Humor Theory
Spring 2002



I stood in front of a mirror, but I didn't have time to reflect.


Ha ha, yes. But we have things to discuss like the principle of comic timing with respect to the relationship between the humorous element of a joke and its phonetic emphasis. We will also touch on the use of self-deprecation. This is going to be a long and boring essay, so let's get started. Consider the following:


I stood in front of a mirror, but I didn't have any time to reflect.


This is an example of how putting the emphasis in the wrong spot detracts. This is too much detail. It draws attention to the descriptor 'any', which is extraneous. It turns the phrase 'but I didn't have time to reflect' from a short, pat phrase, which can be interpreted easily, almost subconsciously, into a phrase with data that must be processed. Attention spent figuring out is attention that could have been spent enjoying. Here's one that is so frightful I almost couldn't bear to write it down.


I stood in front of a mirror, but I didn't have time to reflect at all.


I freak out just seeing it. Hurry, let's look at another one.


I stood in front of a mirror, but didn't have time to reflect.


This is without the 'I' in 'but I didn't have time', in case you can't read. The main reason why this is worse (I say worse because the perfect form is unobtainable, and every incarnation is a certain amount 'worse' than another) Anyway, this is worse because the 'but didn't' is a little flow breaker who draws attention to himself and away from where it should be. Here, 'didn't' is forced into an ill-advised relationship with 'but' and the once happy couple of 'I didn't' is destroyed. Keeping the second 'I' is also important in that through sheer repetition, the subject is constant and therefore easier to process. Sharing the same subject 'I' also connects the two phrases in a seemingly logical progression, which the joke needs in order to work. There must be no distraction, no hiccup or cause for concern. The line should be read and registered as a simple given, two standard phrases, which read quickly, seem to make sense, until about two seconds afterwards, when the entire universe suddenly comes crashing down, and you laugh.


I stood in front of a mirror once, but I didn't have time to reflect.


Most of the time, additions are bad, but sometimes they can provide extra meaning, which may or may not be humorous, and is probably subjectively so at most. Only once? Stood in front of a mirror once? Hmmm, or not. Its addition in stand-up comedy would probably serve to place the line in context with whatever jokes went before, and this is an important but boring avenue of discussion. So let's talk about latent hostilityŚmuch more interesting. The following version has nothing to do with latent hostility, but like an evening newscast, we'll get to it eventually, and after several commercial breaks, and then it will be utterly disappointing, and there won't even be partial nudity. But anyway:


He stood in front of a mirror, but he didn't have time to reflect.


Not as good, or, I mean, much worse. By having the subject be the speaker, 'I stood' and 'I didn't have time', the line earns instant credibility while packaging itself in self-deprecating tone. 'I didn't reflect' 'I couldn't reflect in what little time I had', 'my penis looks bigger in a mirror', that sort of thing. But it does more than just present a self-deprecating thought. And this gets into the question of what exactly is the joke making fun of. This is not ordinary self-deprecation. In a way, it's sarcastic, like it is saying, 'so what' or 'up yours' to those who would naturally, as a matter of 20c conditioning, expect 'self-reflection'. I know I'm supposed to reflect, but I didn't. Ha. But this is only part of it. Another hostility is not for the ivory tower concept of self-reflection, but for the mindless, habitual interpretation of phrases like this one, for perceptive complacency, one of our foibles (movie audiences tend to be the worst). In other words, it's making fun of the listener/reader. One could argue that self-deprecation is always aimed at the audience. The speaker acts as a stand in for mankind and takes the hit for us. Thus the target for both this line and Allen's would be the same, the only difference being that here, the self-deprecation is a perfunctory gesture and not at all sincere, as I firmly believe Allen might be.

Finally, the line demonstrates the idea of hidden meaning, bonus meaning. This is humor which is present, but not actually related to the main joke form. It is there, most probably by accident, and may be picked up like a two-dollar whore at any time by anyone, or not. In this case, the line itself happens to be a reflective bit of introspection. This is ironic since the speaker is actually lamenting his inability to reflect. This is totally accidental, and not even I, who wrote the joke, noticed it until just now (see serendipity). It is curious, however, that this would be lost if the subject were changed from 'I' to 'he' because it would then no longer be a self-reflective line. This brings up another point which differentiates written humor from spontaneous, one-time spoken one-time heard humor. That is when an author revises written humor, he may discover extra layers of meaning, and like deglazing, he tries to work in as much flavor as he can without losing the timing and purity, which would, I guess, be burning the sauce, according to this ill-conceived metaphor.


I'm not a fighter. I can't fight. I have bad reflexes. I was once run over by a car with a flat tire being pushed by two guys.


Let me show you another example and explain how it weakens the joke.


I was once run over by a car being pushed uphill by two guys.


Note how the emphasis shifts to 'up' in 'uphill' and off the word 'pushed'. Now the joke is weaker because the concept of the car being pushed uphill is an unnecessary detail that distracts from the essential humorous action, which is that the car is being 'pushed'. The principle here is that the emphasis or release of the humor must come clearly and directly with minimal distraction, and if possible, should also deliver the brunt of the humorous action. Regard:


I lived in a subbasement walk down under street level... (My janitor) tried to kill himself by jumping up onto street level


Here, the conceptual punch line 'up' as well as the major phonetic emphasis in both jokes lie in ambush in the perfect position. When he says 'up', the full force of meaning is channeled through that word. Why do you think it's called a punch line? Now consider this line:


I was once run over by two guys pushing a car.


Same concept, but the emphasis falls on 'guy'. It's not funny.


I was once run over by two guys pushing a car, uphill.


The idea of the car being pushed 'uphill' serves as an additional level of degradation or insult as it were, which is part of the self-deprecation of the joke. Meanwhile, it adds back some phonetic emphasis in a good time slot. Therefore, while certainly much worse than the original line, this variation is better than the preceding without the word 'uphill' at the end. As an experiment, we could even make the last word less sensical and it would still be better, merely for the reintroduction of proper timing and a release point. I was once run over by a guy pushing a car, upstairs. What the hell does that mean? Doesn't matter. Say it with the right inflection, and enough people will laugh, and you'll make some money.


I was once run over by a car being pushed by two gays.


You knew that was coming. Now this is also weaker than the original because the removal of 'with a flat tire' alters the rhythm in a way that deemphasizes 'pushed' as it's read and weakens the punch line. Remember, maximum verbal emphasis on the conceptual punch line is the goal.


I was once run over by a car with no sun roof being pushed by two guys.


Thus, the real reason Allen uses 'flat tire' is not because he needs to have two levels of degradation. It's really to provide better timing. However, why not make use of that real estate by doubling the humiliation factor? It's obviously a better joke to have a 'flat tire' rather than 'no sun roof' or some other group of syllables that would allow a properly timed punch line. And so I conclude by boldly asserting that my joke is inferior to Allen's. 'Okay, so where is the punch syllable in the following line?' you may astutely axe:


I stood in front of a mirror, but I didn't have time to reflect.



Apparently, there isn't one. And this sort of spreads the burden onto the entire phrase 'I didn't have time to reflect'. In doing so, it 'leaves you hanging' more, and makes the humor something which one must actively realize, which basically means fewer fans and no appearance with Jay Leno. But there are other facets to a joke that are important.


I was once run over by a car with a flat tire being pushed by three guys.


Three guys is too many guys. No one will argue with that. It's too much information. Once you get to three of anything, you become distracted. 'I'd like three fried chickens and a microphone.' Conspiracy theories start forming and the joke is lost. Thus, there are always some tricks. Having 'two guys' is one of them.


I was once run over by a car with a flat tire being pushed by a guy.


This is okay timing wise, but it's just not as good. Two guys is good. Two guys are in New York City, or even better, New Jersey. Two guys. [chuckling to self] Ha. Classic. Just the thought of two guys makes me want to laugh. 'A guy' could be in Montana for all I know, and that's not funny. That's lonely-and arid.



I was once run over by a car being pushed by two guys. One of them was Nathan Lane.


Oops, I did it again. That was just topical humor. It's unrelated to this discussion, and it won't be funny in a few years. But don't feel sorry for me. I don't want your pity. I'm simply trying to point out that although there are these basic humor principles at play, we cannot forget that there are also the many little 'tricks' that make jokes what they are. Most of the time, you don't notice them. But I do. Here is another Allen line:


I wanted to discuss my marriage, or as it was known, the oxbow incident.


Is that funny? Try hearing it. Now is it funny? Did you laugh? Do you know what the oxbow incident was? Neither do I. In fact, I would argue that it doesn't matter, and it's probably better that you don't. The form is simple. Take something mundane and compare it to something extraordinary. But why is this particular comparison so good? Because we can all relate. We all elevate our own personal lives to Biblical proportions. I sometimes go even further. But again, that is only the surface meaning. Our deeper laugh is because we feel Allen's latent hostility for his wife, whether we cognitively believe it is real or not. At this moment, we feel it, we are tapping into it, and it's genuine and powerful, and humorous. Is it humorous? The performance of the joke gives release to latent hostility, an act which is in itself, not particularly clever. It's just an event in a nightclub. However, what's humorous is the foible of someone having such hostility, and as I said initially, of elevating the personal to the extraordinary. There is real humor there. And though that particular joke does not improve with transcription, others do. I will show you none of them.

Let us consider one of the great masters of comic timing, Lenny Bruce. Here, he talks about how men are faithful servants of the doctrine of separation of sex and feelings.


"Guys detach. You put guys on a desert island, they'll do it to mud."


Here, Lenny Bruce emphasizes the word 'mud'. The timing is perfect as the concept and release are both delivered in one quick blow. And again, this self-deprecation (it's self-deprecating by way of the speaker being a man) works on many levels. For women, the joke is simple. Men suck. Ha ha. Not a lot of women listen to Lenny Bruce, and those who do think like guys and will readily admit it (a different, more controversial essay, which I have not written). For a guy, the joke works on multiple levels. It is both self-deprecating, and not. In the conscientious man, the hostility is directed at both himself, 'Yeah, we suck', and at women, 'we suck, and we're proud of it. Now go buy us some Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia, bitch.' The unconscientious man is not at a Lenny Bruce concert. Also note how the people in the audience are laughing more at the second and third time Bruce says 'mud' than they are the first. This is because the audience is from Berkeley, they smoke a lot of pot and are slow. The focal point of the entire segment is the first time Bruce says, 'mud.' The second time, Bruce is just milking it, and the third, milking it with a high pitched female impersonation that does something interesting. By injecting this element, he actually softens the cruelty of the initial humor. By bringing in the example, he lowers the cutting, high concept 'they'll do it to mud' to the mundane, an enraged female partner, which is now sort of on the humor level of stage acting, where a bunch of people say silly things to each other in unnaturally loud voices and invoke a lot of reflexive laughter. Sucker. Another instance of this phenomenon occurs in this Mitch Hedberg bit. The first comment he makes is the best, and from there, le deluge.

But it's not always just 'hit and coast.' Take this Lenny Bruce bit, in which he introduces the concept, and then instead of simply milking it, he uses the follow-up to create new wit. Another example of this technique happens in this Mitch Hedberg joke. Here, Hedberg climbs step by step to the punchline, which he delivers in one final almost reluctantly uttered 'get up there.' It seems as though Hedberg is for a moment unable to find the phrase. This is not on accident. His entire joke has built up to this one moment, and he isn't about to not create just that little suspense. Note how he groups the 'get up there' into a nice 'once concept' minimal distraction phrase. And not only is it a beautiful way to say it, but the gently hostile tone of 'get up there' seems a perfect match for a satire whose thrust is probably as much as anything generalized resentment of 'the man' or specifically 'the department store man' by which I mean 'lot full signs,''out of order' and that sort of thing. Overall one of Hedberg's best jokes.



Links to some site I found by searching 'humor theory' on Yahoo.

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