Sep 29, 2013

Defcom, defcom (Maud)

This chainmail joke has made the rounds at least three times --- that's the number of times we received it, Maud was the last to send it. It's perhaps a bit dated now with the tension over Syria easing, but was composed by John Cleese of Monty Python fame. It's not necessarily his best joke but Cleese's so good, even his routine jokes are still worth it. So lets kill it, the joke, by trying to explain.


John Cleese

It starts thus:

The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent events in Syria and have therefore raised their security level from “Miffed” to “Peeved.” Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to “Irritated” or even “A Bit Cross.” The English have not been “A Bit Cross” since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from “Tiresome” to “A Bloody Nuisance.” The last time the British issued a “Bloody Nuisance” warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.

Why is this paragraph funny? Well, because, (a) it reinforces common prejudice about the English as understated and stiff-upperlipped people (most jokes derive their fun from prejudice), (b) it reaches its aim by displacing the hierarchy of defcoms alert levels with a more fundamental ordering on the (purported) English character. 

We've created a schema for fun. Whom else is around to apply it to? Let's start nearby, one step at a time. The Scots, right:

The Scots have raised their threat level from “Pissed Off” to “Let’s get the Bastards.” They don’t have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

We've lightened the joke by dropping two of the four defcom levels, and furthermore neutralized the mechanics of prejudice by saying something that the English may not like to hear. It's a joke on three levels now. 

As a side effect, we've grouped the English and Scots together and can take on new victims. Who's the next nearest neighbor? The French, of course, the prime target of British disdain during the ages (after WWII, the Brits briefly disliked the Germans more that the frog eater but quickly reverted to previous form):

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from “Run” to “Hide.” The only two higher levels in France are “Collaborate” and “Surrender.” The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France ‘s white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country’s military capability.

So Cleese told the story of WWII (never mind that the French did not collaborate or surrendered during WWI) for the benefit of the littler kids, restored the old defcom hierarchy (discontinuing the discontinuity, more steps are funnier if we can pull it off), and turned it on its head. Let the frog-eaters have it. The joke has four levels now --- all good jokes are multi-layered.

Let's relax a bit and apply the same, unmodified schema to the Italians:

Italy has increased the alert level from “Shout Loudly and Excitedly” to “Elaborate Military Posturing.” Two more levels remain: “Ineffective Combat Operations” and “Change Sides.”

The fun here is in not having modified the schema for once. Repetition is funny in itself, if combined with a switch in focus. Let's see whether we can do it again (repeat the repetition). Yes:


The Germans have increased their alert state from “Disdainful Arrogance” to “Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs.” They also have two higher levels: “Invade a Neighbour” and “Lose.”

It sounds all very logical, and is funny because it isn't (logical). Technically, the joke has reached the fifth level. But we can't repeat the repetition again lest we get boring. We need something new. And we get it:


Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels ..

from WWII to present-day politics, and from four down to one defcom level. Can we do this again? Yes:

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

Defcom is out of the window, the time is 1588, and we kick Spanish ass. Armada. This was the joke's climax. 

Now for a coda  Let's bring back the original 4-level schema, and say goodbye to WW's:

Australia, meanwhile, has raised its security level from “No worries” to “She’ll be right, Mate.” Two more escalation levels remain: “Crikey! I think we’ll need to cancel the barbie this weekend!” and “The barbie is cancelled.” So far no situation has ever warranted use of the last final escalation level.

Brilliant. The joke's architecture could be used to compose the first movement of a classical symphony, it's sheer Sonatenhauptsatzform

Apologies for being so serious.

Update: Glenn writes this joke isn't from Cleese. Perhaps that's part of the joke. My analysis stands, though, for the time being.