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The great humorist E. B. White once observed that “humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind. Humor has a certain fragility,” he continued, “an evasiveness which one had better respect. Essentially it is a complete mystery.” Well, maybe, but it seems to me there some clues strewn about that help us find the solution to who—or what—done it.
Maybe we should start by acknowledging that human beings are the only animal that laughs (though anthropomorphized animal characters in literature, like Freddy the Pig—you saw that coming—have been known to guffaw a time or two). We humans laugh, I’d suggest, in order to survive. Cumbered by a load of quotidian care, we find that a hearty laugh is liberating, a medicine for what ails us. If you doubt that, have a gander at Joseph Heller’s and Norman Cousins’ respective books No Laughing Matter and Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, in both of which the respective authors report on the therapeutic value of humor. Or hear psychologist Martha Wolfenstein, who has opined, “Joking is a gallant attempt to ward off the oppressive difficulties of life, a bit of humble heroism, which, for the moment that it succeeds, provides elation.” Get out the party hats!
So what, to make life tolerable, do we laugh at? Well, Freud would tell us that we laugh at the forbidden, at what we fear, death being one powerful example. If you doubt that we can laugh in the face of oblivion, check out Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Jesse Andrews’ extraordinarily deft balance of glee and grief. As my colleague Daniel Kraus noted in his Booklist review, “This is one funny book.”
Ironically, all of this talk of the funny is actually important, serious stuff, and yet humor remains the Rodney Dangerfield of literary forms: it gets no respect. Here’s E. B. White again: “The world likes humor. But it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel and its wags with Brussels sprouts.” This is why I was so pleasantly surprised when Louise Rennison’s laugh-out-loud novel Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging was crowned with laurels when it copped a Printz Honor Award. Also ironically, some observers, those who routinely complain that Printz titles are too literary to appeal to teen readers, also groused that Angus was too lighthearted to have been honored. Make up your minds, people! Happily, there was less dissension when Libba Bray’s antic Going Bovine then won the Printz Award itself, or when Jack Gantos’ exercise in self-deprecation, Hole in My Life, garnered a Printz Honor.
I hate to say it, but we humans do laugh at self-deprecation for a rather ignoble reason: we enjoy feeling superior to others. That merry madcap the philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said, “Sudden glory is the passion which maketh those grimaces called ‘laughter.’ It arises from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others.”
You may have noticed that I’ve now invoked the idea of irony twice. As this implies, irony—saying one thing while meaning another; for example, looking outside at a driving rainstorm and saying, “My, what a beautiful day”—is a staple form of humor, as is its twin, sarcasm. Another reliable form of humor, which might be called irony’s cousin, is incongruity, the pairing of two generally accepted incompatibles; one of my favorite examples of this comes (again) from the Freddy books: it’s found in the character of Leo the Lion, who has a penchant for getting permanent waves to keep his mane looking spiffy (“And I ought to have another permanent; there isn’t hardly a crinkle left in the darn thing”). At the heart of the humor of irony and incongruity is another element: surprise. Marcel Gutwirth in his book Laughing Matter writes, “Wired for laughter from birth, we appear to have evolved this capacity to laugh from no other motive than a pleasurable surprise that serves no end but the enjoyment of our own momentary invulnerability in euphoria.”
The forbidden, self-deprecation, irony, sarcasm, incongruity, surprise—what else makes us laugh? Well, how about exaggeration and eccentricity, especially when applied to character? Consider the pixilated, self-styled impresario Uncle Cornelius in Ben Tripp’s The Accidental Highwayman, one of my favorite YA books of 2014. “Before the door stood a thin, bent man with a white fringe of hair and white mustaches. He wore a soup-stained nightshirt and house-slippers. ‘Great wheels of Parmesan cheese is that young Myrtle?’ the old man cried. ‘Bless my barometer it’s good to see you.’” And it’s good for the reader to see him, for the eccentricities the elderly gent betrays are always good for a laugh, not least because of the inflated rhetoric he employs.
Of course, I’ve always been a fool for idiosyncratic voice, which is one reason why I so enjoyed Daniel Kraus’ The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch and its protagonist narrator’s use of what he calls his “flamboyant elocution,” a hallmark of which is the polysyllabic. The voice isn’t really intended as humor, but it invokes a feeling of delight, which humor at its best does.
The most satisfying humor is a kind of portmanteau contraption that incorporates a variety of elements. Ultimately, it is a playful way of looking at the world. As Beverly Cleary has noted, “Humor must spring from a writer’s view of life.”
Let us crown those writers with laurel wreaths or, what the heck, with Brussel sprouts, too, for, really, wouldn’t that be funnier than stuffy laurel? I think so. Ah, but what do I know? After all, I’m just a humble columnist with a penchant for the prolix.
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