Dave Barry begins his annual "Year in Review" with a list that demonstrates just how hilariously strange 2008 has been. But the list itself is odd. See if you can tell why:
"O.J. actually got convicted of something."
"Gasoline hit $4 a gallon -- and those were the good times."
"On several occasions, 'Saturday Night Live' was funny."
"There were a few days there in October when you could not completely rule out the possibility that the next Treasury secretary would be Joe the Plumber."
If you said: "Wait a second, all of those statements are true!" you are talking to yourself again and probably need medication. But even so, you might recognize one of Barry's primary tricks here, and that is: The truth is funny. Or, it can be, if (a) You have rapier-sharp powers of observation that allow you to see what other people sense but don't recognize until it's pointed out to them; or (b) You are a master of juxtaposition and irony, and are able to place facts in a context that reveals the underlying absurdity of the human condition.
The first item, about O.J., is a good example of the latter. If Barry had written, "O.J. was convicted of robbery and kidnapping," it wouldn't have been even slightly amusing. The words "actually got convicted of something" are the key here, economically expressing sarcasm laced with outrage.
The second item is more complex. We all remember the pain at the pump when gas hit $4. It's Barry's wit to point out that, now that the price has been cut in half, we'd give anything to go back to the days when an expanding global economy caused oil prices to spike. To make readers switch mental gears so sharply, with the simple, unexpected "and those were the good times," forces the laugh.
Next, merely by pointing out that "on several occasions" SNL was funny in 2008, Barry calls to mind both the memory of the show's side-splitting election spoofs, and the years (decades?) of absolute dreck that preceded it. A statement that simultaneously praises and eviscerates is always good for a chuckle.
But all the above was just a setup for the real punch line of this list: the "few days there in October" when one could "not completely rule out" that Joe the Plumber would become secretary of the Treasury. This one at first seems different than the other list items, in that it's clearly not true. But then you stop and remember to what absurd degree the final weeks of the campaign became all about Joe, and you're forced to recalculate: Is "not completely rule out" really an exaggeration?
Now, that's funny.
Tom Shroder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.