The Essentials of Humor
by The Editor Company
There are certain necessary requirements for the construction of humorous matter without which there are none of the ingenuous and mirth producing qualities which characterize the merry mood. These requirements are not many, for the field of humor is broad, but they are definite and absolute. They can not be evaded. In some cases they are lost sight of, and the result is either wit, sarcasm, irony, bombast, or failure.
In the situation there is the first and, possibly, the most vital characteristic. This must contain nothing that is dramatic, tragic, or pathetic. It must not even trespass upon our keener notions of justice, nor tamper with the flow of sympathy and interest that goes out to the characters who are engaged in any undertaking which calls for the highest exercise of ambition. A travesty upon these, a slighting, a turning aside of the legitimate consequences of these into a foreign and ludicrous channel, would spoil the whole effect.
It must be from its very nature a situation that can allow of several interpretations, of which one may be neither more nor less important than another. The humorous quality will lie in the selection of one that was not easily detected, not likely to be chosen; in fact, one which is rather at variance to the logical line of thought. In the manner of treating humorous subjects, the descriptive, the narrative, the colloquy, the dialogue, are all permissible.
In striking difference to the amiability of situation found essential to humor is the characteristic of wit. Here there may be found violated every sacred tribute to pity, honor, love, justice, ambition, and every other sacred instinct of justice, and still the part of wit be sustained. Wit cares for nothing but the perpetration of its own satire. Its satisfaction is not found in the enjoyment of others, but rather in their writhing and discomfort.
Humor may be in the choice and handling of words as well as in the situation. These are the mirth-producing suggestions in idiomatic expressions, in brogues and dialects. They may also be found in the application of some terms to one thing that are diametric in concurrence of thought. Thus, an Irishman is telling of a trapeze performance, and says that the man "had such a foothold on the air wid his hands and could handle his feet like a monkey."
In this case the humor is not in the situation so much as in the contradiction of terms that are so commonly used in correct form as to be almost invulnerable to misapplication. It is this which constitutes the real essence of humor. To turn back the flow of commonly accepted thought, to reject the suggestions that arise as if by necessity, to force the mind to accept another conclusion, to play with analogy, to twist the processes of induction, and to jump upon the finality of deduction,—this is what constitutes humor.
In the "breaking it gently" stories there is always some foreign idea presented first in order to prepare the mind for something which has no real connection with the climax. This diverts the mind from the anxiety incident to the real catastrophe, and when the connection is made it is so far from what was expected to be the logical outcome that the mind rebounds
with a thrill of pleasure and the laughter follows as a result, not of the thing itself, but as a consequence of the change made in the commonly accepted order of thought. It is probably such a relief to the mind, grown tired of its constraint to follow one and only one form of functioning as it would be to a tired body to be put through an unexpected and vigorous massage. Change is needed for the mind as well as for the body.
It is not, however, in the change or surprise to the mind alone that the chief charm of humor lies. There is this deeper significance, that it gives to the mind something of a very unusual character to develop its powers upon; it starts the currents of thought going in other ways ; it stimulates the mind to seek out other and new lines of thought. The mind laughs in the enjoyment of its new-found powers and versatility before ever the lips expand or the eyes twinkle. A surprise will, it is true, cause a certain hiccough of exultation, but this can not be compared with the unction of soul that flows from the genuine production of humor.
Again do we find wit in contrast to humor in this respect. Here it is the surprise alone that causes the laughter. There is, in fact, no attempt made to produce a mental variation other than this. The aim is purely one of imagination and fancy, and not one of memory or reason. The rational mind delights in humor; but to the irrational it is an unknown quantity. Not so with wit. The insane will ply each other with all forms of wit, satire, irony, and ridicule. They will laugh and shriek at their own remarks with the utmost appreciation of their powers to inflict mental punishment. They seem to understand that part of it very well indeed.
They may go even further into the realm of practical joking —they may carry this to remarkable lengths. A case is given of two patients, a doctor and a lawyer, who were about to be discharged from the asylum as cured. On account of the shortness of accommodation, they were both given the same bed to sleep in. In the morning when the attendant came the doctor was sitting on the edge of the bed shrieking and doubling up with laughter. He was asked for the cause of his merriment and to the horror of the attendant he responded:
"Last night I cut Bill's head off and threw it under the bed, and I was just thinking what a hell of a good time he'd have in finding it this morning."
Much of the so-called humor of the day is of this insane, surprise-giving character, rather than that of the higher possibilities of thought and reason relaxation. It never goes beyond the powers of innovation, it never seeks the logic of events, it never dispenses with the verity of induction; it is simply wittily expressed fancv, and gives more surprise than pleasure.
The value of studying for the best effects of humor is apparent. It would be of utility whether it gave pleasure or not because of the release of nerve tension that it produces. We are all of us too prone to consider life too seriously. It was not a penance that was put upon us to live and provide for our own maintenance here, notwithstanding old fogyism to the contrary ; but a glad privilege for unfolding all the possibilities of our Godlike nature. We have not discovered half of the powers of which we are capable. Humor will help us more than anything else to unlearn some of the worn-out statutes of our being.
Who shall say that the processes of induction are always correct, unless it be one who has made comparison of every known phenomenon of nature and the heavens ? Who shall say that the theory of gravitation is absolute who has not weighed every one of the stellar orbs? Shall we not open up new possibilities for thought, for the creation of new webs in the factory of imagination, if we are not too eager to accept the commonplace and the trite occurrences of life as positively inviolable?
Humor to the literary aspirant is more than valuable; it is almost a crying necessity. The great world of readers, realizing their needs for change of thought vibration and the danger of stagnation and filling up of the channels of thought with old, worn-out processes (whether discovering this intuitively or in due process of reasoning and conclusion), are now demanding more, and ever more, quantities of humorous matter. They will not be satisfied, either, with the old, worn-out, hackneyed, mother-in-law jokelets; they want something new if it has to be on the old man or the favorite dachshund.
We should begin to look about us for a means to cultivate the powers that are so much demanded in our profession. We may, at the first, study those selections that strike us as being funny. Never, never try to find fun in any selection that does not appeal to you naturally; that does not convulse your inwards before it does your outwards. It is perfectly futile; it is worse, unnecessary; the humor is not there if you do not
realize it intuitively, unless you are degenerate, insane, or undeveloped.
Take to pieces, then, those pieces that appeal to you; let them first sink into all the crevices of your anatomy and enjoy the full slaking of thirst; for after the dissecting has begun, there may be an odor that is not appetizing. We relish things more that we do not see concocted; after the joke has been thoroughly enjoyed, analyze it to see if it comes under any one of the following heads; if it does not, you are a discoverer, and should make another head.
1. Thoughts, words, phrases, or ideas that turn aside, or dam up the flow of concurrent thought, as in memory, suggestion, or imagination.
2. Expressions and trains of thought which repudiate analogy and inductive processes of reasoning.
3. Processes which turn aside the inevitable consequences of deduction.
When the mind has become familiar with the technique of humor it will be ready to take up the more difficult process of applying these principles in self-evolved ideas for humorous compositions. It will, of course, take much time so to train the mind as to make it readily take up the unusual and foreign lines of discussion; to place a ban upon the ordinary conclusions from general observation and induction; and to set back the commoner following of concurrent associations.
For these take some old-time suggestions or concurrences, themes which the mind has associated together always as being one a neverfailing reminder of the other, like:
Daniel in the lion's den ;
Adam and Eve;
The whale and Jonah;
George Washington and the hatchet;
Old Mother Hubbard and her dog.
Twist all the triteness out of them by giving them a new situation, one conformable to the essentials herein given; and make the treatment one of continuous violation of the commonly accepted associations. Give it as much verity at the start as you choose, but never let it turn out as the reader might logically expect it to. Give him a new measure, a strange melody, a harmony if you please, but one that has not been played all the year by the park band.
These productions need not be inflicted upon the editor at the word "Go"; they may be held for closer supervision. They may be stored away in the already well-filled larder, and later come out to grace some dainty feast of reason. They will, even if they never see the light of an eliminating blue pencil, be of inestimable value as practice exercises.
They will give that impetus to creative thought which it is the constant aim of the writer to secure. That is such a difficult thing to do. We can not determine to write something bright and thereupon go about the writing up to the conclusion. Thoughts will not always come as we want them to. They will be old, and warped, and weather-beaten, and we think they express our ideas. They do not. We have better ones than they come for; they are counterfeits. Sometimes the real coin comes slipping through the mint of the mind; how it glistens, it is the "real thing"; and it expresses our ideas in true value standards.
A study of humor and a practice of the principles will facilitate this kingly coming; it will not make the ideas; but it will hasten their coming, it will brighten their expression, and it will give a sort of versatility to the creative functioning of the mind which is very necessary, lest we write ourselves out, and so die, for dearth of something original to say.