The Joker managed to do something in the fourth episode of Batman: The Animated Series which he’s not done in years. He made me laugh.
You start to wonder, reading the angry and malevolent Joker we see in so much media now, who his jokes are meant to actually be aimed at, and what their response should be. Grant Morrison’s run starts off Joker thinking he’s shot Batman in the head, after kidnapping a group of children. He stands over Batman and shrieks something to the effect of: “I finally killed Batman! And I did it in front of a bunch of vulnerable disabled kids!”
Aside from the momentary gasp at the audacity of his phrase, you notice there’s no actual joke there. No wordplay or pun, twist or punchline. The only thing that would make someone laugh is the fact that Joker dared say something like that – and that DC Comics would publish it. Joker himself doesn’t seem to have much of a laugh about it, and indeed shortly after he gets shot in the head for a bit.
Who is Joker aimed at? In the video games and cartoons, “Joker” has become an ironic term. He’s actually the least amusing character DC has, archly choosing to resist jokes and entertainment in order to shoot, maim and attack in random order, testing boundaries with everything he does. The currently-airing Suicide Squad proves an example of this, with their version of Joker pushing at the limits of what Warner Bros will happily put into a movie release. Each time you see this version of the Joker, injecting dark jokes into a thinning vein, you find that nothing he says actually raises anything other than an eyebrow.
Certainly, the Joker who was able to make Batman laugh has long-since vanished, having murdered a Robin, shot Batgirl, cut off Alfred’s hand and gone on a number of torments over the years. He’s a writers’ trick now, a way for each new incoming Batman script-writer to show off their talent for the macabre. But back in the days of The Animated Series, what’s becoming clear is that he’s able to be much more impressive. The earlier version of Joker here seems to have actually been to a circus at least once in his life, and picked up tricks about set-ups and punchlines.
The episode sees Joker pour his laughing gas onto a garbage float in Gotham, sailing it down the river and infecting everybody he passes with an uncontrollable laughter – which is harmless for many, but can cause people to lose control of their cars, their prams… everything takes second place to laughing, once you breathe in the toxin. And over time, apparently it’ll drive you made. Why does he do it? Because he wants to stroll down the shopping district and steal some stuff.
Simple as that. The episode also impressed on me the loss of Batman’s villains having petty agendas. Everybody from Maxie Zeus to Killer Quilt has some sort of greater agenda nowadays, having shifted from the goal of “rob a jewellery store” to “reveal Batman’s identity on the grandest scale imaginable”. The low stakes seen in this episode are disposed with now in favour of Gotham’s very future being at risk whenever Batman stumbles in the field. I think there are only a handful of characters who turn to villainy in order to make money and survive, rather than because they have some operatic grudge against the caped crusader himself.
Not here: here, Joker and two mooks, plus a robot he’s dressed as a clown, are going after some jewels. That’s all it takes, primarily because these are all pretty short episodes and anything grander would be hard to pull off – but also because that’s simply who this version of Joker is. He wears his gimmick in order to throw people off, and to indulge himself. He says things that he finds funny, and he laughs at them. Other people, surrounding the scene, also enjoy his humour. It’s a far cry from other versions of Joker who are almost grumpy in their dislike of Batman, and need to one-up him.
Joker being funny also has a secondary impact: it allows Batman to laugh. At the start of the episode, which is set on April Fools Day, Alfred catches Batman out with a trick. Being Batman, he archly raises an appreciate eyebrow and continues on with his morning routine. But that joke, and Batman’s appreciation of it, plays off in two ways later on. Primarily, in that Alfred is caught up by Joker’s toxin a few minutes later, and Bruce Wayne’s concern immediately shows. Now, Alfred gets into distress fairly often, but this episode very clearly sets up why this is something that matters to Batman.
Alfred’s got banter in the series, and he loosens up Bruce Wayne every time they talk to one another. A little like in Gotham, I suppose, we’re given some semblance of a relationship between the two that isn’t based in chiding and stern huffs. They like being around one another, and it benefits them both to have that friendship in place. When Alfred, who can joke around with Bruce easily, is caught in the line of fire, Bruce’s concern is apparent, real, and something for the audience to latch onto.
At the same time, it also allows Batman to keep up with Joker. In a sense, the Joker’s continuing need to make Batman laugh is what leads him to go darker and darker, seeking the sick joke that’ll finally force Batman to laugh, despite himself. With Batman largely having no sense of humour in the comics, Joker has to force more and more to try and get some kind of rise out of him. But here, Batman’s lighter and friendlier, and you get the feeling he’s far more likely to laugh at Joker’s silliness than in any other depiction of the pair.
At the end of this episode, with Joker caught and the mischief ended, Batman tells two jokes. One to Joker, which Joker acknowledges with a glare and Batman with a smile. The second to Alfred, which actually brings Bruce into a proper laugh. And getting that laugh is so satisfying. It shows there’s actually something on the line when Batman and Joker fight one another: if Batman has a sense of humour, then he has a sense of humour to lose. Joker’s got so much more to work with in this scenario.
Earlier I asked who the audience is meant to be for Joker’s one-liners, and this episode has a clear idea: The Joker. He casually makes jokes here for his own benefit, and for the audience. He coins the robot working for him “Captain Clown”, and forms a really funny attachment to it. He tells puns to Batman, and he pauses for comedic effect when leading Batman into a trap. He’s having a great time, just enjoying himself, and it’s the best thing for the character.
It’s another tremendously fun episode of the show, but it also offers us a look into a time when Joker was far more independent than he is today. He wants to do what he wants; rather than to do whatever he thinks will shock Batman. That’s the freedom which makes ‘Joker’ a literal description of the character, rather than the sardonic “Joker” who lives for shock value rather than actual jokes.