I want to talk about subtlety of humor, both in general and how it appears in MLP:FiM. It’s something I mention a lot in my other posts, but it may not be clear to some people what it is I mean. I’ve tried to be as concise as possible here, though I do end on a minor rant.
As preamble, let me suggest my definition of humor: when two or more contrasting and harmless expectations are apparent at the same time. Hopefully that’s not confusing, and I’m up for debate or answering questions about it, since it’s a subjective concept and I don’t suppose I fully understand it yet. For this post though, that’s the definition I’m working off of.
Subtle means not obvious. When a joke is subtle, it either doesn’t explain the entire context or isn’t at the center of focus in the scene. For example, in The Cutie Pox when Zecora plants the seeds of truth and Applejack asks someone to tell the truth, we suddenly see Pinkie Pie looking very nervous. At that point it’s apparent that Pinkie in fact has something completely irrelevant to admit, but the audience is expecting the more serious admission from Apple Bloom. The joke is pulled off with a simple premise – getting someone to tell the truth – and the easily recognizable emotion of nervousness… not a single word needs to be said.
Another example is in the episode Games Ponies Play, where the Mane Six minus Rarity lead who they think is the games inspector on a tour of the castle. In a short and simple scene showing Ms. Harshwinny waiting at the train station, the writer makes it clear that they “have the wrong pony”, yet the episode depicts their tour without acknowledging this fact save for one great scene where Twilight and her friends pause for a second after Ms. Peachbottom says “Honestly, I’m surprised [the princess] knows anything about me at all!”. They pause, stare blankly at her for a second, then continue as if they must not have understood. At that moment the contrasting expectations of the two parties are apparent, but there’s no need to explain that in the show because both perspectives have already been established, so long as the observer picks up on them. The writer doesn’t need to tell the joke because it tells itself.
The reason why subtlety is good with jokes is that, because the listener is required to fill in context his/herself, they’re the ones making the joke connect. In other words, they’re the ones telling the punchline. As I quoted Shakespeare in my last post, “brevity is the soul of wit” – the faster you can deliver a punchline, the better the joke can be. Arriving at a punchline happens much faster in the silent processes of the brain than in verbal or visual explanation. Taking 10 seconds to set up and tell a joke is fine, but if you can achieve the same thing by showing, say, 3 seconds of visual representation, the joke hits harder.
A limitation with this is that the observer needs to be able to connect the dots on his/her own. If a joke relies on a certain experience that the observer doesn’t have, he/she won’t understand the contrast of the joke and therefore it won’t be funny. That’s why inside jokes are funny only to a certain group who share a common experience. On the other hand, if the joke has already been told enough times to the observer, he/she may expect it beforehand and it loses its contrasting/humorous effect. This is why I didn’t like the “sweep” joke in The Saddle Row Review: I’ve seen that type of build-up so many times before that I expected the punchline almost verbatim. And I think this is why I don’t like so many of the jokes in the newest episodes – I’ve already heard them so many times before that it becomes more like basic story exposition, except that nothing actually happens. But back on point, subtlety in a joke makes it difficult to expect, which means that even if you’ve heard the joke before, it can still deliver the humorous contrast instantly without giving you time to anticipate it. For example, there’s a similar joke in Putting Your Hoof Down and Suited for Success: one character is giving reassurance while another suddenly interjects with doubt (Rarity and Pinkie in the former, Twilight and Rainbow Dash in the latter). I always enjoy both scenes even though I’m very familiar with the joke, because there’s no needless build-up to either. I appreciate that the old writers knew I’d get the jokes without explanation, but it seems these new writers are afraid to leave anything unclear.
Post script disclaimer: I don’t mean to put anyone down for liking the jokes in these episodes, I just personally don’t find them very subtle, which usually ruins the humor for me.