Gus Johnson, Gunning and subversion of the rascal/victim dynamic – Rebecca Jonas

When first reading about Gunning’s ‘rascal’ and ‘victim’, I thought of a sketch comedy YouTube video by Gus Johnson: ‘pranking women in public by respecting their distance and not bothering them’ (2019).[1] Johnson directly references the modern trend of public pranks uploaded to YouTube – in which harassment against women is played for laughs. This is far removed from the technology and context of the Lumiere’s ‘mischief gags’ of the late 19th century that Gunning is concerned with.[2] However, I believe there is a key connection between the two, and that the video’s comedy would not arise without longstanding notions of ‘rascal’ and ‘victim’, as well as the gendered history of such comedy.

Johnson’s video and its humour does not originate from an ‘interruption’ or ‘explosion’ of the victim’s routine, as Gunning describes, but through an ironic lack of action.[3] The video’s irony is formed due to the audience’s expectation of a meeting between rascal and victim (in this case, harasser and woman). This expectation links to both Gunning’s victim/rascal dynamic, as well as the often gendered and sexualised forms these gags would take – interrupting women undressing, having sex and so on.[4]

Gunning’s central ideas of technology and spectacle observe the rascal manipulating a mechanism in order to begin the gag. Johnson’s video further satires this trope, as he has no mechanism with which to harass (unlike some contemporary prank videos in which men use cameras, other participants or even fake limbs to trick women). Johnson’s character aimlessly wanders around public spaces, barely interacting with women other than with nervous looks. He concludes the video with glee, implying some ‘interruption’ should have happened, but his celebration comes from nothing. The removal of the victim and a mechanism of torment from the video renders the rascal comically useless. Overall, Johnson’s stark removal of almost all the components of the mischief gag is only effective due to Gunning’s historical and cultural tracing of such comedy and the roles they are associated with.

Bibliography

Gunning, Tom. “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and The Origins of American Film Comedy.” In Classical Hollywood Comedy, edited by Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins, 87-105. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Filmography

Johnson, Gus. “pranking women in public by respecting their distance and not bothering them.” YouTube video, 1:41. 22 March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tzw5CF_OghA&ab_channel=GusJohnson.

[1] Tom Gunning, “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and The Origins of American Film Comedy” in Classical Hollywood Comedy, ed Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins, (New York: Routledge, 2013), 90; Gus Johnson, “pranking women in public by respecting their distance and not bothering them,” YouTube video, 1:41, 22 March 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tzw5CF_OghA&ab_channel=GusJohnson.

[2] Gunning, “Crazy Machines,” 94.

[3] Ibid, 93.

[4] Ibid.

4 comments

  1. Just as you mentioned, the punchline of this video only works because it is contextualized by expectation. The use of the term “victim” by Gunning only accentuates your point further when Johnson draws our attention to the creation of a “victim” in women during prank videos; it is clear that this dynamic can extend beyond humour into harassment.

  2. I really like this choice! and the application of the rascal/victim dynamic within this area. The ‘ironic lack of action’ and the subversion of expectation that Gunning discusses are crucial to the success of this skit. It’s amazing to see someone highlighting this issue through use of subversion and ironic comedy. I also love his take on a respectable distance.

  3. I love the take you have on this particular idea, and in particular relation to the Gus Johnson sketch, I am beginning to think about questions relating to the concept of the ‘anti-joke’ (where there is a deliberate lack or absence of humour/action in the punchline of a gag), and to what extent Gunning can be applied to that idea? Is a gag only a gag if it there is deliberate efforts made in the construction of it? Does the ‘inert’ anti-joke count as comedy?

  4. I really like this example and the idea that the gag ironically involves no action and takes a de-tour from expected comic resolution. It works comedically because we are already aware of videos or sketches where women are harassed or interrupted in some way, so Gus Johnson has created a satirical situation that almost pokes fun at men who have utilised the rascal/victim trope toward women in their comedy.

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