PEN International Talk on Humor – 5

  1. Humorists use a variety of comic tools: exaggeration, understatement, misunderstanding, surprise, misdirection, foils, rule of three, repetition, callbacks, and so on

An example of exaggeration from H. L Mencken:

“Whoever it was who translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France.”

As a reporter working the city beat, James Thurber was criticized by the paper’s editor for being too wordy. In response, Thurber filed this understated yet, according to Thurber, complete story about a homicide:

“Dead. That’s what the man was when they found him.”

Thurber was already a New Yorker writer when the magazine started publishing his cartoons, drawings that Dorothy Parker said had the “semblance of unbaked cookies”.  One of the more polished New Yorker illustrators complained to editor Harold Ross saying, “How come you’re not using my cartoons but you’re publishing work by that fifth-rate cartoonist Thurber?” The editor rose to Thurber’s defense and said Thurber’s not fifth-rate, he’s third-rate.

An example from P.G. Wodehouse that I find uses both exaggeration and understatement:

“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”

From Henny Youngman to Stephen Wright, stand-up comics are masters of misdirection. Here are two misdirection examples by two other stand-up comics. First, Emo Phillips:

“I picked up a hitchhiker. You gotta when you hit them.”

And this example from Demitri Martin:

“I was asked to name all the presidents. I thought they already had names.”

I think it was also Demitri Martin who said, “The worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of Charades.”

One of my favorite examples of character foils is the Bertie Wooster-Jeeves relationship created by P.G. Wodehouse.

Bertie: Tell me, Jeeves, were you always like this, or did it come on suddenly?

Jeeves: Sir?

Bertie: The brain, the gray matter. Were you an outstandingly brilliant child?

Jeeves: My mother thought me intelligent, sir.

Bertie: Well, can’t go by that. My mother thought me intelligent.

Another example by P.G. Wodehouse, one that uses repetition, from My Man Jeeves:

“What ho!” I said.

“What ho!” said Motty.

“What ho! What ho!”

“What ho! What ho! What ho!”

After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

And an example that employs surprise and saves the best for last. It’s from the short story “The Champ” by T. C. Boyle. In the story, Angelo D. has reigned as the champion food eater for thirty-seven years. But he may have met his match in Kid Gullet. The excerpt comes toward the end of the story.

It was the Champ’s round all the way: sweet potato pie with butterscotch syrup and pralines. For the first time the Kid let up—toward the end of the round he dropped his fork and took a mandatory eight count. But he came back strong in the thirteenth with a savage combination of Texas wieners and sauce diable. The Champ staggered, went down once, twice, flung himself at the water pitcher while the Kid gorged like a machine, wiener after wiener, blithely lapping the hot sauce from his fingers and knuckles with an epicurean relish. Then Angelo’s head fell to the table, his huge whiskered jowl mired in a pool of béchamel and butter. The fans sprang to their feet, feinting left and right, snapping their jaws and yabbering for the kill. The Champ’s eyes fluttered open, the ref counted over him.

It was then that it happened. His vision blurring, Angelo gazed out into the crowd and focused suddenly on the stooped and wizened figure of an old woman in a black bonnet. Angelo lifted his head. “Ma?” he said. “Eat, Angelo, eat!” she called, her voice a whisper in the apocalyptic thunder of the crowd. “Clean your plate!”


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