Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:
Humor in American Film Comedy
The humor texture discussed was synthetic, a product of two different kinds of mental humor.
Attention to any one humor type by itself is an analytic technique.
A real feel for the differences humor texture makes requires both an analytic and a synthetic understanding.
Our conclusions should be seen as analytic supplements, not alternatives.
The Incongruity Half Circle includes Music Man, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Insights into Incongruity grew out of a grant from the Bush Foundation for the study of critical thinking at Winona State University.
The grant followed the lead of WSU President Darrell Krueger who believed that what is measured is what is valued.
Sixty percent of WSU faculty (n=122) helped determine discipline-specific differences in critical thinking priorities.
Students from the selected sections very graciously participated, with minor incentives (provided as in-kind grants from a number of Winona-area businesses).
By a wide margin, students with high Incongruity scores on the HQT did more of more kinds of idea development and problem solving critical thinking than other students.
Those critical thinking skills most valued by faculty across the disciplines showed a positive correlation to Incongruity humor among respondents.
Good critical thinking is the kind of good, hard thinking we’d like a jury to exhibit if we were accused of a murder we didn’t commit.
Music Man is our central example of Incongruity because its humor texture contains Word Play, the natural intensifier of its complement.
We watch Marian move from stuck-up prude to deeply-in-love potential martyr to a lost cause and evangelical convert to the Think System.
How much character development is there in Father of the Bride?
There seems to be a sharp precipice drop for idea development, problem solving, and character development, then between Greek Wedding and Father of the Bride.
In Aladdin the entire plot structure is from street rat to street rat with a notable mistake in between.
In between, Abu does time as an elephant.
Are Elwood and Jake two of the evolving, problem-solving geniuses of modern theatre?
The biggest character development in The Blues Brothers is the Nazi driver’s confession that he has always loved the fuehrer sitting beside him.
The Gotcha Half Circle includes Aladdin, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and The Blues Brothers.
Perhaps we could argue that Gotcha is associated with escapes, but there are escapes on the non-Gotcha side as well.
We prefer, however, to consider empirical humor preference evidence for the insights it may suggest.
Dr. Linda Seppanen of WSU’s Nursing Department, suggested the possibility of testing relationship between humor preference and wellness issues.
Questions on the Wellness Inventory are typically prudential in character.
Gotcha was very highly (p<.01) negatively correlated to the Wellness Inventory Safety category.
Gotcha humor is an appropriate texture for comedies focused on high-risk situations.
There are numerous aspects of good driving practices which the Blues Brothers clearly disdain.
Let’s consider the non-Gotcha comedies.
River City, Iowa is the quintessentially sane, rational, conservative non-risk-taking, boringly upright, Midwestern town.
Greek Wedding's central character, Toula, is a mouse who doesn’t seem to have been allowed to go downtown on the el by herself.
Admittedly, Franck is a wild card. But he in fact is utterly dependable.
Let us here bring in another kind of evidence that is terribly important—anecdotal evidence from real, intelligent people.
Paul being more the ivy-overgrown ivory-tower thinker and Robin being more the interpersonal specialist, our anecdotal evidence comes largely from her informants.
We don’t put any real stock in retakes of the HQT.
The commissioner attributed his unprecedented rise in Sympathetic Pain preference to having been through one of the greater political wringers in the year between the testings.
When quite old people get together, their humor is focused on their own foibles and weaknesses. If you are preparing to get old, prepare to be more into Sympathetic Pain humor.
Sympathetic Pain is the sadder-and-wiser experience of having been there and failed at that.
My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding opens with the focus on a sadder-but-wiser girl.
Father of the Bride focuses on a sadder-but-wiser father.
Back in the slammer, Jake and Elwood seem settled, resigned to their status as inmates of Joliet and at the same time dedicated to a continuation of their musical expression.
Sympathetic Pain humor is more characteristic of women than of men, (men get a late start on Sympathetic Pain), and Gotcha humor is more characteristic of men.
In reading an economic policy presentations, “women do respond more to a sympathetic presentation.”
Most films will prudently try to have something for everyone or at least for both sexes.
Sympathetic Pain humor is least associated with Idea Development and Problem Solving.
Sympathetic Pain humor texture goes with comedies that develop few ideas and solve few problems.
George invents a major ideological problem for himself.
Sympathetic Pain-textured movies will heavily tend to emphasize feeling, which will probably be relatively more interesting to women, and will tend equally heavily not to seriously consider idea development and successful problem-solving issues.
In the Natural Order Circle, the non-contiguous humor type should be the “natural intensifier.”
By far the HQT results least usable for film comedy are those centering on Word Play.
The evidence of our research efforts with respect to Word Play is primarily negative.
Word Play tends to rank low in HQT preference results.
Sympathetic Pain and Word Play are almost invariably competitive for lowest average score.
All three films with dominant Word Play—Music Man, Scoundrels, and Father of the Bride—can be said to focus on fast talkers.
Non-Word Play humor personality for films creates considerably less wordy textures, less sense of sure-fire quick humorous flashes, less sense of fast movement of humorous delight and of verbal pyrotechnics.
Chapter 10: Humor-of-the-Mind Analytics: Some Empirical Revelations
For the last six chapters we have been considering the difference humor texture makes for six great comedies. The humor texture discussed in each was synthetic; that is, each humor texture was a product of disparate elements, two entirely different kinds of mental humor which together predominated in the humor choices of the particular movie. By this synthetic method we have found that our six films each represent a different humor personality as illustrated here again by the schematic below:
The opposite of synthetic for our purposes is analytic. Attention to any one humor type by itself is an analytic technique. In our empirical research, we have often found that data treated synthetically yielded high-confidence results while analytic data yielded nothing. But the opposite is also sometimes the case; sometimes analytic statements can be made with high confidence while synthetic statements cannot.
With or without empirical data, a real feel for the differences humor texture makes requires both an analytic and a synthetic understanding. So having come fully round the Natural Order Circle with six representative comedies in the last six chapters, before going on to more complex questions of the relationship between humor and comedy, let us stop here for an interlude, reviewing where we’ve been in terms of analytic attention to the difference Incongruity, Gotcha, Sympathetic Pain, and Word Play preference make to humor texture. Our conclusions should be seen as analytic supplements, not alternatives, to what has already been synthetically argued.
Let’s start by remembering the Natural Order Circle and its construction out of three half circles for Incongruity, Gotcha, and Sympathetic Pain humor. There are four analytic humor types under investigation, but mathematically there can only be three half circles represented. The fourth analytic type, Word Play, was designated as the “natural intensifier,” and Word Play was placed at the center of each of the half circles, which is also every alternating pie piece around the Natural Order Circle. A natural intensifier should be the analytic element that most supports or becomes most transparent in company with other analytic elements.
The Incongruity Half Circle
Our first three chapters considered the Incongruity Half Circle synthetic products. Our representative comedies were The Music Man at the center of the half circle, combining Incongruity and Word Play. To its right, we considered Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, combining Incongruity and Gotcha. To Music Man’s left, we considered My Big Fat Greek Wedding, combining Incongruity and Sympathetic Pain. (See Figure 6).
The Music Man synthesis we labeled Intellectual, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels we labeled Crusader, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding we labeled Reconciler.
By now we hope everyone has had enough experience in the dark room of humor analysis to automatically feel that these three comedies are clearly different from comedies like Blues Brothers, Father of the Bride, and Aladdin which, as our representatives of Bridgebuilder, Consoler, and Advocate texture, fill the non-Incongruity side of the Natural Order Circle.
But can we rationally, perhaps even empirically suggest what differentiates scripts from the Incongruity Half Circle from those in the opposite half circle?
At least one of the keys to that understanding grew out of a grant from the Bush Foundation for the study of critical thinking at Winona State University. And that study had its roots not in the English Department—needless to say, empirical studies within English Departments are unusual—but rather in a prototype designed and executed by students of Dr. Brian Aldrich of WSU’s Sociology Department, with volunteer student participants.
Brian had led a sociology seminar that had built a prototype critical thinking experiment, an experiment which produced some odd results that Brian thought someone from English might help explain. Thus Brian contacted Paul for what insight an English perspective could shed. The oddity turned out to be that WSU students had reported more frequent use of those critical thinking skills normally valued and taught by English departments than of other possible critical thinking descriptors designed by the seminar.
As the magnitude of this difference became more and more obvious, Brian and Paul decided to propose through the Minnesota State University System a scientific study of critical thinking variables among a representative sample of WSU students. Paul and Brian were privileged to be following the lead of WSU President Darrell Krueger who believed that what is measured is what is valued. Paul and Brian valued WSU as a critical thinking place. With the help of a Bush Foundation grant, Paul and Brian could extend the measurement of critical thinking going on at WSU and check to see if the prototype’s wonderful—from an English perspective—but shocking results would be borne out.
In the end, student respondents at Winona State generated a critical thinking profile for the university encompassing better than 300 critical thinking variables. Many of these variables would be laughably funny to some disciplines, and deadly serious critical thinking concerns for other disciplines. Issues of cleaning test equipment, for example, are likely to seem a critical thinking non-sequitur in English departments. Clean test equipment must be taken with deep seriousness as a critical priority in the hard sciences. On the other hand, comparison-and-contrast thinking, which are the life blood of English Department critical thinking, and are less valued by other faculties around the university. Sixty percent of WSU faculty (n=122) helped determine discipline-specific differences in critical thinking priorities. (And the Bush grant work did substantially confirm the original seminar findings that English-approved senses of critical thinking were strongly more positively in evidence than other critical thinking within the WSU student body.)
But for our purposes here, the Bush grant contained a highly significant, if seemingly irrelevant provision that student respondents would also take, among other side tests, the Humor Quotient Test.
The testing procedure started with taking a random sample of general education courses throughout the college, courses that would enroll typically freshmen and sophomores, close to randomly drawn from all the majors of the university, as well as from those who had not declared a major. Students from the selected sections very graciously participated, with minor incentives (provided as in-kind grants from a number of Winona-area businesses). It was an arduous battery of questionnaires. Our debt and WSU’s debt to those volunteers is immeasurable. For many years since, WSU has been a national leader in self-assessment, and President Krueger and WSU faculty like Dr. Susan Hatfield have developed national reputations in this area.
Amidst this welter of critical thinking information, a very important result turned up with respect to critical thinking and humor. Students had been asked on as scale of 1 to 5 to indicate how much of each kind of critical thinking variable they had done over the last year, with encouragement to self-design a scale that would have a good representation of both 1’s and 5’s.
By a wide margin, students with high Incongruity scores on the HQT did more of more kinds of idea development and problem solving critical thinking than other students. From the list of 300 critical thinking variables, a sub-group of 33 variables were selected that seemed most to represent skills of idea development. Based on results from 111 participants, of these 33 variables, 23 showed a higher positive correlation to Incongruity than to any of the three other mental humors. The average for any of the other humors having the highest positive correlation, then was 3.33. Such a lopsided result can be expected by chance far less than one time in a million.
Moreover, the correlation of four idea development and problem solving variables to Incongruity score measured above the 95% confidence (or p<.05) threshold which is the normal standard of proof in the social sciences (R. Grawe, “Significant Relationship”). These four variables were:
A second finding related to faculty critical thinking priorities. Of the five dimensions of Idea Development and Problem Solving ranked highest in teaching priority across all disciplines of the university, four were more highly correlated to Incongruity preference than to any other joke type preference (p<.01). That is to say, those critical thinking skills most valued by faculty across the disciplines showed a positive correlation to Incongruity humor among respondents.
It should be noted that these four and in fact all 300+ variables tested have nothing to do with the street definition of critical that lies behind parents’ constant injunction to children, “Don’t be so critical.” The street definition of critical equates it with negativism, and negativism is one of the surest ways to turn off all forward-motion thought. A technical definition of “critical” relates it to “crisis” and looks back on a Greek etymology, “krites” meaning “juror.” Good critical thinking is the kind of good, hard thinking we’d like a jury to exhibit if we were accused of a murder we didn’t commit. It is the kind of thinking we want for ourselves in a crisis, when a decision is absolutely mandatory, when decision sends us irrevocably down one road and ever away from where we might have been if we had made another choice.
Applying these findings to our study of humor in American film comedy, if Incongruity is the Idea Development and Problem Solving humor, we might expect it to most naturally be the texture in theatrical works that stressed idea development and problem solving, particularly character development. It may be automatically objected that all fictive literature is about character development, so linking it to a particular humor is pointless. Not to be hasty however, let’s check.
Music Man is our central example of Incongruity because its humor texture contains Word Play, the natural intensifier of its complement. Is there any special sense of idea development, much less problem solving or character development in Music Man? The theme of The Music Man is the original Midwestern impetus to form marching bands, which 50 years later when Music Man was released had resulted in college marching bands on virtually every campus in America, high school marching bands featured at Disney Land, and other manifestations of an entirely developed American art form. The finale march in Music Man is visionary in looking forward over decades of development from the humble uniforms of the night before in Madison gymnasium. That’s pretty heavy-duty idea development.
Moreover, near the beginning of Music Ma,n we watch and hear Amaryllis repeatedly misplaying a B for a B flat. And we watch both Marian and Mrs. Paroo repeatedly and unthinkingly correcting the error and in no way progressing Amaryllis in musical education. Then along comes a fly-by-night salesman named Harold Hill with a revolutionary Think System that makes kids love their instruments, want to play them, want to experiment to get them to work right and beautifully. Perhaps we are watching a problem in the middle of its solution.
And at the level of character development we watch Marian move from stuck-up prude to deeply-in-love potential martyr to a lost cause and evangelical convert to the Think System. We watch Harold move from con man to visionary. We watch Winthrop move from embittered and confused, tongue-tied child to blazing advocate and ecstatic enthusiast for every boyhood dream.
Pick-a-little talk-a-little gossips turn into devotees of the fine arts. And bickering school board members become an inseparable barbershop quartet. If all fictive literature is about character development, at least Music Man easily qualifies as fictive literature!
Working around the Natural Order Circle, on the Gotcha wing of Music Man we find Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It starts out with a complaisant Lawrence who has perfected a con against corrupt American widows. The entrance of Freddie forces Lawrence to make a few minor adjustments, ultimately taking Freddie in as a convenient tool for the con he has consistently played. Both Freddie (who has convinced Lawrence to give him con lessons and can therefore be assumed to be developing in conning character) and Lawrence are taken to the cleaners by the Jackal. The entire movement of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is from sandlot to minor leagues to major leagues of conning.
On the Sympathetic Pain wing of Music Man, we find My Big, Fat Greek Wedding. Our initial impressions are of Toula as a total second-generation Greek-immigrant failure, unable to break away from the first-generation prejudices of her immigrant father. By the end of the film, Toula is a faithful Greek daughter, but she is also married to a non-Greek, married into a strongly Anglo, multi-generationally American family, and steering her third-generation daughter on the complex and utterly different road that she has to walk. Along the way, Anglo, long-American Shakespeare-teaching Ian converts to Greek Orthodoxy, and his parents learn the power of Greek spirits amidst throngs of overweight Greek relatives-in-waiting. Perhaps most of all, Toula’s father Gus discovers that counter to his Greek xenophobia, other Americans, symbolized by his new in-laws, are just different kinds of fruit. It would not be hard to write at length on character or idea development in these three Incongruity-dominated movies.
Turning then to the other, non-Incongruity side of the Natural Order Humor Circle, beyond Greek Wedding lies Father of the Bride as a Consoler-textured comedy. How much character development is there in Father of the Bride? George starts out aghast that his daughter is getting married. He is convinced that “with his luck” things will turn out all wrong. At the end of the movie, George has managed to console himself to the inevitable, but moment-to-moment he is still aghast at what is before him, still convinced that the worst is also the likeliest future. Consoling development yes; great changes in approach to life, no. Nina ends up the Nina of the opening, committed to the perfect wedding and a calm superiority to frenetic George. Annie ends the movie where she was at the opening, thanks to George’s intervention to save her engagement, totally in love with Mr. Wonderful—and still deeply fond of her father.
At the beginning of the movie, George has a problem—not only an unimaginable loss of his daughter but also an expensive wedding. This seems like a great place to start a problem-solving movie. But at the end of the film, George’s daughter is flying away with Mr. Wonderful while George has had an expensive wedding and the bills to prove it. Not much problem solving here. And along the way, there wasn’t any help from Nina or even much from Annie toward solving anything. Maybe the best help was offered by Matthew who was willing to try to calm his father by reviewing which foot to start on down the aisle.
If Father of the Bride depicts neither much character development nor much problem solving, how about Idea Development? No, we don’t consider repackaging hot dog buns as significant idea development! There seems to be a sharp precipice drop for idea development, problem solving, and character development, then between Greek Wedding and Father of the Bride. Let’s go to the other wing beyond Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to Aladdin.
Aladdin starts life as a street rat. At the ends of the earth, he resolves to go back to Agrabah for a final confrontation with Jafar, a confrontation in which he thoroughly resolves to return to his street rat self. In the middle, he chooses to lie his way forward as Prince Ali Ababwa. The entire plot structure is from street rat to street rat with a notable mistake in between.
Jasmine falls in love with Aladdin about the same time she greets a camel as her doctor, in other words, the love affair is as much love at first sight as anything in Shakespeare. At the denouement she chooses to marry the only man she has ever loved. Abu starts out as a self-seeking, thieving disgruntled monkey. In between, he does time as an elephant. But he ends up a probably self-seeking, probably thieving, probably disgruntled monkey. Jafar starts out as a thorough villain outside the Cave of Wonders. He ends up a thorough villain inside a lamp inside the Cave of Wonders. Are we so sure that all fictive literature is about character development?
Aladdin does contain problem solving: Aladdin gets the princess, Genie gets freedom, Jafar gets time in the Cave of Wonders, and the sultan proclaims a new law with respect to his daughter.
But then, Aladdin has had the affection of the princess since the incident with the camel. The change of law was always a pen stroke away. Jafar is defeated by exactly the same reverse psychology that Aladdin and Abu have previously perfected. And Genie has always been one wish away from freedom, lacking only a Master’s will, which Aladdin had at the beginning, lost in the middle, and regained in the end. Typically drama requires that some problems get solved or resolved. That doesn’t mean that problem solving is a major theme of all drama.
Exactly opposite Music Man in the center of the non-Incongruity half circle, we come to The Blues Brothers. Are Elwood and Jake two of the evolving, problem-solving geniuses of modern theatre? In Iago’s words, “NOT!”
There isn’t much dialog getting Jake out of Joliet at the opening of The Blues Brothers and evidently no dialog in the Bluesmobile until they reach the 95th Street bridge. That can seem short in a movie, but driving it would use up an hour or more. Not much idea development, problem solving, or character development at that rate.
And other than a direct call by God, not much character development any time from there back to the slammer at Joliet. There are of course other characters to consider—the Girl from Curl Up and Dye, for example. She can certainly claim new choices of new weapons of mass destruction as the film rolls forward. And there is the Penguin, who moves from ruler to yardstick. The Nashville Good Ol’ Boys go from fake smiling to snarling. Police cars go from crack ups in a suburban mall to crack ups on Wacker Drive. SWAT teams go from hep to hup callisthenic drills. Perhaps the biggest character development in The Blues Brothers is the Nazi driver’s confession that he has always loved the fuehrer sitting beside him.
We fear we may be becoming a bit too Advocate, not to mention snide, in our insistence that lack of Incongruity humor texture goes with lack of idea development, problem solving, and character development, so let us move on, simply with the assertion that Incongruity is indeed the critical thinking humor par excellance.
The Gotcha Half Circle
Having explored the implications of Incongruity humor for films falling within the Incongruity Half Circle, let us turn now to the Gotcha Half Circle shown below in Figure 7:
The Gotcha Half Circle, has Aladdin in its center representing Advocate texture, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels representing Crusader texture and The Blues Brothers representing Bridgebuilder texture. Necessarily, all three are contrastive to a non-Gotcha half circle comprised of Greek Wedding (Reconciler) flanked by Music Man (Intellectual) and Father of the Bride (Consoler). As with Incongruity, those who are somewhat accustomed to differences in humor texture should sense some commonality across the half circle and some contrast with the other three textures, none of which have the analytic Gotcha component.
Even without empirical evidence, perhaps we could argue that the Gotcha Half Circle is represented by comedies that much more obviously focus on escapes. Blues Brothers has a plethora of escapes—but of course Elwood and Jake end up back in the slammer. Aladdin has lived more than a cat‘s nine lives before the movie is 20 minutes old. Perhaps least obviously, Lawrence and Freddie escape from being exposed, escape from having Lawrence’s con territory polluted with low-life conning á là Freddie, escape from numerous manufactured romances through the antics of the Young Prince, and ultimately escape the humiliation of being taken by the Jackal in joining her latest and greatest con.
All of this is interesting, but it would have to stand up to the counter-argument that there are escapes on the non-Gotcha side of the circle as well. In Music Man, Harold Hill escapes being tarred and feathered, Marian escapes being the old maid Amaryllis already thinks she is, Winthrop escapes a life of inarticulate denial. In Greek Wedding, Toula escapes first-generation fixed ideas; Ian escapes the boredom of a too-professional successful family; Gus escapes xenophobia , and Voula escapes having to keep secret that her twin sister was removed as a lump on Voula’s neck. Yaiyai, admittedly, does not escape but is frustrated by the automatic garden sprinkler system.
In Father of the Bride, George escapes nothing at all, Nina professes not to want to escape anything except George’s attitudes, and Annie has already escaped when she announces her engagement.
On the basis of this reviewed evidence, it might be best to alter our hypothesis to the possibility that Consoler comedies are less likely to focus on escape than any of the other five textured possibilities. This is perhaps tautological, since consolation means acceptance of unattractive possibilities rather than escape from them.
We might try other subjective distinctions. We prefer, however, to consider empirical humor preference evidence for the insights it may suggest.
We have already mentioned a student-initiated experiment on the relationship of color and humor preference. And we have mentioned a critical thinking/humor preference experiment growing out of a fellow faculty member’s seminar research. With respect to Gotcha humor, we are indebted to Dr. Linda Seppanen of WSU’s Nursing Department, who suggested the possibility of testing relationship between humor preference and wellness issues. We are also indebted to students in Nursing and student members of the WSU Cardiac Health Club for undertaking the experiment. All respondents were under age 30.
Dr. Seppanen recommended to us as a side test the Wellness Inventory published by the National Wellness Institute, Inc. (“Testwell” ™). This nationally-known test is a series of questions answered on a 1 to 5 scale from “almost never” to “almost always,” divided into ten subsets whose cumulative scores give a profile of wellness attitudes and practices. The 10 subcategories include:
Questions on the Wellness Inventory are typically prudential in character, for example, asking how often respondents floss or undertake regular breast/testes self-examinations as matters of Medical Self-Care.
Students taking the test were, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly but not exclusively female. Where asking gender identification might compromise our standard of anonymous response, we do not maintain our normal practice in humor studies of asking for gender. In many empirical humor experiments, gender has made a real difference, so the paucity of male responses in this case might be significant.
Of the 10 cumulative subcategory scores, two showed high-confidence relationships to humor, specifically Gotcha humor preference. Gotcha was very highly (p<.01) negatively correlated to the Wellness Inventory Safety category. Gotcha was also, though less impressively (p<.05) negatively correlated to Medical Self-Care (R. Grawe, “Safety”).
These strong correlations suggest the hypothesis that Gotcha humor is an appropriate texture for comedies focused on high-risk situations. Presumably such situations are two-sided: major figures may be themselves risk-prone, taking risks that others wouldn’t or the situation surrounding the central characters may be filled with risk-prone activity. Clearly such an hypothesis seems quite like our tentative frequent-escape hypothesis. But does it work out the same way in practice?
On the Gotcha side of the Natural Order Circle, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels seems to deal exclusively in the high-risk situation of high-stakes cons. Lawrence’s scam repeatedly focuses on American millionairesses and cons them into thinking they are funding a revolution in some tyrannized country they probably can’t find on a map. In the closing scene, the Jackal invites them into a more major-league scam, targeting one of the world’s leading shipping magnets. Certainly Scoundrels is high-risk on both sides of the equation: a high-risk situation being played by inveterate high-stakes gamblers.
Aladdin focuses on a street rat who risks having one or more hands cut off simply to get his morning’s breakfast. Jafar is vizier of the sultanate, but his every act is an attempt at higher power at the expense of the sultan or the world. He can expect dangerous opposition. Jasmine has a wonderfully secure life in an idyllic garden with the tiger, Rajah, as constant companion and guardian—all of which bores her to tears and inspires her resolution to escape into a world she knows nothing about without a cent to her name. She is totally out of sympathy with her father’s desire to find her a suitable, protective husband before he, the sultan, dies. None of these people seem ideal candidates for “almost always wears his seatbelt” or even for “undergoes regular breast/testes self-examinations.”
The Blues Brothers heroes don’t seem to think enough to consider flossing on any scale of 1 to 5. There are numerous aspects of good driving practices which they clearly disdain in the course of the movie. More serious comments on their disdain for safe situations seems oxymoronic. And the other side of the equation, safe situations, also seem to invite only oxymoronic commentary.
All true perhaps, but doesn’t literature and particularly American cinema lean heavily on the excitement of highly dangerous situations and risk-taking characters? Let’s consider the non-Gotcha comedies. First Music Man with its admittedly high-risk protagonist, Harold Hill. Down to the last minute, he’s risking tar and feathering (though it is unclear that he has broken any law, and Marian argues he has delivered far more value, not less value than promised). Quibbles like legality aside, visionaries are high-risk people. Dreamers who think up a Think System instead of a B-flat Correction System are high-risk people.
But on the other side of the high-risk equation, what do we find? River City, Iowa is the quintessentially sane, rational, conservative non-risk-taking, boringly upright, Midwestern town. These people don’t take risks. Interested in a fine hotel? Try Chicago—they’re not about to take the risk of recommending any place closer than the Palmer House. These are people who can be scared witless by their kids taking the risk of reading “Captain Willie’s Whizbang” or buckling their knickerbockers below the knee. Prim young women like Marian haven’t been to the footbridge in their lives and a whole lot more, like Zaneeta, think that all such things are appropriately comparable to the Black Hole of Calcutta. Even Marcellus has fallen under the influence of a nice town with nice people, admittedly not like the more zesty “City of Homes and Churches,” Brooklyn. This is a town so protective that if a stranger walks in, the mayor immediately demands to see his credentials—no taking risks around here. It gets to the point where you start to wonder if they even have tar and feathers in this town or if they’d know how to use them.
Moving on, Greek Wedding is full of boisterous Greeks. But its central character, Toula, is a mouse who doesn’t seem to have been allowed to go downtown on the el by herself. Toula’s parents and grandmother have been through harrowing experiences with the Nazis and maybe with the Turks, but that was all years ago, along with their stupendous risk of leaving everything and coming to America. In America, they have built their own Greek citadel within sight of the Sears Tower. Ian of course comes from a background of upper-class lawyer insularity reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” an insularity fenced off enough from the world to confuse Guatemalans, Armenians, and Greeks. The great shock, the great risk of Greek Wedding is that Toula marries a non-Greek rather than not marrying at all. Since both are anathema, it is hard to say that there is any real risk in choosing one over the other. From Ian’s point of view, he marries an interestingly different, not cookie-cutter American woman rather than remaining the Shakespeare teacher from insular lawyerville. Again, this is arguably not a high risk.
That leaves Father of the Bride. George may be an intrepid businessman. As a father, however, he is a scared rabbit confronting the destiny he himself built into his family, the destiny of having to let go of an ebullient, self-confident, reasonably adult child who has decided its time to conquer the world for herself. Nina is resolute, but resolute in opposing anything other than following through and getting her daughter married off in the perfect wedding. Annie has gone off and found Mr. Perfect for herself. But of course Bryan is a Mr. Perfect so unimpeachable that no sane woman, and no sane potential in-laws could really find the slightest rationally risky thing about him. Even Bryan’s parents are unimpeachable, immensely well off and yet salt-of-the-earth, down-home people fully trustable for the best of values and the best of intentions.
Admittedly, Franck is a wild card—but mainly in his egregious English and extravagant body language. He in fact is utterly dependable at masterfully doing what he advertises himself to do: to produce a “rationally” chic, stylish, high-tone, and exceedingly high-priced wedding. Nina and Annie are totally not merely satisfied but thrilled by Franck’s orchestrations.
That leaves one possible high-risk element in Father of the Bride, George’s mercurial inner self. That mercurial inner self grouses a lot and finally loses its cool entirely in the incidents of the checkbook and the hot dog buns. That mercurial inner self even gets him tossed in jail. But mercury flows quickly, and George crumbles quickly. George is fundamentally a loving person. He has a charming wife to love and a warm-hearted, sensitive, loving daughter to love. The mercury in his system will always flow to these and to seeking their safety and well-being.
As with all other humor conclusions in this volume, we submit these tentatively. Higher literary analysis and deeper empirical research may significantly add to or modify the conclusions we suggest. But the empirical evidence that Gotcha humor is negatively correlated to Safety and positively correlated to high-risk situations and characters seems more than sustained by a comparative review of our representative humor-texture comedies.
The Sympathetic Pain Half Circle
In considering the Incongruity and Gotcha Humor Half Circles, we moved resolutely toward empirical results and what they might suggest in comparative practical criticism among our representative humor-texture comedies. Let us vary that pattern here to bring in another kind of evidence that is terribly important—anecdotal evidence from real, intelligent people looking at themselves and their own uses of and responses to humor. Literary and practical criticism have found so little need for empirical demonstration precisely because feet-on-the-ground intelligence can say so much that is insightful and valuable without coming anywhere close to a test tube or even worse, the inherently messy social-science statistical measurements that have to accept large p values and scientifically low-confidence levels precisely because querying things as complex as people about analytically simple and pure concepts automatically entails screening out immense amounts of static and scientific noise.
Paul being more the ivy-overgrown ivory-tower thinker and Robin being more the interpersonal specialist, our anecdotal evidence comes largely from her informants. As a first Sympathetic Pain anecdote, Robin had what we considered a very unusual opportunity to administer the HQT to the 10 governor-appointed members of the Minnesota-Wisconsin Boundary Area Commission, whose task was to oversee the multiple uses of the boundary rivers between the two states, the Mississippi and St. Croix, for sustainable environmental, recreational, and commercial uses. It probably helped that Robin was a sometime chair of the commission.
The commissioners, like most everyone else, had great fun taking the HQT, so much so that the next year, with some newly-appointed commissioners on board at the next annual retreat, the old commissioners insisted that new commissioners also take the test. One commissioner who had already taken the test asked to retake it.
We have had occasional retakes and don’t tend to find much difference in scores on retake. It seems to us that people should have some memory of their former choice and once people have decided anything, they’re highly likely to approve their own decision by redeciding it. So we don’t put any real stock in retakes.
However, in this case, the commissioner’s score was shockingly different only a year later. Surprised and even a bit dubious, the next time Robin saw him, she promptly reported that his retake had come out very differently. Without a moment’s hesitation, the commissioner answered, “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through in the last year.” Commissioners are political people—they wouldn’t get gubernatorial appointments if they weren’t. And the commissioner who was also a city council member in a St. Paul suburb had been through one of the greater political wringers in the year between the testings.
The unusual fact of his test results was an unprecedented rise in his Sympathetic Pain score. He didn’t have to be told that to know that life had changed him and changed his sense of humor.
Robin has also had special opportunities to interview old people, normally women. At the center of that opportunity has been her role as church historian and author of a 125th anniversary history of Central Lutheran Church, Winona, MN. There aren’t many 125-year-olds to interview of course, but there were comparative youngsters in their 80’s and 90’s. In many of these interviews, the interviewees weren’t expecting to be asked about humor and in fact weren’t, but when Robin’s research was mentioned in passing, relevant anecdotes resulted. And the virtually universal propensity of these commentaries was to emphasize that when quite old people get together, their humor is focused on their own foibles and weaknesses. “That’s okay, honey, I know exactly how you feel.” If you are preparing to get old, prepare to be more into Sympathetic Pain humor.
Life changes all of us, whether we’re politicians or not, and ultimately it changes our sense of humor. And as Robin says, “Some of us as we get older have some successes, but all of us have failures.” When we tested for humor preference in a nursing home where people were struggling to see the page and to understand the humor involved, the fact that we all have failures became all too poignant. (At an extreme, one patient in an Alzheimer’s unit gave the HQT a good college try before giving up on the second question and then said to Paul, pointing first at the first words and then the last words of the joke about 20 words later, “I can’t remember in order to be able to answer between here and there.”)
Sympathetic Pain humor is the humor of experience as is Incongruity humor. But Sympathetic Pain is the sadder-and-wiser experience of having been there and failed at that. And these sadder-but-wiser realities are reflected in the Sympathetic Pain Half Circle, represented in Figure 8:
My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding opens with the focus on a sadder-but-wiser girl, a girl who has always found herself different and unattractive because she is Greek. Throughout the movie, she learns that she can be attractive, at least to Ian, a non-Greek. She also learns what so many second-generation Americans have had to learn, that becoming American, marrying for love, and deserting some of the old values of an Old Country comes at a real and continuing cost.
Father of the Bride focuses on a sadder-but-wiser father, saddest and wisest in recognizing that precisely his finest traits in raising and nurturing and loving a family now mean acceptance of loss.
The Blues Brothers ends with Jake and Elwood back in the slammer. Are they sadder and wiser? That’s hard to say, but it isn’t hard to say that they have been called to a mission by God which they have faithfully completed. If anything, they seem settled, resigned to their status as inmates of Joliet and at the same time dedicated to a continuation of their musical expression. In terms of recognition of failure and concentration on one’s own foibles, Greek Wedding, Father of the Bride, and Blues Brothers are in a different league from Music Man, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Aladdin.
A second fact that comes more directly from empirical experiments of many kinds is that Sympathetic Pain humor is more characteristic of women than of men, (men get a late start on Sympathetic Pain), and that Gotcha humor is more characteristic of men.
Other researchers’ anecdotal evidence speaks to the same point. In a recent Reader’s Digest article Dr. John Morreall of William and Mary (and former President of the International Society for Humor Studies) pointed out that women meeting for lunch tend to call each other by their given names whereas men “will affectionately refer to one another as Fat Boy, Godzilla, Peanut-Head and Scrappy” (Colligan 101). Well, John’s from out East so maybe they have a little rougher style out there, but it is certainly a Gotcha male stereotype consistent with our empirical studies
We also have a rather elegant empirical experiment from Carleton College itself—not its alumni—that links the HQT male-female difference results directly to narrative. Dr. Nathan Grawe is in the Economics Department at Carleton, where it can be noted that “while popular with men, undergraduate economics attracts few women.” HQT results therefore suggested an experiment in which the same four economic policy lessons were written up in two forms, one Gotcha version and one Sympathetic Pain version of each policy issue. “Students from two sections of Principles of Microecomics were given four essays—2 Gotcha and 2 Sympathetic.” Students ranked each of the essays for interest.
Though the sample size was small (n = 22) and the distribution skewed in favor of men (14 to 8), both a difference in mean score and a Wilcoxon rank test produced nearly identical results of p<.03 that “women do respond more to a sympathetic presentation” (N. Grawe). While it may strain credulity to believe that an economic policy presentation can be funny, the attempt was specifically to test the difference between presentations sharing the form of HQT humor types.
If Gotcha is male-oriented and Sympathetic Pain is female-oriented, then we might want to argue that Greek Wedding and Father of the Bride would both have a particularly feminine interest. Brides do seem to attract women if we accept the testimony of the bridal preparation scenes in Greek Wedding.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Aladdin would then have particularly male interest, which seems plausible. Robin and Paul however remember that their teenage daughter’s friends, shortly after Aladdin’s release, seemed to have the entire Aladdin script memorized and loved finding practical uses for particular Aladdin one-liners.
Blues Brothers would be in neutral territory having both Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain lead humor elements.
To us, these distinctions are less than compelling, and we think we know why. As emphasized throughout these studies, American films are by definition capital investments made to produce a return. While there are markets for women’s films and men’s films, even cursory consideration suggests that most films will prudently try to have something for everyone or at least for both sexes. So Aladdin, for example has plenty of male adventure and an attractive female lead to keep boys occupied. At the same time, Aladdin has a strongly self-assertive woman whose sentiments easily reach her sisters in the choir. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, if it has male proclivities also has the men outfoxed by a female Jackal.
And by a separate line of reasoning if Blues Brothers is in neutral territory between the sexes in humor texture, it would certainly seem that all the car crashes are reminiscent of little boys playing with cars and trucks more than of little girls playing with dolls. Humor texture alone doth not a profitable movie make, nor doth it explain and determine a movie’s appeal separately from all other considerations.
So without denying the empirical evidence already adduced, let’s try one more approach. We have already described the Bush-grant funded experiment in critical thinking, particularly the relationship of humor preference to idea development and problem solving (ID/PS). Incongruity was by far the ID/PS humor preference. At the other extreme, combining first and second best correlations between humor and ID/PS critical thinking dimensions, Sympathetic Pain came in dead last, (p<.01 that Sympathetic Pain humor is below average in correlation with ID/PS.)
This suggests a hypothesis that Sympathetic Pain humor texture goes with comedies that develop few ideas and solve few problems. Since Reconciler combines Incongruity (the ID/PS winner) and Sympathetic Pain (the Id/PS loser) it becomes a neutral ground. That leaves us with Blues Brothers and Father of the Bride as having a Sympathetic Pain humor lead element, unbalanced by an Incongruity lead.
The Blues Brothers do of course solve a problem: they get the money, legally, and pay it into the county assessor’s office thus saving the Penguin’s ill-defined mission. It is also true that they accomplish it only because they have an unstoppable calling from God. And it is hard to say that they solve other problems except acquiring a trumpet player by destroying his living. The number of problems they create in the process would be hard to estimate, so we won’t try.
George in Father of the Bride has two practical problems. He is losing a daughter, and if he doesn’t put his foot down and reassert sanity fast, he will end up paying for an insanely expensive wedding. At the end of the movie, he’s lost his daughter (though she will phone often and lovingly) and he has the bills for an insanely expensive wedding.
In the middle George invents a major ideological problem for himself, a problem somehow overlooked in the Bill of Rights, the American right to an appropriate number of hot dog buns. He makes an admirable stab at correcting this problem He does not succeed. George invents a host of other problems like Bryan’s inability to support a wife, the MacKenzies living in a hovel in the middle of Bel Air, and the quiet retrieval of the MacKenzie checkbook. Most of these problems are not real and therefore cannot be solved. The checkbook problem is real. George does not succeed in solving it.
By way of contrast to these limited senses of idea development, problem solving, and their synthesis, invention, in Blues Brothers and Father of the Bride, Harold Hill invents a new idea of music education and the Midwestern marching band tradition. Lawrence invents one of the great cons and further invents wonderful variations involving the Young Prince, genital cups, and corks on forks. Aladdin invents a new self and then reinvents a better old self (Genie never stops inventing new selves throughout.) And even in the neutral ground of Reconciler texture, Toula invents a way to be loyally the daughter of Greek immigrants and an American wife of a non-Greek American.
We therefore suggest that Sympathetic Pain-textured movies will heavily tend to emphasize feeling, which will probably be relatively more interesting to women, and will tend equally heavily not to seriously consider idea development and successful problem-solving issues.
Word Play, the Natural Intensifier
That brings us to the fourth analytic humor, Word Play. As we have insisted throughout in our quadrilateral design, Word Play is not fully symmetrical with the other three humors. All three others are given a half circle in the Natural Order Circle. And therefore, tautologically, the Natural Order Circle contains a half circle that doesn’t have Gotcha as a constituent lead element. Similarly, there is a non-Incongruity half circle and a non-Sympathetic Pain half circle.
These characteristics are not present for Word Play, which is forced into alternating pie pieces around the Natural Order Circle, as illustrated in Figure 9 below:
As we have argued, the non-contiguous humor type should be the “natural intensifier” of the other three. There are still three personalities that feature Word Play in their definition and three personalities which have an absence of Word Play in their definitions. But both the personalities that feature Word Play and the personalities defined without Word Play are spread around the circle in alternating spaces.
The Natural Order Circle was established before empirical testing results were in, essentially using the abstract reasoning tools that are characteristic of traditional literary analysis and criticism. Now 17 years later, looking back over almost a decade of published discoveries in HQN and well over a score of international conference presentations, it is clear that among all our disparate humor experiments using side tests with the HQT, by far the least usable results for film comedy are those centering on Word Play. From our research, it seems that women like Word Play more than men—but as already argued, the comedies we have been considering are not strongly limited to interest by one or other gender. Word Play is neither the humor of critical thinking nor the humor divorced from critical thinking. We have found the very complex and subtle result that after Incongruity, for men Word Play is clearly the second-most related humor to Idea Development and Problem Solving. However, for women, the back-up humor correlate for Idea Development and Problem Solving is not Word Play but rather is Gotcha (R. Grawe, “Idea Development”).
In one way or another, when we have looked specifically for Word Play empirical evidence we have been turned back either by non-results, results of limited applicability at least to the kinds of film studies in this volume, or by very subtle and secondary kinds of research results which we mention with some trepidation even in seminars limited to international experts in humor. The evidence of our research efforts with respect to Word Play then is primarily negative. We are much surer of what we can’t say than what we positively can say. Perhaps the summation is the best single proof we can offer that Word Play is in fact the natural intensifier. It blends in so well with other humors or it inter-relates so complexly with the other humors that analytic statements about Word Play for itself are few and far between.
There is one empirical result, Word Play’s low overall rank in HQT preference results, that needs mentioning, but only with a strong caveat. In designing the HQT, one of our primary objectives was to match jokes that were “equally funny.” We didn’t want to include pairs of jokes where 90% of the people would obviously prefer B to A or vice versa. It is a commonsense precaution, and like many commonsense things, it is very difficult to define at any more scholarly level. How were we to know when jokes were equally funny or even how one could reasonably test for equally funny, if equally funny meant that all Americans, for example, would split down the middle on preference for A or B?
So despite our best attempts, we have never found any reasonable-sized sample of people with the same average score over four humor types. In group after group, Gotcha and Incongruity tend to score noticeably higher in group averages. Sympathetic Pain and Word Play are almost invariably competitive for lowest average score. From the individual rather than the group level, this has the almost necessary consequence that Word Play is an unusual highest-scoring rank for individuals among the four humor types.
Considering that Sympathetic Pain has hardly ever been academically recognized as a separate expression of humor, one can hardly be surprised that Sympathetic Pain is a fairly unusual humor preference among respondents. Word Play on the other hand is a universally recognized form of humor, though admittedly technical definitions of Word Play may vary. Moreover, Word Play is quite clearly one of the early senses of humor to develop no later than early elementary grades.
The low score of Word Play on average does seem to go with a fairly substantial abstract disapproval of Word Play in the population, perhaps best represented by the constantly quoted precept that the pun is the lowest form of humor. Again, it would seem that this research result is largely negative and that the negativity largely supports the conclusion that Word Play is a natural intensifier in the Humor of the Mind Quadrilateral.
Let us then move away from empirical results to discuss Word Play in largely the non-research terms of literary analysis and criticism. Our representatives of Word Play lead humor are again Music Man, Father of the Bride, and Aladdin. All three can be said to focus on fast talkers—Harold Hill, George Banks and Franck Eggelhoffer, and Genie—though admittedly George is more of a compulsive talker and Franck more of an incomprehensible talker. At a minimum, Word Play-dominated theatre seems to be wordy by definition and seems to focus on word-bound and word-spouting characters.
We can check this against our film comedies that do not have Word Play as lead element. My Big Fat Greek Wedding centers on Toula, a generally repressed figure given to silence in the midst of a boisterous family. She is matched by Ian, the son of people who might inspire Simon and Garfunkel’s “Book Ends” or “Sounds of Silence,” himself an English professor who doesn’t spend much time quoting purple passages from his beloved Shakespeare and who is generally characterized much more by clear drive and purpose rather than by words.
The main characters of Blues Brothers are some of the least articulate of major modern protagonists.
If there is an exception to the idea that non-Word Play heavily suggests a general paucity of words, the exception is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Lawrence, Freddie, and Janet are all highly articulate and verbal people, though none of them is given to Word Play as an art in itself.
Word Play jokes can be extended. Normally in stage and film comedy, however, Word Play humor exists toward the momentary. A quip for example, may be but a few words long. And that quip may be “topped” by an equally short rebut. It seems then at least on average that non-Word Play humor personality for films creates considerably less wordy textures, less sense of sure-fire quick humorous flashes, less sense of fast movement of humorous delight and of verbal pyrotechnics.
 It is only fair to note that Blues Brothers’ self promotions pay lavish attention to the musical inventiveness of a Memphis-New York rhythm and blues sound. Without debating this point, it makes its way into the script only through the indirect reference of needing a fine trumpet, and in the plot structure of the movie, that invention has happened much earlier than the opening curtain and at whose hand we do not know.