Sunday, August 31, 2014

Humor in Writing (2 of 4) - Theory

Message to my past self: How can you expect my to write about a such broad and complex topic, such as humor. There people out there studying this and I am just a writer.

Answer from my pas self: Told ya.

Well, let me try it.

"No, do. Or do not. There is no try" (Yoda out of the background)

1. Definition
In my past blog post I outlined the importance of humor, but what is humor? Unfortunately, there is not a recipe for humor and definitions available aren't helpful either. 

Rod A. Martin came up with the following definition: “From a psychological perspective, the humor process can be divided into four essential components: (1) a social context, (2) a cognitive-perceptual process, (3) an emotional response, and (4) the vocal-behavioral expression of laughter.” (Martin, 2007, page 5) - nice, but not really helpful.

I probably don't have an abstract definition readily available, but I think that the following three elements must be present:

A) Violation
In order to make the joke work, there must be a violation involved. It has to be out of the norm, either slightly (for example word plays usually fall under this category) or quite far (e.g. morbid or dark humor). Just remember, the further you go, the fewer people will laugh about it. Not everybody has the same taste. 

B) Surprise
It must be told in a way that people were not able to foresee it. Laughter is a spontaneous reaction.

C) Uncovering
In order to work, a joke has to tell us something true, which is latent in nature or at least not obvious. Some years ago, jokes about blond haired women were en vogue. They did not reveal that hair color indicates intelligence of a person, but rather the preconception that blondes have in society. In general it comes down to the German saying: "The joke is the hole out of which the truth is blowing."

2. Methods
There are different methods how to apply a joke. Below, I tried to explain the most important ones:

By using farce you exaggerate a situation in a way, that it almost becomes impossible, a kind of deliberate absurdity. Good examples are probably the movies "The Hangover" or the novel "Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy".  I would also count  "The Many Farfetched Adventures of Baron Munchhausen" into that category.

Using a hyperbole means to exaggerate, for example: "This guy is a giant. He can clean the windows in the second floor without ladder." Somehow the hyperbole is the little brother of the farce. While the farce is more en exaggeration of a whole story, the hyperbole is used to make a point in one sentence.

A Metaphor is an analogy similar to a simile, but stronger. By using a a completely different object as comparison a special, mostly hidden, aspect of the main object is pointed out. 

Need an example? "Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor." (Truman Capote). Or the opening line from William Gibson's novel Neuromancer: "The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel." 

An extended version of the metaphor is the parable, which extends the comparison to a small story. My favorite one is the Ring Parable out of Lessing's "Nathan the Wise".

Compared to the farce, the metaphor is a more subtle instrument which usually leads rather to a smile than to a laughter.

I love puns, although I have to admit that in a conversation I still don't get most puns. For somebody with another mother tongue, they are difficult to catch. Puns are word plays by which a word with two meanings or similar sounding words are switched. Let me show you some examples: 

  • "When two egoists meet, it's an I for an I."
  • "Everyday is a gift, that's why they call it a present."
  • "I used to be  a transplant surgeon, but my heart just wasn't in it."
  • "The best way to communicate with a fish is drop them a line."
  • "What's up? Answer: I am up - and running" (referring to the IT SLA term "up and running" for servers or systems).

Some puns use the actual different meaning of a word, other use different words that sound similar. It can also use multiple words that sound similar together:

  • "Why can a man never starve in the great desert? Because he can eat the sand which is there." (Richard Whately). 
  • "Infinity is not in finity"

We are even given puns in literature, for example by Shakespeare:

  • "tomorrow ... you shall find me a grave man." - when Mercutio was stabbed.
  • "being heavy, I will bear the light." - sad Romeo, as he asked for a torch.

3. Excursus: Irony, Sarcasm, Cynicism
These terms are often used to describe certain types of humor, they are rather describing intensity than methods. What makes them so powerful is the fact that they reveal something about the mindset of the person. 

Here is my view on what they mean:

  • Irony is used to point out things that go wrong with the hope to make it better. In its nature it is caring and benign. It let's you smile.
  • Sarcasm is a more aggressive, using sometimes even mockery and derision. Still, the ideology and world-view is positive. It is a shout for help to make the world a better place.
  • Cynicism is as aggressive as sarcasm, but it unmasks a negative view on the world. A cynical person sees the discrepancies in the world, but has no hope they can be resolved. More than any other way of humor, cynicism is a coping technique.

Happy writing,
Your writer in a foreign land

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