Monday, October 19, 2009

Fundamentals of Humor

The goal of humor is to make the audience laugh. I show how a basic joke that aims at producing laughter is made of specific building blocks. Here I also talk about varying style to produce different kinds of humor. This is shown diagrammatically. The material for the post comes mostly from an online Google book by the author Mary Ann Rishe titled “Writing Humor: Creativity and the comic mind”.

Laughter is a pleasurable physical response we experience as we respond to humor. Emotion builds in the body and then, because it can't be reabsorbed by the brain as quickly as cognition, it erupts as "excess energy". [Thus it is a physiological response to a stimulus].

Our goal is to create this "excess energy" in the audience. To understand how let's turn to the definition of humor.

Humor Defined
"Humor is playful incongruity that contains a tension between two levels of meaning followed by a clash of sufficient complexity that surprises and delights and that leads to a resolution of that meaning."

We will develop our understanding of 'incongruity' and 'tension' to grasp the definition above.

Incongruity means anything that doesn't fit our logical expectations or our normal view of things: We expect a man in a winter storm to wear a heavy jacket and boots, but Charlie Chaplin in Gold Rush arrives in Alaska wearing his shorts, ill-fitting coat and bowler hat, naively unprepared for the freezing wind and snow. He's also followed by a bear.

There also has to be sufficient 'tension' between the normal meaning and the incongruity since mere differences are not enough. Take for example the following scenario: A fourteen-year-old girl and a fifty-year-old man walking into a classroom are of different sexes and ages, but that by itself isn’t funny. To make the scene humorous, you'd have to make her a precocious teenager with an IQ of 170 and have us discover that she's actually the professor, and he's the student.

A diagram of the humor process:

Thus when we have two parallel meanings that are incongruous with sufficient 'tension' resolving this incongruity creates laughter. Thus we have our basic joke [molecule].

Let's take a joke and see how this works:
Henny Youngman: "Now that I know how to get the most out of life, most of it is over."

Look at the structure of the humor process in figure 3 and apply the joke to the diagram. Meaning #1 centers on the word play "most out of life", which we understand to mean the value of life, and which operates as a normal statement. Meaning #2 focuses on the amount of life left to live, "most of it is over". That becomes incongruous in comparison to meaning #1. [There might not be sufficient tension but note that the joke only makes us laugh when we understand the two meanings and resolve them. Resolved: By the time you become wise and learn how to carry yourself in difficult situations you aren’t young enough to apply this ‘knowledge’ in situations that are accessible mostly to the young.]

Thus we have the basic joke [molecule].

Joke molecules put together give our next building block: a paragraph. Here one joke follows or 'tops' the previous joke. Let's see the jokes apart and then put them together to get our complete paragraph.

The first joke [This is a simple enough joke]:
The problem, I argued, is that men -- because of a tragic genetic flaw -- cannot see dirt until there is enough of it to support agriculture. This puts men at a huge disadvantage against women, who can detect a single dirt molecule 20 feet away.

Topping it with another joke:
This is why a man and a woman can both be looking at the same bathroom commode, and the man -- hindered by Male Genetic Dirt Blindness (MGDB) -- will perceive the commode surface as being clean enough for heart surgery; whereas the woman can't even "see" the commode, only a teeming, commode-shaped swarm of bacteria.

Topping it with another joke:
A woman can spend two hours cleaning a toothbrush holder and still not be totally satisfied; whereas if you ask a man to clean the entire New York City subway system, he'll go down there with a bottle of Windex and a single paper towel, then emerge 25 minutes later, weary but satisfied with a job well done.

And our final and complete paragraph:
The problem, I argued, is that men -- because of a tragic genetic flaw -- cannot see dirt until there is enough of it to support agriculture. This puts men at a huge disadvantage against women, who can detect a single dirt molecule 20 feet away. This is why a man and a woman can both be looking at the same bathroom commode, and the man -- hindered by Male Genetic Dirt Blindness (MGDB) -- will perceive the commode surface as being clean enough for heart surgery; whereas the woman can't even ``see'' the commode, only a teeming, commode-shaped swarm of bacteria. A woman can spend two hours cleaning a toothbrush holder and still not be totally satisfied; whereas if you ask a man to clean the entire New York City subway system, he'll go down there with a bottle of Windex and a single paper towel, then emerge 25 minutes later, weary but satisfied with a job well done. Link to source

Thus we have seen the building blocks of humor and the response it is meant to generate. Now let’s turn our attention to understand how style in humor varies.

Let’s go back to ‘incongruities’. Incongruities can be small creating humor that is closer to reality or the incongruity can be very large producing 'non-sense' or silly humor. See the diagram below:



Another variation in style comes in the form of humor that is jolly or light vs. humor that is tragic or dark. Our primary tool for this variation is in calibrating how 'playful' we make it.

The following diagram shows this:


Thus we can revisit our basic joke molecule and vary its style to create different kinds of humor.

Having understood the basic components of a joke we can use this to sharpen our wit. This can be done in two ways. Firstly we do this by applying the framework to all humor we come across to grasp it better. [There is good written humor available on the internet, such as the resource mentioned in the notes that exhibits the use of this framework.] The second exercise we can do is practice writing our own humor. Having grasped the fundamentals of humor, practice should allow us to become good in manipulating these building blocks. Thus we should be able to sharpen our wit.


NOTES:
1. An advice on the appropriateness of using humor: “it is like a mask that you wear for a while and in some particular company on occasion. YOU CAN'T WEAR it all the time... that is being a NIT WIT, not witty at all!”
2. Link to good humor: www.davebarry.com [Read some of his classic columns...]

3 comments:

  1. Well, laughter IS the best medicine sometimes and often the ONLY medicine. Thanx for such a nice relief. I have noticed from time to time that Allama Iqbal and others in his life also had a good sense of humor despite the challenges of his own day. Believe me, I'm going to study this one and seek to up my chances at telling a great joke.
    Thank You, Faraz!

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  2. MASNAVI of Rumi has been called "the Quran in Persian". It is full of jokes.

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  3. I have ordered MASNAVI of Rumi and can't wait for it to come in!!! If the humor is anything like the Rumi poetry I've read and other Persian poetry...I'm in for lots of smiles.

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