“Are you thinking I said ESP?”
The Office, NBC
From The Believer:
(12) On an episode of The Office, Pam sets up Michael with her friend Julie. As Michael and Julie get to know each other, Michael asks her about her work. Julie says, “I’m an ESL teacher.” Michael says, “Really? See, I didn’t think you could teach that. I thought that was something you were born with. What am I thinking right now?” To which Julie answers, “Are you thinking I said ESP?” We can analyze this sequence, but one way to know a multi-alarm joke is by sensation. You can feel certain jokes rattling through your mind like Plinko chips. This particular joke is not outrageously complex, but it doesn’t resolve instantaneously. When Michael says, “What am I thinking right now?” we must scramble, in the middle of their conversation, to break the joke down into meaning: Julie teaches English as a Second Language and Michael thinks she teaches extrasensory perception. Wow, is he dumb. This is very basic dramatic irony—there is a gap between what Michael understands and what we understand—but it is expressed rapidly and indirectly. With a degree of wit, that is, and a respect for the audience. We have to execute at least three steps here. First, since Michael does not actually say ESP, we have to convert “What am I thinking right now?” into the proposition “Michael thinks she means ESP.” Second, we have to recognize the difference between what Michael thinks to be true (ESL is ESP) and what we know to be true (ESL is not ESP), and, third, we have to interpret that difference (Michael is an idiot). If we can process this incongruity, it feels nice. (Aristotle thought humor arose from a feeling of superiority.) We are inclined to laugh, but there is not time. Michael’s line is not delivered as a zinger, and there is no laugh track to slow the scene. Julie’s answer is coming quickly on the heels of his question, so we have to stay alert. The dumb irony in Michael’s line is a joke, but it’s a setup, not the punch line. Without hesitation Julie says, “Are you thinking I said ESP?” A good way to ruin a joke is to explain it, and Julie’s line seems at first merely to be explaining the ESL/ESP confusion in case we didn’t catch it on the fly. And indeed, she is subtly recapitulating for our benefit, but she is also extending and layering the joke. Julie could have said, “I have no idea what you’re thinking. I teach ESL.” That line does one thing only, hammering home the single joke so that absolutely nobody will miss it. But Julie’s question introduces further incongruity. The substance of her question is that Michael is mistaken about her ability to read minds—Are you thinking I said ESP? Because that’s not what I said. You obviously think I can read minds, but I can’t. But in answering Michael’s question about what he’s thinking, Julie is in a sense actually reading Michael’s mind—he had in fact thought that she meant ESP. She disavows mind-reading ability precisely in the act of mind-reading. This is a classic paradox, a logical impossibility originating, in this case, from the incongruity between what she is saying and what she is doing. And, alas, the mind’s work is not quite done, because this paradox has comic meaning. It isn’t paradox for paradox’s sake; it must be interpreted: Michael is so transparent that his mind can be read by an ESL teacher. In a sense, Michael was so outrageously wrong about ESP that he was right—Julie can read minds.
(13) (Most viewers of The Office do all of this without any analysis, of course. The mind does its work, the mouth laughs. We are largely unconscious of the mechanisms of the joke and the activity of our minds. Viewers know it’s comic—they don’t need to know why. Understanding or articulating the joke is not the same thing as getting the joke, and it is not, thank god, requisite. An explanation of the joke is in fact an explanation of how we almost immediately got it, even if the joke made us scramble.)