What’s the joke?
Summarizing Henri Bergson at a gallop, humor consists of a deviation from a social norm. That implies a few things:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”:
- Brad has the gift of speaking in tongues. What makes his nonsense words comic?
- Which of Brad’s coined words are least English-like in form?
- 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?
- The purchase of an elephant on the Net.
- The conversation about permits.
- The elephant’s stomping the car.
- The ending, where the elephant swims away.
- The ending, where Ásgrímur purchases a panda.
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.
Copyright © 2004 by Bewildering Stories
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