Sunday, July 31, 2011

It Used to Be a Joke

I'm going to do something terrible: explain why a joke is funny which will mean we can't laugh at it any more. Here's the joke: Rachmaninoff was on tour, giving solo recitals and one night his manager noticed that while playing he was constantly looking out to the hall, swiveling his eyes from row to row. After the concert the manager asked why he was doing that. Rachmaninoff replied, "I was counting the house, I think the impresario is cheating us"! Not terribly funny, but the reason why it is a joke is interesting. The humor depends on there being a dissonance between musical performance and box office receipts. This joke probably used to be funnier than it is now, because for us, the dissonance is becoming muted. In earlier times, a music performance had an almost sacred dimension to it. In some way, music was a transcendental experience that lifted us out of the mundane world. It was inconceivable that the audience, let alone the artist, be thinking of ticket prices while deep within the experience of music. But now, with music videos stuffed with virtual advertisements for luxury cars, high fashion and expensive jewelry, the transcendental dimension of music is pretty much crushed.


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