Whitmer Thomas wants you to know that his insatiable love for the Joker is not ironic. On the title track of his new EP Can’t Believe You’re Happy Here, a nimble collection of folk songs written during the pandemic after the release of his 2020 HBO special The Golden One, there’s a sample of a YouTube video counting down “The Most Twisted Joker Moments.” It might seem like a throwaway joke, but those countdowns have a specific use for Thomas: They’re what he reaches for when he can’t sleep, an attempt to quiet the anxiety he explores in his slyly funny music and achingly personal comedy. Despite his disruptive nature, the Joker can provide peace at the end of a long day.
But Thomas’s Joker obsession extends beyond using the character as a sleep aid. For years, the unrepentantly Jokerfied comedian has peppered his stand-up with references to The Dark Knight, posted Instagram photos of his friends with Joker filters on their faces, and even hosted a show called Joker Fest, where all the performers on the lineup dress as the Clown Prince of Crime. “It would be kinda against their will,” he remembers. “But I always tried to be the most handsome Joker I could possibly be and do my makeup as good as possible.”
With Robert Pattinson’s brooding turn as the Caped Crusader, The Batman, now in theaters, teasing yet another spin on the villain, it’s an ideal time to take stock of the many Jokers of the past, present, and future. From his emergence in the pages of Batman #1 in 1940 to the current moment of superhero-franchise overload, where the role has netted two Oscar wins, the Joker continues to fuel speculation and debate. What exactly makes the perfect Joker? Is it the cackling laugh? The caked-on makeup? The garish purple suit? Or perhaps it’s as simple as Michael Caine put it: Some men just want to watch the world burn.
Thomas, a Joker loyalist since his childhood in Alabama, knows there’s an element of sarcasm to how people interact with the Joker online, but he insists his fandom comes from a completely sincere place. While breaking down the history of the character, guiding us through the onscreen versions and explaining a handful of ridiculous Joker memes, Thomas clarified that the Joker is an aspirational figure for him. “He represents something mysterious and chaotic in a way that I definitely wish I could be,” he says. “If I could be as mysterious as the Heath Ledger Joker, that’s the fucking dream.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
1940: The original comic-book Joker from Batman #1
Created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson, the comic-book version of the Joker took inspiration from the joker playing card and from Conrad Veidt’s performance as the disfigured Gwynplaine in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs. From his first appearance, the Joker already has his iconic look down.
My introduction to Batman was the movie with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton, and then Batman: The Animated Series. But my mom and dad always had Batman comics lying around that I would look at even before I could read. I remember this sneaky little guy. I love this guy. It’s so funny how they put almost too much detail. It’s hard to figure out where his eye bags begin and where his pupils are.
[As a kid] I was always into things mutating and changing. Things with weird liquid chemicals. I also loved Swamp Thing. I just loved that he falls into some stuff and transforms into this guy. That’s what it was. I also just loved how colorful he was. When I was a kid, I would draw the bath and then sneak into the kitchen and grab green food coloring and pour it into the bathtub and take a bath in green food coloring. It would dye the bath and my skin. But I loved it and I would play with toys in there and stuff. I loved the idea of jumping into some shit and coming out and being this freak.
1966: Cesar Romero as the Joker in the television series Batman
In ABC’s Batman, which ran for three seasons from 1966 to 1968, Cesar Romero played the prank-loving Joker. He also appeared in 1966’s spin-off movie Batman. Memorably, Romero refused to shave his trademark mustache for the role and instead applied clown makeup over it.
I had the Adam West movie. I loved this guy and I loved the shark scene, too. I think he’s a wacky guy. I would watch it, but even as a kid I wasn’t satisfied by this Batman. But I liked that Robin was in it, and you’ve gotta love this Joker. He’s the funniest Joker, probably. Maybe not? It’s funny that he’s wearing board shorts. Actually, now that I think about it, he’s the funniest Joker. Why’s he wearing shorts over his Joker suit?
This is a problem I’ve got with the Joker in general. In the new takes, everyone wants to make Joker a weird creep. But the interesting take is to make him more of a Broadway, pretentious, New Yorker, funny, articulate, conversational person. I think that would be the coolest way to do Joker. Heath is probably the funniest Joker, or maybe Jack Nicholson. But [Romero] is pretty funny. I mean, look at him in his shorts. I would watch him growing up, and I have memories of not having cable and this would come on some random channel and I would really love that. I also liked the movie because all the villains were hanging out and goofing off together.
1989: Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman
Nicholson received top billing over Micheal Keaton for his performance in Batman, a Prince-soundtracked, Art Deco-inspired action-adventure freak-out that went on to earn more than $400 million and launch the character as a blockbuster attraction.
He’s got his own origin, and he’s probably the scariest-looking Joker. But he’s funny, too. He looks great. This Joker was the first guy to really legitimize being a comic-book villain [on-screen], and he changed the game where everyone wanted to do it. It’s funny how long it took them to figure it out again.
I would watch this movie so much and rewind all my favorite parts, like when he falls into the chemicals. People will say this is a terrible Batman movie, but I love how contained it is and I love how Joker dies at the end. That’s what I love about both of those Tim Burton Batman movies: I wish comic-book movies were still made like that, where there’s no setup for another one. It’s just over at the end.
1992: Mark Hamill as the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series
For some fans, Mark Hamill’s turn as the Joker in this acclaimed animated series remains the definitive Joker performance. He went by the name Jack Napier, like Nicholson in Burton’s Batman, but Hamill found his own unsettling spin on the character.
I rewatched all of this in lockdown, and now I watch it to fall asleep. I actually just watched this episode-I can’t remember the name of it, but it’s a really good episode-where some guy owes him and Joker finds him three years later. This Joker is so scary.
Mark Hamill just kills it, and now everyone who does the voice of the Joker is always kinda copying Mark Hamill in a way. I love this Joker. Eventually, in the third season, they changed the animation style to make it more fluid and they had to lose some of the colors of Batman and Joker, and I don’t like the third-season design of the Joker, but I really like this design from the first two seasons of TheAnimated Series.
2008: Heath Ledger as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight
Released after Ledger’s tragic death at the age of 28, The Dark Knight changed the superhero movie forever and earned Ledger a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.
This was huge. I think I was 18 when this came out, and I had just moved to L.A. I was obsessed with Hollywood actors, and Heath Ledger was my favorite actor. It was the first time I ever got into the internet, and I used to go to Batman on Film to try to see behind-the-scenes pictures. Then he died and it was such a shock. I would have dreams I was hanging out with Heath Ledger before this movie came out. Then I saw it three times in the theater, I think. Maybe more. I just fucking loved every second of him on there. He’s funny, too! When he walks out in his introduction and he does that fake laugh? “Ha, ha, ha, he, he, he.” Fuck, dude. He’s also the most convincing. I could see him tricking the mob into being under his control and all that stuff. Yeah, he’s important. He’s a really important guy to me.
I was really not online then, and I’m late to the game with everything. I don’t even know if I would Google things back then. I would just type in a website and hope it existed. I do remember Domino’s did a promotion where you would get a cardboard Batman mask. So I had a Batman mask and we would stencil Batman on our shirts, and that’s what we wore to the opening night of the movie. I saw it at the Landmark Theater on the West Side in L.A., which was a pretty fancy theater. Looking back, I wish I had seen it at an AMC just with normal people screaming.
2016: Jared Leto as Joker in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad
In this movie about a team of villains forced to work together on a world-saving mission, Jared Leto’s Hot Topic-core Joker doesn’t get much screen time. But that didn’t stop the actor from sending dead animals to his fellow cast members.
I don’t like how this Joker looks. I think Jared Leto could be a good Joker if he talked like he normally talks. There’s something odd about Jared Leto: He’s like 50 years old but he looks so young and he kinda acts like a cult leader. That would be an interesting take-just him being himself as the Joker.
He bites Heath a bit with the voice, and obviously this movie is not written in a way that even if Heath existed in this movie, it wouldn’t really work. I don’t think this movie really works for any of the actors in it. This is just not the best. Look, he’s got “damaged” on his forehead. I don’t think the Joker thinks he’s damaged.
2019: Joaquin Phoenix as Joker in Todd Phillips’s Joker
Released during the Trump presidency, Joker generated controversy and also earned Phoenix a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the mentally unstable aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck.
I think Joker is cool as a movie. But I can’t really imagine this guy being a Batman villain. My issue with this movie is that it ties him into the Wayne family and they try to make it seem like he thinks he’s Bruce Wayne’s brother or something like that. I don’t love that stuff. But as a movie about a guy who has a condition, it’s very much a Taxi Driver and King of Comedy thing. I like that he accidentally becomes a symbol for people. And I love Joaquin’s performance, and that’s why it’s so cool. It’s a different take and he’s really interesting. But if you just put some Joker makeup on Robert De Niro in King of Comedy, it’s like shit, let’s see these guys go head-to-head. Batman and De Niro Joker!
I do like this movie. I saw this in a theater. My plane had to emergency land in Dallas and I had to stay the night there so I went to the theater at midnight in a packed theater, and it was just a great way to watch this movie. I had a blast. I just have a hard time when the “cinematic universe” thing happens. I don’t like that new style of filmmaking where you’re always thinking about a cinematic universe. This movie says it’s not doing that, but then why are you setting up Bruce Wayne and the Wayne family? Fuck that.
2022: Barry Keoghan as the “Akrham Prisoner” in Matt Reeves’s The Batman
After Ben Affleck hung up the cowl, Robert Pattinson took on the role of Batman in the dark, brooding The Batman, which features Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Penguin. But the movie couldn’t resist the pull of the Joker, saving Barry Keoghan for a mysterious appearance at the end.
That’s the same shit. Get rid of it. That’s how I felt. That was the worst part of the movie. And I liked that movie! But it sells the movie out a bit. Let’s focus on the Riddler, Batman, Catwoman, and the Penguin. Why do we need this pop-culture kingpin, the Joker, to be in this movie that’s supposed to be a cool, new take? Then you’ve got this guy being Joker. It didn’t work for me at all, and I hated that whole scene. It feels like obviously the studio was like, “We’ve gotta put some Joker in there so people will be excited for the next one.”
I loved the Batman Beginsending. It’s just like, “He’s got a calling card.” They show it and he’s like, “I’ll look into it.” That’s all it is.
Also, this actor [Barry Keoghan], I love him. But he’s weird. He’s a weird guy and when he’s in stuff he’s very strange. I’m just over the strange Joker. I think Heath did it and Joaquin did it. I just would like to see a charismatic, social Joker who has parties and I imagine him to be a guy who goes to plays and likes to drink martinis. Kinda like the Dark Knight Returns Joker, who is just this handsome, freaky-looking guy.
I was talking about it with some pals last night: I would love if Lakeith Stanfield was the Joker. Just this stoic guy. I’m over the “weird” acting with villains. The “weird guy” take. But I’m sure [Barry Keoghan] will figure it out and it’ll be great for the next movie. His laugh reminded me of that part in Billy Madison where the guy is like, “He did the weasel laugh.” And then the other guy is like, “What’s the weasel laugh?” And then he goes [does weasel laugh.] But he’s such a good actor, I’m sure he’ll figure it out. No shade.
Joker burns the money meme
The Dark Knight gave the internet era its first Joker, turning the character into a highly adaptable source of jokes and gags.
I love this. There are pictures of the Joker hanging out with Tony Soprano, like paintings on Venice Beach. I know that people have always romanticized being in the mafia, but it’s funny to imagine them being like, “Maybe I can be the Joker-type mafia guy?” Me and my buddies, every time there’s a situation where it seems like someone is making a self-sabotaging choice, we say, “The Joker’s burning the money.”
Joker saying “I’m going to become the Joker” meme
Joaquin Phoenix does not say this line in the movie, but that didn’t stop the meme from spreading all over the internet.
“Joker and Harley Quinn as relationship goals” meme
With its over-the-top depiction of the doomed romance between Jared Leto’s Joker and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Suicide Squad became a source of inspiration for troubled couples across the world.
It’s tricky. I love Harley Quinn in the cartoon. I like that she used to be a psychologist or sometimes she was an intern at Arkham Asylum. But the thing with this Joker, with the slicked-back hair and the jewelry and stuff, it makes me think, “Joker is definitely hitting Harley Quinn a lot.” Immediately, I’m like, “No one is rooting for Harley Quinn to be with the Joker.” Maybe they’re not supposed to. Harley Quinn as an antihero is really cool though. I just wish it was in different movies. It’s hard with these DC characters sometimes because they’re so cartoonish. Still, I’m sure that the couple that aspires to be like the Joker and Harley Quinn is happier than I’ll ever be in any sort of relationship.
Joker as crypto meme lord
As the world changes, Heath Ledger’s Joker remains a potent political symbol. It doesn’t even matter what your affiliations are.
It’s funny to me that all these tech, crypto, Bitcoin bros love Joker. In a way, I’m like, “The Dark Knight is one of the best movies ever made and Joker represents upsetting the established order.” I wonder how those guys feel about Bernie Sanders? He’s kinda like the Joker in a way. To me, he’s pretty cool. I know in their mind they’re like, “Bitcoin is going to change everything, it’s just like the Joker.” And if you watch The Dark Knight, especially now, that whole trilogy is so pro-cop. So I’m Team Joker and Team Bane a little bit.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.
Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.
What is special about the year of the Rabbit?
As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.
What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?
There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.
New South Wales
Darling Harbour Fireworks When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.
Dragon Boat Races When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.
Lion Dances When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.
Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.
Auntie Philter When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.
Lunar New Year Festival When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.
BriAsia Festival When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.
Chinatown Adelaide Street Party When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.
Crown Perth When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.