Monday, October 25, 2010

What is humor? Answer: absence of wheelchair at wedding

"And please let me apologize again for the wheelchair mix-up."

This last week the New Yorker exorcised the ghosts of the lame-ass Duck Cartoon from the previous week. The whole issue was a winner, from Shouts and Murmurs to this excellent piece on procrastination, which I haven't read yet, but certainly plan on reading tomorrow.

But seriously, let's take a look at the cartoon, which unlike the car or duck cartoon, has a lot more "going for it," in terms of not being boring or confusing as hell to look at. If the "less cartoon=more caption" thesis is to be trusted, then surely this cartoon is doomed, as it's kind of funny already.

Which brings us to an important but neglected question: what makes a caption funny? What makes anything funny? What captures the variance in hilarity from caption to caption, making mine and Alissa's so much funnier than everyone else's?

If I were in tenth grade, this is where my teacher would say I've totally fucked up the "pinhole" writing process. My thesis question is so broad, it could be the topic of an entire research program at a university. (He/she would also probably insist that I've also used too many "emphasis"-quotes in my paper already.) But since people rarely think about a "theory of humor," I feel relatively justified in addressing it. Humor, while relatively popular with population at-large, is under-considered, under-written-about, and under-understood.

Whenever I think about theories of humor I can't resist referring to an example that confronted me nearly every day as a student in college. On the fourth floor of the physics building, as on every floor of practically every building in the US, there's a sign by the elevator that says "In case of fire, do not use elevator. Use stairs." But in this particular case, someone crossed out--in sharpie marker--the "stairs" part, and wrote: "water hose." So instead the warning reads: "In case of fire, do not use elevator. Use water hose."

Would it be an exaggeration to say this random act of graffiti was responsible for my majoring in physics? Possibly. But it was a welcome return to the real world every time I walked out of a class where I studied--for months at a time--things like the rate of change of the rate of change of the electric potential in completely empty space.

Anyhoo, what makes this merry little prank so funny, I think, is the fact that the third clause ("use water hose") completely shifts our frame-of-reference, and forces us to perceive the second clause ("do not use elevator") simultaneously from two perspectives. In one perspective ("ways to exit the building") it makes perfect sense, while in the other ("ways to put out the fire") it is completely ridiculous.

So typically in coming up with a caption for cartoons, we tend to think of a situation or a scenario that both perfectly matches the content of the cartoon and is completely absurd. For instance, for the above, my best caption yet was something along the lines of...

"And please let me apologize again for the wheelchair mix-up."

The caption both reveals, but doesn't hit you over the head with, the situation; she's strangling her new groom because she can't stand on her own two feet. But of course, that doesn't make any sense, because no one would suffer the indignity of being married in such a manner. Perfect!

Since I've completely forgotten the other captions we came up with, I'll move on to the even more interesting part of the caption process: moving from situation to caption, and perfecting the caption. In this case, my first idea was simply: "The wheelchair should be here any minute." What is it about the phrasing that makes this less funny than the one above?

Generally, of course, changes of phrasing subtly change the perceived scenario. Which is what makes "The wheelchair should be here any minute" (they planned to get married this way) different from "And let me remind you again that the Church is happy to provide a wheelchair" (they planned to get married this way despite suggestions to the contrary) to "...apologies for the wheelchair mix-up" (the Church fucked up but they went ahead and did it anyway).

In the end, of course, any theory of humor is incomplete without accounting for the life and personality of the humor-ee. In other words, it's inherently incomplete. Different people find different things funny. If you didn't find this post funny, then you're not like a drunken me on a Monday night. But it's interesting how much overlap there is from person-to-person. I don't know much about the evolutionary theories of humor, and why ambiguity or incongruity would result in laughter or a smile. But it's really weird that we have humor at all!

Oh yeah, the New Yorker selections for this cartoon were really lame. As if I had to mention that. I'll update this page when they put them up again. As if you really cared.

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