Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

The Art of the Burlesque, 21st-Century Style

For some readers, burlesque is a kind of public entertainment, now quite dated, that featured comedy skits, slapstick, risqué songs, and perhaps striptease. But there's an older, more general meaning of burlesque that you might have studied in a literature criticism class, denoting a style of humor that gets traction by juxtaposing high and low humor that, in the words of one definition, "vulgarizes lofty material or treats ordinary material with mock dignity."

The word burlesque — it has French, Italian, and Spanish roots — has been in English since the 17th century. But it seems likely that the notion of it is as old as human history — because we all like to laugh, we all seem to have an innate capacity for perceiving irony, and we all have experience of social, cultural, political, and religious hierarchies that lend themselves to comic exploitation. I think burlesque is now experiencing a new golden age, for a number of reasons. The enablement is mainly from technology, but language plays a central part in the demotic burlesque that you can find, often without looking, every day — on the Internet.

In a Lounge column last year I talked about the use of language in Internet memes. This is an area ripe for exploitation of burlesque because we have at our disposal a number of tools that facilitate the juxtaposition of the high and low with a few simple clicks and Photoshop hacks. In that column I talked about the humor of the doge meme, one that does not rely on burlesque. But it's not difficult to push the envelope of the doge meme into the area of burlesque by mixing up the memetic doge (a shiba inu) with the Doge of Venice; and it wasn't long after the doge meme appeared that the Doge meme variant was born:

And voilà: burlesque — the formal dignity of the doge of Venice as depicted in art, on which is superimposed the comically stilted language of the doge meme, or even the doge dressed in the Doge's clothing.

I love this kind of thing, and I'm clearly not alone in getting a chuckle out of it, because entire websites and Facebook pages are devoted to quick-and-easy mashups of high and low that have an immediate comic appeal. One Facebook community, Classical Art Memes, is by its nature a hotbed of burlesque. The idea there is to start with an image from pictorial art, often a well-known one. This is obviously the "high" element, because we know that we are supposed to revere art and take it seriously. Such images from art are then matched up with a surprising caption, often written in slang or an informal register, that brings the elevated image crashing down to earth through some comic misinterpretation. As with much Internet humor, the misses on Classical Art Memes often outnumber the hits, but the hits can be hilarious (to my mind, anyway), like this one that takes its inspiration from a late 15th-century painting, "Christ appearing to the Virgin":

Some memes push informal language even further into their formal settings, putting it into the mouths of dignified figures. This is another recurring trope of burlesque, and instances of it predate the Internet by centuries. But the Internet just makes it easier, since images suggestive of dignity are only a short search away, and captioning tools, provided by various websites, give comedians all that is needed to bring high art down to low humor. It also helps that the Internet has facilitated the propagation and establishment of modern slang, by creating a virtual speech community that is accessible to everyone.

While contemporary examples of Internet burlesque have counterparts in antiquity, it seems likely that the groundwork for what we see online today was set down more recently — for example, in the pre-Internet work of the comedians behind Monty Python's Flying Circus, which exploited burlesque in much of its humor. In particular, many of the cutout animations of Terry Gilliam drew on burlesque by taking images from art and undermining them by introducing anachronistic language. This cutout historical figure, for example, has been given a movable jaw so that he can announce that he has just invented the air sickness bag in Gilliam's animation The Miracle of Flight.

Before the Internet, such things were certainly imaginable, but the ability to bring them to life was limited to the few professionals who had access to what were then sophisticated editing tools. Today, anyone can create a comic pastiche with a few searches, cut & pastes, and clicks.

The Facebook pages associated with the initialism UUUM (Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes) are another showcase for burlesque. A recurring theme there is the imposition of a comic caption, nearly always the low contribution, onto an image that would otherwise lend itself only to a literal interpretation, thus undermining the literal intent of the image. The distance between high and low is not always great. Here, for example, is a makeover of the album cover of "The Essential Kenny Loggins," updated for Internet giggles with the help of a pun:

It's no accident that images from religion provide fertile ground for burlesque: what other topic is viewed by so many as sacrosanct, not to be subject to any treatment that detracts from its dignity and grandeur? Of course the very existence of such notions merely invites people to break the rules, and now that everyone has access to meme-building tools, the distance between the irreverent imagination and the published meme is only a few short keystrokes and clicks. Here are a couple of examples of religious burlesque, both inspired by the Biblical account of Jesus' resurrection as depicted in art:

Not all faith communities have equal capacity to appreciate burlesque when it is at their expense. The response of some Muslims to comic depictions of their prophet, such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, are a reminder that the success of burlesque is nearly always in the eye of the beholder, and different beholders may have very different views about where you can draw the line between humor and insult. But it is surely in the nature of burlesque to play with that boundary in ways that make some people uncomfortable, and to bring together ideas that would not otherwise share cognitive space but for the deviousness of human imagination. Laughter is always good medicine, and today the Internet has put at our disposal the ability to draw it out through the combination in unexpected ways of two things that pervade modern culture: pictorial representation and vernacular language.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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