Grand Theft Auto V: Explaining the Joke to Death

By Shamus Posted Thursday Nov 8, 2018

Filed under: Retrospectives 40 comments

And so this series comes to an end. Not with a bang, but with a shrug. Eh. It’s pretty okay I guess. I mean, I had fun sometimes.

For as crazy as this world is, Grand Theft Auto V is surprisingly short on laughs. The main story often occupies this strange space where absurd things are happening and everyone is expressing intense emotions, and yet there are almost no jokes. The dialog constantly feels like it’s in the setup phase for a punchline that never comes. While this franchise has been pretty hit-and-miss with regards to comedy, I think the humor has gone downhill over the last decade or so. A lot of different factors contributed to this.

First and most obviously, as the games grew closer to Hollywood they drifted away from the wacky brand of adolescent humor they were built around. Toilet humor and dick jokes work in a world of outrageous cartoon absurdity. They don’t fit so well within a Scorsese movie. On top of that, the games have intensified their attempts at satire and social commentary, which has made them increasingly heavy-handed and mean-spirited. As I said at the start, a lot of the attempted satire is so far off-base that the jokes don’t land. But here in GTA V there is yet another force working against the humor: The writer has stopped trusting the audience and so they keep stopping to explain the joke.

Get it? Huh? See What I Did There?

The Civil Border Patrol. If this scene was any more blunt these two men would be made entirely of straw.
The Civil Border Patrol. If this scene was any more blunt these two men would be made entirely of straw.

In one part of the game Trevor can hang out with the “Civil Border Patrol”, a couple of dimwits who have appointed themselves as protectors of the US-Mexican border. The whole thing is more heavy-handed political commentary, this time on US immigration policy. (And probably a more contentious issue now than it was when this joke was written in ~2013.)

At one point you’re riding in a car with the CBP, chasing down a mariachi band in order to detain and deport them. During the chase one of the CBP agents is yelling about how, “They come into our country and they steal all our jobs!”

To which Trevor replies, “Yeah. Stealing all those mariachi band jobs you’ve got here.”

Damn it, Trevor. I got the joke. I was smiling until you stopped to explain it to me.

In the same mission, the two border patrol guys are supposed to salute in unison, but one of them messes up and gives a Nazi salute and then quickly corrects himself mid-gesture. Maybe you found it funny and maybe you didn’t. I found it mildly amusing until, once again, Trevor stopped to point out that this was the wrong salute.

Like, did the designer really think the audience was too stupid to recognize the Nazi salute? Why? Why would you break the flow of your dialog to explain jokes?

Like I discovered in my D&D Comic, humor has momentum. Two jokes delivered in quick succession will be much funnier than either joke in isolation. If you can add a third joke, it gets even better. A joke that might get a chuckle on its own could be enough to push a chuckle into a laugh. If they’re already laughing, then it might make them laugh harder. There’s nothing to be gained from halting the flow of jokes to explain things. The people that didn’t get it aren’t going to retroactively laugh, and the people who did get it will stop laughing because now you’re annoying them. But Grand Theft Auto V feels the need to stop at least once in every scene to say, “You get it? You see what I did there? Huh? HUUUUUH?”

Lemme tell ya kid, never explain the joke. People will stop respecting you, and it won't make the joke any funnier. They either get it or they don't.
Lemme tell ya kid, never explain the joke. People will stop respecting you, and it won't make the joke any funnier. They either get it or they don't.

It’s not just the humor that suffers from this. The social commentary is hobbled by this as well. At one point the middle-aged, world-weary Michel is talking the young and eager Franklin:

Michael says, “You want my advice, you give up [the criminal lifestyle]. […] It’s bullshit. Go to college. Then you can rip people off and get paid for it.”

You know, that’s an interesting viewpoint coming from a career criminal. Michael has noticed that a lot of people take money from others without breaking the law or risking their lives. There are some interesting observations you could make here by contrasting people’s reaction to petty street crime with white-collar crime, or even with corporate practices that are immoral and dishonest yet perfectly legal. Now that I think about it-

“It’s called capitalism,” Michael concludes smugly.

Thanks so much for hitting me in the face with your message, game. I was nearly in danger of thinking for myself.

Just like a joke is funnier if you don’t explain it, a lesson is more effective if you allow the audience to come to the desired conclusion on their own. This writer has no confidence in their ability and even less confidence in the audience. Grand Theft Auto V would sound a little less sanctimonious and a lot smarter if the writer would just stop making everything so heavy-handed and explicit. If they would put The Art before The Message, both would be improved.

Wrapping Up

I liked the 3-perspective story.
I liked the 3-perspective story.

I know I’ve been negative. For the record, there’s a lot to love in Grand Theft Auto V. The technology still feels cutting-edge, even five years after release. The sprawling world is spectacular. The heist system is aces. Franklin is a pretty good character and he has a solid arc. The rampages were just the right sort of absurdist shocking violence. The sheer scale and variety of people in this world is amazing. The soundtrack is generous, even by the standards of the series. Side-activities like base jumping and triathlons manage to leverage the open world really well. A couple of the Strangers & Freaks you meet are amusing. The three-character perspective switching was a smart idea that gave the writer the freedom to tell a wider range of stories, which really suits their “Scorsese Sampler” approach to storytelling.

Despite my gripes, it’s not a horrible game. It’s an amazing game with a handful of glaring flaws, mostly stemming from the way the story is a Frankenstein’s Monster of random movie scenes and tropes. It could be better, but I still managed to get over 100 hours of entertainment out of it.

Most importantly, I’m really looking forward to GTA VI. I know Rockstar is really happy with the pay-to-win shop they have going in Grand Theft Auto Online right now and they’re probably not in a hurry to retire that cash cow, but I’d love to see a new GTA game built around the heist system.

Also, a new GTA without a mandatory interactive torture scene would be really appreciated.

So that’s a novella on Grand Theft Auto V. As always, if you enjoy this kind of long-form analysis then please consider supporting my Patreon.

Thanks for reading.


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40 thoughts on “Grand Theft Auto V: Explaining the Joke to Death

  1. Daimbert says:

    The thing is that sometimes explaining the joke can be used as the second joke, and I think that that’s what they were aiming for here. You have something strange or funny happening and then have a character snark about the strange, funny, or stupid thing in a funny way. This can come across as explaining the joke, but if done properly it can actually be the second joke that carries the momentum.

    I think the Blackadder TV series after the first season does this really well. Lots of people around Blackadder do strange and stupid things which the audience finds funny, but Blackadder’s reactions TO those things are as funny if not more funny than the original jokes. As an example, in one episode Blackadder is the butler to a prince who is being pressured to get married:

    Prince (to Blackadder): What could I do with a woman that I can’t do with you?
    Blackadder: I cannot conceive, sire.

    If the audience gets the rather obvious thing that the Prince can’t do with Blackadder, this could come across as explaining the joke. But it’s funny because of the pun and delivery, and so becomes the second joke in the chain to keep the momentum up.

    From your first example, it seems like they were trying to have Trevor makes those sorts of sarcastic comments which are funny themselves and highlight the stupidity. They just might not have been all that successful at it. To take the second example, I’m not sure how Trevor handled it, but a reply that might have been in the same vein might have been “Aren’t you supposed to save that one for when you’re alone?” or something like that: a snarky answer that plays off of the mistake and first joke rather than simply explaining the joke or pointing out the oddity.

    1. dogbeard says:

      Explaining a joke can be funny if done right, in the same way that repeating a joke so many times it stops being funny, then comes around full circle to being funny again can, but like with that example, it’s really easy to flub it up or have it outstay it’s welcome. It’s been a while since I played the game but those moments shamus talked about were definitely less chuckles and more “okay I get it already”

      1. BlueHorus says:

        The problem with the mariachi band example and the ‘it’s called Capitalism’ comment is that they’re such simplistic comments on what are actually complex issues that are worth putting thought into.
        Hoho, these rednecks complaining about immigrants are dumb nazi racists! Haha, capitalism – no, not capitalism anything, just…capitalism!
        It’s all so teenage. They could (In theory, it probably wouldn’t fit the gameplay) be saying interesting things about this, not reveling in lowest-common-denominator jokes.

        It’s another thing that – DRINK! – Saints Row did better: not only did they let the jokes stand up on their own, they didn’t act like they’re making some grand point with their dumb nonsense plot.
        Saints Row isn’t necessarily smarter than GTA*, but it’s definitely much less up itself.

        *though I would say it is…

        1. Agammamon says:

          That’s a big difference between GTAV and Blackadder. ‘I can not conceive’ is a *quick-witted pun drop* that becomes another joke in context. ‘That’s called capitalism’ isn’t a joke, at best it might be mildly ironic that a *capitalist enterprise* (Rockstar and Take-Two) are openly saying that they’re ripping people off (they are capitalists, after all) or are nudging the audience and winking and saying ‘but not us, we’re one of the good ones’.

          1. Daimbert says:

            I think that one falls flat, though, less because it’s simplistic and more because it’s overused. A few years ago, someone snarking that capitalism’s main premise is ripping people off or linking the financial services market to rampant corruption in the name of capitalism would have been subversive. But especially after the financial crisis EVERYONE makes that joke now — and that commentary — so it’s definitely played out.

            1. Hector says:

              That wouldn’t have amounted to being “subversive” 40 years ago, let alone 10.

          2. Geebs says:

            Arguably the joke here is that Michael doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about (because he’s a career criminal and has never really had a job), but is still trying to dispense fatherly advice to Franklin anyway.

          3. KillerAngel says:

            Actually I think that needs more explaining. It might have been funny if he had said: “It’s called capitalism. Learn to, I don’t know, make violent video games or something. Stupid kids love that stuff. Just look at Jimmy.” Then it’s Michael making fun of the player and Rockstar making fun of themselves at the same time. Also, you’re reinforcing the “Franklin as the son Michael always wanted” theme. But maybe it’s too much explaining. Hey, no one said this was easy.

            Edit: Ooh maybe instead of saying “Look at Jimmy” you could have a little cut where Jimmy screams something from upstairs and the camera pans up for a second, then back to Michael and Franklin.

      2. Yeah, to have “explaining the joke” *be* a second joke, you have to exaggerate it or otherwise point up how it’s a dumb/bad joke so that the explaining just makes it worse in a hilarious way.

        Even having a rimshot (ba dum tish!) play in the background can transmute it from heavy-handed failed humor to hilarious. But you can’t play it straight and have explaining the joke be part of the joke.

    2. Nimrandir says:

      For me, reaction laughs are dependent on facial expression. I imagine Rowan Atkinson’s face in the moment, and hilarity ensues. Less-expressive actors could readily fumble the follow-up.

      I haven’t played any Grand Theft Auto games, so I can’t speak to the caliber of Rockstar’s facial animation tech.

      1. Rack says:

        Rowan Atkinson did a live skit where he just said random words, but the timing and expression somehow still made it funny. It’s a bad idea to try and copy his style, the man is a complete master.

        1. Nimrandir says:

          Welp . . . I guess I know what I’ll be doing tonight.

        2. Charlie Chaplin did the same bit in the musical number for “Modern Times!” Especially great because it was his first vocal performance on film, but he was singing nonsense syllables.

    3. guy says:

      I think those live or die on the delivery. Also it’s a lot funnier if another character in the scene doesn’t get the explaination, like if the border patrol guy went off on a rant about how back in the GOOD OLD DAYS all the Marachi Band jobs went to proper Americans.

      Bonus points if his dad was actually in a Marachi Band in the 1950’s.

      1. Vinsomer says:

        Bonus points if his dad was actually in a Marachi Band in the 1950’s.

        That… would actually have been quite a good foundation for a joke.

    4. Vi says:

      That’s a great point, lampshading can be a fine art in itself! The wacky setting could probably handle a ton of it!

      CBP Agent 1: “They come into our country and they steal all our jobs!”
      CBP Agent 2: “They CRUSHED MY AMERICAN DREAM of playing in a Mariachi band! I had such a bright future ahead of me until THEY took it all away!” *breaks down sobbing uncontrollably*
      CBP Agent 1: *holds him in comforting embrace* “Aww, don’t be like that, you still have a future! Listen to me, you’re going to finish your belly dancing classes and become a mega star, and then you’re not going to care about stupid Mariachi! No stupid immigrants can take THAT away!”

  2. Hal says:

    Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand how they work now, but they’re well and truly dead.

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      The latter is certainly true, the former not necessarily …

      …in fact, that might be what the writers did before writing the game. Dissect a frog, decide it’s all bones and blood and soft bits, and then put some bones and blood and soft bits together, make it frog-shaped, and wonder why it won’t jump.

  3. Redrock says:

    Like, did the designer really think the audience was too stupid to recognize the Nazi salute?

    I mean, probably? Rockstar doesn’t seem to have a high opinion of its audience.

    1. WWWebb says:

      Given the amount of effort they put into it. I expect Rockstar had enough market research in their pocket to have an exactly correct opinion of their audience. When you are looking to sell MILLIONS of units, you have to move pretty far down the curve.

      From a business perspective, they should happily sacrifice a million sales to the gamer intelligentsia to add many millions of sales to the EA Sports crowd.

      1. Redrock says:

        That’s a bit unkind towards the EA Sports crowd. They are probably still familiar with the Nazi salute, one would think.

      2. Lame Duck says:

        The point is, though, that even if the audience is ignorant enough to not recognise a Nazi salute, explaining what just happened immediately afterwards won’t make it retroactively funny for that person. This isn’t a case of sacrificing one audience to appeal to a bigger one, it’s just shitty writing that will hit with no-one.

  4. Mephane says:

    At one point you’re riding in a car with the CBP, chasing down a mariachi band in order to detain and deport them. During the chase one of the CBP agents is yelling about how, “They come into our country and they steal all our jobs!”

    To which Trevor replies, “Yeah. Stealing all those mariachi band jobs you’ve got here.”

    I actually prefer this scene with the reply. It’s a bit like those bits in stand-up comedy where the person on stage tells a very short anecdote that ends with a sarcastic comment by themselves:

    At one point I was riding in a car with the CBP, chasing down a mariachi band in order to detain and deport them. During the chase one of the CBP agents is yelling about how, “They come into our country and they steal all our jobs!”

    Yeah. Stealing all those mariachi band jobs you’ve got here.

    1. Syal says:

      I think “I was chasing down a Mariachi band” is too absurd a starting point for slice-of-life-style snark to work. The snark would have to have a follow-through about the CBP guy knowing exactly what he said and actually being specifically angry about Mariachi bands.

  5. Jabberwok says:

    Vice City was certainly absurd, but I don’t actually remember there being very many dick and potty jokes in it. But it has been a looong time since I played the whole thing.

    I think what upsets me the most about GTA and Rockstar in general is that I really want to be able to experience these huge open worlds they build. But I absolutely cannot stand their writing, and I cannot look past it when it’s there. I’d almost prefer a new GTA Online that’s just 100% sandbox. Similarly, I was only able to really enjoy Diablo 3 once Blizzard released an expansion that lets you play it with the story turned off.

    1. eldomtom2 says:

      There were a lot in background gags. For businesses, for example, we have:

      Big Bills Bowls
      Bitch’n’ Dog Food
      Collar and Cuffs
      Family Jewels
      Fudge Packing Corp
      Gay Gordo’s Bouffant Boutique
      Gruppe Sechs
      Hooker Inn Express
      Liberty Cock
      Moist Palms Hotel
      R. S. & L. Bows
      Rusty Brown’s Ring Donuts
      Screw This
      Spand Express
      The Cherry Popper Ice Cream Company
      The Well Stacked Pizza Co.
      VAJ Finance

      And that’s just the names themselves. Rockstar have never been mature.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        Mature isn’t quite the point – lots of the games are immature. It’s immature and pretentious that irks me.

    2. Smith says:

      I’m currently watching people play RDR 2 on Youtube, and it seems a lot more…dignified than what I’ve seen of GTA. Funny stuff happens occasionally, but the entire world doesn’t seem to revolve around satire.

      And if neither of those float your boat, I hear Table Tennis was good.

      I’m dead serious.

  6. Olivier FAURE says:

    Well that was an abrupt ending.

  7. 0451fan0451 says:

    You are a lot more positive about the future of the series then I am. GTA 5 is my first and only Rockstar game I have ever played and completed and my experience was….baffling. All this talent, all this money, and the fumble the basics of story telling and mission design. There is all this potential crazy, amazing emergent gameplay but Rockstar doesn’t want any of it. And they are not going change because why would they? They are the number 1 video game and judging from Red Dead 2 they havn’t. Just picture this: your mission is to rob a bank. That is your only objective and you accomplish it anyway you see fit using a variety of tools at your choosing. GTA by way of Deus Ex/Thief/Hitman. That’s a game I would hyped for.

    1. BlueHorus says:

      Yeah, this is kind of my feeling.

      GTA is such a household name that it just doesn’t have to change, learn, or adapt. It’ll sell whatever is in it, based on the name alone.
      If anything, GTA VI (or more likely the next spin-off in the same engine) will be more of the same – or worse, even more conceited and up itself than V is.

  8. JDMM says:

    My worry for the GTA series is that it seems to be regressing in terms of ideas


    GTA III-New York
    GTA: VC-Miami, Florida
    GTA:SA-Los Angeles+San Francisco+Las Vegas, Nevada
    GTA IV-New York
    GTA V-Los Angeles+Facebook headquarters+empty space (Northern California?)

    Consider that progression, first we do New York, than Florida than most of California and the mainstay of Nevada and than New York repeat and than California except with less
    Now obviously the latter versions are more detailed but like these are supposed to be game worlds not simply recreations, the landmarks not also everything else. Add on the time between current installments
    When will we have Miami with the everglades attached, when the New York tristate? I remember years ago people would hope for GTA: London, GTA: Bondi Beach, GTA: Glasgow. Can you imagine any of that happening now?

    1. Mousazz says:

      Interestingly enough, the three locales of Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas have been a series staple since the original GTA.
      I think GTA 2 was the only one not to take place in one of these three places.

      1. Taxi says:

        There were the 2 GTA London games.

        GTA could really benefit from some new locations. Bonus points if it’s outside USA and extra bonus points if it’s not in the current times.

  9. I know Rockstar is really happy with the pay-to-win shop they have going in Grand Theft Auto Online right now and they’re probably not in a hurry to retire that cash cow, but I’d love to see a new GTA game built around the heist system.

    I recently rewatched one of your GTA twitch sessions recently where you at some rando motel talking about how much fidelity they put into a location that was never going to be used in the story campaign, and I suspect GTA online is why. Put that much effort in all those assets at the start, and suddenly you got carte blanche on locations to use for new missions and it keeps peeps from having to constantly update the gameworld.

  10. Geebs says:

    I wonder whether part of the problem with the humour in GTA is that it hasn’t been properly localised. Media from other cultures that don’t share a language (say, for example, Asterix) often have the humour extensively reworked by some very skilled translators in order to be funny in English.

    The problem here might be that GTA is made by Scottish people. As such, the bluntness and sheer venom being passed off as humour are rather endearing to somebody from the UK.

    They just need a translator to take out all of the jokes and throw in a bunch of impressions, a la Saturday Night Live, and I’m sure the US audience will find it much funnier :-p

  11. The Trevor and Michael examples… I kinda gotta defend the GTA writers.

    When Michael says “It’s called capitalism,” that’s Michael saying that to Franklin and not the writer saying it to the player.
    In these examples neither Michael nor Trevor’s responses seems out of place.

    Michael fails to see the self irony (but sometimes he does), while Trevor always see the self irony (except when he doesn’t).

    When Trevor says “Yeah. Stealing all those mariachi band jobs you’ve got here.” my thought is that… Yeah, he’s got a point there, although the thought of a Redneck Mariachi band does amuse me.

    I’m not sure the “jokes” in GTA are all supposed to be jokes, but also sarcastic (or whatever else) remarks on society or certain behaviour.

    GTA is a mishmash of lecturing, jokes, sarcasm, critique, bad taste, puns, and whatever else I can’t think of right now.

    The Trevor remark seems in character to me, thou it is possible it’s also (as you say) the writer slapping the player over th head with the punchline to the joke. A joke that many of the millions of people playing the game may not get i.e. “Yeah I saw a brown guy at the supermarket yesterday” and go “Wait, Mariachi band? Oooh I get it.” and then realise that the jobs “stolen” is usually not the jobs the people complaining actually want to do.

    Actual example. Robotisation scares people, the robots will take our jobs they cry. Yet in Norway recently the robotisation of welding in a company actually brought contracts back to the company, as they previously with manual labour could not compete with cheaper foreign welding labour (they reversed or undid the outsourcing basically by employing robots).

    It’s possible Shamus that a lot of the jokes or things getting explained are not being done so “for you” Shamus, but the 50% of people that are less smarter than you. Actually that is unfair. I’ve seen smart people not “get” simple jokes. And some ,people are used to getting spoonfed “Jobs. What jobs would that be, got any examples? Oh. I see!”

    I guess technically it would be possible to add a option in the menu that let you toggle off “Explain the punchline for me”. Although that would in some cases also mean that dialog like “Oh shut up you asshole” as a remark back for example.

    But Family Guy and south Park (but especially Family Guy) often takes a joke, delivers the punchline then stretches that out so long that it stops being funny, then keeps stretching it out even longer, and longer and longer until it becomes funny again.

    Example. The father of Lois in Family Guy supposedly caused Vine to Shut down. caused Vine to Shut down. caused Vine to Shut down. caused Vine to Shut down.

    Get it? The episode had part of the scene repeated multiple times. I did not get it at first, I thought it was a glitch in the stream buffering. On the 3rd repeat I went “aah, I get it, right, Vine. funny” I’ve never used Vine, never seen Vines, though I have stumbled across Vine compilation reactions on Youtube, otherwise I would never have gotten that joke.

    The Houser brothers are british aren’t they? And sure, Lazlow is American. But what about the rest of the writers? Also GTA takes place in a satirized America, and the game is intended for a global audience (not just the North American market). Certain jokes has to be explained as gamers in other countries may not know enough about American culture to understand all jokes.

    I’m not saying GTA V couldn’t have been written better. I could. It definitely could. It’s just that te Trevor and Michael examples you used. I don’t mind them, they felt in-character and not like the writers at Rockstar was patronising me.

  12. RFS-81 says:

    Could it be that the capitalism bit is characterization instead of heavy-handed preaching? I don’t know any professional criminals, as far as I’m aware, but “Everyone’s ripping off each other, but only poor old me can get punished for it” seems like a plausible attitude. That comment on capitalism could just be Michael trying to be deeper than he really is, rather than the writers themselves. I haven’t played it, so maybe the writers don’t deserve all that benefit-of-the-doubt. I don’t know. It seems to be a running theme that everyone’s obnoxious in this game, so why should the protagonists be exempt?

  13. RCN says:

    I think having no faith in the audience is part of the joke.

    If it works or not… that’s another discussion altogether.

  14. Zak McKracken says:

    The first time around, I had to read the headline for this post twice before I understood what Shamus meant by it. And when I just saw it again, my reading of it was the same as before:

    Why would you need to explain a joke to Death? Obviously, he doesn’t have a sense of humour, so he won’t get it without an explanation, but why would you care? I guess maybe you could hope them if you make him finally get a joke that he’d … let you go or something?

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