Humor is a harsh mistress

I recently sat down and re-read for the Nth time one of the four Heinlein books I keep around – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.  It’s chock full of stuff to think about and talk about for days and days, but the one still floating around in my head this time around is humor.  It’s kind of amusing, actually, that half of the Heinlein I keep around touches meaningfully on the topic of humor, since most folks would tell you that Heinlein’s most important thoughts are about relationship dynamics, sex, and politics; but humor is a part of human nature that underlies and informs all of those.

For anyone who hasn’t read it, there’s a self-aware computer who starts making up jokes (like issuing a payroll check for $10trillion + the correct amount), but doesn’t know if they’re actually funny.  The main character offers to go through and rate them in batches into three important categories: not funny, funny-once, and funny-always.

Note: This isn’t exactly a spoiler – I mean, it’s in the first ten pages.

The idea of funny being divided up by how many times it’s funny is pretty interesting and kind of useful, even if it varies between individuals (or between various demographics).  It cuts right across all the types of humor, from wit to slapstick. Some wit is the kind that is utterly transient and depends on so much context that it is meaningless to anyone who wasn’t there, while others are the kind that become quotations and aphorisms for years to come.

Despite what one might think is implied by this division, I don’t think either is inherently better – it’s just critical to know what goal you’re trying to achieve and which one will get you there.

Snowclones can be one of the hardest things to work with to make funny-always.  One of the chief beauties of a snowclone, and what makes them proliferate so strongly is that it’s really easy to play on what’s expected and twist it just a bit.  You’re playing the surprise card.  And most of the time, that means it’s funny-once.  The next time you invoke that same surprise, it’s just not as surprising.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s good for a laugh in a conversation or a blog post.  To make a  snowclone that stands up to repetition (say, to put on a tshirt), takes more work, though.  It needs to tie in not only to the origin phrase, but into something with its own history, culture, and values.

This is why I roll my eyes at “I [shamrock] Guinness” but giggle every time I see “I [food cart] street food” (via  Conjoining beer with trite stereotypes is dull as ditchwater, coming off as no more than bland consumer culture; the food cart, however, opens up a dialogue about America’s food culture.  This kind of cultural tie-in is also one of the reasons that “Ask your doctor if getting off your ass is right for you” is one of my best-selling designs – it begs the reader to think about pharmaceuticals, how they are advertised to us, and whether that’s really such a good thing after all.

It’s a tricky line, though … what has lasting humor for one person gets a bare chuckle from others (or I might sell more “Will exchange money for goods and services” shirts).

What things do you find funny-always?

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1 Response to Humor is a harsh mistress

  1. Karen says:

    Very enjoyable, and insightful, post, even though (or especially) because you manage to bring in a good and thought-provoking reference to R. A. Heinlein’s writings (about half of which I find to be complete crap).

    I totally agree that “I [foodcart] street food” is a superior bumpersticker to “I [shamrock] Guinness”, though I’m not quite as eye-rolly about the second as you are, since 1) I know that the Irish are as willing to cash in on the shamrock stereotype as are [various USAn media entities] and 2) I only recently tried Guinness and totally [shamrock] it.

    I can understand why your “Ask you doctor …” t-shirt is a best-seller, but I believe that your “Will exchange money …” t-shirt might be a big hit at Tea-Party events; although the converse t-shirt “Will exchange cash and services …” might go over even better.

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