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Literature and Humor

by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen

Stephen King said:

“Fiction is the truth within the lie.”

What does this mean?

What is the difference between “truth” and “verisimilitude”?

Does fiction (e.g. Red Badge of Courage) or

non-fiction (e.g. Stillness at Appomattox)

give a more accurate portrayal of the Civil War?

















Comedy is based on an unjust law or tradition which in the end is broken. There is

always a complication, but the comedy ends in the reestablishment of the natural order of

things, and everybody paired off and living

happily ever after.

Two sub-genres of Comedy are “Comedy of Manners” and Comedy of Humors.”


The Comedy of Humors goes back to the belief of medieval physiology that human

dispositions are based on the balance of the four basic fluids, phlegm, blood, black bile,

and yellow bile.

If the balance is not right a person might be phlegmatic, sanguine, melancholy or bilious.

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 248)

If a character‟s humors are out of balance, he is a “humors” character, otherwise known as an “eccentric,” or even (as with Flannery O‟Connor‟s characters) a “grotesque.”

Chaucer‟s Canterbury Tales is filled with humors characters “ranging from the

energetic Wife of Bath to the pretentious but

little educated Nun and from the overly religious and hypocritical Monk to the crude rascal of The Miller and the comically

romantic Knight.”

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 248)

In Neil Simon‟s The Odd Couple, Oscar Madison‟s exaggerated sloppiness is

placed in opposition to the meticulousness of Felix Unger. (Nilsen & Nilsen 107)

In contrast, a Comedy of Manners parodies and satirizes the manners and

conventions of high society.

Alazons and Eirons

“Alazons and Eirons are stock humorous characters going back to Greek drama.

Alazons are overly confident braggarts

getting their way by blustering and bullying. At the other extreme, are the eirons, who are

sly rogues getting their way through feigned

ignorance or dumb luck.” The term “eiron” is related to the term “irony,” because the

Eirons say one thing, but mean another. (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 248)

Note that in Japanese culture, the Samurai are the Alazons, and the Ninja are the Eirons.

Comedy of Manners

“Comedies of manners

frequently stress the superior intellectual and moral values of

middle class characters as

compared to the established


(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 247)

In Oscar Wilde‟s The Importance of Being Earnest Jack responds to Lady Bracknell‟s question of whether he smokes and she

answers, “I am glad to hear it. A man should

have an occupation of some kind.”

Later, Jack answers one of her questions by saying he doesn‟t know, to which she

cheerfully responds, “I am pleased to hear it.

I do not approve anything that tampers with

natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a

delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is


(Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 248)

In Beaumarchais‟s The Marriage of Figaro,

which was later made into an opera by Mozart, the unjust law was that the Lord of the Manor had the right to take the virginity

of any woman marrying one of the Lord‟s


The plot of the play revolves around how Figaro and his bride repeatedly outwit the

Lord of the Manor until the couple is married and the Lord is no longer entitled to this privilege.

(Nilsen & Nilsen 107)

In Shakespeare‟s The Merchant of Venice, the unjust law relates to the pound of flesh that Shylock is authorized to receive.

Portia, the lawyer, overturns the unjust law by arguing that while Shylock may

be allowed to take his pound of flesh, he cannot shed one drop of blood in obtaining it.

(Nilsen & Nilsen 107)



The line which changes Shakespeare‟s

Romeo and Juliet from a comedy to a

tragedy was spoken by Mercutio (a mercurial figure).

When Mercutio is wounded in a sword fight Romeo says, “Courage, man, the

hurt cannot be much,”

and Mercutio responds, “No, „tis not so

deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-

door, but „tis enough, „twill serve.”

“Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”


COMEDY OF HUMORS: Canterbury Tales, Little Women, “The Owl and the Nightingale,” The Taming of the Shrew


Importance of Being Ernest, The Rivals

(with Mrs. Malaprop)


The Romance “presents an idealized world, the

black-and-white world of our desires, where good

things are really good, and bad things are really bad.

The Romance involves the Journey, and the Journey involves the Hero, the Villain, the Quest, the Sage,

the Prohibition, the Sacrifice, the Dragon, the

Treasure, and sometimes the rescue of the Maiden.

The epiphany (mountain top, tower, island, lighthouse, ladder, staircase, Jack‟s beanstalk,

Rapunzel‟s hair, Indian rope trick etc.) connects Heaven and Earth” (Frye 203).


The Divine Comedy, The Lion, the Witch and the

EXAMPLES OF ROMANCE • The Divine Comedy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lord of

Wardrobe, Lord of the


EXAMPLES OF ROMANCE • The Divine Comedy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lord of

, Paradise Lost


Tragedy is the opposite of comedy in that the happiness appears at the beginning or the

middle. Somebody is privileged,

but with a fatal flaw, usually an

obsession and hubris which

causes the downfall.


The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello,

Romeo and Juliet


“Satire demands at least a token fantasy (Utopia and Dystopia), a content which the reader recognizes as grotesque, and at least an

implicit moral standard”

(Frye 224).


HORATIAN SATIRE (mild and amusing): Animal Farm, Brave New World, Gulliver‟s Travels, Little Big Man, Lysistrata, Screwtape Letters

JUVENALIAN SATIRE (harsh and bitter): 1984, Clockwork Orange,

Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, A

Modest Proposal


“Whenever a reader is not sure what the author‟s

attitude is or what his own is

supposed to be, we have irony with relatively little

satire” (Frye 223).



Catch 22, Catcher in the

Rye ,

EXAMPLES OF IRONY OR GALLOWS HUMOR • Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye , Fargo ,


EXAMPLES OF IRONY OR GALLOWS HUMOR • Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye , Fargo ,

, The Loved One,

One Flew Over the Cuckoo‟s

Nest, Portnoy‟s Complaint,

EXAMPLES OF IRONY OR GALLOWS HUMOR • Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye , Fargo ,

Pulp Fiction,

Slaughterhouse 5, The

EXAMPLES OF IRONY OR GALLOWS HUMOR • Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye , Fargo ,

World According to Garp


Other genres of literature include the following:

Benign Humor, the Bildungsroman, the Cautionary Tale, the Doppelganger Genre, Erotic Humor, Fantasy Humor, Farce, Gothic Humor, the Metamorphosis Genre, Parody, the Picaresque Novel, Pourquoi Stories, and Vernacular Humor


Benign Humor is non-threatening. It is a mild type of satire with much word play.

Examples of Benign Humor include Alice in Wonderland, the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves

novels, Peter Rabbit, Through the Looking Glass, The Wind and the Willows, and Winnie

the Pooh.

Lewis Carroll

After the success of Lewis Carroll‟s Alice in Wonderland, and Through the

Looking Glass, Queen Victoria gave permission to Lewis Carroll to dedicate

his next book to her.

He complied by honoring her with a mathematical treatise.

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 244)


In a Bildungsroman, the character grows.

Examples of Bildungsroman novels include Are You There, God? It‟s Me, Margaret, The Chocolate War, I Am the

Cheese, and Moll Flanders.


A Cautionary Tale tells us what not to do.

Examples of Cautionary Tales include Aesop‟s Fables, The Bidpai Tales, Coyote Stories, La Fontaine‟s Fables,

Uncle Remus Stories and Urban



The Doppelganger Genre concentrates on a single character with two personalities, or

two characters with a single personality.

Examples of the Doppelganger Genre include Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde, Pride and Prejudice, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sense and Sensibility, and “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”

Erotic Literature

Erotic literature is sexy, and it is usually humorous.

Examples of Erotic Humor include Fear of Flying, Leaves of Grass, Lolita, and Tom Jones,

…and others too numerous to mention.

Ethnic Literature

Henry Louis Gates, and Signifying

In his 1988 The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, Henry Louis

Gates, Jr. says that because African American slaves were denied the use of normal and private communication, they developed double-entendre Trickster signifiers.

“Speakers would say something that meant one

thing to whites and another to blacks. The humor

comes from the realization that simultaneous messages are being communicated and that the

authority figures (usually whites) understand only

one message while the other participants

comprehend both” (Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 258).

Vine Deloria

The title of Vine Deloria‟s Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto is an example

of a pan-Indian joke (especially meaningful only to tribal or family members).

Another example of a pan-Indian joke says that when the missionaries came, they had only the Bible, while the Indians had all the

land. But now, “They have all the land, and

Indians have only the Bible.”

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 258)

Fantasy Humor

Fantasy Humor requires a special suspension of disbelief, and includes the

genre of Science Fiction.

Examples of Fantasy Humor include Hitchhiker‟s Guide to the Galaxy, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Jungle Book, A Midsummer Night‟s Dream, Peter Pan, The Adventures of Walter Mitty, and The Wizard of Oz.

Farce: A Violent but Innocent Genre

Jessica Milner Davis says that “whether it be English, medieval Dutch, Spanish, French,

Viennese, Russian, improvised commedia dell‟arte, or even Japanese kyògen of nò

theatre, farce is both the most violent and

physically shocking of dramatic forms of

comedy…, but it is almost the most innocent

in that unlike satire or burlesque it does not

offend either individuals or society.”

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 264)

Davis continues, “Equally paradoxically, farce is not particularly fantastic or unrealistic: indeed in terms of acting style, actors assert that the truthfulness-to-life of their character is absolutely essential for the release of

laughter by the audience.”

But the violence is highly stylized with “precision of timing and intonation

notoriously difficult to achieve.”

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 264)


Gothic Humor occurs in haunted houses or

in mysterious caves. It is a dark and stormy

night, and many of the sights and sounds are mysterious and threatening.

Examples of Gothic Humor include Dracula, Frankenstein, The House of Usher,

Northanger Abbey, The Langaliers, and

Wuthering Heights.

Paul Lewis studied the role of gothic narratives, and was “struck by the range of

possible responses including puzzlement, fear, and humor and by the relation between these responses and gothic sub-genres including didactic gothic, speculative or ambiguous gothic, and mock-gothic.”

Lewis argued that “the eruption of fearful mysteries in a narrative is an essential

generic element of the gothic.”

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 265)

Comedy vs. Tragedy

High Comedy and Low Comedy

In the classical sense, the “comedy” isn‟t necessarily funny, but in contrast to the

“tragedy” the “comedy” has a happy ending.

“High comedy (what we now call „smart comedy‟ or „literary comedy‟) relies for its

humor on wit and sophistication, while low comedy relies on burlesque, crude jokes,

and buffoonery.”

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 246)

Phunny Phellows vs. Satirists

Masks and Voices

Daniel Royot said that comedians don masks and

borrow voices, and “it is the interplay of such

conflicting masks and voices that results in open or subtle incongruities. With only masks, the effect would be simply parodic, grotesque humor as is

unfortunately too much of Jerry Lewis‟s stuff and that of other “phunny phellows.” On the other hand,

if they use just voices without masks, the result is

merely satirical.”

Royot then contrasts the visual humor of Mel Brooks with the satirical humor of Woody Allen.

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 260)

Joe Sandwich and a Unified Theory of Humor

In The Vale of Laughter, Peter De Vries has a character named Joe Sandwich who says,

“No single theory has yet managed to explain all varieties of mirth. Nine tenths of

what we laugh at answers to Bergson,

another nine tenths to Freud, still another to Kant or Plato, and so on, leaving always that elusive tenth that makes each definition like

a woman trying to pack more into a girdle

than it will legitimately hold.”

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 261)

Laughter and Literature

In correlating laughter with screen comedians, James Agee concluded that “four of the main grades

of laughter are the titter, the yowl, the belly laugh,

and the buffo…, which he organized into six categories ranging from the incipient or „inner and

inaudible‟ laugh (the simper and smirk) to the loud

and unrestrained howl, yowl, shriek, and Olympian


(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 260)

“Agee‟s study demonstrates an interesting crossover between

literature and real-life because

in a way it is measuring the

care and the skill with which

authors observe and record

people‟s actions.”

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 260)


Metamorphosis Humor always results in a miraculous transformation.

Examples of Metamorphosis Humor include Faust, The Metamorphosis, My Fair Lady, Pinnochio, and Pygmalion.


Parody mimics and exaggerates the style of the original.

Examples of Parody include Byron‟s Don Juan, Fables for our Times, “Humpty Dumpty à la Poe,” The Rape of the Lock and Lewis Carroll‟s “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Bat.”

Mark Twain and Doggerel Poetry

Julia Moore‟s „death‟ poetry of the mid-1800s is an example of doggerel poetry. “In

Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain modeled his

“Ode to Stephen Bots, Dec‟d” on her work.

Twain described her as having a rare “organic talent” for humor. She could make “an intentionally humorous episode pathetic

and an intentionally pathetic one funny.”

(Nilsens in Raskin 261-262)


A Picaresque Novel is a mock quest done by a Picaro who doesn‟t have any money,

power, or prestige. This Picaro lives by his wits as he encounters various powerful

eccentrics in his episodic adventures.

Examples of Picaresque Novels include Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, and Pickwick


There are six qualities that are associated with

the picaresque novel:

  • 1. “The first-person account tells a part or the whole life of a rogue or picaro.

  • 2. Rogues and picaros are drawn from a lower

social level, are of loose character, and if

employed, do menial labor and live by their

wit and playful language.

  • 3. Picaresque novels are episodic in nature.

4. Picaresque characters do not mature or develop.

5. The story is realistic. The language is plain (vernacular) and is filled with vivid detail.

6. Picaresque characters serve other higher class characters and learn their foibles and frailties, thus providing opportunities to satirize social castes, national types, and/or

racial peculiarities.”

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 253)


Pourquoi Stories explain how the world works.

Examples of Pourquoi Stories include the Anansi Tales from Africa, and the Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill stories

from the United States.


Vernacular Humor is written the way people actually talk, using colloquial language, and

eye dialect, such as “iz” and “wuz.”

Examples of Vernacular Humor include Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad, and anything written by Mark Twain or Charles

Dickens, but nothing written by James

Fennimore Cooper.

!Women‟s Humor

Regina Barreca

Some of the titles of Regina Barreca‟s books

show how teasing occurs between the sexes:

They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted

Perfect Husbands: and Other Fairy Tales

Untamed and Unabashed: Essays on Women and Humor in British Literature

!Regina Barreca said, “Women‟s lives have always been filled with humor. It emerged

“as a tool for survival in the social and professional jungles” and works as a

“weapon against the absurdities of injustice.”

“Women did not suddenly get funny in the 1990s any more than women suddenly got ambitious in the 1970s or sexually aware in

the 1960s or intelligent in the 1980s.”

(Nilsen in [Raskin] 2008: 259)

!!Wendy Wasserstein

Wendy Wasserstein said,

“When I speak up, it‟s not because I have any particular answers; rather, I

have a desire to puncture the pretentiousness of those who seem so

certain they do.”

(Nilsens in Raskin [2008] 259)

!!!E. B. and Katherine White

The Nature of Humor

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards

are discouraging to any but the scientific


“Humor won‟t stand much blowing up, and it won‟t stand much poking. It has a certain

fragility, and evasiveness, which one had best respect. Essentially it is a complete


(Nilsens in Raskin [2008]: 243)








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