I Started a Joke, the Joke Being That my Life is Worth Living

I started a joke which started the whole world crying

But I didn’t see that the joke was on me oh no

I started to cry which started the whole world laughing

Oh If I’d only seen that the joke was on me


I looked at the skies running my hands over my eyes

And I fell out of bed hurting my head from things that I said

‘Till I finally died which started the whole world living

Oh If I’d only seen that the joke was on me


I looked at the skies running my hands over my eyes

And I fell out of bed hurting my head from things that I said

‘Till I finally died which started the whole world living

Oh If I’d only seen that the joke was on me

Oh no that the joke was on me[1]

Everyday is the same; we wake up, go to work or school, enjoy the occasional movie or dinner date, go to sleep, and then wake up to do the same thing over again. It comes to a point when there does not seem to be a meaning anymore, a point when our happiness becomes a lie. Bruce Springsteen’s “Reason to Believe” offers an explanation to why we keep living when life becomes meaningless. We keep living because, “‘Still at the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.’ But this “reason to believe” is an illusion, the song seems to say: there is apparently no “reason to believe” in life’s worthwhileness, no “reason to believe” that all will be well in the end. Still, the song’s characters keep on believing—believing, or at least hoping, despite all the evidence to the contrary. One reason for our perseverance in life is thus blind faith, or at least blind hope, according to Springsteen’s song”[2]. We find an outlet through entertainment and devote our free time to it. This entertainment comes to us in the form of an industry, as a product of our culture. It provides us with laughter but this laughter is only temporary and, often times, merely the very façade in which to hide our unhappiness.[3] We laugh because that is the only thing we can do to cope with the fact that we are living lives not worth living. Robin Gibb, as member of the Bee Gees, wrote the single, “I Started a Joke,” and although its meaning is never explicitly given, draws some semblance to this idea that our laughter is an indication that the life we are living is not worth living.

The premise of the song is that an unnamed individual, is misunderstood; he laughs when the world cries and cries when the world laughs. This individual has an idea, possibly an alternative to the present state of the world, something that could better the world but no one seems to be listening. This idea that he harnesses helps the world live again at the end of the song but the world is unaware of this until this individual dies. Throughout the song and, more broadly, his life, this individual develops a sense of self doubt. He quite literally believed that the joke was on him, that what he believed has somehow untrue because of the laughter projected from the world. He harbors a feeling of regret, as he, “[falls] out of bed hurting my head from things that I said.”[4] The whole world laughs at the person in the song because they think that his life is not worth living. However, in fact, the person in the song is living a fulfilling life because he is going against the rest of the world and not submitting to conformity.

The chronic feeling of regret the individual feels every morning is a direct product of the masses and their cynical attitude to something foreign to them. The whole world, in this sense, is conditioned to believe in one, standard set of beliefs so much so that their automatic response to something different is to laugh and reject it. This stand set of beliefs is presented to the world in a common medium, our culture and its corresponding entertainment industry.[5] With the rise of the culture industry, “‘the individual departs from the real social world, where he or she is average and recognition is slight and grudging, enters a ‘glamorous’ and media-glorified career field, and becomes…’somebody,’ ‘a god to millions,’ through the mass recognition of others”’[6]. The industry allows the masses to live vicariously through the characters they wish to emulate and thus escape the world we live in now to go to a fantastical, unreal version of this world. They are able to laugh like they are “glamorous” or in a “media-glorified career field” but none of it is real because it is all delivered to them on a silver platter of lies fabricated by the industry. The industry surrounding our everyday culture is so easily accessible that “Americans pass much of their lives in the ‘other worlds’ of the media…mass media consumption in general occupies 50 percent of all leisure time”[7]. It is the most efficient way to convince, often without consent, the masses to share a common ideology because “the cultural variability of these multiple realities is less than might be expected…[they] operate with values, motives, and roles firmly locked to the assumptions of the contemporary American middle class”[8]. The industry repurposes existent beliefs into different outlets, be it a movie, an album, or a TV show. This is how the industry achieves widespread dominance, by ingraining the ideals that they themselves first imposed onto society, forever a cycle of control.[9] How, in this industry that is so ingrained into the public’s minds, is anyone supposed to have a fighting chance to break the system or provide any sort of push-back or alternative?

The individual in the song supposedly has the alternative the world needs to break free but is unable to be fully heard because of the disconnect he feels from the rest of the world. He is unable to relate to them, believing that the “joke was on [him]” and constantly clashing with them, whether it be crying or laughing. The whole world laughs at him, not because they think he is inherently funny, but because that is what they were conditioned to believe. The world, through the culture industry, has been brainwashed to believe that their lives are worthy and anything different, such as this individual, is unworthy of living. Laughter, in this case, becomes mockery, not a representation of happiness but rather a representation of quite the opposite, contempt. Laughter, in this song, symbolizes the conformity of the masses as entertainment is mass deception; everyone thinks they are genuinely happy but their ‘happiness’ is merely a cover-up to their worthless lives.

The person in the song, however, is exempt from this mass deception because he cries when everyone laughs and laughs when everyone cries. He goes against the grain and thus, when he dies, the world is able start living because he had lived a worthy life. But it is only the individual in this song who is exempt from the web of the industry because he is a fictional character; a worthy life is not possible so long as the culture industry still exists. The world’s laughter was not only the catalyst to the individual’s own spiral into self regret, but the laughter also produced this very song. This song tells the story of someone who has been beaten down by the byproducts of the culture industry and conformity in general but, by the song’s very existence, participates in the industry that rendered him hopeless.

Since the song’s release in 1968, “I Started a Joke” has seen 23 different renditions, a quantitative figure to represent the impact this one song has had on the culture industry.[10] The problem with the culture industry that has infected our society is that it is screaming with similarity, nothing is innovated anymore, everything is taken from something else. The Wallflowers performed a version of the song in 2001 for the Zoolander soundtrack, and while the lyrics are clearly the same, the background music and the overall feel of the song has dramatically changed. These 23 remakes of the song are no different than any other cultural artifact in that they were not made without being marked by the industry’s stamp at the time of conception. Our culture industry breeds conformity from conformity and uses this conformity to convince us that we are living lives worth living. Laughter should be an outward expression to indicate sheer happiness but it is really only a cover-up for the meaninglessness we feel inside—we are all the same so what is the point of living this life? We are nothing more than puppets in a show, and what do you do at puppet shows? Laugh.

[1] Gibb, Robin “I Started a Joke” http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/beegees/istartedajoke.html. (will refer to as ‘Gibb’)

[2] Mathew, Gordon. What Makes Life Worth Living?: How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1996). Pages 3-4 (will refer to as ‘Mathew’)

[3] Adorno, Theodor W. and Horkheimer, Max. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (Stanford California, Stanford University Press, 2002). Page 112-113 (will refer to as ‘Adorno’)

[4] Gibb

[5] Adorno, 97

[6] Caughey, John L. Imaginary Social Worlds: A Cultural Approach (United States of America: University of Nebraska Press, 1984). Page 168 (will refer to as ‘Caughey’)

[7] Caughey, 34

[8] Caughey 34, 35

[9] Adorno, 115

[10] I Started a Joke. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Started_a_Joke.