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Now, Gentle Reader, would be an excellent time for you to use the mouse, or the keyboard, or whatever other device you have for controlling your browser, and move lightly on to some other site, perhaps one of the ones suggested in the previous thread. Because Your Humble Blogger is finally giving in to his urge to write a Disquisition on Humour, and as everybody knows, there is nothing more tedious than Humour. There are, of course, different types of humor, and to be truly tedious, a Disquisition on Humor must catalogue those types, giving dreary examples of each.

Humor of Recognition: The astonishing Gilbert Gottfried, in one of his routines of many years ago, included a moment when he abruptly cut from his squawking persona and talked in the gently puzzled voice of a middle-aged man from the Bronx. “Why is he yelling,” Mr. Gottfried would insert. “Yelling isn’t funny. You know what’s funny? Funny is when the guy says ‘Don’t you hate it when this happens’ and you say ‘Yes, I hate it when that happens.’ That’s funny.” That’s the Humor of Recognition. Both the character in the joke and the guy in the audience who finds that joke funny. It’s (presumably) what people find funny about Cathy, or The Lockhorns. The Recognized thing can be exaggerated, but only within the bounds of recognition.

Your Humble Blogger, in his misspent youth, failed to find Humor of Recognition funny. I could recognize it, but it didn’t make me laugh, or even smile. In fact, my usual response was gritting my teeth and nodding. Yes, Ms. Guisewhite, women find trying on bathing suits stressful. You told me that yesterday. In the last few years, however, Humor of Recognition has started to grow on me. Jokes about child-rearing whose only point is that the listener recognize the situation, and consider how unfamiliar it was before one reared a child, suddenly became funny. It was disconcerting to find things funny that before I didn’t, but there it is. I can’t even dispute my own taste.

Humor of Incongruity: This is, in some sense, the opposite of the humor of recognition, where we laugh because the thing is so utterly different than the world we recognize. That’s why it’s funny when a little kid wears those absurdly large novelty sunglasses. That’s why a red foam-rubber nose and big shoes are funny. That’s why a man in a nun’s habit is funny. That’s why a penguin on top of a television set is funny. Heck, that’s why a penguin is funny. This is the humor of most verbal jokes, which get their punch lines from the sudden realization that what had been recognizable was not, in fact, what you thought it was, and that the person was not actually selling window blinds, or that the fellow was looking for a corkscrew, or that it smells awful.

Now, astute Readers will be wondering: if things are funny because they are familiar, and things are funny because they are unfamiliar, doesn’t that mean that everything is funny? Quite right, Gentle Reader, or at least completely wrong, which is very close. Things are not actually funny because they are familiar or unfamiliar. They are funny because they are funny, except the things that aren’t funny, which aren’t funny. Dividing funny things into different categories doesn’t explain why they work so much as it explains how they work, and it doesn’t explain that, either. Still, the idea is right insofar as it means that anything, anything at all, can be funny or can be the setting for something funny, or the set-up for something funny, or the punch-line, or the background, or the foreground, or the source. Anything can be exploited for gags. That doesn’t mean that any attempt to make a joke about the thing will be funny, or that you, Gentle Reader, will find any jokes at all on a particular topic funny, or anything like that. Theoretical humor is a long way from funny.

Besides, Humor of Recognition and Humor of Incongruity, despite between them incompassing all possible subjects, do not complete the classification of Humor. There is Humor of Ambiguity (where words, pictures or situations have two different and perhaps opposite meanings), Humor of Liberation (where a person gets away with saying or doing something they wouldn’t really get away with), Humor of Repetition (where what’s funny is that the thing is repeated, and I don’t know why that should be funny, but there it is; as Stephen Fry said, there are only two kinds of humor: Humor of Repetition and Humor of Repetition), Humor of Obscenity (Peepee! Ahahahahahaha!) and Humor of Humiliation (where some guy gets seltzer in the pants). Something can be funny because of any of these, or any combination of any of these, but that doesn’t mean that anything that repetitious, or humiliating, or liberating, or ambiguous, or incongruous, or recognizable will be funny.

In fact, not even all funny things will be funny. As I mentioned above, for many years I just didn’t find most Recognition jokes funny—

Wait a minute. Now that I think about it, there was a particular kind of Recognition joke that I used to like more than I do now, and that’s the Reference. The bit where what’s funny is simply that the speaker drops in a reference to something that I know, whether it’s a line from Monty Python, or a Shakespeare line, or the lyric to the opening theme for “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”. Or in Roy Lichtenstein’s witty paintings of interiors with great art on the walls. Or 98% of Shrek 2, which would at one point probably have had me in stitches, but at this point in my life just made me tired. So that screws with my earlier point, but will help out my next one. OK, let’s go back.

In fact, not even all funny things will be funny. As I mentioned above, for many years I just didn’t find most Recognition jokes funny, and now I tend to chuckle. Funny is in the eye of the beholder, and even more than with beauty, the beholder will change his mind a lot. For that reason, I try not to come over all morally superior because somebody finds humor in something I don’t think is at all funny. Not only are my own tastes embarrassing even to me at times, but many of the people I admire have things funny that only make me shake my head, and yet miss the point of the really funny things. In fact, there is a broad stream of English humour that this Anglophile can’t get simply because I don’t find the concept of adultery intrinsically funny. So, look: funny, not funny, people are different one from another and that’s what makes the world interesting and fun. Right?

And yet, when it comes to Humor of Humiliation, I get all ... igry.

Digression: Igry, as every poolboy knows, is one of only three commonly-used words in the English language ending in -gry. The others are augury and dungaree. Augury is the word for the color of the soapy film one sees when one has poured lukewarm tea into an improperly washed coffee mug and let it sit overnight. That substance was used by the Berserker priests to create the Golem (or greek fire), which ultimately allowed the Spartans to conquer Byzanteum. Dungaree is a far older word, deriving from Jimmy Durante’s affectionate nickname for his nose. By the time Walter Winchell referred to Gropius’ pyramidical addition to the Louvre as “that dungaree doohickey of the Dardanelles”, the word had passed into common usage to describe any unattractive protuberance. End Digression.

We can more or less define igry to mean something like dying inside of embarrassment, due to other people’s behavior. When somebody does something wrong, I mean, painfully wrong, the observer who is wincing is feeling igry. The observer who is laughing his ass off is appreciating the Humor of Humiliation, although of course true igriness is occasioned when the person who ought to be humiliated is oblivious to the inappropriateness of their behavior. Teenagers standing next to their parents are bound to be feeling igry—not ashamed, not even properly embarrassed, just dying a little inside. What makes me feel igry is when people laugh at the poor humiliated sap in the Humor of Humiliation scene. I don’t just feel bad for the guy, I die a little from the laughter. Don’t laugh! I scream silently, you’re only encouraging them.

The true nightmare was when Meet the Parents was the inflight movie. I was trapped. I didn’t watch. I turned the earphones to the bad music channel. I tried to keep my eyes on my book. But I would hear the guffaws circumjacent and couldn’t help looking up at the screen, just in time to see something awful happening to someone awful, and I would die a little. The sleep mask didn’t help, because then the guffaws led me to imagine what horrible humiliation was being suffered by the horrible people onscreen, which was no comfort at all. I didn’t care about the people onscreen, who of course didn’t exist, but those laughs, those awful, gleeful animal laughs... See, it’s really easy to convert a simple matter of taste in humor into a moral crusade.

Anyway, there it is. I think that, broadly speaking, the cultural moment leans toward Humor of Humiliation. It’s another thing that makes me wonder where I came from. I think—I think—Humor of Humiliation is mean-spirited and nasty, and that it’s a bad sign for a culture when that humor becomes dominant. But I may well be misinterpreting the whole thing, and I can’t say I have done any quantitative research, or feel that such research would be possible. I remember somebody (perhaps it was Stephen Fry, or Oscar Wilde) saying that when the top comic switched from Calvin and Hobbes to Dilbert, it was a similar cultural landmark, from a free-spirited to a mean-spirited comic. I don’t know that I agree, but I can’t say it has been proved wrong.

So what do people find funny? What does our funny say about us, as a culture? I think funny is at the heart of our American culture, myself, but I don’t know how to get at it.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

7 thoughts on “Skip This Entry

  1. Matt Hulan

    See, I found this:

    I remember somebody (perhaps it was Stephen Fry, or Oscar Wilde) saying…

    funny. I also find George C. Scott getting hit in the groin with a football on the Simpsons quite funny. Although, what makes that REALLY funny is how funny Homer finds it to be.

    I usually like Humor of Incongruity. I tend to use Humor of Repetition a lot. Particularly when my other humor goes over flat, I’ll start to repeat it until (at the very least) I start to laugh, or (ideally) someone else starts to laugh at the repetition. Wifey calls this “obnoxious” and discourages my son from paying any attention to me, but she laughs too sometimes.

    The word “igry” is definitely funny.

    Interesting that you worry about civilization that predominance of Humor of Humiliation is a bad sign for culture. It seems that there’s a long and proud tradition of Humiliation in Culture. I’m thinking Lysistrata, here, for example: most of the humor turns on an entire gender being humiliated.

    Too broad though, I think. How about Malvolio’s treatment in 12th Night? Funny? Yes. Also quite painful.

    Were Aristophanes and Shakespeare dredging the bottom of their cultures? Were they symptomatic of cultural decline?

    I think Humor of Humiliation actually doesn’t work without compassion. The reason (perhaps) you cringe at Meet the Parents is not because these people are being humiliated per se, but because you don’t buy into the characters enough to feel for them as their humiliation is played out.

    Now that I’ve got this far, I wonder if my first example of George C. Scott is not Humor of Humiliation so much as peepee humor. I certainly don’t relate to George C. Scott, yet it’s undeniably funny.


  2. Vardibidian

    To the limited extent that YHB can find the humiliation of Malvolio funny (and mostly I just feel igry), it is the Humor of Liberation that does it, watching Feste and the gang get away with this ludicrous gag. I’ve never actually seen Lysistrata, so I can’t speak to that one.

    And groin-injury humor is definitely peepee humor, plus there’s the whole animated-picture business, and the whole incongruity business (that’s an Oscar clip, right?) and the repitition business (it’s Hans the first time through, right?), and, you know, it’s just really really funny. It’s a football. In the groin.


  3. Wayman

    Funny you should bring this topic up….

    For reasons completely unknown to me, I crack up every time I think of the “No soap, radio!” joke that Jed once included in a Words & Stuff column. Except that I remember the joke completely wrong, which–when I realized this years later–I think makes it far far funnier. I think this is incongruity humor, unless surrealist humor is something completely different.

    I agree totally about igry/humiliation, and have met a lot of people who feel likewise. The paragraph of digression was utter hilarity, kudos.

    There’s a senior linguistics thesis being written this year on semantic and phonetic categories of humor. One that he included in his short talk today was what I have heard oft called the most importa–TIMING–nt aspect of humor.

    He quoted Mitch Hedberg’s line “I haven’t slept for three days … ‘cuz that would be too long”, and pointed out that semantically, the key element that makes this funny is the ellipsis. Without it, the listener doesn’t have time to take in and process the first half before hearing the second half; and it’s only when the first half has been processed–and the listener thinks he knows what’s going on–that the second half, with its incongruity, becomes funny.

  4. Jed

    Funny, I was just talking this morning with Lola about puns, and wondering why I find them funny (if they’re good) while many other people groan at them or just don’t like them, and what do I mean by “good” anyway? I think puns are usually Humor of Incongruity (which I sometimes call Humor of Juxtaposition), but sometimes they’re just Clever Wordplay, and why should Cleverness per se be funny? But then, I suppose, why should anything else be funny. Dunno.

    I don’t generally find repetition funny per se (unless you count the chocolate milk joke), but something that’s already funny often gets a lot funnier when repeated; the Running Gag can, if done well, be brilliant. And I think part of why a running gag keeps getting funnier (when it does) is Humor of Recognition, only it’s an induced recognition, something you didn’t even know about before, set up in such a way that when it comes back you’ll recognize it.

    Which brings us to Shared Culture. I think most people get a little frisson of that nice Belonging feeling when someone else says something that indicates that they both share a cultural background. Recognition and nostalgia. And if one of the people involved finds something even a little bit funny, I think recognition and nostalgia can act as a general intensifier of feeling, making things much funnier. Maybe.

    I too dislike Humor of Humiliation, which I usually call Humor of Embarrassment. I once commented about that at Swarthmore, and a friend (I forget who at this point) was bewildered: they said, “But all humor is at someone’s expense!” I tried to explain that no it wasn’t, and that in fact most of the humor I like isn’t at anyone’s expense, but we were just coming from different worlds.

    I think really I just don’t like most things that I see as mean-spirited or cruel, and a lot of Humor of Humiliation does come across that way to me. (But I agree with Matt that it’s nothing new. I don’t find the Malvolio stuff especially funny, even though 12th Night is possibly my favorite Shakespeare play.) (I should note that I’m not entirely immune to such humor; sometimes I do find myself laughing even while wincing.)

    I saw the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma with Rob S, and he hated it; it was way too much Humor of Humiliation for him. I didn’t react as strongly as he did, but I didn’t love the movie either. (Nor the book, for that matter.) But I did love Clueless.

    I laughed quite a bit at your digression paragraph, which caused Lola to come in from the other room wondering what was funny, so I showed it to her and she laughed rather a lot as well. Thanks!

    One other thing we were discussing this morning about humor: someone once told me that telling jokes (per se) is a gendered thing; they said that people who tell jokes are usually men. (I’m talking about pre-formed/packaged jokes, not just being funny in general.) I don’t have enough evidence one way or t’other; most of the people I know who Tell Jokes are my family, and most of my family members are male, but that’s just anecdotal data.

    If I were a really brilliant humorist, here is where I would repeat a joke that I had cleverly set up at the beginning of this comment, so that you would laugh with Humor of Repetition. But alas, I am not.

    Chocolate milk!

  5. Matt Hulan

    My point with Malvolio was not that Shakespeare was funny (which he was…), but that Humiliation Humor is no more a barometer for the Decline of Civilization than rock ‘n’ roll music is. Indeed, sometimes Humiliation Humor is enacted at the peak of culture by its greatest champions (Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Ben Stiller *snorts chocolate milk out his nose*).

  6. Vardibidian

    I see your point. However, (a) Humiliation Humor is not very common in Shakespeare, who makes far more use of the Humor of Obscenity and the Humor of Ambiguity over the course of the plays, (2) I disagree that 1601 or so was any kind of peak of English culture anyway, and (iii) when I say I think it’s a bad thing for a culture, I don’t so much mean and that’s why we’ll all be eating our own babies by lunchtime as and that’s part and parcel of a rough few years. Civilization, as always, is Declining and Blossoming at the same time, and if a fellow ever wants to be wrong about anything, one good way is to come down on one side of that fence.
    The Shared Culture thing is an excellent point, and has a lot to do with Humor of Recognition, I think. Oh, and sometimes Puns are Humor of Incongruity and sometimes they are Humor of Ambiguity, and sometimes they aren’t funny at all. There it is.
    Oh, and yes, of course, the digression was the real reason I wrote the disquisition. And it appears I failed to credit Gentle Reader Francis, who along with other Puzzler Pals of his, invented and popularized the word igry and destroyed the -gry thing, hurray hurrah.

  7. Dan P

    Because I can never seem to be particularly *on* topic, but only somewhat *near* it…

    I remember reading this in An Article Somewhere Recently: a lot of other primates have a specific sound that indicates when something is surprising but not threatening, and that sound is apparently related to human laughter. (Saw that one coming, did you?)

    Since then, I’ve looked at things that I find funny (or that I don’t find funny, but someone else does) through the lens of “surprising but not threatening,” and it seems to cover things pretty well. Humor of Incongruity? Check. Humor of Liberation or Obscenity? Check. Even Humor of Repetition, because it only works as long as it’s something you don’t expect to get repeated a lot. Recognition works best when there’s an element of surprise or relief in it — infant projectile vomit is so much less threatening once the context is past. And Humor of Humiliation? Well, now, that would depend on whether or not I tend to identify with the humiliatee, wouldn’t it? On that count, I simply can’t escape the feeling of threat.


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