Awareness of the ridiculous: Subversion of Gunning’s Pranks

Monday 25 January 2021

By laying out the basic structure of a mischief gag, which can be further complicated, dissected, and subverted, in his article Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths Tom Gunning provides a linguistic framework for thinking about the phenomenon of the mischief gag. An intriguing subversion of the trope appears in BoJack Horseman, where the character Princess Carolyn goes to a bar where she meets a child disgusing himself as an adult named Vincent Adultman by wearing a hat and a trench coat, sitting on the shoulders of another child hidden under the trench coat who sits on another child’s shoulders, and promptly starts a relationship with him. The disguise gag shares many characteristics with those outlined by Gunning: disguise itself is an object, or a device, of mischief that allows the adults to be pranked by a child (or, rather, three children stacked on top of each other); it creates the roles of an executor of the prank and its victim, however accidental the prank is, as Vincent originally has no intention to prank anyone beyond being allowed into the bar, and simply goes along with Princess Carolyn’s invitation to a date. Because the prank is to an extent unintentional, and the disguise a simple device which operates as long as the victims remain blind to it, unlike a common comedic device such as a hose, the breaking of the gag into preparatory action and its effect is made complicated. Furthermore, the prank is never revealed to its victim: until their breakup, and even after, Princess Carolyn remains oblivious to the prank. What I find most interesting about this mischief gag, though, is where the humour surrounding the prank originates from in the series. In Gunning’s account, a mischief gag is humorous because its victim is oblivious to the impending prank, and the spectator is aware of it. In BoJack Horseman, on the other hand, the prank is funny because of the contrast between the show’s protagonist BoJack being aware of it, and everyone else, including the victim, being oblivious. To BoJack and the spectator, the prank is ridiculously obvious, and the ridiculousness of everyone else falling for the prank is the source of humour.



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Tom Gunning, “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths,” Classical Hollywood Comedy, ed. Karnick and Jenkins (Los Angeles: AFI/Routledge, 1995), 87-105

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2 thoughts on "Awareness of the ridiculous: Subversion of Gunning’s Pranks"

  • Craig Thornton
    Monday 25 January 2021, 9.55pm

    This is such a classic gag. Completely agree the comedy is amplified by that alignment of protagonist and spectator knowledge working against the immediate acceptance of something so blatantly obvious by the other characters. That sight gag of three lazily piled children in a coat with one mannequin limb and a broom for arms, is working in tandem with that mischief gag deliciously. Thanks for bringing this back into my life, I am now going to replace one of arms with a broom.

  • Robert Miller
    Tuesday 26 January 2021, 3.00pm

    I really like this example of the mischief gag! and the fact that there seems to be no end to how much a gag can evolve and subvert expectation. When a comical norm or trope develops, it seems a new layer of subversion is added to again subvert the expectations of the viewer until an almost inception level of comical diversion is achieved and ever evolving. Love it.

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