Will Livingstone probably didn’t know it when he penned a book full of cringeworthy jokes, but the fictional author’s thrown at least one fan a lifeline with it in post-apocalyptic America.
In HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us, co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann brought one of the game’s silliest constant companions along for the ride, Ellie’s joke book, which both provides moments of severely warranted levity among the story’s unrelenting quagmire of violence while reminding us that our tough protagonist is, in fact, a kid. But this beloved tome of wit has a deeper importance to Ellie (Bella Ramsey) than mere hilarity — mainly because of who gave it to her.
‘The Last of Us’ finally adds Ellie’s favourite thing: Comics
In the show and the game, Ellie’s go-to reading material is her beloved Savage Starlight comics and a tattered joke book titled No Pun Intended: Volume Too by Will Livingston. (“You get it? ‘Too?’ Like T-O-O?”) In idle moments in episode 4, Ellie breaks out some cheeky Livingstone gold to both pass the time and get a rise out of Joel (Pedro Pascal). Shel gleefully gets revenge on Joel’s demand to stay put as he siphons petrol by reading out several cheesy jokes, many taken straight from the game.
“What did the mermaid wear to her math class?” she continues, giggling and ignoring Joel’s unimpressed looks. “An algae-bra!”
“I stayed up all night wondering where the sun went…and then it dawned on me,” comes another, which honestly reads like a Mitch Hedberg joke.
“What did the mermaid wear to her math class? An algae-bra!”
As Joel and Ellie make camp, Ellie drops another banger disguised as a “serious question.” Ellie slyly poses the thought, “Why did the scarecrow get an award?” When Joel surprisingly answers this one — “Because he was outstanding in his field” — Ellie squeals, calls Joel a dick and accuses him of reading her beloved book. He’s heard this one before.
Riley knew her best friend Ellie loved ‘No Pun Intended’. You can see it on Ellie’s nightstand.
Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
So, who gave Ellie the joke book? In episode 7, we learn that Ellie has been a longtime reader of Livingstone’s work, as you can spy the first volume of No Pun Intended in her dorm room at FEDRA military school. “This otter be good,” reads a line on the front cover. Later in the episode, Ellie’s best friend Riley (Storm Reid) gifts her the second book during their date at the abandoned mall in the Boston QZ, reading out a few zingers to each other in a hilarious moment before impending tragedy.
“Shut up! He made a second one?” says Ellie after Riley hands it over.
Now we know Riley’s tragic fate, the importance of Ellie’s copy of No Pun Intended Volume Too intensifies ten-fold — this isn’t just a silly book, it’s the last thing her best friend and first love gave to her before she was Infected.
In the game, Ellie’s jokes to “lighten the mood” are a form of collectible(Opens in a new tab). If you find them all, the game rewards you with the incredibly named “That’s All I Got” trophy(Opens in a new tab). The only way to hear Ellie’s jokes in the game is to stand and wait with her between objectives; after a few minutes, Ellie will pull out her joke book out of boredom and rattle off a few zingers.
“I remember in the game being shocked that the game was suddenly offering me this thing that had no benefit for the game at all,” director Craig Mazin said on HBO’s The Last of Us podcast(Opens in a new tab). “It was just gratuitous and yet lovely and human. It was sort of like saying, ‘Hey, you know what? You don’t have to be eyes in the back of your head or getting ready to run or shoot at every moment, you can take the time to stop, look around, experience the beauty of the world that’s been created.’
“What I also love about it and why it was essential to include in the show is that it undercuts this thing that happens when adults write kids. They either write them too young or too old.” Mazin said kids like Ellie fall under another category, a stage of life his friend calls “fuck you, tuck me in.”
“They are ready to go out on their own, they want a gun, they want to be in charge, they think they know everything. Also, they’re still children,” explained Mazin. “I love how Ellie has this joy for something so juvenile and infantile and stupid — and she knows it’s stupid but she loves it. It’s honest joy.”
Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey): One of these people likes jokes more than the other.
Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
In The Last of Us, humour is the one avenue in which Ellie is allowed to be who she is, a kid, carrying around her joke book in her little backpack right beside her handgun. This contrast between silliness and premature adulthood is one of the strongest elements of Ellie’s character that both Ramsey and game voice actor Ashley Johnson seize upon to develop this complex, tough, hilarious teen.
Whether she’s messing with Joel through the discovery of a porn magazine in Bill’s truck in episode 3 or pretending to be Infected at the most inappropriate time around Joel and Tess in episode 2, Ramsey’s Ellie provides welcome chortles in a landscape of near constant stress and threat. As Mashable’s Belen Edwards writes, “Thanks for the laugh, Ellie. We really needed it after the show’s first three episodes, and based on everything you’ve been through, we know you need it too.” Ramsey’s delivery is consistently hilarious in its own right — remember that inappropriately perfect “hehehehehehehehehehehehehe” reading of Bill’s letter in episode 3?
Ellie’s jokes also play a bigger role than silly asides. Beyond their shared experiences of violence, loss, and grief, Joel and Ellie begin to bond over these ridiculous jokes, with their burgeoning pseudo-father-daughter relationship given a moment to actually be just that. When Joel triumphantly answers the scarecrow joke, we see a glimmer of camaraderie between them, reminding us of Joel’s past as a father who constantly joked around with his teen daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker).
Not the time for a joke. Ahhhh anyway, here’s one about diarrhoea…
Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
This comes up again at the end of episode 4, when Ellie and Joel are hiding for their lives in a Kansas City attic, and Ellie finds it a perfect moment to drop a joke about diarrhoea: “Joel, did you know diarrhoea is hereditary? Yeah, it runs in your jeans.” As Mashable’s Sam Haysom writes, “The joke about diarrhoea is the first time Ellie properly makes Joel laugh, and seems to mark a key bonding moment in the pair’s relationship.” In the same episode, Joel organically shares genuine emotion with Ellie for the first time despite his former rules about “keep[ing] our backstories to ourselves,” opening up about Tommy in the car, answering Ellie’s questions about his worries over his brother. Pascal’s superb performance in episode 4 is the first major softening of Joel we’ve seen, and it’s all thanks to these extremely dumb jokes.
Ellie’s contrasting modes as a hilarious, joke-loving kid being forced to grow up in a cruel, threatening world makes her a truly compelling protagonist, one a guarded Joel attempts to both understand and protect. In the very same episode, book-ended by scenes showing Ellie making jokes, she shoots a man to save Joel’s life. In the same hour, we watch Ellie drop toilet jokes and attempted to kill someone. This is the world she exists in, a funny kid confronted with a horrific, kill-or-be-killed reality.
Livingstone’s joke book does more for Ellie than provide light reading, it allows her to create a damn break between the blood for her and Joel, while honouring her last gift from Riley. As Ellie warns Joel, “Just know, you can’t escape Will Livingstone. He’ll be back. There’s nothing you can do to stop him.”
The Last of Us is now streaming on HBO Max.(Opens in a new tab)