"I miscounted the men, Liz! I miscounted the men!"

Gavin Volure (Steve Martin) thinks he will get away with a daring and cunning escape from his white collar house-arrest. Instead he gets crash-tackled by a federal marshall. Poor Gavin Volure! Having bid goodbye to the woman he loves (Tina Fey), Gavin locks one federal agent in a bathroom and flees across the law, anticipating -- wrongly -- that all his guards were occupied as this critical moment.

He miscounted the men.

This bizarre and hilarious episode (s03e04) of Tina Fey's sit-com "30 Rock" on NBC, penned by John Riggi, provides a compelling glimpse into the unfolding edge of language itself. The phrase "I miscounted the men!" is uttered masterfully by Steven Martin with the force of a catch-phrase, punchline or slogan although it is none of these. Nor is it really even a joke.

At base it is simply a partially applicable linguistic oddity with an ambiguous potency. The Liz Lemon character, after Gavin Volure's failed suicide attempt ends in a tackle from pop-star Tracy Jordan, mutters to herself, "Hmm... he miscounted the men."

Part-joke, part slogan, a dash of sense and a spoonful of nonsense -- all these factors are arranged in this remark in a particular proportion to each other. They are held in a curious and delicate balance which recurs through out this episode, demonstrating very bluntly the point at which new meaning arises into human languages.

Linguistic coherence and incoherence always meet in verbal comedy but no two meeting are exactly the same and the use of these meetings by comedians does not exhaust the significance of this conjunction. It is like a zen-movement in which sense and non-sense are balanced upon the tip of a sword's blade.

Here it is again: Liz Lemon mistakes a Japanese "sex doll" replica of Tracy Jordan slumped stiffly in a chair in the corridor for the real person pop star. She exclaims, with great agitation, "Tracy, get out of the hallway!" Immediately the living man steps from an adjacent doorway with a sly grin of paranoid triumph, declaring, "Or am I???"

Sure, this gets the message across -- Ha! You did not realize that this "me" was only a decoy. I fooled you just as I will fool others! However it also fails to get its message across. The grammar is mis-wired and blows a fuse. There is a special balance of coherent and incoherent communication presented in these exchanges.

And a third time: When pop-star Tracy Jordon, newly wealthy from his porn video game profits, hears the tale of the horrible killing of Jose and Kitty Menendez by their own children. Fearing the worst, Tracy takes steps to prevent his own patricide while employing the false plural term "Menendi" and explaining how he intends to "ex-cape Unmenendez." He plans to escape from the situation with a Menendez-style result, obviously, but the grammatical constraints of the expression are reduced in a specific degree which produces this new reaction -- humorous and puzzled appreciation. (or dismisall in the case of those who are not sensitive of swift enough).

This is not a challenge to the definitions of appropriate and inappropriate semantics, it is an applicate of appropriate semantics in the production of new linguistic order. The Frenchman Gilles Deluze once went on television to define style as "creating a language within your language." The work of the artist is to access a style which is functional but appears invalid or inert when compared to old existing works. It compares unfavourably to past fashions and therefore has the potential to present new style. This is a balancing act by which the articulator, if he or she succeeds, carries the project of language forward.

When Gavin Volure attempts to give Alec Baldwin the slip by escaping out the bathroom window of his mansion-jail he buys himself some time by leaving a running tape-deck behind to simulate conversations with Mr. Baldwin who is standing outside the bathroom door. A few comments work in this fashion but rapidly it becomes clear that no one can very well predict a random future conversation enough to plan all his responses in advance. The comments from within the bathroom lose the expected timing and start to slip away from the coherence of the conversation. At a certain point in this slippage the audience laughs as we pass through the invisible veil into nonsense.

"Innovation... Tomorrow... America... Sunstream."

That's the narration from a coporate television advertisement for Volure's bogus company "Sunstream." We are invited to laugh as the use of mere mood and associative terminology by corporations to move people without actually communicating the facts. Yet the membrane of meaning that should go between these evocative terms is not really absent. Instead it is present in the form of the humorous revelation of a new stylistic sense -- a very subtle feeling which is shared between these words and their context and the contemporary mind.

The feeling comes across and words are employed but we are directly confronted with the absence of the connective tissue. Or rather we are exposed to the actual connective tissue of the comedy -- since it is humourous delight and social critique rather than persuasive business rationality which is presented. The writers take us to the border where conventional linguistic sensibility would rupture but they do not present it as ruptured quite simply because it is not ruptured -- a new bit of membrane provides teh substructure but, of course, because the new is not recognized in comparison with the old expect in contrast, the mystery is the "absence" of sense coupled with the form of sense.

The edge of the blade is articulated as we pass from the sensible to the insensible, a move that is reiterated in the final descent into madness as Volure begins to sing "Tomorrow"

Tomorrow, tomorrow
I love you: "Tomorrow,"
You're only a day... doh dohday...


spa magi said...

speaking of lovers of film! i realise this is not the review of a movie, but wouldn't it be grand if movie reviews were conducted in such a way? it makes me wonder, do people bother themselves with standard movie reviews? & if so, why, if they do not involve stimulating discussions that encourage more sophisticated thought about what makes entertainment their supposed treasured art form? so, for what it's worth, i'll say that reading pascal's obviously sensitive insights into the subtle-yet-pervasive shimmering cheshire dragon that is language who is stealing certain reverently-written shows, is better than getting a thumb up --anywhere, anyday! signed,
anonymous for now

jayman419 said...

I realize it's been quite a while, but Tracy's "Or am I???" seems to have tied the whole thing together.

When we first hear it, it is 'functional, but appears invalid'. But he says it again.

In response to Gavin's 'What? But you're down there?!' it becomes a perfectly normal response, which only seems humorous because of what we've heard before.

Tracy's apparent nonsense is one of the main tools that the writers use to play with language and expectations.