So Mark took on the comedy stylings of Louis CK in the first case study, someone who establishes a core insight and then plays it out through both content and performance. I'd like to take a look at two other (multi-generational!) comedians who rely on establishing a premise quickly using audience assumptions and then make a joke by twisting either the meaning of words or expectations of the situation.
Henny Youngman was a comedian known for one-liners or jokes vs. story telling, character or prop work. I plan to get to more 'modern' comics later so if you aren't familiar with him - google now and come back. Walter Winchell dubbed Youngman 'The King of One-liners' and he was famous for delivering dozens of jokes in a short set. Check out the following recording:
I'll focus on the second joke in the series (Youngman was also famous for making jokes about his wife, to whom he was married and devoted for over 60 years. So don't go there). "My wife looks like the closest thing to Liz Taylor...she looks like Richard Burton." For those of you too young to know who they were (google it you wonks!) try "My wife looks like the closest thing to Beyonce...she looks like Jay-Z." (or Gisele Bundchen and Tom Brady; Faith Hill and Tim McGraw; Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin; your pick. It doesn't work with Heidi Klum and Seal, though as you will see).
Youngman is making a play on the common understanding of the phrase 'x is the closest thing to y', where the comparison implies both that the y is superlative and either unique or unattainable and that the x is being complimented by the comparison. As in: 'this house with a pool is the closest thing to living by the ocean' or 'this cigar is the closest thing to a Cuban' or 'this car is the closest thing to James Bond's Astin Martin'. The implication is that x is the next best thing to y and that y is the best.
Youngman's joke turns, of course, on the use of the phrase to mean physical or personal proximity. The audience expectation is that the comparison is between his wife's looks and the beauty of Liz Taylor but instead he compares his wife's looks with her husband, Richard Burton. That's the mechanism of the joke. The humor comes from the fact that while it appears he is paying his wife a compliment, he is in fact insulting her. In Bergson's terms, the social norm breaks down and the laugh comes as a corrective.
It's not that Richard Burton is ugly, it's that Richard Burton is a man. Youngman dislocates the audience's expected association of like for like to like for dislike. The joke rests on a kind of category error. Here as well, the degree of the insult matters: saying your wife looks like a man is not the same thing as saying she is ugly. This is why I said above the joke wouldn't work with Heidi Klum and Seal. If you use those two, the audience might focus on the wrong degree - Seal's facial scarring rather than the fact that he is a man (and a handsome one at that).
The joke does depend also on some distance from Youngman's wife - the butt of the joke. If she was well known and attractive or unattractive it wouldn't work: in the former case because jab would seem wrongheaded and mean-spirited and in the latter because they would have too much sympathy for her and the joke would veer into the tragic. The anonymity of Youngman's wife as well as an unspoken assumption that he does not, in fact, believe what he is saying are required. If Youngman was a philanderer or made such comments outside the accepted social form of doing stand up, the joke would lose it's power and again dive into tragedy via sympathy.
Youngman literally made a career off of this type of joke structure and his wife. It was a formula that worked over and over again for him for decades. Which in some sense points to the power of the structure of humor and the reasonableness of Bergson's enterprise, even if it can't be considered comprehensive or exactly correct.
Brian Carless says
Seth, I think that you are right as far as you go but Bergson, and I, demand that we go further. Certainly, Youngman’s humor hinges on the category error but the presence of that error doesn’t gaurentee that it will be funny. Rather, it seems that his wife by remaining anonymous comes to represent Wife more generally the way that Rumpole’s wife becomes “She who must be obeyed”. The humor hinges on the deeply held beliefs and ambivalences of marriage and social life in general and the category error is mearly the means to get us to face that.
Seth Paskin says
You are absolutely correct. That is definitely the next level of analysis. Thanks for filling in the gap!