Texts and Videos
Open Letters (McSweeney's)
Theories of humor in rhetoric and philosophy
Superiority Theory: An ancient theory associated with the Judeo-Christian Bible, Plato, Hobbes and Descartes, laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves. A contemporary proponent of this theory is Roger Scruton, who analyses amusement as an “attentive demolition” of a person or something connected with a person. “If people dislike being laughed at,” Scruton says, “it is surely because laughter devalues its object in the subject's eyes” (in Morreall 1987, 168). It is mostly considered defunct as a comprehensive theory, but can be identified as mocking or scorn as a comedic component.
Relief Theory: An 18th Century theory associated with Herbert Spencer, Sigmund Freud, and Lord Shaftesbury, laughter does in the nervous system what a pressure-relief valve does in a steam boiler. The theory was sketched in Lord Shaftesbury's 1709 essay “An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor,” the first publication in which humor is used in its modern sense of funniness. Scientists at the time knew that nerves connect the brain with the sense organs and muscles, but they thought that nerves carried “animal spirits”—gases and liquids such as air and blood. John Locke (1690, Book 3, ch. 9, para.16), for instance, describes animal spirits as “fluid and subtile Matter, passing through the Conduits of the Nerves.”
Shaftesbury's explanation of laughter is that it releases animal spirits that have built up pressure inside the nerves.
The natural free spirits of ingenious men, if imprisoned or controlled, will find out other ways of motion to relieve themselves in their constraint; and whether it be in burlesque, mimicry, or buffoonery, they will be glad at any rate to vent themselves, and be revenged upon their constrainers.
Over the next two centuries, as the nervous system came to be better understood, thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud revised the biology behind the Relief Theory but kept the idea that laughter relieves pent-up nervous energy.
Incongruity Theory: The second account of humor that arose in the 18th century to challenge the Superiority Theory was the Incongruity Theory. While the Superiority Theory says that the cause of laughter is feelings of superiority, and the Relief Theory says that it is the release of nervous energy, the Incongruity Theory says that it is the perception of something incongruous—something that violates our mental patterns and expectations. This approach was taken by James Beattie, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, and many later philosophers and psychologists. It is now the dominant theory of humor in philosophy and psychology.
Although Aristotle did not use the term incongruity, he hints that it is the basis for at least some humor. In the Rhetoric (3, 2), a handbook for speakers, he says that one way for a speaker to get a laugh is to create an expectation in the audience and then violate it. As an example, he cites this line from a comedy, “And as he walked, beneath his feet were—chilblains [sores on the feet].” Jokes that depend on a change of spelling or word play, he notes, can have the same effect. Cicero, in On the Orator (ch. 63), says that “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.”
This approach to joking is similar to techniques of stand-up comedians today. They speak of the set-up and the punch (line). The set-up is the first part of the joke: it creates the expectation. The punch (line) is the last part that violates that expectation. In the language of the Incongruity Theory, the joke's ending is incongruous with the beginning.
Parody: a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule
Satire: the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
Irony: the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.
(Note on the difference between Irony and Sarcasm: Columbia School of Journalism).
Aporia: expression of doubt (often feigned) by which a speaker appears uncertain as to what he should think, say, or do.
Aposiopesis: a form of ellipse by which a speaker comes to an abrupt halt, seemingly overcome by passion (fear, excitement, etc.) or modesty.
Apostrophe: a sudden turn from the general audience to address a specific group or person or personified abstraction absent or present.
Archaism: use of an older or obsolete form.
Asyndeton: lack of conjunctions between coordinate phrases, clauses, or words. *We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. J. F. Kennedy, Inaugural
Bdelygmia: An exuberant rant, a litany of disparaging remarks, a string of stinging criticisms.
Climax: arrangement of words, phrases, or clauses in an order of ascending power. Often the last emphatic word in one phrase or clause is repeated as the first emphatic word of the next.
Euphemism: substitution of an agreeable or at least non-offensive expression for one whose plainer meaning might be harsh or unpleasant.
Hyperbole: exaggeration for emphasis or for rhetorical effect.
Litotes: understatement, for intensification, by denying the contrary of the thing being affirmed. (Sometimes used synonymously with meiosis.) *A few unannounced quizzes are not inconceivable. *War is not healthy for children and other living things. *One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. (meiosis)
Metaphor: implied comparison achieved through a figurative use of words; the word is used not in its literal sense, but in one analogous to it.
Onomatopoeia: use of words to imitate natural sounds; accommodation of sound to sense.
Oxymoron: apparent paradox achieved by the juxtaposition of words which seem to contradict one another.
Paraprosdokian: surprise or unexpected ending of a phrase or series. *He was at his best when the going was good. Alistair Cooke on the Duke of Windsor *There but for the grace of God -- goes God. Churchill
Paronomasia: use of similar sounding words; often etymological word-play. *...culled cash, or cold cash, and then it turned into a gold cache. E.L. Doctorow, Billy Bathgate *Thou art Peter (Greek petros), and upon this rock (Greek petra) I shall build my church. Matthew 16 *The dying Mercutio: Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Personification: attribution of personality to an impersonal thing.
Polysendeton: the repetition of conjunctions in a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses. *I said, "Who killed him?" and he said, "I don't know who killed him but he's dead all right," and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights and windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Bay and she was all right only she was full of water. Hemingway, After the Storm
Reductio Ad Absurdum: disproving an argument by following it to it's logical (and absurd) extremes. In argumentation it is considered a logical fallacy because it forces an either/or decision (false dichotomy), but it is useful in satire and other forms of comedy. Swift's A Modest Proposal is a form of reductio ad absurdum, as is Al Franken's satirical letter Savin' It!
Simile: an explicit comparison between two things using 'like' or 'as'.
Syllepsis: use of a word with two others, with each of which it is understood differently. *We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately. Benjamin Franklin
Tautology: repetition of an idea in a different word, phrase, or sentence. *With malice toward none, with charity for all. Lincoln, Second Inaugural
Understatement: the opposite of exaggeration. It is a technique for developing irony and/or humor where one writes or says less than intended.
Comic Genres (Wikipedia with links to examples)
Terms used to describe style
Appositive: A word or phrase that follows a noun or other nominal to define identify or rename it.
Breath unit: units of language made up of words spoken together without taking a breath.
Clause: A group of related words containing a subject and a predicate. Independent clauses can stand alone as sentences. Dependent clauses refer to or form parts of other clauses and cannot stand alone. Dependent clauses may do the work of adjectivals, adverbials, or nominals (nouns).
Diction: Word choice.
Emphasis: The tendency in English for one syllable in a breath unit to be pronounced with more force and therefore attract more attention than others. Because of the principle of end focus, the highlighted syllable usually appears at the end of a breath unit. Careful writers structure their sentences to emphasize words that reinforce the points that they are making. Two other forms of emphasis: (1) Grammatical emphasis, assigning important ideas to major grammatical elements (the kernel sentence rather than a dependent clause, for example), and Grammatical bulk, adding modifiers to a word or idea to magnify its importance.
Euphemism: Language that attempts to take the sting out of a harsh reality or culturally sensitive or delicate topic--eg, stout for obese, dysfunctional for deranged, or rightsizing for laying off workers. An infamous one from the GW Bush administration was "enhanced interrogation techniques" for torture.
End focus: The tendency of readers to expect the most important information to be placed at the end of a discursive unit (clause, sentence, paragraph) and to "hear" the most emphasis there through subvocalization.
Figurative language: Language usually involving comparison, that is not literally true but provokes the imagination of the reader to make an unfamiliar connection. (metaphors, similes, hyperbole, euphemisms). These can be analyzed using tenor (what the author means) and vehicle (the literal properties of the image used for comparison).
Grammar: A set of rules for constructing sentences that native speakers recognize as "sounding" correct, it mostly governs word order. Different languages have unique grammars.43 Most people say grammar when they mean usage or correctness.
Grammatical bulk: Adding modifiers to a word or concept that you want to emphasize. Readers tend to assume that the more real estate you give to an idea on the page, the more important it is.
Grammatical emphasis: The principle that the closer a sentence element is to an independent clause the more important readers will expect its content to be and the more attention they will focus on it. Grammatical emphasis ranges from independent clauses (emphatic) through dependent clauses and phrases down to single words. With each step, the idea expressed becomes less strongly emphasized.
Kernel sentences: Basic subject-predicate statements from which many more complex sentences can be built. Thinking of sentences as combinations of basic building blocks frees you to rearrange elements to achieve different rhythms and patterns of emphasis.
Rhythm: Determined by the length and speed of breath units in a writer's sentences. The length is measured in syllables. Speed is a function of the syllable/word ratio.
Sound qualities: Patterns of sentence structure and diction along with the effects of rhythm and emphasis that readers hear in their heads as they subvocalize what they're reading. (Articulatory linguistics).
Subvocalization: The mental process of generating speech but not actually making the sounds.
Syntax: How a sentence is put together, its architecture, grammar, and mechanics.
Voice: Your sense of the person speaking in a piece of writing, produced by the writer's grammar and diction, which combine to produce sound qualities you heare in your imagination as you read.