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Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle:

Humor in American Film Comedy






Humor as well as comedy has been for millennia treated with contempt even as it has delighted throughout the same time span









Humor is often destructive.







Whose ox is gored?








Negative humor is all too real.



There is also an indubitable reality of positive humor.




By and large American film comedy emphasizes positive or at least neutral humor over negative humor.


Humor creates texture for formal comedy, including the most untamed, unrestrained, and  injurious humor.





Humor is not a single thing but multiple.























We returned home  determined to begin began our own program of humor testing from a literary base.







We decided to focus on a highly limited set of four distinct yet commonly appreciated humors, all forms of Humor the the Mind.








Such humor appeals to the mind and demands a judgment or mental calculation.







We have all learned to recognize humor idiosyncrasies in others and to characterize others by their displayed sense of humor.







Humor used consistently in a literary work can define the character of that literary work.



Chapter 2: The High Explosives of Humor



Humor with comedy has been for millennia treated with contempt even as it has delighted throughout the same time span.  There have been entire ages when it was felt that gravitas demanded a complete absence of humor, entire ages when “serious” writers have argued that religion itself stood foursquare against humor, entire ages when humor was relegated to children’s playrooms.


And very often, when humor was allowed into adult conversation, it was allowed in only in meanly destructive forms.  It is hard to argue that the English 18th century was not in full mature mastery of humorous invective and satire producing character assassination now typically prohibited by law.


In every period, humanity has managed something of a love-hate accommodation with humor.  There are always those who profess a love of humor in any form.  But a recent academically controlled experiment in Hawaii suggests a very substantial reverse side of the coin. Researchers in Hawaii chose to interview people waiting in supermarket lines as they picked up last-minute groceries after work.  Presumably the respondents had a little time on their hands to fill out questionnaires, but many of them were probably anxious to get home after a trying day’s work and somewhat peeved by the lines of other workers doing exactly the same chore. In any case, a surprisingly high percentage approaching 80% of respondents indicated negative attitudes toward humor.  The numbers were startlingly high enough to make one wonder if some new cult was making its way in Hawaii by bashing humor.  It certainly would not have been the first such occurrence in history.


If humor has suffered such a negative reputation with such a large part of the populace, how, it might be asked, can it work symbiotically with comedy to assert a faith in human survival? Before proceeding to answer that question in analyses of particular films, we must acknowledge that humor is often destructive:  humor can be and often is hurtful, even designed specifically to be hurtful. Humor can have explosive and catastrophic effects.





Some will remember that Walter Mondale in 1984, running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, humorously recalled a Wendy’s hamburger commercial by asking his opponent in debate, “Where’s the beef?”  In the weeks that followed, smiling Mondale backers around the country greeted each other with “Where’s the beef?” Only political wonks remember the name of his opponent, and most political scientists realize that as a candidate, he never recovered from the humorous explosion rigged against him and instead lapsed permanently into obscurity from that humorous moment. Humor is at least the high explosive of politics if not the nuclear weapon of politics. Such is the negative power of humor, and virtually all of us have experienced it at times in our own lives, often starting on the third-grade playground. Thus if we are to conduct any honest investigation involving humor, we need to recognize humor’s powerful negative potential. 


We also need to recognize a corollary to humor’s negative potential:  the Whose Ox is Gored Principle. In India, it is said that it is very funny to watch a recalcitrant ox unwilling to pull a heavy cart and being goaded on by a prod thrust in his butt.  Though we have not witnessed such an event personally, we assume that the bellow itself is enough to make one laugh quite inadvertently.  We imagine this, that is, unless we also imagine that we are the owner of the ox, that the ox represents a good part of our livelihood, and that goring can permanently lessen our property’s usefulness.


If the ox is mine, I am not amused that the ox is gored.


Negative attack humor routinely is in the business of goring somebody.  And one of the meanest aspects of such goring is to not notice the pain and injury to the butt and those who have an interest in the butt.  If we can get an audience to agree not to notice real pain and injury, the mean humor is only exponentially increased. Thus, to a good Democrat among Democrats, there is nothing funnier than jokes about the two Bushes or Great Ron, their Republican predecessor.  And if a Republican is present, the hilarity is probably only more so, with many Democrats shaking their heads that those poor Republicans “just don’t have any sense of humor.” Just as true, to a good Republican in the midst of Republicans, there is nothing funnier than jokes at the expense of the two Clintons and perhaps the Great Jimmy, their Democratic predecessor.  And if a Democrat is present, the hilarity is probably only increased with many Republicans shaking their heads that those poor Democrats “just don’t have any sense of humor.”




Such ridiculous conclusions are beneath critical dignity if not downright demeaning.  Negative humor is all too real, and people not finding negative humor funny when they are being savagely injured is more than rational. Sigmund Freud has developed an entire comic theory based on communal goring of butts, particularly emphasizing the need for an authenticating audience that goes along with the witworker in beating up on the butt.


However, if the reality of negative attack humor and its severe injuries is indubitable, happily there is also an indubitable reality of positive humor.  We hear of this humor at least as early as Solomon writing in Proverbs: “A merry heart does good, like medicine” (Authorized Version, Proverbs 17:22). Three thousand years after the penning of the Proverbs, medical researchers are now working to scientifically document the positive health benefits of humor.[1]


By and large American film comedy emphasizes positive or at least neutral humor over negative humor. At times, this makes American film seem somewhat Pollyannaish or goody two-shoes. But from a business standpoint the avoidance of negative humor makes perfect commercial sense. Desie Arnez is said to have pioneered in his and Lucy’s contracts the realization that the real bucks are in the residuals.  Good movies and good television productions are major investments, and typically the profits are mainly reserved for reruns.  In such a business model, negative attack humor is a dangerous business.  Even if current society is happy with the attack, will future audiences want to see it, or will they rather be embarrassed by it? Additionally, negative humor can lead to primary and secondary boycotts and bad publicity all around.  If only for the bottom line, Hollywood has usually been “pretty tame” and restrained in the use of negative humor.


Perhaps for these very reasons, the films considered in later chapters of the present study may strike some readers as tame and restrained.  It should be said, however, that the theme of this book is to show that humor creates texture for formal comedy.  If that can be established here, there is no reason why the methods cannot be generalized to consider any and all kinds of humor, including the most untamed, unrestrained, and  injurious {humor} that can be found on film.


Indeed, it is perhaps the easiest proof of humor texture that even without particular film examples, we are likely all aware that there is a  significant  theoretical difference in texture between any movie that is addicted to negative attack humor and any movie that abjures recourse to such humor. The recent éclat over BOЯAT —a British import into American culture—should itself suggest how quickly and forcefully the theoretical difference between negative and positive humor texture plays out in film practice.



Having recognized that humor can be a powerful weapon for destruction, we move on to an analytic premise undergirding all of our humor analysis:  that humor is not a single thing but multiple, at least for the practical purposes of good analysis and criticism.


When we joined the International Society of Humor Studies (ISHS) and attended their annual humor conference in Sheffield England in 1990, we found theoretical discussion largely focusing on the search for a unified theory of humor and practical research premised on the idea that humor was all one thing. Scholars argued vociferously over numerous humor theories, many seeking a single, unifying theory of all humor. Over the years various theories have been propounded:  Surprise theories of humor versus Double Entendre (double meaning) theories of humor versus Superiority theories of humor versus Incongruity theories of humor.[2] More recently a unified Game theory of humor has been proposed (Gruner, Game). Morreall, an incongruity proponent himself, ventured in the late 1990’s that the search for a general theory of humor had lost popularity (review of Gutwirth, 179), and Apte observed that humor studies have divided between those who think there can be a unified theory and those of think humor research needs multiples theories “to explain the nature of specific types of the multifaceted humor phenomenon. . . .” (221)


Paul once asked a past president of the organization why ISHS wasted so much time in this debate.  “They’re all looking for the Holy Grail” was his reply. If we feel that this search for the Holy Grail is wasted time, it is not because we think any of the antagonists is wrong.  Much to the contrary, we would argue that every last one of them is right.  There is Surprise humor, there is Superiority humor, there is Double Entendre humor, and there is Incongruity humor, and many major sub-forms of each of these. And to the extent that such discussions increase our understanding of the multiplicity and variety of humor, they are useful. To the extent that they jettison centuries of literary scholarship that developed a small dictionary of contrastive humor types, they are nonproductive or even counter-productive.





We found in 1990 that humor research had ignited the interest of psychiatrists, psychologists and linguists, notably including psychiatrist Bill Fry, psychologists Rod Martin, and Willibald Ruch and linguists Don Nilsen Paul McGhee and Victor Raskin, but that the humor research and testing at the time based in psychology and linguistics did not incorporate literary perceptions of humor gleaned from centuries of literary scholarship and sensitive criticism. Examples of the exclusion of the literary approach include McGhee and Goldstein’s Handbook of Humor Research and Gruner’s Understanding Laughter:  The Workings of Wit and Humor. This lack of scholarly interest in literary criticism is probably related to what Daniel Wickberg ten years later analyzed as a scholarly turning away from the object of laughter toward the causes of laughter (Berger 364).  Noting this lack of a literary perspective, we concluded what Katrina Triezenberg argued fifteen years later that literary studies need literary theories and methods for dealing with humor. And it was clear to us that those methodologies had to be  Notably in 1990, empirical research was not based in  in a multiplicity of humors which was readily apparent from the perspective of literary criticism.


Recent medical studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) seem rather conclusively to have proved what literary studies have long known, that humor is not one thing but many and that we would be well advised to go back to the Renaissance use of the term ‘humors’ in the plural to avoid serious error Published MRI images clearly show resonance occurring in different parts of the brain as patients respond to different jokes (Derks and Fry).[3] If a picture is worth a thousand words, we needn’t belabor the humors issue here.  From a neurological standpoint, the principle that if it quacks like a duck, then it is a duck suggests that if it quacks like many different ducks of many different species in many different places, then humor is many different ducks quacking all over the place. High tech testing is starting to prove what literary criticism has known for centuries:  that humor is a very varied thing!


Once we accept the multipleness and variability of humor, there are numerous ways to differentiate forms of humor.  Kehl proposes eighteen “grades of laughter” within six categories.  Psychologists tend to divide humor by psychological impulses or drives (Perlmutter). Linguists divide by linguistic structure. If humor studies has its seekers of the Holy Grail, it also has its bean counters.




We are at pains, then, not only to insist that there are many humors but to go even further and to say that it is not currently possible to give even a rough estimate of how many different humors exist.  In fact, such an estimate is unlikely both now and in the future because the potential number is so vast.


And that of course created a very practical problem for our own investigation of humor. Yet we returned home to the United States from that ISHS conference in Sheffield determined to begin our own program of humor testing from a literary base. And thus, we returned to literary critic George Meredith, whose work Paul had admired during his dissertation research two-plus decades earlier.


The Winona State experiments originally centered in the investigation of four major forms of humor first considered as mental humor by George Meredith in his seminal essay unfortunately entitled “An Essay on Comedy” written for a literary club in 1867. Meredith is not a systematic theoretician, but in “An Essay on Comedy” he ardently advocates something he calls “Humor of the Mind,” (which should not be strictly equated with Twentieth century psychological research concerning the cognitive aspects of humor, (Forabasco)). Meredith finds that playwrights who can be considered true practitioners of Humor of the Mind are exceedingly rare, countable on one’s fingers.  Of these few, Meredith finds Molière preeminent with Shakespeare running a rather distant second. 


Thus our practical answer for our humor research and for the discussion and analysis  in the following chapters was to focus on a highly limited set of four distinct yet commonly appreciated humors.  With the aid of literally thousands of fellow researchers who have been respondents in empirical studies and theoretical discussions over the last two decades, we hope to show that very substantial literary realities can be highlighted and explicated.  Those explications would of course be but faint shadows of themselves if it were not for the tremendous weight of empirical evidence which can be used to enforce them, and thus we owe an enormous debt, as we have more fully discharged in the acknowledgements, to all the respondents who have aided us, beginning with a truly special community of learners at Winona State University.





From a rereading of Meredith, we were able to glean at least three major sub-forms of what he meant by Humor of the Mind.  A fourth type was arguable from Meredith, but again, Meredith is not systematic, and he may not have recognized the fourth type at all, in which case we must be seen as having added our own fourth humor to an original Meredithian three.  But if so, our fourth category shares with Meredith’s three the feature that by definition such humor appeals to the mind and demands a judgment or mental calculation even if that mental calculation can literally be measured in milliseconds. In short then, before proceeding to specifics, we will largely limit discussion to humor texture in comedy created by the interplay of four mental humors.


There is no theoretical reason, however, why the methods used to move from empirical evidence to literary critical conclusions cannot be generalized to include an unlimited number of humors.  Indeed, work done by various student groups in Paul’s American Film Comedy classes beginning around 1995 has shown that high-confidence results about contradistinctive humors are quick in coming provided one has the kind of extraordinary volunteer respondents that have characteristically aided our humor-of-the-mind research and student-designed research projects at Winona State.


Before turning in our next chapter to a specific consideration of our testing program and methods applied to its findings that provide the base for a literary critical discussion, it is well to recognize a few additional points about humor that are in some ways too obvious for anything but scholarly articulation. In this chapter, we have been considering truths about humor that all of us can bear witness to not because of any literary background but because we are human beings and have been experiencing humor in ourselves and others from our extreme youth.  As adults entering a literary discussion of humor,  we all have our personal idiosyncrasies, preferences, and prejudices with respect to the vast range of possible humor. Furthermore we have all learned to recognize such idiosyncrasies in others and to characterize others by their displayed sense of humor.


So remaining at that level of personal experience, we ask you to imagine the following:





You have in your acquaintance someone who never seems to take things seriously.  You can tell this person that your mother or your fourteen-year-old dog has just died.  In either case, no expression of sympathy will escape your acquaintance’s lips, but some quip will.  Most of the time, you find that the quip makes you feel better, though you are amazed in retrospect at the impudence that has engendered such a habit of mind.


Simply as a matter of sentient humanity, would such an acquaintance not stand out in your mind particularly for the humorous bent of mind so displayed?  And if so, doesn’t that again suggest the high explosive nature of humor, that a particular humorous bent can easily define a whole character?  So that just from the humor evidence, we conclude that the acquaintance is, perhaps, flighty, flippant, impudent, irreverent, somewhat callous but evidently remarkably talented. In short, in the real world of human interaction, we are very comfortable, particularly when someone exhibits the same humorous tendencies repeatedly and continuously, in coming to all kinds of conclusions based on that humor evidence alone.


Imagine then as well the following:


You have in your acquaintance someone who is quite aggressive in asking if “you’ve heard this one?”  The joke which follows is invariably scatological—excrement is everywhere in evidence—and is quite consistently entwined with highly graphic sexual references. Which of us with such an acquaintance will not describe the character of such acquaintance as “smutty”?


In fact, whole societies or subcultures can be characterized by their humor. Giselinda Kuipers documents in the Netherlands a growing disfavor of joking, viewed by the better educated as fostering violence and incivility, in contrast to more refined artistic, literary humor, including irony and ambiguity (reviewed. in Goldstein and Doosje 105). Just as the humor which individuals or societies use can define their character, humor used consistently in a literary work can define the character of that literary work.


As we move from a consideration of empirical evidence to a consideration of humor texture in particular film comedies, it will be this principle of judging character by consistent humor which will guide us to literary conclusions.  When we get to such literary conclusions, it is important that we recognize them as only extensions of thinking habits we have always had available to us in real life.





[1] Humor:  International Journal of Humor Research devoted an entire issue to scientific studies of the relationship between humor and health, the collection edited by Rod Martin.

[2] Theoretical consideration of the psychology of humor goes back at least as far as Plato, who has been said to have maintained variants of superiority, ambivalence, and aggression theories, and much more (Shelley).

[3] In 2002 William Fry updated the review of electroencephalographic activity research noting, for example, particular brain changes resulting from recognition of incongruity and separately recognition that knowledge implicit to the hearer has just been made explicit.



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