He's got no sense of humor (The Laughing Fish)

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It’s January 10, 1993, a week after the debut of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and a month before the “Robin’s Reckoning” two-parter. The top song is still Whitney Houston with “I Will Always Love You.” Also in the top ten are Shai, Boyz II Men, TLC, and Madonna. The top movie is A Few Good Men, with Aladdin, The Bodyguard, and Leprechaun also in the top ten.
In the news, there are riots ongoing in Mumbai; they will last until the 20th, the same day as the (presumably unrelated) death of Audrey Hepburn. Tomorrow, Monday Night Raw, the longest-running WWE show, begins. At least from here, 22 years later, it seems like there’s not much going on in the news.
Fortunately, there’s plenty going on in BTAS. Most notable, perhaps, is the return of Harley Quinn. From here that doesn’t seem that strange: she’s a popular character who has fought Batman frequently in the DCAU, DC comics, and video games, other heroes occasionally, had starring roles in both comics of her own and as part of the Gotham City Sirens team book, and is pretty clearly being positioned by the marketing of the upcoming Suicide Squad film as its primary draw.
But most of that hadn’t happened yet when this episode was made. Harley Quinn was certainly marked already, as a rare instance of a named sidekick to an established villain and one of the most interesting and entertaining parts of “Joker’s Favor,” but as we have discussed before, a pattern doesn’t exist the first time it happens. It is here that she becomes a recurring character, and it is immediately obvious that the status is well-deserved. Her bits in the Joker’s commercials are very funny, from her chirpy imitation of a stereotypical 1950s sitcom housewife to her repeated aversion to fish. The best, though, are the two moments that show how skewed her emotional responses are: first, after the Joker lays out an elaborate death trap involving a shark tank, he then offers to make Harley a mermaid, providing her with a costume that looks like a fish from the waist up and has her legs sticking out the bottom. That, not the death trap, causes her to call the Joker “sick.” Then, at the end of the episode when the Joker is apparently dead, she responds to Harvey Bullock describing him as “a demented, abusive, psychotic maniac” with a heartfelt “Yeah, I’m really going to miss him.”
Part of that is down to Arleen Sorkin’s brilliant performance, which manages somehow to keep up with Mark Hamill’s tour de force as the Joker. That’s unsurprising, as writer Paul Dini created the role of Harley specifically for Sorkin to play (hence why her real first name, Harleen, shares the unusual ending of Sorkin’s, “een” rather than “ene”). But it’s also simply in the nature of Harley’s character: unlike the Joker, she is actually funny. Despite being just as willing to injure and kill, Harley Quinn still comes across as bubbly where the Joker is malicious, and her performance in this episode contains none of his menace.
It’s particularly noticeable in this episode, which makes a point of noting that the Joker isn’t funny. Batman says that the Joker’s motivations are incomprehensible, that they make sense only to him, and as the Joker will tell Harley in a later episode, “It’s not funny if you have to explain the joke.”
Which is not to say that the Joker’s motivations are anywhere near as opaque as Batman makes them out to be. The Joker is a force of anarchy; his role is to mock and disrupt the structures of power in our society, to expose them as grotesque jokes. This is 1993; there’s a recession happening, brought about by a decade of Reagonomics, which is to say a decade of unchecked capitalist excess and rampant greed. Thus the Joker creates his bizarre mockery of the process of creating, patenting, and marketing a new product.
First, it should be noted that the patent clerk is absolutely wrong: you can patent an organism in the United States, and have been able to since 1980, when the Supreme Court upheld an initially rejected patent on an oil-eating bacterium. At the same time, the patent clerk is right: the idea is intuitively absurd. The Joker’s stated intent, to demand royalties for all Joker fish sold, is qualitatively similar to the standard practice of agricultural companies to use patents to force farmers to buy new seed every year, instead of saving some seed from the harvest and planting that. Given that intention, however, it makes little business sense for him to advertise his fish, as the companies that normally distribute fish would have no choice but to carry his fish, and they would be the ones to handle the marketing. But then he wouldn’t be able to mock television commercials, which is the real point: to demonstrate the absurdity of the entire system.
And of course Batman doesn’t get it. Batman can’t get it; the Joker’s entire scheme is based on subverting the union of capitalist and state power that is intellectual property, while Batman could not exist without the capitalist power wielded by Bruce Wayne to buy his toys and hide his activities, nor could he exist without the state’s power to define law, and hence to define criminals and criminality. Batman is himself a union of capitalist and state power; of course he cannot comprehend their subversion!
But that’s precisely the tragedy of the Joker: Batman can never and will never get the joke. The Joker will never make Batman laugh, which is to say get Batman to recognize the absurdity of the power structures Batman serves. The Joker arranges massive spectacles, but his intended audience never understands the point he is trying to make, and so the spectacle inevitably turns back on itself, rendering the Joker the butt of his own jokes.
And even then, he isn’t as funny as Harley Quinn.

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8 thoughts on “He's got no sense of humor (The Laughing Fish)

  1. That is probably where the patent clerk’s declaration comes from, yes. But it’s still (legally) wrong in 1993, while being intuitively morally correct in any time.

    • This is a good point. They’re sort of in every time–40s fashions, cars, TVs, guns, yet Clock King had a very 80s laptop in his flashback, video games are a thing, etc.

  2. I know this is super-late, but some thoughts anyways.
    This seems like a very post-Dark Knight view of the Joker, where he’s very much of an anarchist trying to prove a point. However, I don’t think that’s quite the mindset they were going for here.
    Joker’s motivations are explicitly stated in this episode. When the patent clerk asks Batman why he’s being targeted by the Joker despite being a harmless paper-pusher, Batman says:
    “And in his sick mind, that’s the joke, Mr. Francis.”
    That’s about the extent of it: He’s a bad guy who does bad things for personal stimulation, and the whole setup is just an elaborate excuse to terrorize a bunch of random people.

    • I don’t think it’s post-Dark Knight exactly–I think the DCAU Joker does represent a particular vision of anarchy and a failed Trickster–but I think perhaps it’s premature here. In revising for the book version I will endeavor to unpack that argument first, an then talk about what’s going on here.

      • That’s fair. I also realize I came off as a bit passive aggressive there, there so I apologize for that.
        However, I do think that attempting to ascribe “logical” motivation to the Joker (or at least the DCAU Joker) is missing the point of the character, which is that he’s -il-logical. There’s not really any rational explanation for his scheme in “Christmas With The Joker,” or his actions in “Joker’s Favor.” Inside his head his nonsensical plans all make sense and run on some abstract internal logic, but on the outside nobody can fully understand or find coherency in them. The only thing that’s clear is that death is the punchline.

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