Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:
Humor in American Film Comedy
Forrest Gump has long time passing achieved cult status among a younger generation.
Forrest Gump deals with the central cultural realities that have dominated American perceptions in our times.
The Quadrilateral we have been demonstrating goes a long way with a wide range of comedy. But choose the wrong set of humors for consideration in determining comedy’s humor texture and the critical results are just as catastrophic as confusing comickedy with comedy.
Forrest Gump’s redundant pattern asserts that intelligence and education are not the sine qua nons of American achievement, but perseverance, love, hope, and faith are.
Everything about Forrest is incongruous, much of it funny.
Gotcha is almost entirely absent from Forrest Gump.
The film does not allow us to feel much sympathy for Forrest.
Incongruity plus Word Play makes Forrest Gump, an Intellectual-textured comedy!
We should start to suspect that something is going amiss in our analysis.
Forrest Gump is making an intellectual case that Americans need to rethink their love affair with high standardized test scores.
Is a humor-of-the-mind analysis sufficient or even central?
Forrest Gump is a cornucopia of ironic forms of humor.
Irony is a communication which says something and also something very different from the superficial meaning.
Irony typically is a humorous transaction between ironic maker and ironic perceiver.
Forrest is a high achiever because he doesn't do bright things. Bright people are repeatedly portrayed as stupid.
A grim-but-meant smile is entirely appropriate to the double meanings of Gump's box of chocolates adage.
Clearly, irony is different from Humor of the Mind and creates different texture.
Irony so pervades Forrest Gump that any analysis based solely on humor-of-the-mind would be approaching a lunatic fringe of humor insensitivity.
Irony is slow-fuse humor in many of its most profound instances.
The funniest ironies are likely to rest on several entirely separate intellectual foundations.
Musical sound tracks provide some of the most consistent authorially ironic statements.
All twelve of these ironies come in pairs.
Ironic humorous response doesn’t have the same feel as humor-of-the-mind humor response.
Double analyses of humor are possible.
The successful construction of an irony quadrilateral would allow us a much more focused definition of the Intellect-influenced ironic texture.
Humorous irony is deep and mature humor, often slow to surface, often producing far more wry smiles than guffaws.
We often playing ironic humor over and over, reacting with delight at yet a new level of meaning.
Perhaps Forrest Gump’s highest achievement is that it is complexly ironic and yet divorced from bitterness and disillusionment.
Chapter 12: Forrest Gump:
Finding the Dominant Humor Form
If A Mighty Wind is approaching cult status among Americans who remember the folk era with nostalgia, Forrest Gump has long time passing achieved cult status among a younger generation which quite typically feels it has been spared the profound personal ravages of the ‘60’s and their aftermath.
We came to A Mighty Wind not, however, to attempt some formal balance of satiric and commendatory attitudes toward the Flower Child Era or even to fully understand our own era and our children’s generation’s reaction to that era. If this book has been about American Film Comedy and thus to some extent about America, we would be deeply amiss not to point to the great complex of the ‘60’s as it is reflected in A Mighty Wind. And it would be amiss not to recognize Forrest Gump as dealing with the same central cultural realities that have dominated American perceptions in our times. But our main interest in A Mighty Wind was its generic complexity, an artistic complexity which reflects the socio-historical complexity of America’s struggle to bring closure to the ‘60’s. And we have an equally artistic impetus for immediately considering Forrest Gump thereafter.
Comedy cannot be studied without regard to the social and political realities which inform it. But in these chapters, such political and social elucidation is not our primary aim. Instead, we are attempting to provide key caveats for the study of relationship between comedy and humor, particularly in its commercially highly successful, recent American film context. In the last chapter, our caveat was that such study must carefully distinguish between comedy and forms of comickedy or accept the virtual inevitability of a criticism that is potentially widely off the mark.
In this chapter, we would like to exemplify a similar caveat. Comedy and humor study will go badly astray if it assumes that its only problem is to differentiate comedy from comickedy. It also has a very central problem of sensitively dealing with humor. Humor of the Mind and the Quadrilateral we have been demonstrating go a long way with a wide range of sophisticatedly intelligent comedy. But there are many, many different kinds of humor. Choose the wrong set of humors for consideration in determining comedy’s humor texture and the critical results are just as catastrophic as confusing comickedy with comedy.
Forrest Gump is clearly a comedy. Moreover, as we will consider more fully in the next chapter, Forrest Gump is also clearly a sombre or dark comedy. It exhibits an overwhelming pattern of multiple individual successes, along with many dark overtones, that simply cannot be ignored even by totally unsophisticated viewers. Forrest becomes a millionaire, an All-American athlete, an international star in a second sport, and the recipient of the Medal of Honor. He has one of the profoundly affecting love affairs of modern literature. He proves himself an ideally loyal son, a devoted father, an extraordinarily loyal subordinate, and an exemplary friend. He becomes an international sports diplomat, the epitome of self-effacing philanthropy, a philosophic guru to numerous fads and inventions, and a compelling story teller.
Central to the formal comedy, however, is the fact that Forrest is sub-normal in intelligence. It is understatement to say that his mother makes extraordinary efforts just to have him educated as a regular child. He is 5 IQ points below the level at which Alabama State law requires special education. Put another way, he is two and a half standard deviations below normal intelligence. And in yet a third way, he is in the 1th percentile, where people want to be in the 99th percentile to go to an elite college or university. (Forrest’s sub-normality is a monumental obstacle for a comedic hero in any way to overcome, much less to overcome in so many ways. But his sub-normality in itself does not make the film dark comedy.)
And thus, if nothing else, Forrest Gump’s redundant pattern asserts that, contrary to a vast and continually perpetrated myth in America’s gatekeeper educational system, intelligence and education are not the sine qua nons of American achievement, success, and survival. This of course is a negative assertion. Put more positively, perseverance, love, hope, and faith are (central} all inherent in the redundant patterning of the film’s comedic assertion. If we pass over the comedic question lightly and quickly, we do so because the comedic pattern is so blindingly obvious and because it is simply a given for the point of this chapter. The question for this chapter is, given a comedy, what happens if we aren’t careful about what kind of humor dominates its humor texture?
Gump is not only comedy, it is also intelligent comedy, and therefore we might feel on safe ground to quickly go about a humor-of-the-mind analysis. In such an analysis, it is hard to imagine our not nominating Incongruity as a necessary lead element. Everything about Forrest (Tom Hanks) is incongruous, much of it funny, though in a muted way because we have been taught not to laugh at people like Forrest. Notice for example that the way he talks evokes school yard laughter and merciless teasing. As audience we disapprove of this laughter. Yet the film invites us to laugh when incongruously Forrest, playing football for Alabama’s Crimson Tide, runs toward the wrong goal post.
At the opposite extreme from obvious humor, Gump’s name is Forrest—he is named after the most dashing, most daring, most unconventionally successful cavalry leader of the Civil War. Nathan Bedford Forrest, namesake of many a southern boy-child, started the war as an enlisted man and rose to the rank of Major General by the end, having done everything one man could possibly do to win the war for the South. (After the war, as alluded to in the movie, Nathan Forrest also founded the Ku Klux Klan.) The incongruity of the slow-witted (and racially blind) Forrest Gump and the quicksilver Forrest of the Civil War is crushingly incongruous, at the same time that it is also impressively witty, suggesting profound similarities between the two Forrests despite the obvious contrasts.
We could look at Incongruities throughout—Forrest rudely throwing soldiers he has just saved on the shoreline as he runs back in his all-absorbing search for Bubba, Forrest soaring to the rank of a literally world-class ping pong player by holding to a single fixed idea that ping pong depends on keeping one’s eye on the ball, Forrest running unstoppably for the Crimson Tide (provided that he is pointed in the right direction), Forrest baring his butt to Lyndon Johnson at a White House reception because Johnson seems to have indicated he’d like that.
If Incongruity is impossible to deny as a lead humor-of-the-mind element, Gotcha is almost entirely absent from Forrest Gump, and its absence is certainly worth noting in defining comedic import. Lacking the ability to create quick comebacks, Forrest routinely does not answer insults and jabs with a Gotcha when we as audience might be prepared to. (Perhaps he remembers that his mother named him Forrest to remind him “that we all do things that just don’t make sense.”) As it turns out, nothing of the success and survival demonstrated in Gump depends on getting anybody.
That leaves us with Sympathetic Pain and Word Play as possible nominees for second lead element, and Intellectual or Reconciler as possible humor textures. While we are taught to feel sympathy for those born with various handicaps, the film does not allow us to feel too much sympathy for Forrest as he becomes the most successful, all-around person in U.S. history, probably including Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, and Lincoln in that assessment. Mrs. Gump is both sympathetic and admirable, but given her superlative son, there isn’t much time for Sympathetic Pain humor for her. We are frequently invited to sympathize with Lieutenant Dan, but most of that sympathy is jarringly not humorous. Few American films have been willing to so graphically portray the price paid by individual Americans in Viet Nam. The film would dishonor, and we would dishonor, those sacrifices by linking that suffering with humor in this analysis. And somewhat similarly, Jenny is presented as the ravaged amputee both of her own family background and of the Flower Child Era, of whom she is a most beautiful embodiment. We certainly sympathize with Jenny. That doesn’t mean that Sympathetic Pain humor is more than accidentally connected with her portrayal.
So that leaves Word Play. And Incongruity plus Word Play makes Forrest Gump, an Intellectual-textured comedy! There are significant Word Play moments that can be referenced. Forrest’s simple-minded comments often seem brighter than the highly articulate rhetoric which surrounds him, perhaps most notably the political rhetoric which greets him in Washington. Forrest’s repeated response that “Stupid is as stupid does,” is often both Word Play on a number of aphorisms and an Incongruously brilliant rejoinder to people who aren’t very bright themselves and don’t see the special in Forrest’s separate-dimension reality. And then there is Bubba’s interminably long epic catalog of uses of shrimp, which would be tour-de-force Word Play in itself, but all the more so for abruptly ending, “That’s—that’s about it.”
By the time the analysis gets this far, we should start to suspect that something is going amiss in our analysis. Incongruity is certainly present. Sympathetic Pain and Gotcha aren’t at all reasonable second leads. But the argument for Word Play humor gets far-fetched and strained early on. It is of course possible that Gump is entirely centered on Incongruity. But before we consider what’s wrong with our analysis, it should be noted that in a certain sense it is startlingly right.
While it may seem oxymoronic to label as Intellectual in humor texture drama about the first percentile in intelligence, our point is not that anything has gone seriously amiss if the humor analysis leads to Intellectual. Intellectual may seem oxymoronic, but at a deeper level, Forrest himself is the quintessential oxymoron (“sharp fool”). By the film’s end, the moron half of oxymoronic dissolves leaving the cutting brilliance we’ve already seen in naming Forrest after the Civil War cavalry leader. Forrest Gump is making an intellectual case that Americans need to rethink their love affair with education, high standardized test scores, and deference for elite institutions of education. And any film making that case is engaged in a big-time intellectual game with high stakes and fierce opponents who will jump on a single mental miscue. Forrest Gump’s box office track record is strong proof of Intellectual fitness.
So our example in Forrest Gump does not start with a false mental humor analysis but rather one stretched very thin on Word Play. The analysis yields important results and should be made. The question remains, however, whether this analysis is sufficient or even central? And here we have to emphatically answer that Humor of the Mind is not the central key to texture in Forrest Gump. Humor of the Mind analysis isn’t central because however much mental humor we might catalog in Forrest Gump, there is overwhelmingly more ironic humor, and in fact Forrest Gump is a cornucopia of ironic forms of humor.
Unfortunately, irony is about as misunderstood as comedy and humor, a critical confusion which suggests that the misunderstanding of all three stems from common origins in literary criticism and in human psychology. Traditionally, irony is explained in terms of its etymology, from “eiron” in Greek, meaning “deceiver.” From that derivation, irony is often thought of as any unexpected result. For example CNBC recently suggested that it was ironic when the stock market averages went down and gold did not go up, evidently on the hypothesis that gold is supposed to be a haven of safety in down markets.
“Irony” is often also used not for denotative but for connotative purposes, to suggest sophistication and approbation. A Far Side cartoon may be funny and humorous. It becomes far more suitable for academic study if it is also ironic.
For our literary purposes, we avoid all these preconceptions and start over with a communicational definition. Specifically, irony is a communication which says something and also something very different from the superficial meaning. By this definition, irony is virtually essentially humorous because it brings to the perceptive hearer a pleasurable recognition of one’s own ability to “read between the lines” and to get more than the obvious. This compliment to our intelligence and perceptiveness typically receives our approbation in the form of an inner or outward smile and laughter. Thus irony typically is a humorous transaction between ironic maker and ironic perceiver.
Starting over in our definition of irony is key to interpreting Forrest Gump because Forrest as a character is anything but sophisticated, intellectual, and capable of creating meaning between the lines. Many of the “lessons” taught by the film seem deliberately unsophisticated, for example, the ideas that life is like a box of chocolates and that stupid is as stupid does. Yet even with these seemingly homespun and naïve maxims, irony more than creeps in.
Stupid is as stupid does would seem to define Forrest. He isn’t bright, and he doesn’t do bright things. But at a deeper level (and thus an ironic level and saying something and also saying more), he undeniably is one of the highest achievers America has produced precisely because he doesn’t do bright things, whereas many bright people, for example Jenny and Jenny’s Berkeley boyfriend, do incredibly stupid things like sharing intravenous needles and slapping around their current bedmate in public. Forrest spends his time keeping his eye on the ball and moving on to international competition, running because he was told to run, and visiting the White House three times in very different capacities for following directions. There’s a lot more to say from the movie on this subject, but it is all redundantly ironic. Bright people are repeatedly stupid people as well; Forrest is the unbright exemplary doer throughout.
Similarly, if life is a box of chocolates, we all have our favorites and non-favorites, which seems to be Mrs. Gump’s point. But in Forrest’s life, he gets to taste a wide variety of chocolates, far wider than we are prepared to fully believe. And while they aren’t all his favorites, it is clear that they are all confectioners’ delights properly (that is unbrightly) perceived. Forrest suffers both his mother’s death and Jenny’s death before our eyes. But both relationships are exquisite even though extraordinarily painful. Service in Viet Nam, the death of Bubba, and Lieutenant Dan’s amputation are grinçant—teeth-grinding–in at least as forceful sense as the best of French stage dark comedy, but they are imbued with values of comradeship, proper loyal subordination, and the like that make them masculine ideals under fire. Life as a box of chocolates, then, says one thing and says many things that seem in quite different dimensions all at the same time, and if no one laughs uproariously, nevertheless, a grim-but-meant smile is entirely appropriate to these double meanings all the same.
Lyndon Johnson’s remark about liking to see the kind of wound Gump received (in the butt, that is) is yet another of the high moments when no one can miss the humorous irony involved, saying what it means, saying something about Johnson’s character both as a politician and as a man, and saying something entirely separate in Forrest’s literal interpretation of the words. We could go on with random ironies, but once a formal definition of irony as a literary construct which says one thing and then says something more as well has been illustrated, viewers will probably rush to supply their own notable examples without further incitement.
Clearly, irony is different from Humor of the Mind and creates different texture. If, nevertheless, ironic texture is like humor-of-the-mind texture in anything, it should be similar in coming in several different ironic subforms, subforms which then can be combined into something like a quadrilateral in order to identify contrastive ironic textures or feels.
Indeed this is so much the case for Forrest Gump that the problem is not in finding sub-forms, but finding that the film seems to exemplify far more than the four forms that would make a convenient quadrilateral. For readers who are tired of seeing more acutely in the dark room of humor, it is possible to skip lightly over the next several pages, simply recognizing that irony so pervades Forrest Gump that anything that purports to be a humor analysis based solely on humor-of-the-mind consideration would be approaching a lunatic fringe of humor insensitivity.
For brave souls who would like to see irony more clearly, let us start with what has always been obvious. The most obvious form of irony is rhetorical irony, a statement that says one thing and “actually means” something else contrary or discordant. In our definition, the “actually means” is a poor description of the “and also” which by our definition makes it ironic.) Thus, for example, Black American dialects often use ‘bad” to mean “good.” (But of course the point is that as something of Black culture, there is an automatic white distain which makes the original meaning of “bad” part of the overall meaning.) “Swell” can easily mean either contempt or despair. (In ironic use, it likely comes when someone else has suggested something as if it has no downside and might therefore be seen as “swell”; e.g. on October 10, 2008 somewhere around 9 am, the stock market had erased a 700 point initial loss in the Dow Jones Industrial Average: that was “just swell” to many Americans already ravaged by thousands of points of Dow decline.)
There is very little of this rhetorical irony in Forrest Gump. Those who rank in the first percentile on intelligence tests normally do not put limited brain power to work in such ways, and others dealing with them normally know that the irony would be wasted. There is however the example of such irony in Forrest’s drill sergeant, who asserts that Forrest will or ought to become a general (Forrest having done as told, having stayed on task, and having set a new company record for reassembling the M-15 rifle).
A second kind of irony commonly known in academe, dramatic irony, depends on the audience knowing something from the work which the character on stage does not. Convalescing in a Vietnam army hospital, Forrest finds himself wrestled to the floor one night by a suicidal, legless Lt. Dan. Collaring Forrest, Dan asks, “Do you know what it is like not be able to use your legs?” The dramatic irony strikes us even before Forrest responds in that we, the audience, know what Dan doesn’t: that Forrest started life as a cripple and that he was mercilessly pursued by beastly urchins precisely because of his crippled condition. We know all this because we have witnessed the scene in which Forrest has done what he was told—in this case to run—and has been miraculously healed. Forrest becomes a profoundly good runner, so Lt. Dan’s misinformation is all the more complete, the ironies all the more intense. The utterly grim bitterness of the scene and its possibly humorous ironic highlights are perhaps the most complex emotional moment of an emotionally complex film.
Rhetorical and dramatic irony, however, only begin to explain the multiple forms of irony in Forrest Gump. In this chapter we will examine briefly a total of twelve forms of humorous or potentially humorous forms of irony in Forrest Gump. Be prepared for a fast ride. But one further preparatory word as we saddle up: we are talking about forms of assertion or communication. Communication goes far beyond just what is said. We have all heard, for example, of body language. Actions speak louder than words, as Mrs. Gump’s “Stupid is as stupid does” implies. The key to irony is not someone opening his or her mouth. The key to irony is the communication of one thing AND ALSO the communication of something further and often jarringly contrastive.
Having then acknowledged rhetorical and dramatic irony, we move to a third irony, and one even older than dramatic irony as a recognized form. Scripture says more than once that people often intend something for evil, but God uses it for good. That irony is at least as old as Joseph among his brethren. This is Metaphysical irony. It appears prominently in Forrest Gump when Lt. Dan defies God to sink their shrimp boat. At first it seems that God is cowed, not only sparing the boat but leaving it the sole surviving shrimp operation in the bay. In the end, God uses Dan’s defiance and the shrimp boat’s survival to lead him back to an appreciation of the life God has given him. Appropriately, Dan’s name, Daniel, means “God is my judge,” not “I am God’s judge.”
And if there is Metaphysical irony, then there is perforce Intentional irony, created when someone intends and communicates one thing, but the saying is used for something else. Since Forrest operates on a dim bulb of intelligence two and a half standard deviations below average, he often says things that others take for something else. But others create intentional irony as well. The school superintendent who has tried to explain Forrest’s need for special schooling eventually accepts Mrs. Gump’s sexual favors in exchange for having Forrest schooled as a normal child. On the way out of the Gump house, he falls in with Forrest who has been overhearing the bed springs and other auditory signs of the superintendent’s ardor. Wiping his brow of sweat, the superintendent tells Forrest, “Your mama sure loves you.” This is a classic case of irony that is not jarringly contrastive. The superintendent’s line is perfectly consistent with the auditory signals which we have been hearing along with Forrest. But at a much deeper level, the superintendent, though he doesn’t intend it, has articulated one of the ultimate relational truths of the movie: throughout, Forrest’s mother is shown to love Forrest at levels five standard deviations beyond the normal.
(We are aware that this ironic moment can also be analyzed as the superintendent’s understatement. Understatement is indeed one of the classical mechanisms for conveying irony, as of course is overstatement, both forms of rhetorical irony).
A fifth form of irony, Discontinuity irony, is based in our human condition as audience. Since we all like to have certainty and consistency in life, and we are all averse to sudden change, when a pattern is multiply repeated, we get used to it. And that sets us up for Discontinuity irony. The assertion of repetitive reality ironically asserts that the repetition can only go on so long. An abrupt ending leaves us smiling in the recognition that what we knew had to happen just did, unexpectedly.
Forrest Gump abounds with Discontinuity irony. For example, Forrest’s army buddy, Bubba, is obsessed with shrimping, and he begins an extended catalog of all the things that can be done with shrimp. His catalogue takes days and seems endless. But at some point he says, “That’s about it.” That’s what you can do with shrimp. Similarly, the rain in Vietnam is endless—until it suddenly stops, and the more deadly war resumes in full fury. And poignantly, when Jenny leaves Forrest, he starts running from one end of America to another and back again. And then one day, in a Southwestern desert, he just stops running and is tired. Running implies that there’s got to be an end to running, but until it stops, it communicates that somehow it never will.
When everyone cries peace, then destruction comes. It’s another very old ironic form. Repetition, at least to the wise, indicates change a-coming, not infinite continuity. Ecclesiastes said it in 1000 B.C. “For everything there is a season.” The Byrds sang, “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
Discontinuity irony is often so disconcerting that we find it hard to see the humor. In October 2008, for example, it would be hard to find people who had stock who found the plunge in stock values humorous. Yet many of the same people were horrified throughout the previous decade by non-existent standards of credit worthiness that “just had to” end in disaster. Ironic humor is often so discordant as to be incomprehensible as humor, at least for a time. In this sense, irony is slow-fuse humor in many of its most profound instances.
A great deal of irony is time-related. Thus, a sixth type of irony is what might be called Historical. What we as audience and quite possibly also what the characters know to be history, adds meaning beyond the superficially obvious.
Thus, when Forrest as crippled child (before the discontinuous irony of his miraculous healing) and his mother are in town and looking at a television set in an appliance store window, they see Elvis in his earliest appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show with the signature wide-footed-close-kneed stance. Forrest’s mother, like other mothers of that generation, is generally appalled and whisks Forrest away from the offending scene. But Forrest and we know the history—that the young Elvis was a boarder at the Gump house and that he was there fascinated by Forrest’s dance gyrations in leg braces. History provides an extraordinary, ironic second level of meaning for the body language we have just witnessed in Elvis’ performance. Of course, from Forrest’s mother’s perspective, since she does not know the history, this is simply analyzed as dramatic irony.
Quite closely related to Historical irony is a seventh, Relational irony, irony which emerges through a developing relationship. Forrest’s relationship with Jenny is ironic in the sense that the “normal” though emotionally impaired Jenny who “saves” Forrest by advising him to run eventually is rescued by Forrest.
Relational ironies between Forrest and Bubba span the entire movie, beginning with even Blacks on the army bus refusing to give Forrest a seat, but Bubba moving his suitcase for Forrest to sit down and then introducing himself immediately with his idée fixe of shrimping. But the central Relational irony is thematically developed from the time the two report to Lt. Dan in Vietnam. Something in their naiveté and attitude prompts Lt. Dan to ask, “Are you twins?” and Forrest answers, totally deadpan for himself and his Black friend, “We are no relationship, sir.”
And yet, what we see from there is an intensely symbiotic relationship, epitomized in the two sitting back to back in the endless rain so that they will not sleep with their faces in the mud and Bubba saying “We be looking out for each other—like brothers. . . .” And eventually, Forrest will win the Medal of Honor for so repeatedly going back to certain death to save his brother. . If these ironies can create smiles, they can more easily produce a choked-up throat and a teary eye, and they all together stand as poignantly ironic comments on the brotherhood issues of both the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement in Washington. These are typical Relational ironies, however, in that the ironies grow as relationship develops.
In addition to Relational ironies, there are ironies based in worth or value. In economics, we learn that price tag does not equal value. The value one person places on a particular reality may be worlds apart from someone else’s valuation, creating the possibility for two forms of irony: Rhetorical, which we have already discussed, and an eighth, Valuation irony, which emerges when one character’s asserted value highlights a contrastive value in someone else’s estimation. Sitting on the park bench telling his story to incredulous listeners, Forrest eventually pulls out a magazine with a picture of Lieutenant Dan and Forrest as preeminent shrimp-boat entrepreneurs. Forrest values the magazine because even he has recognized that the lady listening to him has her doubts. Even a first percenter likes not to be thought a liar, and Forrest values the magazine picture accordingly.
On the other hand, the lady has thought of herself as complaisantly pampering a demented dim-wit. Seeing the picture has valuation meaning to her of an entirely different order. We as audience of course can appreciate both values. Irony is an and also assertion.
Rhetorical irony already discussed typically is another form of irony based in worth. Someone asserts something, sincerely or not, embodying some value. But we as audience or other characters revalue the rhetoric to mean something different than the superficially obvious. This is a second interpretation of the superintendent’s understatement, “Your mama sure loves you.” He’s being sincere and carnal. We understand his rhetorical statement yet simultaneously find a much different, spiritualized, and deeper meaning than the one intended.
In numerous papers, we have shown that the same joke can be multiply interpreted within four categories of Humor of the Mind. In our wording, “it is hard to find a pure joke”—one that can not be multiply interpreted. Evidently the same is true for ironic humor. The categories can be intellectually distinct. But in practice, the funniest ironies are likely to rest on several entirely separate intellectual foundations.
That brings us to a ninth and tenth irony which are heavily involved with activities of mind. Our ninth irony is the irony of Discovery. Any scientific discovery can be used as an example of an ironic moment. Right now, we tend to believe that hydrogen power is an uneconomical alternative to the internal combustion engine and dependence on oil imports. But imagine for a moment a discovery that allows hydrogen to be more economically produced. Such a discovery would not invalidate the existence of our previous quandary. But it would certainly bend our minds to bring in worlds of new thought and potential. The irony of Discovery would assert both the previous quandary and the dawning new worlds. Discoveries are often recorded as ironically humorous moments perhaps epitomized by Archimedes’ exclamation, Eureka! as he sat naked in his bath.
The example of Valuation irony already given of the lady on the park bench seeing the magazine cover picture is just as much an example of Discovery irony. She has discovered both about Forrest and about her own self-complaisant attitudes.
A tenth irony might be called Philosophical irony. Philosophical irony is created by double understandings of a single reality, typically placing an assertion or action in two ontological categories. Forrest’s three-year run back and forth across America is heavily invested with this irony. News reporters on the Mississippi tentatively attribute to Forrest virtually any and every modern cause as the motivating force for his running. Some join Forrest in his run because “here’s a guy who has his act together.” Still others suggest that the run gives people hope. Forrest eventually feels that it fits his mama’s belief that “You got to put the past behind you before you can move on.” This plethora of philosophical justifications acts ironically upon itself with both jarring and deepening effects, but effects that routinely tempt us to humorous reactions.
Two final ironies both rest on frame of reference, an understanding that exists entirely outside the work itself as it is presented. We’ve already looked at Forrest watching Elvis Presley on television. Utterly unknown to Forrest or to any other character and beyond dramatic irony, which depends on knowledge provided from within the work, we the audience all know that what he is watching is one of the great historic moments of early television, the appearance of Elvis on Ed Sullivan.. We know it because of our frame of reference, outside the work, as reasonably informed Americans.
This irony we will call Commentary irony in that what we can be expected to know as audience creates some commentary on the action and or assertion which is being presented before us. Forrest’s presence at least as television viewer at all the key moments of recent history repeatedly works toward such Commentary ironies. Forrest doesn’t know and those around him often don’t know the significance of what he is witnessing—Jenny as one of the first victims of AIDS, for example. Through the Commentary of what we know that the characters don’t—what we know not from the film but from life—the movie develops fuller meaning for us, often very serious meaning but very often humorous meaning causing ironic, smiling recognition.
And finally we come to a twelfth irony, perhaps the hardest for people to clearly recognize, which might be called Authorial irony. In Authorial irony, the author writes into the work something that is unavailable to the characters but which we as audience can perceive as providing different meaning than that which is superficially occurring. In this sense, the author is speaking directly to us, taking his or her own stand, without affecting the drama itself, but affecting us as readers or viewers and contrasting or deepening what is otherwise asserted by the literary action.
Let’s take a general example, not from Forrest Gump, for starters. Consider the director of a film as to some extent an author. He has a script which the actors are speaking and acting. But the director chooses to put into the set a group of brilliantly red lilies which call attention to themselves, especially through appropriate cinematic highlighting. This may be an Authorial irony, the director saying to us, “As you watch this scene, recognize it as a Pentecost moment.” If we are church-literate enough to know that bright red is the color of Pentecost, our sense of movie meaning will be multiplied and deepened without any character on stage being the wiser.
In all literature, a major form of Authorial irony is naming of characters. Lt. (“place holder”) Dan spends most of Gump judging God. But as already mentioned, authorially this judgmental character is named, “God is my judge.” Bubba is actually Benjamin, Hebrew translated as “son of the right hand” or “chief aid.” Forrest the multi-millionaire and the Medal of Honor winner are both direct consequences of his relationship to Bubba as his chief aid. Jenny is an Irish name meaning “bright.” Her costume is routinely white and/or gold. She along with Mama is the bright incandescence that so strongly lights the dim-bulbed Forrest until at the end Jenny is replaced by a new little Forrest. The pedestrian meaning of names is that someone is called such-and-such. Literature routinely handles this calling ironically by authorial appropriateness of the name to higher meaning which contrasts with the “purely nominal” pedestrian interpretation.
In modern movies, musical sound tracks provide some of the most consistent authorially ironic statements, and the sound track musical credits of Gump seem to go on as long as Bubba’s uses for shrimp. Through music, the author can create ironic statement which reverberates long after the credits are over.
Well, we’re through the gallop. While our horses cool down, let us articulate what many readers have probably already started to suspect, that all twelve of these ironies come in pairs. Intentional and Metaphysical irony are ironies of spirit; Dramatic and Discontinuity are ironies of temporal reality; Historical and Relational irony are dependent on development through stage time, Valuation and Rhetorical ironies depend on transvaluational comparisons; Discovery and Philosophical irony are matters of the mind; Authorial and Commentary irony both go beyond the action and assertion presented to us to create additional meaning in an outside frame of reference.
Since we have demonstrated twelve ironic forms in Forrest Gump, coming in sets of two, we can think of these six sets as the ironic analogs of our six Humor of the Mind personalities and humors which seems to beg for a quadrilateral interpretation. Even without Quadrilateral insights, a number of conclusions grow out of what has already been said. Let us consider some of these.
First, in this fast gallop, there’s been little time to address the humorousness of irony. That irony is humorous is virtually universally assented to in literary study. The reality that irony is humorous can easily be proved for oneself simply by watching Forrest Gump, though humor reactions in the film are frequently muted or altered by the general emotional intensity which characterizes the film. This sense of mutedness and fundamental alteration should move us to the recognition that ironic humorous response doesn’t have the same feel as, say, humor-of-the-mind humor response. Among other things, ironic response is much more likely to be a wry and sophisticated smile. And probably for nearly all of us, some range of ironic perception isn’t humorous at all; that is we do not find in ourselves the impulse to laughter, smiles, or any of the other impulses that we think of as humorous. Such is frequently the case with “bitter” irony, but note that Forrest is not a bitter man, with little to be bitter about, and yet much of the irony of his narration is beyond normal humorous response.
Second, irony is entirely different humor from Humor of the Mind. Nevertheless, double analyses of humor are possible. While it would be missing the mark to undertake a single-minded humor-of-the-mind analysis of Forrest Gump and to present that as the humorous analysis of the movie, in combination with the more central ironic analysis, Humor of the Mind is meaningfully analyzed. Thus, our combined analysis would have to conclude that Forrest Gump has an Intellectual-influenced or Intellectual-oriented ironic humor texture.
Third, rather surprisingly, if our ironic analysis of Forrest Gump has somehow gotten at the “pork chop” of possible ironies, those ironies are twelve, breaking down into six pairs, and at least suggesting some possibility of an analytic Quadrilateral as already discussed. The successful construction of an irony quadrilateral would allow us a much more focused definition of the Intellect-influenced ironic texture.
Even without Quadrilateral sophistication, we can point to many common characteristics of ironic texture in general.
It is typical of humorous irony that it is deep and mature humor, often slow to surface, often producing far more wry smiles than guffaws. While the sudden burst of laughter is not particularly typical of ironic humor, the sense of a prolonged and growing sense of humorous perception is quite typical of irony. It takes a certain mental maturity to entertain irony’s simultaneous meanings. The very process of rethinking which is evoked by the and also assertion predisposes that when we laugh at irony, we are also likely to exclaim “Ohhh!” and be impressed both with our own depth and the depth of the art work in forcing the more complicated perception upon us. When we find these deeper levels and articulate them for ourselves, it also makes us feel more sophisticated and more mature in ourselves, a satisfaction which again is likely to be vented as at least some sort of satisfied smile.
Both the depth and the maturity of irony create delightful moments. Humorous reaction in infancy would seem to be primarily a reaction of delight. Unless as adults we have entirely escaped our infant origins, through our smiles and laughter, we humorously beg “Play it again, Sam.” But in the case of ironic humor, we often end up playing it over and over again for comparatively long periods to ourselves and at least occasionally reacting with delight at yet a new level of meaning.
As suggested earlier in this chapter, historically there has been a large tendency to associate irony directly with certain tones, feelings, and thus textures. These include a sense of sophistication, which we are restating as matters of depth and maturity. From there, it is often assumed that irony comes only in negative (but perhaps intellectually superior) textures based in bitterness, disillusionment, satiric undercutting, and the like.
Perhaps Forrest Gump’s highest achievement is that it is complexly ironic and yet divorced from bitterness and disillusionment. Forrest Gump (perhaps owing to its humor-of-the-mind Intellectual texture) is bright, clean, and crisp, (related to the feel of Music Man, quite unlike the murkiness of Blues Brothers) and far distant from bitterness and disillusionment. The irony of Forrest Gump is extraordinarily optimistic. It ends as it started, with a feather blowin’ in the wind, blowing on a crisp late summer day into a blue sky with a renewed hope of a new generation which embodies both Forrest and Jenny on its first day off to school with Forrest waiting loyally and lovingly for his son’s return at day’s end.
Thus the tragedy of the ‘60’s as epitomized in Lieutenant Dan and in Jenny has been led full circle round by an unbright Forrest until it ends in titanium legs for Lt. Dan and a sweet-as-chocolate, indelibly-affected-by-relationship Forrest, a widower and a father, at home and at peace. That final ironic and somewhat intellectually detached vision may epitomize the real America as it moved beyond the traumas of the ‘60’s toward the 21st century.
 Don and Eileen Nilsen in their presentation “Irony as Edgy Humor,” comment that irony serves to make people think more than laugh. They divided irony into linguistic, verbal, real life, and literary.