Saturday, 13 April 2013

Chris Port Blog #346. Don’t Frighten The Horses: Frau Blücher, Frau Thatcher, and the Law of Increasing Returns

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” ~ Marx (Karl, not Groucho).

The law of diminishing returns is one of the truisms of comedy. Put simply, if you keep telling the same joke, expect less laughter. However, like all truisms, this is occasionally false. Some jokes become funnier with repetition. Frau Blücher is a classic example.

Frau Blücher is a running gag in the sublime Young Frankenstein. She’s a homage to the sinister housekeeper trope in horror films d'un certain âge. When first introduced, there’s a crack of thunder and horses whinny in terror. That’s funny in itself because, like all Gothic lightning flashes, all it really reveals is the pathetic fallacy of fiction - that the elements are Shakespearean mirrors of human nature (whereas in reality it’s completely the other way around).

Then the gag starts to run. It gets legs, as they say in the business (four of them, to be precise). Horses - in horror films - are noble, sensitive beasts. We naturally assume they’re reacting to Frau Blücher’s creepy presence. However, as the gag runs, we realize they’re indifferent to her. They whinny in terror at the mere mention of her name - regardless of whether they’re even in the same room.

Here’s a composite edit.

Frau Blücher…

(N.B. It’s funnier in the original when the gags are more spread out - see reincorporation comments later).

This then begs a question: what, exactly, are the horses scared of? Why aren’t they scared by her presence - but terrified at the mention of her name? How can they be terrified of her name when they couldn’t possibly hear it - or even understand it? Does the name have some supernatural power?  

In Film Studies folklore, there are some fascinating speculations about the etymology of Blücher’s name -  ranging from Germanic glue factories to Prussian generals and Freudian patients. But ultimately they all disappear into myth like Shergar… 

At this point, you should get the joke. The horses whinny because it’s funny - and for no other reason. The joke becomes funnier with each repetition. As we become further removed from the source of fear, it stands in its own right.  

Also, we delight in reincorporation. When something is reintroduced, we remember. If it’s important (or funny) that makes us feel clever. There’s something deeply comical about horses whinnying in (fictional) terror - especially offstage. It’s the perfect, disconnected meta-joke. 

Now, Dear Reader, having distanced us from the source of terror, let me reintroduce her: the Housekeeper of Fear and Economics herself - Frau Thatcher. 

The mere mention of her name - even offstage - is enough to frighten the horses. We know what they’re whinnying about. That’s not the question. The question is: which joke is funnier?  

The Left’s Dorothean “Ding Dong…”

Or the Right’s straight theft of the satirical “I’m in love…”?

I’m not going to get into the political debate (here) - or even a debate about good and bad taste. Broadly speaking, I’m an anti-Thatcherite - and that’s all you need to know (for the moment). But I think the Left has made an aesthetic tactical error with their choice of song. Yes, it’s in bad taste (etc.) but that’s not the problem. The problem is it falls under the law of diminishing returns.  

Put simply, if you attack Thatcher as a dead monster (rather than Thatcherism as an Undead idea) - then delight in her death - it’s neither funny nor an attack. Either choose another monster, or choose another song (personally, I’d choose another monster - but that’s another story…) 

Regardless of who wins the battle of the downloads (and which media mogul picks up the increasing royalties), the Right’s choice of “I’m in love…” is actually far wittier. And - Right, Left, or Ambidextrous - we need to keep our wits about us…


  1. Not The Nine O'Clock News - Conservative Conference

    Not the Nine O'Clock News - Conservative Party Political Broadcast

    Not the Nine O'Clock News - Government Statement on Employment Figures

  2. Imperial Cereal Haiku

    is... um... Madgeless Man?

    The hard neuroscience of managerialism.