Just because I brought it up on the episode, I call the new readers' attention to a book I wrote in 1993, Tripe. You can get it for free here. I also blogged in 2010 about the first few chapters.
I had a few purposes in writing this, one of which was to explore the thesis that what makes something funny is the unexpected. As mentioned on the episode, one of my early eye-openers re. humor was Dave Barry (who I see currently has a blog), and in high school I wrote a humor magazine (called Sklep) featuring many articles of something like that style. I quote myself (from an essay called "The Meaning of Life and Such") for historical purposes, not advocating the humor of the following but just giving you an idea of the style I was into:
Certain inconsistencies in religious philosophies lead one into doubt. For instance, everyone knows that Italian food is the essence of life, but manicotti is never once mentioned in the Bible (although it is in the "Second Apocrypha," which says in Galdius 3:16... "And the Evil One tripped upon the manicotti and fell into the Abyss with tomato sauce on his foot"). And another thing... if Christ comes back, will he be born in the U.S.? I cringe at the possibility that the Russians might devote their entire economy to bridging the "Messiah Gap." Things like this have led many to agnosticism and atheism as well as some other impressive-sounding a-words.
But there are other reasons why people are led away from religion. In an increasingly "wacky wild fun"-oriented society, sitting on hard benches eating little pieces of bread is not a popular pass-time. Therein lies the value of cults. Cults give a chance for an otherwise normal person to dress up in a yak suit and dance around screaming. Of course, school board meetings serve the same purpose, but these are not widely attended. There's also the advantage of the inter-cult softball games and those fun-for-the-whole-family silly-animal sacrifices. Ah, the memories of a childhood filled with emu-bludgeonings and chameleon-microwavings imbue my senses. And hey, nothing beats a good session of "Let's all pretend we're demons and chew on the furniture." It's a wonder all of America isn't cultized (or "cultured," to use the more common term). Imagine it, my fellow zany Nietzsche-beings. Imagine a land where it's okay to turn your head all the way around in public. Imagine a land where worshipping a teeny tiny plastic Smurf is the "in" thing to do. Imagine Kraft macaroni and cheese in hundreds of fun new shapes...
So that was me at age 17. By Tripe, at age 22, after pollution by a BA in philosophy, here's the result, from Tripe, chapter 7:
There is a very important topic that I have refrained from mentioning so far due to its sheer evilness. The topic is crud, or anti-tripe. We are presumably Americans, and so were raised on this substance. It is in our blood (in the ribosomes of white blood cells to be exact) and in our bowels. It has genetically mutated us beyond all recognition (Our ancestors all looked kind of like the puppet Lamb Chop, except on fire.). Crud makes up and is made up by Three's Company episodes, bacos, phone sex, Family Circle, and Cheez Whiz. As a point of definition, none of these things have in themselves anything to do with tripe. On the contrary, they are the things that diminish Man's capacity to produce and enjoy tripe. This may seem puzzling. After all, according to the Random House College Dictionary Revised Edition, 1988 (without deluxe color, mind you), crud is defined as "2. a deposit or coating of refuse or of an impure or alien substance. 3. a filthy, repulsive, or contemptible person, 4. Slang. anything that is worthless, objectionable, or repugnant."
(definition 1. was deleted for copyright reasons.)
It's interesting how [rest of paragraph deleted for copyright reasons]...
Here's the bloody difference between "worthless" and "worthless." The production of Three's Company, or Saved by the Bell, or Let's Have the Wedding in our Scummy Apartment, for Chrissake!! is all too sensible, according to the immutable physical laws of target marketing and the advancement of the careers of "actors" and such stuff. The product, however, this combination of in themselves sensible and coherent but insanely incompatible sets of considerations, is, well... crud. Tripe, however, and when I say however I mean however, flows from seeming disarray but in fact contains most of the secrets of the universe and many hilarious puns like "4-Q." Are you enlightened YET???
You know, that crud discussion was much shorter than I thought it would be, so I will have to fabricate an illustrative story to take up space:
Once upon a time there was a very small child who was very sleepy. Yes, she was a lot like you, and boy, did he ever want to sleep (with her). [No. No more silly-ass pronoun gender references, despite its hotness as a political topic.] [Who's ass is silly?] [No ass is silly in itself, but only in the purposes for which it may be used].
Escaping the bracketed insertions, the little boy who is much like you no matter what sex you are so ha!... had a long hard day at the factory and was just plain tired. I mean beat. Dead-gone in golden slumbers. Move your eyes along this line: ----------------------. Right, left, right, left, etc. Light as a feather; stiff as a board. Now go the hell to sleep, sweetie.
The progression here is from recognizable attempts at jokes to a thickly layered paste of compulsive verbal twisting. "The unexpected" as depicted in 5 million Dave Barry essays like this one is a matter of a sentence going in a direction you didn't anticipate like starting talking about humor but then, well, you wouldn't want to hear where it goes due to your deep seated emotional issues stemming from an unfortunate childhood interaction with the serial killer/super hero "Direction Man," who once gave you directions that turned out to be wrong.
See, like that. The issue is that after reading 5 million Dave Barry columns, you can predict what is intended to be unexpected, and so the (to me) exciting, cutting-edge character of the presentation is lost. The choice is then to continue to enjoy the not-unexpected format, much as people keep watching Letterman or whatever after so many years, or to seek after something more hardcore, building the unexpected on the unexpected until it becomes not humor any more, but something more like Michael Brodsky, whom I doubt most of you have heard of but who writes things like this (from Xman):
To his co-workers Pman was a miserable being but much to his regret miserableness was never accepted--in other words, did not startle to speechlessness--once and for all. And on a bright sunny day when least expecting it he would be told, 'You seem kind of sad.' But hadn't this been established long before and for all time. He, who prided himself most on a grim gapless consistency, was being informed there were lapses in his armor. For, 'You seem kind of sad,' meant: We are noting your impersonation today--at this moment-of one always sad in order to cast retrospective Burchian opprobrium on those many times in your past when, unbeknownst to you, your impersonation failed miserably. Or, 'You seem kind of sad,' could also have meant: You are always glacially--impeccably--sad but we choose just today for some special reason to call attention to what is ostensibly tacitly understood to be, beyond sayability, beyond conceivability. They seemed to snicker not so much beyond his back as at an angle--the acute angle whence amusement is most lancinating.
"The unexpected" is a dialectic of sorts, and if you keep following that dialectic, you go into humor and come out the other side, into something more generally artistic, with free association the consequent imagery that constitutes some form of phenomenology, some attempt to report truth. Or nonsense. One of those. Or both. Maybe. But probably not.
Bruce Adam says
David Hilbert’s ( I think) requirements for beauty in a mathematical proof ; Simplicity , Inevitability and Surprise , are also applicable to humour.
Surprise (or the unexpected) lacks impact, and possibly wit, without the other two properties.
I tend to look for these same qualities in art and music.
Tristan M says
Dang, I did not know that ML fancied himself a humorist. I laugh often while listening to the podcasts, but never at/with ML. I think he’s great when seriously discussing a topic, but his attempts at humor are lost on me. It’s interesting how what one person finds hilarious another finds annoying (I love Woody Allen, yet have friends who find him insufferable).
Mark Linsenmayer says
More of a fan than a purveyor. Like I said, these attempts were from years ago, and Tripe is itself more about humor than an example of humor. My recent attempts on this site fall mainly here: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/category/personal-philosophies/, and even then, it’s more about exploring the (often irrational) reaches of an idea than trying to make an actual joke.
That said, bite me, sir.