Before, during, or after…?

I’ve been nuts about cartoons – especially New Yorker cartoons – for decades. A single-panel cartoon is a snapshot, of course, a single moment in time; and I’m fascinated by whether that moment is before, during, or after the joke happens. Take three examples from the 02/23/09 issue – please.

I don’t think I can reproduce these here, but just describing them must come under the “Fair Use” doctrine.

Mustn’t it? Well, obviously, we’re about to see.

BEFORE: In a city park, a happy dog holds a Frisbee-size flying saucer in his mouth. Inside, one tiny alien says to another, “They seem friendly enough so far.”

The situation is already funny, but Gary Larson and the New Yorker itself have used the inadvertently-mistreated-alien situation before. In this cartoon, the big payoff is in the future: what the dog, and probably his owner, are going to do with this “frisbee,” and what that’s likely to do to the alien’s assessment of the situation.

DURING: Male patient sitting on an examining room table, addressed by the doctor, whose hands are completely wrapped in bandages. The doctor says, “Until I recover, let’s just assume your prostate is fine.”

This situation isn’t going anywhere because it can’t. You are looking in on it during the gag.

AFTER: A clown in full Bozo drag is just appearing before Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter says, “Well that was a birthday party the kids won’t soon forget.”

This moment is after the gag. The deliciousness comes from imagining what kind of birthday party ended up killing its party clown.

I like cartoons that solicit our imagination because they involve us in the gag. Even the doctor joke depends on our imagining what might happen if the doc attempted a prostate examination.

By contrast, the same issue includes a cartoon showing a middle aged woman looking at a another middle aged woman’s painting-in-progress, invisible to the viewer. She says, “I’m serious – you could really pursue this as an embarrassing hobby.” Okay, the comment is amusing, but the entire gag takes place inside the frame and the viewer isn’t required to do anything but appreciate it.

The clown gag is by Charles Barsotti, one of my two all-time cartoonist heroes (Walt Kelly and Al Capp being dead). My other idol is George Booth, he of the dumb dogs and dumber humans. Booth is a master of the “after” cartoon. In one of my favorites, we’re looking past two garage mechanics, out the roll-up door of their shop as they watch a lone car wheel and tire bouncing along  the otherwise empty street outside. The garage owner says, “Jaimie, isn’t that Mr. Ferguson’s wheel?”

I promised that this post would look at foolishness  caused by a lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about the self.

But I digressed.


The Comic Fool

Last time out, I opined that a comic fool is a person who is afflicted with a lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about himself, about the world, and about comic fortune – or any combination of those. Today, I was warming up to expatiate on all this when I realized that fools and their different styles of foolishness needed more sun-shining.

Please forgive the use of the masculine generic pronoun. Wrestling with “he/she” or “he or she” is irritatingly clumsy, and limiting sentence structure to genderless plurals reduces precision of expression.

Incidentally, notice that in the history of comedy, male fools seem to outnumber females (peace to Lucy, Mrs. Malaprop, and the Learned Young Ladies). Is it because a male-ridden society has relegated them to mainly passive roles in stories, or because the largely male authors secretly acknowledge what few enough men will explicitly admit: that they are fools more often than women? (Jane Austen’s marvelous fools such as Mrs. Bennett are the creations of a decidedly female intelligence.) On the other hand, the by now endless legions of sitcoms swarm with female fools. Is this, in turn, a measure of growing female parity or just underhanded male resentment? Only a small minority of sitcom writers are women.

If you look at the foolish subjects (usually the protagonists, but not always) of comic novels, plays, movies, animated cartoons, sitcoms, jokes, gags, and you name it, they seem to divide into three classes: the total fool, the limited fool, and the occasional fool.

Total fools like our beloved Stan and Ollie, behave foolishly continuously and in any and all circumstances. In this, I think, they are clowns without white greasepaint, bulb noses and orange fright wigs. Clowns are always fools and have no existence outside their foolishness. It is simply their nature. Daffy Duck is a perfect fool: in any situation, he can be relied on absolutely to make a fool of himself. So can Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden.

In crueler times, the “village idiot” was often such a fool – or treated as such – and my understanding is that actual court fools in motley, cap, and bells, were often developmentally challenged people, analogous to the dwarves who were equally favored as court playthings. (We have made at least a little progress, haven’t we?)

Limited fools differ from total fools in that they are addled about just one thing. Wile E. Coyote is a star example. His mania is the Roadrunner and how to catch him. For all we know, Wile is an otherwise sober citizen, as coyotes go, perhaps providing for a wife and little coyotes, paying taxes, and wondering what happened to his 401K retirement. But on the one consuming subject of the Roadrunner, Wile is the very model of an absolute failure of good sense, understanding, and  foresight.

Classically, the limited fool is the most common subject, from Late Greek comedy through the English Restoration and the 18th century. The greatest of Moliere’s protagonists are limited fools. The miser, the hypocrite, the hypochondriac, the middle-aged wooer – these men are all more or less reasonable people, except in the single areas of their obsessions. They grow out of the Classical and Renaissance Commedia types: the dotard, the braggart bully, the bumpkin, and so-on. Obsessed within his narrow preoccupation, the limited fool is the fanatic who, as Santayana said, redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.

In checking that quote I found this attributed to Winston Churchill: “A zealot can’t change his mind. A fanatic can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” Another perfect collaboration between comedy and wit.

The occasional fool is, I think, by far the most common character, especially in comedy from the 19th century to the present. The occasional fool is not a klutz or a clown in all things, nor is he foolishly obsessed with one thing. He’s a generally reasonable person whose good sense sometimes fails him. But unlike the total and limited fools, the occasional fool is not condemned to continue or repeat his folly indefinitely. Typically, he realizes his foolishness and amends his behavior – at least until his next lapse in judgement.

Historically, the most common – and most amiable – occasional fool is the young lover, goaded into folly by passion. Blinded by love – or just lust – he says and does things he would not otherwise be guilty of. He overestimates (or underestimates) his personal attractions. He launches unlikely schemes to impress his beloved. He goes to extravagant lengths to court her. It’s no coincidence that the title “A Fool for Love,” has been used for a play, a movie, a book, and a song, not to mention episodes on three different TV series. The ground rules of comedy (about which more anon) generally allow the young lover to win the girl; but win or lose, he eventually comes to his senses. (It is more often the old, or at least older, lover who eventually loses – unless his inamorata is his own age – and is left sadder but wiser.)

There was a young girl named Anheuser
Who said that no man could surprise her.
But Old Overholt
Gave her virtue a jolt,
And left the girl sadder Budweiser.old-overholt

In Tom Jones, the hero is comical because he’s young and naive – that is, simply ignorant about himself, his world, and his fortune. But unlike stupidity, ignorance can be cured by learning, in Tom’s case through the very scrapes and disasters occasioned by his ignorance. In other words, often the young are only occasional comic fools because in due course they grow up.

The most common situation in situation comedy is the event that precipitates a normally reasonable person into abnormal behavior: an abandoned suitcase with a fortune in small, unmarked bills, a championship game for which no tickets are left, the sudden appearance of a former boy or girl friend. With the occasional fool, the unusual events run their course and equilibrium is restored. One way or another, cooler heads prevail.

Getting back to the main line, whether the foolishness is occasional, limited, or total, it is caused by a lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about the self, about the world, and/or about comic fortune. Next time out, I’ll try to deploy some examples of comic foolishness due to a lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about the fool’s own self.

Okay, here goes: Comedy

Comedy is the subset of humor that addresses the human condition – and typically doesn’t think much of it, because the human condition is so often synonymous with human folly.  The American Heritage Dictionary Fourth Edition, 2000, absolutely nails folly thus:

1. A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight. 2a. An act or instance of foolishness. b. A costly undertaking having an absurd or ruinous outcome.

That definition alone almost wraps up the subject of comedy – but not quite, because not all follies are comic and some are anything but. Recently, a participant in Bernie Madoff’s $50 billion ponzi scheme killed himself in despair. Investing in such a patently dubious enterprise showed a textbook “lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight,” the prime definition of folly; but the suicide was far too grim to be humorous.

“Too grim to be humorous” is like pornography: nobody can define it but everybody thinks he knows it when he sees it. The suicide I mentioned is obviously not funny, but the first half of Blake Edwards’ immortal film S.O.B. involves a man hilariously trying to kill himself and failing. Then he is shot and killed, which is at least comic in its irony. Then his pals steal his corpse and ride around town with it sitting up in the back seat of a convertible. Sidesplitting hijinks ensue. Go figure.

For a bunch of verbal gags from the film, go to

The suitability or unsuitability of content for comedy is largely dependent on context and treatment. But that discussion’s about 20 posts in the future.

Folly: A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight. Let’s see how that applies to the teaser in my previous post.

Laurel and Hardy are trying to move an upright piano across a narrow, swaying suspension footbridge between two mountains. Halfway across they meet a gorilla.

Stan and Ollie are walking avatars of folly: they can be counted on to never, ever, ever employ an ounce, an atom, a scintilla of good sense, understanding, or foresight about anything whatsoever, period. Though their films are also funny because of wonderful gag construction and superb performances, comic folly is the absolute foundation of their humor.

The suspension bridge sequence is exemplary because it packs the three major types of comic folly into a single gag. The comic fool displays a total lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about himself, about the world he lives in, and about the malign operation of fortune.

A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about himself. Laurel and Hardy are trying to move an upright piano…. Stan and Ollie will never understand that they are incompetent to move a piano even three feet across a level floor, on casters. They are too klutzy to accomplish almost anything physical.

A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about the world. …across a narrow, swaying suspension footbridge between two mountains. Nobody could do that, not nobody, not nohow. That piano could not be so moved with Batman pulling and Superman pushing; it’s simply the physics of the situation, that is, the way the world works. (Not being a comic fool, the Man of Steel, would pick up the piano and fly it across. He’s no dummy.) But Stan and Ollie are utterly blind to everything about the world, and especially about physics.

A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about comic fortune. Halfway across they meet a gorilla. A gorilla? In the Swiss alps? Comic fortune is a generic term for Murphy’s Law, or in this example, Murphy’s First Corollary: Even if nothing can possibly go wrong, something will go wrong. Comic fortune is the engine of farce: the wrong person behind the wrong door, the unexpected return of the cuckold husband. The non-comic person knows that stuff happens, even if he can’t predict what. And when it does hit the fan, he’s quick enough to duck. But our boys live in an eternal present: they never anticipate future problems because they never think of the future.

A lack of good sense, understanding, or foresight about one’s self, the world, and/or comic fortune. This is the absolutely necessary trait of the comic fool. Still, questions remain.

Why does the comic fool show this lack of good sense? Is it greed, naivete, self-deception, inherent character flaw – or all of the above and more? The reasons for comic folly are worth a post of their own.

Is the comic fool condemned forever? Can he learn good sense? Can he shake off his obsession? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes partly – and sometimes it doesn’t really matter. The fate of the comic fool – what happens at the end of the show or afterward – is also worth another post.

In what ways and in what areas does folly operate? Is the fool blind to everything about himself, his world, and fortune, or just to some things that are critical to the story? Delusions about the self, the world, and fortune are worth a separate post each.

And if I manage to wrap up comedy, I’ve still got wit, rebellion, and mystery to go. I’ve got my work cut out for me.


On another note, I’m home from President Obama’s inauguration, where I played the perfect comic fool – hit all three gongs: 1) self: I forgot my claustrophobia and dislike of crowds, but not before I got trapped in a crowd of 2 million. 2) world: I didn’t think of how those 2 mil. would get home again, and had to spend hours walking and waiting for a Metro. 3) Fortune: I didn’t anticipate comic fortune and ended up watching the show on a Jumbotron screen that was mostly obscured by a tree.

There’s another fine mess I’ve got me in.

The Discovery of Parts.

After posting “The Naming of Parts” I realized that I’d better explain why I think that comedy, wit, rebellion, and mystery are the four fundamental components of “humor,” that suitcase term meaning, basically, anything that is funny.

(Humor is not anything that makes us laugh. We also laugh out of derision, relief, nervousness, fear, and even simple enjoyment – as when we laugh at a baby’s expression of pleasure. Something is funny when we laugh out of delighted recognition – or more tamely, we smile out of amusement. Sometimes humor elicits only an internal delight, and we don’t laugh or smile at all.)

To arrive at comedy, wit, rebellion, and mystery, I started examining every humor term I could find. Many terms didn’t qualify as basic components because they belong in other categories. For example, movies, standup acts, and musical compositions (say, of P. D. Q. Bach) are humorous media. Slapstick, gags, word play, and satire are humorous genres. Silly faces, pictures, and noises are humorous tools. Timing is another vital tool.

Other commonly used terms fell out because they can be placed as logical subsets of more comprehensive humor components. For instance, incongruity, absurdity, puns, and epigrams are all aspects of wit. (You’ll have to trust me on my assignment of incongruity and absurdity to wit. I’ll try to justify it when I get there.)

It eventually dawned on me that comedy, wit, rebellion, and mystery are the basic components of humor because they are absolutely essential aspects of it – that is, humor cannot exist without at least one of them.

(Most humor involves two or more of them at a time, working together. Take, for example, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” The comment on the conceit of the cynic is comical; the verbally elegant opposition of price and value, everything and nothing, is witty.)

So after a week off to hang out in Washington DC during the Obama inauguration (to which I may actually get as close as, say, Manassas, VA) I’ll try to get started explaining the humor component, comedy.

Here’s a hint:

Laurel and Hardy are trying to move an upright piano across a narrow, swaying suspension footbridge between two mountains. Halfway across they meet a gorilla.

BTW: I’ll actually be in Fairfax, VA, but Manassas is a funnier word. Why?

The Naming of Parts

Today we shall have the naming of parts – a dry, mechanical process guaranteed to encourage snoozing over your keyboard. Without a common vocabulary we will never communicate adequately. As a wise person (I think George S. Kaufman) said,

One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian.

So I will take a cue from Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all. They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs: they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot of them!

So here are a few key terms to start with.

Humor: words, actions, and/or situations that elicit delight or amusement. The whole schmeer; an umbrella term for just about everything that people find funny. (So, funny and humorous are synonyms.) Humor has at least four components:

Comedy: humor concerned with human folly and the operation of fortune (such as Murphy’s Law).

Wit: humor concerned with the (often sudden) recognition of connections. These include a. unexpectedly apt connections (as with puns), b. obviously in-apt connections (this is called incongruity) c. obviously meaningless, pointless non-connections (this is called absurdity).

Rebellion: humor that arises from intentional childishness (clowning), forbidden topics (dirty jokes) impropriety (bathroom humor), oppression (much Black and Jewish humor) and other expressions and acts that raise the middle finger in the face of society, life, and destiny.

Mystery: humor that is funny (often to some people but not others) for inexplicable, indescribable reasons. This is often true of (but not limited to) some work of the very best cartoonists, such as James Thurber, Charles Barsotti, and George Booth. Without the ability to say, “I just can’t explain why that’s funny,” you must either force explanations that only Jacques Derrida could love, or else give up on the whole enterprise (possibly a prudent move, after all).

I know, I know, these definitions are full of stuff that is not self-explanatory or flatly sounds wrong (as Tom Swift sounded after he was steam-rollered). So I’m going to try for several posts each on comedy, wit, rebellion, and mystery.

Okay, that’s it. Go sleep somewhere else now.

Upon first looking into everybody…

I’ve just cut my way out of a dense jungle of critical theories about comedy by all the usual suspects from Socrates to Eric Bentley. (I didn’t venture on into the nearby deconstructionist swamp – too much quicksand.) What a relief to see the sky again!

Revisiting these heavy thinkers – after I don’t want to reveal how many years – I finally figured out some reasons why they originally dissatisfied me, why they all act like blind philosophers feeling elephant parts.

For one thing, they’re all fixated on “comedy,” making it the big tent under which they struggle to stash everything related to humor. In fact, comedy is only a subset of humor, a big one to be sure, but just one part of the larger topic. This screws up their taxonomy (you should excuse the expression), sort of like making amphibians a subset of frogs, rather than the other way around.

Then, when they start analyzing comedy they limit themselves even further by focusing almost exclusively on theater. Sure: Henry Fielding and Jane Austen get dutiful nods for comic novels, but otherwise, they start with Aristophanes and plough forward through Becket and Pinter, ignoring everything else from George Carlin to Weird Al Yankovic.

Finally, they spend half the time examining the records (play texts, Comedia scenarios, novels, eye-witness descriptions) half the time criticizing one another’s theories, and all the time mixing up the two different activities.

Now I can’t get away from the records. I need them to puzzle out why the hell Athenians thought Aristophanes was a laugh riot (ever try to read the guy?) and why the hell Shakespeare stuck a comic drunk into the middle of Macbeth. But as for the critics, Sigmund Freud himself admitted that, “the works of a great number of eminent thinkers have failed to produce a wholly satisfactory explanation [of comedy].” So, of course, he went right on to produce one of his own. It was not wholly satisfactory.

So as I bumble along in this blog, I’ll try to follow two rules:

1) Figure things out for myself (although decades of reading will doubtless sucker me into purely unconscious plagiarisms).

2) Try to organize the unruly subject of humor at least enough to clarify the relationship of its parts.

To that noble end, our next exciting installment shall be the Naming of Parts.

Say goodnight, Gracie.

Just a quickie today

Faithful contributor Alex says he spotted a bumper sticker that reads:


Here we have a delayed fuse gag. Offered to a standup comedy audience it would result in silence followed by a bell curve of laughter as different people figured it out at different speeds. This form seems dangerous for standup, which depends so much on momentum and continuity. It’s great for a bumper sticker — unless you count the accidents that result from delayed light bulbs going off above other drivers’ heads.