Bewildering Stories

Challenge 126

What’s the joke?

Summarizing Henri Bergson at a gallop, humor consists of a deviation from a social norm. That implies a few things:

  1. The norm cannot be stated, by definition; if it has to be, it’s not a norm. That’s why jokes can’t be “explained” and retain their humor.

  2. Social norms vary widely, but one is universal: mind over matter. Or, more generally, the internal controls the external. A crude example: You step on a banana peel. What’s the norm? You don’t slip and fall; you keep on walking, just as you intended to do. That’s mind over matter, in action.

  3. The deviation doesn’t cause any harm. And that implies that comedy and tragedy differ in degree, not in kind. Back to the banana peel: in slapstick, an actor slips on a banana peel and takes a pratfall; that’s comedy. He falls and breaks his leg; that’s a catastrophe. He deliberately steps on a banana peel, falls and either actually or apparently breaks his leg; that’s tragedy.

  4. Humor is metaphor. The literal content is the norm; the image is the deviation. For example: language normally communicates thought. Puns are a universal form of humor because they call attention to language as a physical construct: “What’s that in the road a head?” A simple space or change in rhythm and intonation gives us a case of matter (the written or spoken word) over mind (meaning). In a sense, puns are “banana peels” on which communication can slip and fall. The right contents are placed in the wrong container, so to speak.

In Delo White’s “A Wild, Ill-Tempered, Bowlegged Woman”:

  1. Brad has the gift of speaking in tongues. What makes his nonsense words comic?
  2. Which of Brad’s coined words are least English-like in form?
  3. What are the other sources of humor in Delo White’s story? Any number of “literal contents” are possible: names, clothing, social interaction... Why is the incident with the thrown beer can comic?

In Ásgrímur Hartmannsson’s “Pet Elephant,” would you say the following are comic? If so, to what extent?

  1. The purchase of an elephant on the Net.
  2. The conversation about permits.
  3. The elephant’s stomping the car.
  4. The ending, where the elephant swims away.
  5. The ending, where Ásgrímur purchases a panda.

Why are Michael Boyle’s “Full Circle” and Dustin LaValley’s “Tuesdays and Thursdaysnot humorous stories? Or are they?

Bonus Challenge: using Bergson’s principles (is there any other way?) write us a funny story.

Super Challenge: analyze humor as metaphor on any page of any of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.


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