"Humor may be defined as the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life, and the artistic expression thereof." -- Stephen Leacock, economist and humorist (1869-1944) Can you imagine an economist with a sense of humor? A queer duck to be sure. On the other hand, if he really understood economics, he would have to burst out laughing. I'm not at all sure about that "kindly" part. Thinking of the satire of Jonathan Swift and Ambrose Bierce, or even the paradoxes of Oscar Wilde, "kindly" is not the first adjective that springs to mind.
The following is extracted from a journal kept while undergoing psychotherapy as a result of an auto accident in which I sustained spinal injuries and the result of denial of medical benefits by my own insurance company.
What is humorous? The experience of a paradox or incongruity that is usually resolved. Not to say that all paradoxes or incongruities are are funny. The incongruity can be formal or contrafactual. A joke is a formal setup, which can contain some degree of contrafactual absurdity, followed by a punchline. The punchline reverses or alters the semantics of the setup, momentarily creating the paradox which the hearer then resolves. In the setup, the hearer is not supposed to understand any ambiguity of meaning, which is why most jokes loose their power if the hearer already knows the outcome. The process sequence: setup paradox resolution is important to the effect of the joke. The sense of amusement comes from the delight of the paradox itself and its conscious resolution by the hearer. Henny Youngman: "... take my wife [pause] Please!" The elegant punchline or switch is the single word "Please!", with the imploring inflection. The semantic setup is the the meaning of "take", which the hearer is expected to understand as "take for example". The setup creates the illusion and expectation on the part of the hearer, that he is actually going to get and example of some kind of behavior. The very structure creates a strong expectation in the hearer, enhanced further by a deliberate pause. The "Please!" not only creates an incongruity in the hearer's expectation, but also creates an unanticipated switch in the semantics of the verb "take", and consequently of the meaning of the phrase "take my wife". The fact that it is his "wife" whom he presumably knows intimately, primes the hearer for humor, because he is expecting something incongruous, and perhaps slightly embarassing, to begin with that indeed involves his wife. It is the imploring inflection of "Please!" that amplifies the power of the semantic switch. The brief lived paradox, (confusion of mind with regard to semantics) a point of tension, followed rapidly by the resolution, the release of tension, and the delight at the release of tension is what elicits the inevitable laughter. And all of this takes place in about 3 or 4 seconds! A form of joke goes: "What's the difference between and X and a Y? - X doesn't do Z!", where in fact, X probably or at least can really do Z, and for X to do Z would be a contrafactual absurdity. This form follows the theory. In the humor of Ernie Kovacs, the fundamental focus is contrafactual absurdity. But the shtick that I remember best is the Nirobi Trio. This was hysterically funny apparently to more that just me, yet it doesn't seem to fit the above paradigm. The trio was three people in gorilla suits that were playing musics in a mechanical way. One was a drummer and in back of one of the other gorillas. At a practically determined place in the music, the drummer hit the musician in front of him with his drum sticks. The truly funny part for me was the very slow take that the battered gorilla took to the back of him. It was like a cat and mouse game, with repetition of the cudgeling, and the front musician trying to catch the drummer in the act. To do so he would occasionally look around very fast, but of course always at the wrong moment. Finally he would look around at just the right moment when the drummer had the drum sticks poised for the blow. It was the same complex cat and mouse game every time and every time it was still funny. Form humor with a little contrafactual absurdity thrown in. Gorillas do not play musical instruments. The humor was more dynamical than the verbal joke form above, but still relies on playing with expectations, and delays in their being satisfied. There is even a moral overtone to the Nirobi Trio, since the culprit is ultimate caught red handed. The focus is not on the incongruity of two things, and an unexpected resolution. Jack Benny is so funny in a similar way. Everybody knew exactly what was going to happen, it was a question of when! Jack Benny was the ultimate minimalist of comedy. He could make people laugh by doing and saying exactly nothing. It was the nothing, and not knowing when the nothing would cease that caused the tension. The brilliance was knowing by gauging the audience exactly when to break the tension. He would stretch the tension to it's breaking point, before actually doing or saying anything. If it was a verbal situation, and it usually was, everybody else knew perfectly well what the answer should be. He would just look, and not say anything. The humor is in the incongruity of saying nothing when saying something is expected. Yet, the setup was the expectation of exactly what happened. The setup was personal, the behavioral repetition created the expectation and it was the very repetition of the behavior that became funny. Are there any other questions? I'm really sorry that Aristotle's treatise on Comedy was lost. EXAMPLES THAT FIT THE THEORY Attributed to Milton Berle * You know a kid is growing up when he stops asking you where he came from and won't tell you where he's going. * Remember, a kiss that speaks volumes is never a first edition. * A synonym is a word you have to use because you don't how to spell the other one. * A man returns from a long overseas trip. Seeing his wife waiting for him as he comes down the steps of the plane, he yells "FF". The wife yells back "EF" "No, FF" "EF" Another passenger asks his buddy, "What's that all about?" His friend says, "She wants to eat first." * A hump is the thing on a camel's back. Unless it's another camel, then it becomes a verb. * How come "fat chance" and "slim chance" mean the same thing? * One of the chorus girls in a Las Vegas hotel fainted. It took six men to carry her out. They walked three abreast. * A lawyer called his client and said "Justice has been done." The client said "Then we'll sue." * There's a dead skunk and a dead lawyer in the middle of the road. How do you tell the difference? There are skid marks in front of the skunk. * What is the difference between God and a lawyer? God never thinks He's a lawyer. * Nobody likes a crooked lawyer-- until he needs one. * Then there was the elephant who saw a man in the nude and said "How the hell does he eat with that?" * My nephew had his vasectomy done at Sears. Now, every time he makes love the garage door opens. * There's so much nudity in films this year the Oscar for Best Costume Design will probably go to a dermatologist. * You can always tell a nearsighted man at a nudist colony. It isn't hard. * I went to a party at a nudist colony, but it wasn't much fun. Everybody got so drunk they started putting on their clothes. * Did you ever hear a pessimist count his blessings? "Five, four, three, two..." * An optimist believes that after he marries his secretary, he can still dictate to her. * An optimist thinks the glass is half full. A pessimist thinks the glass is half empty. A realist knows that before long he'll have to wash the glass. Attributed to Henny Youngman: * This guy gets loaded with liquor, they make him take the freight elevator. * If there's a nip in the air, he tries to drink it. * I was so ugly when I was born the doctor slapped my mother. * I just redecorated my bar. I put new drunks around it. * I solved the parking problem. I bought a parked car. * A Hollywood couple got divorced, then they got remarried. The divorce didn't work out. * Doctor leaving his crowded office to go out and move his car said to his patients, "Don't anybody get any better. I'll be right back." * I'll never forget when I lost my baby teeth. I didn't know my father could hit that hard. * If you don't like the way women drive, stay off the sidewalk. * I'll never forget my first words in the theatre. "Peanuts, Popcorn!" * My grandson traveled with us. First two words he ever spoke were "room service." * I asked my brother why he was wearing my raincoat. He said, "You wouldn't want me to get your suit wet, would you?" * God sneezed. What could I say to him? * I like to work in New York rather than California. I get paid three hours earlier. * My doctor put his hand on my wallet and said, "Cough." * A very exclusive hotel. Room service has an unlisted number. * Doctor says to a little old man, "You're going to live until you're sixty." He said, "I AM sixty." Doctor said, "What did I tell you?" * My violin is very valuable. It's a Sears Yamaha. * Did you hear about the scientist that crossed a praying mantis with a termite, and now he has a bug that says grace before it eats your house. * A drunk falls down an empty elevator shaft. He's laying there bleeding. He says, "I said UP." * My doctor is an eye, ear, nose and throat and wallet specialist. * Two guys were talking. What's the latest dope on Wall Street? My son. * I made a killing in the market. I shot my broker. * A guy says he hasn't had a bite in two days. So I bit him. * He just got a new job. He's a lifeguard in a car wash. * Two dumb guys go bear hunting. They see a sign saying, "Bear left," so they went home. * All the other comedians are on TV. I'm waiting for color radio. * A fellow walks into a bank and says, "Give me all your money." Manager says, "Take the books too, I'm $10,000 short." * Want to have some fun? Walk into an antique shop and say, "What's new?" * The plane was going up and down and sideways. A little old lady said, "Everybody on the plane pray!" So a man said, "I don't know how to pray." She said, "Well do something religious. So he started a bingo game. * You know what's embarassing? When you look through a keyhole and see another eye. -------------------------------------------------------------------- There is no good theory, however, for: Elephant Runs A Muck --------------------------------------------------------------------
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