The Humor Corner:
Literary Humor Forms
Gotcha Humor: humor in which someone who thinks he or she is smart, capable, or clever gets “got.” Gotcha is the poetic justice of Humor of the Mind. When we laugh at the butt, we execute justice. For example, in a Gary Larson cartoon, an amateur researcher dresses up in a gorilla costume in order to study gorillas in the wild and is “gotten” when challenged by one of them: “So, you’re a real gorilla, are you? Well, guess you wouldn’t mind munchin’ down a few beetle grubs, would you? … In fact, we wanna see you chug ‘em!” (various works, New York: Andrews and McMeel). The joke invokes laughter at the researcher gotten not out of a distain for researchers generally but because the researcher foolishly thought it would be clever to try to fool the real gorillas.
It is crucial to note that Gotcha humor is distinct from attack humor. Gotcha humor is NOT humorous bashing of a person or class of persons we don’t appreciate. It is not merely putting a pig’s nose on the politician, teacher, or neighbor we happen to especially dislike. It is not smear, bigotry, or vindictiveness. There is much humor of that sort. It is not Gotcha.
The underlying spirit of Gotcha is not contempt but justice. Gotcha demonstrates by the structure of the joke that the butt is deserving of the humorous consequences.
Gotcha creates a distancing between the audience, who recognize foolishness, from the butt who doesn’t (in contrast to Sympathetic Pain humor which creates a sense of inclusiveness with the “victim” of undeserved discomfiture). We as authenticating audience, in affirming the justice of the deserts, set ourselves apart from prideful stupidity.
Gotcha finds easy butts in people of authority, rank, or high education such as lawyers, professors, or physicists who, at least in the context of the joke, think more highly of themselves than they ought.
For example, there was a personal secretary answering the phone at the residence of a pompous professor: “Yes, this is Dr. Millikan’s residence, but he’s not the kind of doctor who does anybody any good.”
Lawyers especially attract Gotcha. There was the lawyer dinner speaker having been lavishly introduced as unique, one in a million, who remarked to his wife how few really impressive lawyers there were. His spouse noted, “one fewer than you think.”
Sometimes lawyers get to turn the tables. A physician thinking he was superior to a lawyer who, if not dishonest, certainly wasn’t making “angels of clients,” is gotten by the lawyer’s retort: “No, we leave that to you doctors.”
(Simmons, S. H., New Speaker’s Handbook: How to Be the Life of the Podium, New York: The Dial Press, 1972.)
But Gotcha is equally at home with the over-confident do-it-yourselfer, the braggard soldier, or the hypothetical doer of duh. Another Larson cartoon shows a medieval archer being carried off the castle tower on a stretcher, face down with four arrows sticking out of his exposed butt. A colleague in arms on top of the tower comments, “So, then I says to Borg, ‘You know, as long as we’re under siege, one of us ought moon these Saxon dogs.” It’s not hard to feel a certain poetic justice as well as to congratulate ourselves for not being THAT stupid.
Gotcha easily works into drama, not merely as a sequence of jokes but as a whole dramatic structure by allowing for the setup of an over-confident butt and the subsequent working out of just deserts. Disney’s Aladdin opens with rapid-fire Gotchas against the palace militia, who are confident they can deal with this smug street rat only to be gotten by Aladdin’s creativity and athleticism. But in a larger scope, the entire film can be seen as a giant Gotcha on the scheming Jafar who is tricked through his evil ambition and overconfidence into wishing to become a genie and then paying the price of being confined in the lamp and thrown into the Cave of Wonders. (For further discussion, see “Aladdin: Do You Trust Me?”)
Similarly, the film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is constructed as a series of Gotchas of conmen on their patsies culminating in the super-Gotcha of conmen themselves getting conned (the robber robbed) and by a conwoman! (See “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: Let’s Go Get ‘Em.”)
In modern western drama perhaps the greatest champion of Gotcha is Molière, who in his “Preface” to Tartuffe suggests that the very purpose of comedy is to correct people’s vices. He sets up characters associated with typical vices—greed, pride, hypocrisy—which characters are then gotten, often by themselves as well as by machinations of those suffering under said vices. In Les Précieuses Ridicules, for example, young damsels and servants alike are satirically gotten through the structure of the play for their pretentions. (See “Molière’s Précieuses Ridicules: Satire, the Satiric, and Comedy.”) Gotcha—and Molière’s Gotcha especially—has an abrasive, rough and tumble about it.
Shakespeare, Gentle Will, used Gotcha much less preponderantly than did Molière. But he found it a useful structure In Henry IV, Part 1: the Gadshill robbery is a classic robber-robbed scenario, in which Falstaff is the butt of a well plotted Gotcha. The prank itself, extending over several scenes, is Gotcha in form, and it is further played out with numerous line-by-line Gotchas, exposing Falstaff with hoots and hollers, all individual Gotcha jabs. The poetic justice of it all not only invites much laughter, but also dramatically demonstrates Falstaff’s unfitness for the royal appointment he is so angling for, fulfilling a structural function far greater than merely humor itself. (See “Henry IV, Part 1: Falstaff.”)
By the time Prince Hal has become king in Henry V, his sense of Gotcha has been refined into international diplomacy and warfare. The grand joke of Henry V is Agincourt, a colossal Gotcha on the French and particularly on the Dauphin. It is the victory of the underdog, the meek over the arrogant, whose fatuous boasting in Act III is gotten resoundingly in Act V. (See “Henry V: Heroic Comedy and Considerations of Scale.”)
ITCHS empirical research has shown several interesting findings concerning Gotcha humor preference. For example, administration of the Humor Quotient Test (“The QHT Revisited”) along with a wellness survey to college students in a women’s health class showed that preference for Gotcha humor was negatively correlated to safety practices such as using seatbelts (see “Humor Preference and Safety Related”) as well as to medical self-care practices such as flossing and self-breast/testes examination.
Gotcha humor preference changes over time, and it changes differently among males and females. ITCHS testing found that men under 30 leaned toward a Gotcha + Incongruity preference, (which as a combination we call Crusader), while those over 30 leaned toward a Sympathetic Pain + Word Play preference, (which combination we call Consoler). (See Dan G. Holt, “Holy Family Research Establishes Humor Age Shift.”) In an opposite pattern, women under 30 tended to prefer the Sympathetic Pain-Word Play combination, while those over 30 tended to prefer Gotcha-Incongruity. (See “Women and Consoler Quotient: Age Differences.”)
But women’s humor preference takes yet another U-turn. Among nursing home residents, overwhelmingly female, Gotcha appreciation is very low. It seems that as we become seniors, we tire of being “got,” of being the butts of humor’s –and life’s!—poetic justice and prefer more the spirit of mercy and inclusiveness of Sympathetic Pain. The differences between the humor preferences of residents and staff are striking. (See ”Preliminary Nursing Home Humor Preferences.”)
One might wonder what difference such findings make. Since the turn of the century, there has been a strong movement to include humor in nursing home care. Such attempts are likely to be more effective if staff are sensitive to residents’ humor preferences.
Sensitivity to humor preferences can even effect the teaching of economics. (See Nathan D. Grawe, “An Economic Use for the Gotcha/Sympathetic Pain Duality.”)