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Great Sketches # 12: “Corporal Punishment” by The Whitest Kids U’Know

I would like to say a few words in defense of puns. A pun has been the sign of comedic desperation for so long that the very act of making one can be somewhat transgressive. Like Atari games and obscure breakfast cereals nobody but Quentin Tarantino remembers, the pun is seeing a bit of a resurgence in certain circles, perhaps a reaction to more than a decade of mean ad hominem humor defended in the name of “irony”. Puns are demanding, because they require you to put your ass on the line if they don’t work. And while most people will tell you that they’re the “lowest form of humor”, I prefer to think of them more as a potentially volatile substance that will blow up in your face if not handled carefully.

The most skillful practitioners of puns, such as The Firesign Theatre, Zucker/Abrams/Zucker, The Muppet Show, or the characters in the Callahan’s Crosstime Salooon series, understood that punning is best when it’s woven skillfully into the fabric of something else. Maybe one pun is the lowest form of humor but after 500 of them you can only stand back in awe. Strung together in breathless succession, puns can be almost beautiful. Then there’s the opposite approach, in which you trot out pun after pun at a painfully slow pace until your audience is beaten into submission.

The Whitest Kids U’Know tended to base much of their sketches around “edgy” material, but dig through their catalog enough and you’ll hit their pure silliness streak, of which today’s sketch is a prime example. The concept is so pure that it could have played on vaudeville with very few alterations. My only beef with it comes with the punchline, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Trevor Moore, the breakout star of the group, is basically the only actor in this, as a stern drill sergeant reading out a list of “promotions and demotions” in front of a super realistic giant American flag.  The title of the sketch refers not to the act of physical discipline but to an actual, barely seen character whose name is Private Punishment until he gets promoted…to Corporal Punishment.

What follows is a series of variations on the same joke, and I have to believe that the group had to throw out thousands of other candidates in favor of this small group. This could easily last an entire set at a club, and yet it wisely is kept under two minutes, just to the point where it starts to try your patience (although a part of me could easily keep listening to this).

It really is that dumb. Various members of this platoon include Colonel Malaise (promoted to General), sergeant Conversation (demoted to Private) and Captain -ble Traits (who somehow ends up an Admiral, even though this appears to be the Army, not the Navy. Don’t think about it too hard). The clear favorite among everyone I’ve ever shown this to is Sergeant Eyes Are Watching You, Watching You, Watching You, who must have had a hell of a time until he was promoted to Private.

Why is this a great sketch, you might ask? Well, it’s all in the presentation. Moore compensates for the lack of action in the scene by doing all sorts of tricks with his voice and inflection. There’s a notable difference between his promotions, which he shouts with patriotic pride, and his demotions, which are delivered with wide eyes and the kind of tone you would use for the scary part of a bedtime story. Some of the titles are delivered with Moore in wide shot, but others show us his facial expressions, which remain hilariously stiff no matter what he’s saying, such as the way he pronounces “MAJOR BABE!”. Good acting, man. It can elevate anything from Shakespeare to a goofy comedy sketch about ridiculous names.

It’s a cliche, but this is the kind of thing that’s almost always way harder than it looks. I can say from experience that writing a bunch of tiny self-contained jokes can be excruciatingly difficult. It’s not what many of us instinctively do when constructing a sketch anymore, which is why there’s a kind of audacity in even trying something this groan-worthy. As a great man once said, you have to dare to be stupid.

However, pun sketches can be even harder than traditional scene-based sketches to end, and that’s evidenced with the lazy joke that caps things off here. Yes, I’m docking some points for the use of the word “retarded”. Peg me as a thin-skinned liberal all you want. It’s my blog and I say that’s a hurtful word no matter how they meant it. I understand that it was “of the times (those times being a mere eight years ago) the sketch needed a bit of a bite after so much corniness, but they could have gone with many other options before this was on the table. I call it like I see it. I’d argue that a better ending wouldn’t have even mentioned the final officer’s name, simply leaving us to do the work mentally.

That aside, this sketch has become one of those guilty pleasures that transcends its guilt factor to become legitimately kind of amazing in its own right. Whether or not it was a direct rip off, it owes a lot to Graham Chapman’s many turns as the General of Monty Python, a similarly stern figure who made everything funnier through his insistence on being proper and his failure to keep the show from being “too silly“. There’s something incongruous about a man in full military garb that just lends itself to absurdity. Anyone who takes themselves that seriously is destined to sit on a few whoopie cushions in their time, and they’ll be much less prepared to handle it than the rest of us.

I’ll always think of this sketch and others like it as a kind of tribute to the comedy that, must have, at one point, been mainstream. Puns have never really gone away, but they’re worth re-examining every once and awhile. There’s so many of them, after all.

Are you disappointed that I made it through this entire post without making any puns myself? Guess I dis-ARMed you. Get it? Like the army? Uh…well, I guess there’s a reason we should leave this to professionals.