Humor: An Overview

RPG Blog Carnival is on humor this month. It’s a large and varied subject, and has many uses—not only do people often try to display it within their narratives, but individual or cultural senses of humor can make variation between people and cultures seem more realistic and set them apart from each other. But to understand how to use humor, we need to make sense of how humor patterns itself.

Photo by forwardcom

To think about how humor works, you have to start by looking at things that people have been known to find funny. You probably won’t agree with all of them; I know I don’t.

A lot of today’s humor seems to be based on shock value. “Ma’s out, Pa’s out, let’s talk rude,” as Flanders and Swann would put it. So you get jokes about sex and anatomy, jokes about bodily functions—the more controversial it is, the more they joke about it. Heck, there are some people for whom “Yo mama” jokes are funny just by being in their category, or for whom “That’s what she said” is a 100% reliable response. I’ll admit, I’ve never found them funny in their own regard, but I suppose when the choice is either to be shocked and demonstrate oneself as out-group, or to laugh and save face, laughing would make sense.

Similarly, there’s humor based on people making fools of themselves. It’s practically a staple of comedy these days, at least in the media I’m prone to watching; there’ll invariably be someone who doesn’t know when to shut up, who consistently makes the wrong move, or who otherwise will end up with egg on his face by the end of the movie. This sort of humor can run the gamut from people not knowing any better or just having bad luck to people who deserve what they get through sheer stupidity.

Other humor is based on cognitive dissonance—two or more elements of the situation just plain don’t match up, kicking it into the realm of the absurd. This can include things like blatant anachronism, self-referential humor (particularly the breaking of the fourth wall), or ludicrous absurdity. This is why we snicker at drunk shapeshifters deciding that a porcupine quartet would be the height of entertainment or at the sleeper who wakes with “No, not the syrup! Put it down, I’ll deliver the antelope!” They’re absurd, and we love them for it.

In some cases, it’s all about the context. This includes humor which depends on the line’s delivery, timing-dependent humor, and in-jokes. I’m sure you’ve had an anecdote that’s fallen flat and been explained away with “You had to have been there.” In-jokes are particularly common among subcultures; a non-roleplayer probably isn’t going to know about Pun-Pun or the Dread Gazebo, and it takes immersion in the university system to understand what’s so amusing about the Academic Food Chain.

Then there’s wordplay—generating humor through deviations from words’ expected patterns and meanings. Much of this comes in the form of the dreaded pun, which usually bases itself on similarity in sound or spelling and differences in meaning. The pun itself covers a wide variety of levels of humor; while some puns are so obvious that anyone could get them, others require cultural references, understanding of different dialects or languages, or knowledge in a certain field. Wordplay is one of the reasons why subtle insults, to some people, are an art in their own right.

Most of the humor out there combines the above types. Consider the following passage by Michael L. VanBlaricum, which took Runner-Up for Vile Puns in the 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Awards:

The Jones family held their annual family reunion on Easter going through over six dozen spiral-cut, hickory-smoked hams and several bottles of a fine Australian shiraz, before Farmer Jones, the head of the family, took the leavings back to Manor Farm to slop Napoleon and his other champion hogs but the seventy-six ham bones fed the pig’s tirade.

The phrasing makes it pretty clear that this one is supposed to be wordplay; it doesn’t make any sense otherwise. But it’s also contextual; to really understand it, you have to have seen “The Music Man” (or at least have heard or know the lyrics to “76 Trombones”), and it probably helps if you’ve read Animal Farm.

So there you have it; an introduction to humor. Coming soon: Now that we’ve got it, what do we do with it?

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