Recently, in my class on Design, Culture and Society at Rensselaer, we've been talking about humor and creativity. I made the classic argument that a joke or comic expression of some kind typically springs forth when two or more seemingly unrelated frames of meaning temporarily collide to produce a laugh or a smile. The larger point is that creativity in a much broader sense can also happen during collisions of that sort. I noted that in New York City and elsewhere there are literally boiler rooms where talented people sit around every day engaged in crafting these events, writing and testing dozens of amusing lines for the comedians on late night television shows. As I understand it, they start with the daily news and start exploring points of connection, an odd variety of mass production.
With these thoughts in mind, I happened upon a version of the famous Internet gag, the "Hitler finds out" program, one that lets anybody write subtitles for a scene lifted from an old movie about Hitler's last day in his bunker in Berlin. There are probably thousands of versions of this on YouTube. So I decided to produce one for the class, "Hitler finds out that he's not been admitted to the Design, Innovation and Society program" at RPI. I included several in jokes from the semester, for example a reference to the three weeks we spent reading and discussing Jeff Wiltse's wondeful book, Contested Waters, a history of swimming pools in the USA. The script took all of 20 minutes to write and, alas, includes some typos. (You get what you pay for.)
I showed the clip yesterday with brief introduction that took note of the fact that young Adolf Hitler desperately wanted to become a painter, applying twice to an important school of art in Vienna and twice rejected. I noted that in some ways his dreams matched their own -- the desire to become a successful designer and artist. "Looking back on it now, it may have been one of the most calamitous turning points in the 20th century. Think of all the destruction, suffering and slaughter that might have been prevented if only young Adolf has been admitted to art school." I then observed that "a little known (very little known) fact is that Hitler applied to a forerunner of the program in which you are studying in at Rensselaer."
Of course, the humor in all of these "Hitler finds out..." clips stems from the fact that most Americans can't understand a word of the German the actors on the screen are speaking and the fact that watching Hitler rant and rave about matters from our own time, ones disconnected from World War II, from the Holocaust and other calamities, produces effects that are sometimes funny.
Here's the clip: Hitler finds out he's not admitted to the Design, Innovation and Society program