This got me thinking about humor. Non-sequiturs as the essence of humor. I spent many years defining what humor is, and how it works. What's funny? I once read an article by some people studying the effects of humor on children, and one of the writers said that the same facial movements are used in laughter as they are in crying: scrunched up face, open mouth, and sometimes tears. In fact, in most cases, people have a hard time telling is a photo of someone is laughing really hard or crying. So what causes this? Well, they delved into what causes crying, and came up with his tidbit:
Crying is conflict unresolved. Laughing is conflict resolved.
The only difference is in how the act is perceived. The classic lesson is playing peek-a-boo with children. "Mommy's gone! Oh no! Ah, there she is!" At first, the baby tenses up at this uncomfortable situation, and just before they start to get upset, the conflict is resolved, and so the energy comes out as laughter. That's how we learn to laugh. Supposedly. I think it makes sense.
Anyway, we carry this through to adults. The Latin phrase "non-sequitur" means, "that which does not follow," which is commonly used for when someone says something leads you to think one way, and then goes a completely unexpected way. If the unexpected way is far more extreme, and possibly slightly alarming, but we quickly realize this is an jovial exaggeration, it becomes laughter. Take the following statement:
I wish I had a bicycle.
Standard statement. Now the person explains why.
I wish I had a bicycle, because I want to ride one.
That's an expected phrase to follow, and not very funny. Now suppose someone said this:
I wish I had a bicycle, but I'm not a kid.
Slightly funny, maybe a bit odd. It was almost a non-sequitur, but not exactly a resolved conflict because it's not extreme enough. Many people who are bad at telling jokes will often visit this level of humor. They go past the punchline and almost explain the joke without actually telling it. I call this the "Bill Keene" level of humor, because the comic strip, "The Family Circus," often is barely funny except, and this is my opinion, if the reader has had a lobotomy.
I wish I had a bicycle, because I want to hit slow people who get in my way.
Funnier. Most civilized people would not expect someone to say they wanted to commit a violent act with an otherwise innocent device.
I wish I had a bicycle, because I want to hit slow people who get in my way, like I did when I was a kid.
Even better. This emphasizes the innocence doubly, first by describing an unexpected act, then by reinforcing the corrupted innocence image by adding a childhood reference.
I wish I had a bicycle, because I want to hit slow people who get in my way, like I did when I was a kid. I never learned how to ride a bike, however, so I had to chase people down on foot and throw the bike at them.
This is a classic "zig-zag" approach to a punchline, because it took several items you expected to follow, and then has given you a double whammy with two non-sequiturs. The last comment is subject to interpretation at several levels. Some may find it funny because they can't picture someone, especially a kid, running after someone with a bike over their heads, screaming war cries, and tossing a bike at a person. Someone may find it funny, because a bike is not someone you'd immediately think of as a weapon; it's clumsy, heavy, and just silly. Some may laugh because that means as a kid, he was too stupid to figure out you hit people with a bike by riding it into them.
Some people also like physical humor. There are many people who LOVE "The Three Stooges." The Three Stooges used a lot of violence in their work, but it's movie violence, and it's not real. You know it's not real. Mel Brooks once said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open manhole cover and die." Or, maybe put in other words, comedy is something that doesn't happen to you or affect you. Some people, like myself, don't find injuries very funny. Maybe I am too sympathetic, or never learned the "safety of happening to others." Who knows. My father, for example, really likes seeing bad things happen to people. He LOVED the Coyote and Road Runner cartoons, for instance. It might be a form of arrogance, or I may just be over-reacting. I haven't decided yet.
Some things are funnier under stress. Sometimes, they have to be. Humor is a great survival tool. People who work in stressful environments have some pretty "dark humor," like EMTs. Some of the "secret codes" they have are pretty morose to the common person, like "FDGB" as a code for "Fall Down, Go Boom," and "ART," for "Assuming Room Temperature" (i.e., dead).
There are several levels of "sophisticated humor," which assumes a target audience. For instance, those who work in air traffic control have to be VERY careful what they say, and often have to say complicated things to mean basic concepts. You can't just say, "plane crashed," because you have to tell why and make it look like not your fault. The best one I have heard is "a mid-air collision seriously eroded climb performance, resulting in aluminum rain."
There an old saying that "some can tell a joke, and some can't." I extrapolate this concept to "there are those who know how to manipulate social settings, and those who don't know who they are performing to." Some jokes require practice, or at least a memorization of the key concept, whether it be set up via misdirection, or emphasis of certain details that may not seem important at first, but then become evident when the punchline is delivered. There are several mistakes people make when telling jokes. The most common is forgetting parts of the joke, or telling it badly with "ah... then, no wait... okay, so the horse, I mean the ostrich says... oh, what was it?" The second joke killer is telling someone how funny the joke is going to be. "This is SO funny, wait until you hear THIS. Oh my god... ha ha ha! See, there was this guy stuck on an island, and then he finds... ha ha ha ha, no wait. Finds a bottle! Ha ha ha, oh my god, wait until you hear what he does with it!" By the time the punchline is delivered, it has less than a one in ten chance of getting even a chuckle. I think the next most common thing is people totally missing their audience. Like they tell racial joke to people who don't think racism is funny ("Okay, how do you keep a black child out of trouble?") or they tell a joke that's way over their audience's heads ("So then I said, format the fstab? There isn't enough room for the both of us in these here parts! Ha hahahahaa!! Huh? Okay, the /etc/fstab contain hard drive partitions, and see, in a Western..."). That leads me to those who have to explain jokes, and that never works out. First, if you decide not to explain it, you make the audience feel dumb and left out, and if you do, you make them feel stupid and singled out.
The best way to tell a joke is with a deadpan face. The more unexpected the impact, the better the joke will go. If you can weave some storytelling into it, it goes a little better. It takes practice, sometimes, and a fairly good knowledge of the audience's mood and sophistication.
Mine right now? The cold medicine is playing with my head. For a while, I thought the word "Chinese Food" was funny. I thought of it like "pet food," you know, "What to feed your Chinee? Chinees food! Ralston Purina packs in extra vitamins and minerals to keep your Chinee's coat shiny and healthy for an extra long life. Ask you vet which food he prefers for his Chinee." Don't ask me what a Chinee is, I don't know. I'd think a cross between a chinchilla and a ferret, with big ears and a shaggy coat like a miniature mammoth, which also seems really funny as a write this. Mini-mammoth. Hee! I bet you'd have to buy Mammoth Chow, which sounds like a great name for a Mongolian buffet. I should stop. I am sure I will go back on this entry later and say, "What the hell was I laughing so hard at?"
This is as close as I get to drunk, folks.
This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000410.html