There are so many different ways something can be funny. I have been blessed with kids who wonder just why it is that something is funny. That’s a good thing for me because it means I have someone to talk to about it or, when necessary, to argue with about it.
Max Eastman in The Enjoyment of Laughter says that two things are required. There needs to be a sensed discrepancy and the discrepancy needs to be taken playfully. Those two things.
That seems simple, of course, but you don’t need to be able to say just what the discrepancy is to find it funny. “There’s something about that sentence,” people will say, or, meaning no criticism, “There’s something wrong with it.”
My son, Doug, has recently begun producing what he calls “sticky comics”—“stick” for “stick figures.” I love them. Having the stick figures there allows you not to notice that there is nothing really there but dialogue. There are no “raised eyebrows,” for instance, so Doug has to give someone a line that would be said by a person—a person who had a conventionally equipped face—with raised eyebrows.
We almost always agree on which ones are really funny, but lately, we have been coming up with different answers on just why they are funny. That’s what I would like to work through today. Here’s one, for instance.
We have an introductory question. These comics are published in an internal newsletter, so “someone here” refers to the organization to which all the readers belong. Then there are four highly stereotypical responses, none of which appear to be an answer to the question, but as we see in the questioner’s second speech, they actually do answer the question. And the correct answer, the one implicit in that second speech, is confirmed by the last line. But not directly.
Three things happen after the question is posed. First, an answer is given. Just how it is an answer is the artistic achievement of the panel. Second, the answer, still not named, is recognized: “Never mind. I think I know.” We may not know yet. Or we may know, but have not yet called it anything. Third, the correctness of the answer is confirmed, still without directly saying what it is.
That’s a lot that’s left hanging. “Left hanging” runs the risk of gravity and gravity is the enemy of levity. This comedic form really shouldn’t work, but as you see, it does. “Left hanging” runs the risk of alienating, or at least failing to connect with, readers. But the last line can’t confirm that “what’s discrepant” is really what the reader suspects. It needs to indicate, but not to confirm.
Comics that play with meaning that is almost there really shouldn’t be this funny. I guess that’s the true art. Imagine that the three steps worked like this: a) I hear someone is running for office, b) Yes, I am the one, c) Ah. These are the ame steps. Not funny.
I think we are meant to be still assembling the common element in the four mini-speeches, trying to think of what name to give that common element, when the first speaker nails it for us and has the guess immediately confirmed. This is a comic for people who are saturated with American political images. Only in that way can Doug afford to be as indirect as this and still count on our arriving with him at the same conclusion.
Note, however, that the most significant step toward meaning comes in the penultimate speech. The rhythm is da da da DA da. I am not saying that da da da da DA would not be funny nor am I saying that da da da DA DA would not be funny. I am saying only that those other forms would not be funny in the same way this form is. This form, I am saying, is characteristic. It is very close to “defining.”
Let’s look at another one.
I don’t think I will have to be so wordy this time. There is the opening question again. There is the “answer” again—a set of seemingly unconnected remarks with a implicit commonality. Then the realization of what that commonality is; then a response indirectly confirming the correctness of that answer. It goes da da da DA da, just as the previous one does. You might think that an answer as wordy as the last speech (12 words, including a high flown cultural reference) doesn’t deserve the lower case “da,” but I think it does. I gives the answer “I was on hold for a very long time, thanks for asking” simply by adding the third “achievement” to the first two.“
The internet was out” is necessary, but it isn’t funny. It has no relationship to how much Red got done. “On hold” supplies that. It is the DA. But is followed by a nice small da. Ah.
On more. This one looks simpler, but it isn’t really. There is no introductory question. That would introduce some conversational distance between Red Dog and Blue Dog and that would be fatal. Blue says ‘I do this” and Red says “I do that.” We have no way of knowing whether those are to be set against each other or not. If Red responded, “You do? Really?” it would be understandable. But that’s not what is going on.
This one is all about the commonality of the two dogs. There is what to call it—the title calls it the heart of dogness—and then there is how to appreciate it. All that is accomplished in “your work.” That is a line that belongs to another kind of conversation, one artist to another—painters, screenwriters, standup comics, landscape gardeners. We don’t expect to find it here and that is the discrepancy.
Note that there is a shortage of das here. I would call this on da da DA da at the most. Maybe just da DA da. It is crucial
Finally, here (just below) is the one that got Doug and me talking about his patterns. I don’t think I have a criticism. I’m not sure. I might. What I am sure of is that I read it prepared for da da da DA da and didn’t get it. I think the last DA is too big…has too much weight. Or something.
Blue asks the question. Red goes overboard in answering it. That’s how I read it. The chimney sweep line is almost nasty. The next one (contemporary) is useful, but unusually prescriptive. That is what makes us read the penultimate line as DA. It is Blue’s response to the snarkiness of Red. But given that, shouldn’t the last line, be simply a recognition of Blue? That is the way the other two function. They go da da da DA da. This one goes da da da DA DA.
It’s very upsetting.
Doug doesn’t read it that way and the two of us are just beginning to develop humor formats (which are not funny, I grant you) for the sticky comics he writes, and which, in the proud papa’s judgment, actually are funny.
So what do you think? Is the final DA too much?