and more easily consumable by bloggers, law students and the public alike.

As I and a co-author will argue in an article in progress, the problem with such entertaining legal content is that it threatens to significantly undercut venerable characteristics of primary legal texts, and turn opinion writing into a spectator sport. Commodification is only one of the unintended consequences of electronomic distribution of law, and one which I'm still trying to get my head around.

For all that, it might be worth it, if only to avoid paragraphs like this stilted one from the opinion:

[T]he notion of traveling to school in a Harrier Jet is an exaggerated adolescent fantasy. In this commercial, the fantasy is underscored by how the teenager's schoolmates gape in admiration, ignoring their physics lesson. The force of the wind generated by the Harrier Jet blows off one teacher's clothes, literally defrocking an authority figure. As if to emphasize the fantastic quality of having a Harrier Jet arrive at school, the Jet lands next to a plebeian bike rack. This fantasy is, of course, extremely unrealistic. No school would provide landing space for a student's fighter jet, or condone the disruption the jet's use would cause.

What rational purpose, apart from inducing consumption, does Pepsi's ad have?  When Pepsi characterizes its ad as "zany humor" is that a fancy word for "puffery"?  If so, wouldn't the appropriate question have been not whether Judge Wood found the commercial funny, but rather whether controlled (laboratory) audience did?

Posted by Dave Hoffman on October 24, 2005 at 10:41 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Well I for one hope that you have the courage to stand up to tyranny and denounce _Leonard_ as a bad decision. When I think of the poor guy who lost out on his one shot at a harrier jet, it almost brings me to tears.

Posted by: Kaimi | Oct 24, 2005 11:32:33 PM

By the way, don't think I haven't noticed that your pattern here. It's the sign of a lazy blogger, says I, who has to blog in (reverse) alphabetical order of topic. Harriet . . . Harrier. Need I say more?

I await your posts about harps, harmony, and harmless error, Mr. Originality. (Unless you're planning on mixing things up a little and backtracking for a post about Harrisburg).

Posted by: Kaimi | Oct 24, 2005 11:37:46 PM

It's the sign of a lazy blogger, . . . who has to blog in (reverse) alphabetical order of topic. Harriet . . . Harrier. Need I say more?

Funny comment.

Which prompts the question: what kind of funny? Was it "zany humor"? Wit? Spoof? It's not sarcasm, I don't think. Or irony. It strikes me that I am ill grounded in the phenomenology of humor.

Posted by: Plainsman | Oct 25, 2005 11:59:57 AM

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