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As "Mole Hunt" is the first episode, it is worth going into some detail to highlight the techniques used in the show from it's inception. Since a running gag cannot run without the gag being set up, you will find here a primer to those gags, as well as other devices ingeniously employed by writer Adam Reed.

Hang a Lampshade on the Manatee

Cultural Context

In "Mole Hunt", which aired in 2009, Archer refers to Pam as a manatee. This is an insult typically used against large women - is Reed really being so lazy as to make a fat joke? Could there be another layer to this insult? And if so, what might it be? As ludicrous as this header sounds, it actually makes a whole that of sense when we examine the context in which it applies.

In 2006, South Park's tenth season featured the now infamous "Cartoon Wars Part I and Part II" in which Family Guy is mocked for it's heavy use of cutaway gags - jokes where a character says something random and there is a brief cutaway which quickly demonstrates what has just been said.[1] Matt Stone and Trey Parker made fun of this style of comedy by using an absurd analogy: the writers of Family Guy are like manatees swimming in a pool and randomly selecting idea balls which form the basis of the jokes. In other words - very little thought is required in the process of writing such jokes and they do very little, if anything, to carry the plot.[2] Their sole function is to elicit a laugh. The term "manatee" was then (apparently) adopted as a name for cutaway gags and was even embraced by the Family Guy writers. Fundamentally, it is a disparaging term for poorly thought-out random gags, which Reed could be said to be distancing himself and Archer from at it's inception, signalling his intention to create well thought-out jokes which are by definition not lazy

Hang the what now?

In the scenes leading to Archer calling Pam a manatee, there are 3 cutaway gags:

  • Abelard barking "Puttin' on the Ritz" from the night before.
  • Archer taking a phone call from Malory whilst in bed watching interracial porn with Lana 6 months earlier.
  • Archer living a lavish style over the years [montage]; gambling with expensive prostitutes. [see below].

By calling Pam a manatee, writer Adam Reed "hangs a lampshade" on the technique ie. draws our attention to something obscure which we might otherwise have missed - the 3 cutaway gags - whilst signalling (to South Park and Family Guy?) that they can be used to tell a story, provide background and character insights - and not just as lazy throwaway gags. The use of 3 gags is also an application of the rule of 3, with each gag getting slightly longer, more detailed and funnier.

There are 3 more cutaways in the remainder of the episode:

  • Archer beats Pam with the dolphin toy (resulting in 3 stitches).
  • Archer saying "just the tip?" to Cheryl (3 times).
  • Malory on the phone with Jakov earlier that day (callback to earlier in the episode).

By combining the techniques of cutaway gags (which can be lazily used as random fillers) with other comedic devices such as callbacks and the rule of 3, the writing of Archer shows itself to be complex, layered and, above all, extremely funny. In this first episode, Reed demonstrates to the world he is a comedic force to be reckoned with. Shots fired.

Running Gags - The Setup

Since "Mole Hunt" is the first episode in a show which would go on for another nine seasons (with a tenth in progress at the time of writing), a lot of the running gags used in the show have there origins or are set up in this episode. Their appearance puts the "gag" in "running gag" (phrasing). They may appear incidental at first, but in retrospect they are foundational to the comedic structure of the show. They are listed fully here and can be summarised as:

  • Ping pong paddle (first running gag of the show, visually planted and subsequently spoken about).
  • Woodhouse Abuse
  • Lana's Inter-racial Porn Habit
  • Archer's mother issues
  • Ants
  • Buckles
  • Shut up!
  • Can't or won't?
  • Frisky Malory

'Inappropriate' Jokes vs Context

In the third cutaway - a montage revealing some of Archer's numerous expense claims - Archer is seen playing at a roulette table alongside a prostitute:

"Come on 22 black, 22 black, 22 BLACK [ball misses] - ass! - son of a bitch!"
[turns to adjacent black male]
"Not you giant African man - I'm sorry. Can I offer you a drink?  How 'bout this expensive prostitute?"

'Ass!' and 'son of a bitch!' are used as expressions of annoyance or contempt when directed at a person, or frustration when directed at objects. Context dictates their intended target. When combined with 'black' in the context of losing at roulette, the joke has one meaning; when followed by the slightly delayed appearance of the black man to Archer's left after he utters his outburst, the joke quickly switches to a second meaning. This creates a clever word play implying a racial slur 'black ass son of a bitch' was uttered, even where no such slur was intended.  If Archer had said the same words while directing them at the man to his left, absent the 'losing at roulette' context, this would be perceived as a racist joke.  Here Reed demonstrates early on the importance of context in the conveyance of meaning, and therefore offense.  Thus mastered he is able to revel in the fun of punning and implying offense, without intending it.  The writer is intending to imply offense, and therefore 'gets away with it' multiple times.

Meta-Humour: Implied vs Intended

In the scene following the casino, which cuts in rapidly, Archer says to Cyril (who is still attempting to interrogate him over his operations account discrepancies) "…that is a very serious implication Cyril". This is an example of a 'quick-cut': a comedic device which Reed uses throughout the show which makes one scene refer tangentially to a previous scene, or follow on semantically, even if they are only loosely related. In this case, it is a very serious implication that Archer (or Reed) made a racist joke. This works on three levels:

  1. The immediate context is Cyril implying that Archer abuses his expenses - the montage clearly demonstrates this to be the case but Archer still objects that it is a very serious implication.
  2. The prior context of the 'racist joke' is that it is implied - which it is - and is thus a very serious implication.
  3. If the implied joke had been intended to be racist, and not a meta-joke, then the implication that Archer (or his writer) is racist would be very serious.

Misdirection, Call backs and the Rule of 3

  • Misdirection (1) - Archer uses misdirection as a way of distracting Cyril from investigating discrepancies in Archer's operations account. This is lampshaded by Cyril's utterance "Ahhh, classic misdirection."
  • Misdirection (2) with call back (a) - in the next scene (the first scene in Malory Archer's office), Archer walks in on Malory who it has just been established is pleasuring herself in a phone-sex call with the head of the KGB, Major Jakov.  As she is climaxing with 'Oh yes! Oh God! Oh God..." Archer walks in "-dammit!" [the context shifts from pleasure to annoyance mid-exclamation]. Shocked, Malory then shouts at Archer "What the hell are you doing?" (as he has just walked in, without knocking). Archer replies, equally shocked, "What are you doing?" (as in, ahem, pleasuring herself). Ruffled, Malory reaches for an explantion "I, I, I'm..." and her drink "...for your information I've just been reviewing your operations account." Here, Malory employs misdirection to change the subject from the awkward moment they both shared, as well as a way for the writer to call back to the previous exchange Archer has just had with Cyril.
  • Misdirection (3) with call back (b) - In the second to last scene, Archer beckons Lana to 'shut up, it's classic misdirection' (using Cyril's line from earlier), after grabbing her and putting a gun to her head in a standoff. In the context of the sequence, it was not clearcut misdirection (who is being misdirected by what or whom?), implying that Archer misunderstood what misdirection was. When it is revealed that Archer has an erection at the thought of his mother getting killed, Kremenski lets go of Malory and Archer shoots him, thus revealing that the audience, as well as the antagonist were misdirected, and all with the use of an 'inappropriate erection'. This disgusts both Lana and Malory as it is real to them, whereas it is humorous to the audience because of the timing and the omniscience of the writer who carefully planted the seed to the gag earlier on - with 2 prior examples of misdirection, followed by two call backs - and misdirects using the protagonists erection.  

This provides a novel twist and a not-so-classic misdirection, involving 3 misdirections, 2 callbacks and a dick joke, thus being an instance of the comedic 'rule of 3', and a very clever piece of writing.  

  • Ants! - The 'ant' joke also employs the 'rule of 3' , plus 2 callbacks (once establishing itself) and one use of misdirection (the 'mole hunt' of the title acts as a ruse to get Archer into the mainframe). The first 2 instances are uttered by Archer (Kremenski's coffee, and donuts/Pam) and the third instance is uttered independently by Malory - implying that Archer picked up the expression from his mother. The third and final time references the donuts (which call back to the 2 earlier scenes) which Lana had knocked on the floor, after Archer offered her one as a peace offering. This 3rd time acts as a "wham line" - the callbacks and the rule of three are all brought together as the episode finishes with a wham!
  • As nobody has tidied them up since the earlier incident, Archer proceeds to shift responsibilty to Lana for their location on the floor (he didn't bother picking them up). It is precisely the sort of actions employed by Archer (and his inability/unwillingness to take responsibility) which leads to ants. A very complex metaphor for cleaning up after yourself!

References


Author: HighComs (talk)

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