Wednesday, March 30, 2011

humor me on this one

One of the best lines in cinema comes from My Favorite Year.

Benjy has convinced the lovely K.C. to join him on a first date.  He is a television comedy writer.  She claims she is not funny.

He tells her what is funny ("Funny people, the Marx brothers minus zeppo... Unfunny, anyone who has ever played the accordion professionally.") and then tells her a joke -- and asks her to repeat it.

Because this is a comedy, she fails miserably.  He hands her a dollar bill.  She asks: "What is this for?"

"Accordion lessons."

Great line.  Great delivery.  Great movie.

Now and then, I get an email from someone wanting to know how to use humor in a blog.  And I am never certain how to answer the question.  Humor is a characteristic we are born with.  I am not certain it can be learned.

After all, why is Woody Allen's line ("In California, they don't throw their garbage away - they make it into TV shows.") funny?

Dan Green may have come to our rescue.  Because he knows the answer to the question.  Or, at least, an answer.

He loves to send me some of his favorite jokes.  But he knows I love word play.  So, today's offering from him was doubly nice.

It is a new word.  A word I knew, but its manufacture is recent.  It defines a phenomenon we all recognize, but we would probably not be able to define it.

The word is "paraprosdokian".  It looks Greek.  And its roots are.  But it is not a classical word.  It was made up in our day to help describe a certain type of humor.

The Greek roots mean "beyond expectation."  And that is exactly how this type of humor works. 

The first part of a sentence or paragraph leads you to believe the sentence is going somewhere, and then it veers off in another direction.  It works very well in English because of our pack rat vocabulary.  Nothing gets thrown away.  We keep accumulating words until one word can mean a lot of things.

Thus confusion.  And humor.

But my definition of the word what is wrong with trying to analyze humor.  It is the sentence that is funny.  Not the analysis.OK.  Hang on.  Because there is a good part coming.  The yuks are on the way. 

My favorite Supreme Court justice said of pornography: "I know it when I see it."  And you will immediately recognize paraprosdokian when you see it in action.

Dan's email listed over thirty.  Here are my favorites.

  • Some people hear voices. Some see invisible people.  Others have no imagination whatsoever.
  • Hospitality: making your guests feel like they're at home, even if you wish they were.
  • The voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas!
  • The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it's on the list.

Those are pretty easy.  All you have to have is a sense for the absurd and a good grasp of how words can be manipulated.  Like the last example.  "Last thing" in English commonly means "never."  But not when we are talking about lists.

We usually call this "wit" because of the word play.  Almost all of the humor from Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Winston Churchill, Groucho Marx, P.G. Wodehouse, or P.J. O'Rourke is in this category.

But, as far as I am concerned the master is Florence King.  If I could, I would award her a gold medal in the "paraprosdokian" competition for this gem.

When she receives invitations, she responds: "I would love to.  I just don't want to."

You can't learn that stuff.


Wexi said...

And then there are bumper stickers:
I know how you feel. I just don't care.
If I had half a mind, I'd be twice as smart as _______ (fill in the blank).
I really miss my ex......................But, my aim is getting better..
And my favorite of all time:
CAT JUGGLING!!!!! (which was much better in The Jerk.)

Steve Cotton said...

Good nominations.

ANM said...

Always remember, Steve, to leave a small crack in the bathroom window.


Elmerhodap said...

Ah, bumper stickers. My favorite was 'Nuke a whale for Jesus. Something to offend everybody.

Steve Cotton said...

I am not going to touch that.

Steve Cotton said...

Several years ago in Salem, I saw a pickup bumper where the concept of paraprosdokian humor was put to effective use. There were three bumper stickers. In this order. (You will have to imagine the card suit designations. I can't get the comments to accept the symbols.)

I [heart] my dog.
I [spade] my cat.
I [club] seals.

Steve Cotton said...

As I noted elsewhere, my mother plays the accordion. We had several instruments around the house, but only one would make the dogs howl.