I was at the dentist this week, with nothing in particular to do except sit back, watch all the flashing and whirring equipment, and hope that the local anaesthetic would continue working. While I freely admit that the injection of feel-good chemicals may have clouded my thinking, it does not completely account for the fact that my mind was turning to thoughts of Woody Allen.
Not just any thoughts of Woody Allen, mind you, but specifically thoughts about a moment in his 2006 comedy “Scoop” in which Scarlett Johansson is playing a dental hygenicist who has reinvented herself as an investigative journalist.
The particular moment I flashed on, while desperately trying to ignore the very loud vibrating drill in my mouth, was when Ms. Johansson’s character, trying to distract the bad guy with some improvised femme fatale patter, started talking about “the lower sixth” – suddenly reverting to her inner dental hygenicist.
It happens that I had seen my dentist the day after seeing this film, and I’d mentioned that Woody Allen was making dentist jokes, relating this little bit of dialog. My dentist replied that it was a very odd dentist joke, since the sixth is actually an upper tooth. There is no lower sixth.
Now, I’m pretty sure that Woody Allen knows this perfectly well. He’s been exploring the humor in dentistry at least since his wonderful essay “If the Impressionists had been Dentists” (in “Without Feathers”, 1975). So just what is he up to here?
My theory is that it’s an inside joke – a deliberate shout-out to dentists. He’s telling them “This one’s for you. Nobody will get this joke who isn’t a dentist. Just wanted you guys to know I was thinking about you.” What makers of computer games call an “Easter Egg” – a hidden message that is visible only if you have some inside knowledge about where to look.
And this makes me wonder – how many other examples are there out there in popular books and films? What coded messages for just the few are hiding in plain sight, snuck in there by an artist, just for the fun of it? The Mickey Mouse head near the end of TRON comes to mind, but to me Woody Allen’s “lower sixth” joke seems a lot weirder – perversely surreal – and therefore more fun.