Tuesday, June 28, 2005

From Olmsted to Caulfield

Aerial shots of rapid motion intersections at night, where car lights become incandescent crayons, drawing insane paths. I see sudden sunrises and sunsets, helicopter views of the dizzying edges of high rises where my eyes are in danger of scraping the proverbial sky. TV shows seem to be in the business of capturing the visual clichés of what New York is supposed to be: tall buildings, traffic, the impersonality of concrete and glass. It works on me; whenever I see the city, I feel like a rube fresh off the bus from Podunk, rubbing my eyes and saying well, goooolllleee…All that concrete feels dignified, important, and I am insignificant. Yet whenever I see New York, I feel like I own it, that it is in some odd way my city.

Big cities—especially Manhattan—are criticized for loud crowds, the roar of traffic that cancels out sunsets, skyscrapers that erase trees, anonymous people whose shoulders touch, yet never speak, but for me those same qualities give the city its sense of place, and those same qualities give us our sense of belonging there as well, whether we’re visitors or residents. Even if we condemn the City (just capitalize it…there’s only one) for these faults, people are awed at the same time, every time they look up towards the sky, or just turn their heads and glance up and down Broadway. Those who really want to identify New York, though, lift it up by its handle, there in the middle in the green part, Central Park.

Central Park is infamous; people who have never set foot east of Indiana’s Wabash, the Missouri, even Utah’s Green River know about Central Park. Maybe you read A Catcher in the Rye and met protagonist, Holden Caulfield. Holden has, undeservedly in my mind, earned a bad reputation for inspiring madmen like Mark David Chapman to assassinate John Lennon in front of the Dakota back in 1980. Holden should more be remembered as a 1950s anti-hero who mythicized Central Park for literary audiences worldwide.

Holden’s anti-hero status has caused the novel to be banned in any number of North American school systems. The story begins when Holden runs away from Pencey Prep a few days before Christmas break, when he learns he’s failing out. But we know from his unreliable first-person narration that his grasp on the world is shaky; we infer that at the time of the story, he has been taken away to a sanitarium of sorts in California to recover from a number of difficulties, including his brother’s death and issues he glosses over in the story, and which are easy to miss if we in the audience are not paying attention.

One element of the story that is repeated—with humorous results—is Holden’s obsession with the lagoon at Central Park South. Whenever Caulfield gets in a cab, he asks the cab driver about it:
“That little lake, like, there. Where the ducks are. You know.”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Well, you know the ducks that swim around in it? In the springtime and all? Do you happen to know where they go in the wintertime, by any chance? […] I mean does somebody come around in a truck or something […]” (81-82)
None of the cabdrivers are willing to ponder the answer to his question, though Horwitz does consider what he thinks are related factors:
“The fish don’t go no place. They stay right where they are, the fish. Right in the goddam lake.”
But Holden insists:
“[…] The fish is different, I’m talking about the ducks.”
Horwitz finally argues:
“[…] It’s tougher for the fish, the winter and all, than it is for the ducks, for Chrissake. Use your head, for Chrissake.”
“They can’t just ignore the ice. They just can’t ignore it.”
Horwitz argues some more:
“[…] They live right in the goddam ice. It’s their nature, for Chrissake. They get frozen right in one position […]” (82).

Holden’s remarks about the ducks (and the fish) are funny: He tells us, the readers, when the conversation is over “He didn’t answer me, though. I guess he was still thinking. I asked him again, though. He was a pretty good guy. Quite amusing and all” (83). Holden the character is what he would call “horsing around.” But we can’t rely on Holden’s judgment as a first-person narrator. We have to arrive at our own conclusions and think of those helpless ducks a little bit like the way think about our helpless friend, Holden. Holden wonders what the ducks do when it gets cold, whether someone will come to take them away when it is no longer safe for them just as Holden doesn’t know what to do with himself now that it’s “winter” for him and things are no longer “safe” for him. Holden wants to know how “ducks” know when it’s the right time to “take off” because he’s just about ready to do it. When we have insight into Holden’s truth about the Central Park lagoon, then the Park becomes Holden’s source of truth for a moment.

The lagoon—and the Park—belongs to Holden, but at the same time it belongs to hundreds and millions of us. I too can say, “I own that lagoon,” because I assign it my unique narrative. It will forever hold the story of the day of the toy boat regatta in 1983. Even at this moment I can see the brilliant East-side button-down blue sky when I walked up the hill from Central Park South, down by the Plaza Hotel and came upon the lagoon on my right and saw the boats in the water there, as though I were suddenly able at great distance to see Lake Michigan being invaded by an armada of clipper ships. The illusion paled, though, with the sound of the tinny model motors—not to mention the sight of the many enthusiast operators lined up around the lagoon, black aerialed boxes in hand furiously racing the ships, big enough maybe to give a ride to the Chihuahua puppy I saw on a leash in the grass off to the left. Big or small, boat races have never made much sense to me, and they seemed even sillier on the precious real estate of the pond. It was an exquisite puzzle to think about, I reasoned, stretching out with my lunch near the big rock on the right as one approaches the pond. The day stayed impossibly blue and sunny as long as I wanted it to, though I never did figure out the rules of the race. All I did and all I know is forever more Central Park will be my park, at least for that day. Even though I never spoke to another soul the whole day, it would be wrong to call the city anonymous.

Though I didn’t know who he was at the time, I realize now that the park’s landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, would have approved of my day at the races, since, according to his biographer, Witold Rybczynski, “he considered […] boating […] [an] integral part of the park experience” (“Olmsted vs. Christo”). Olmstead wanted nature to be available to city dwellers (though he could not have imagined the concrete jungles we have created in the present day). His design was meant “to foster a single ideal—the democratic use of public space,” which if you think about it is an extraordinary plan for a city (Ginsburg). As a result of this democracy, Holden Caulfield, Fred Olmstead, Heidi Moore, even the kids from Hair—all of us experienced the lagoon and the Park itself individually; it is ours. The point is that because the place is there in the center for all to enjoy, it somehow becomes universal. We have a collective experience, because it’s “our” Park, “our” lagoon, even though our feelings occurred asynchronously: “Oh, the lagoon! Yes! I’ve been there!” But then our memories part. We are the same as Holden Caulfield for a tiny moment, and different all at once, blending back into the high rises, the dizzying incandescence and neon. It belongs to all of us.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

And Then There's Maude

I’m watching Maude, episodes 203 & 204 (from 1973). In episode 203 we see a great comic scene where a drunk Maude and Arthur try to decorate grandson Philip’s birthday cake with whipped cream and throw a great big yellow candle in the middle to disguise their mistakes. Even though we can see it coming from a mile away as a very poorly mimicked Lucille Ball routine, they still do a great job. Drunks are always funny, and it’s always funny to mess up a kid’s birthday cake. Walter has three or four drinks at lunch every day and three or four at dinner, as well as a brandy after. They finally must alert him that he might be an alcoholic. That part of it is funny just as an anachronism. The end-of-show morality play is priceless.

In the next episode we see Maude and Florida (Esther Rolle) in the kitchen. Maude tells Florida that the soup “kicks her butt.” Florida feigns ignorance about the meaning of this statement, and Maude informs her that this is a compliment in Black English. Florida says, “Well, you must have been Black longer than I have.” So, Maude reaches over to get her Black slang dictionary and asks Florida what to say to impress her in her “Black Ghetto slang.” Florida says it would be, “you can take the rest of the day off.” Maude says her signature phrase, “God will get you for that.” The scene is really icky.

The race thing gets left aside other than the performance Rolle gives around changing the sheets in the confusion around whether the boyfriend will sleep in the daughter’s bed or in the guest room. Maude tells Florida to change the sheets in the guest room; Carol, the daughter tells Florida to prepare her own bedroom. Florida makes a big joke about the problems about to arise—and says she’s glad she’s about to leave on the bus. You have to hand it to the writers for entering the idea into the consciousness of America that the black woman has to go home on the bus while the white family relaxes at dinner (tension or not).

So of course this ridiculous tension does occur while Maude goes through her ridiculous denial about her ambivalent feelings over her 27 year-old daughter sleeping with a 30 year-old boyfriend. After the issue is ostensibly resolved, then Maude and Walter have their requisite heart-to-heart that lays out the issues. Says Walter: “these feelings that you have are just as honest and valid as they were 100 years ago.” Ugh. Then Maude: “I refuse to be upset about the two of you in this house. I mean lord only knows what happened in that camper….STRIKE THAT….C’mon Walter….let’s you and I stay in the camper.” Ultimately, Adrienne Barbeau chickens out too, saying that the thought of sleeping with her boyfriend in her own mother’s house makes her uncomfortable. They’re going to a hotel. Maude, incredulous, asks her to explain. In the resolution, Maude gives her best one-liner of the show: “Some people take laxatives, I take guilt.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The General, Cops, The Playhouse

I watched Buster Keaton today, thinking I was just getting The General, but the DVD had the surprise bonus of Cops and The Playhouse as well. The General is really unbelievable because of the stunts. The stuff he does is stunning, particularly since it’s obvious there is no stunt person, either for Keaton or for the woman who plays his lover, and they’re doing absurdly dangerous things on a rapidly moving steam engine. In one scene, the train speeds forward, and Keaton perches on the front on the cow-catcher. He’s reaching out on to the tracks to grab heavy railroad ties that the enemy has lodged in the tracks, one after the other, to derail the train. As soon as he grabs one heavy tie (a single one would be enough to throw a person off balance), another comes up for him grab—and he gets that too. Somehow it’s funny, yet at the same time the suspense is unbelievable, which is an unusual combination I don’t often see (maybe in some Jim Carrey vehicles – though some purists might hate the comparison). He couldn’t possibly have made a mistake at picking up those ties with that train speeding along; I simply couldn’t envision how multiple takes were possible or even how they could manufacture dummy Styrofoam lightweight ties in 1927. The sheer complexity of so many of the shots in this film is mind boggling. It’s pretty surprising to know that it was a commercial flop.

Watching The General made me want to re-read Wes Gehring on “Comedian Comedy.” His characteristics of “the clown model” from The World of Comedy: Five Takes on Funny apply well to The General. He talks about how clown comedies encapsulate the “schtick” of the comedian. So if it’s a Keaton film, it captures his “schtick” (19), which in this case is a “man against machine” battle (7). We can tell it’s a clown comedy because “physical/ visual comedy” plays a large role in the plot (19). We see endless examples of physical comedy in The General. I like one very simple situation that occurs when Buster pays a visit to his girlfriend and two neighbor boys follow him inside. They seat themselves on a couch next to the couple in the parlor. Befuddled by the problem of the two boys, Keaton finally puts his hat on and bows to the young woman, which forces the two little boys to do the same. He opens the front door and politely allows them out before him. However, instead of following them out, he closes the door, takes his hat off, and sits back down next to his girl, this time alone (and victorious).

Also in the “clown model,” clowns tend to be “underdogs who frequently exhibit comically incompetent behavior” (30). We see this behavior repeatedly in The General when Keaton tries to be a soldier to please his girlfriend. She has told him to enlist in the confederate army, specifically not to show his face to her until he’s wearing a uniform. He’s been denied conscription, though, and whenever he tries to fake enlistment, he becomes inept and clumsy with hilarious results. He trips on his sword and makes a fool of himself generally.

Gehring goes on to say that film clowns are “nomadic, with direct literary ties to such picaresque heroes as Don Quixote and Huck Finn” (33). Even more specifically, Gehring gives some reasons they go on road (not all apply, but of those that do): “it gives the clown an endless supply of new settings for his comedy” (33), it places “a clown in some unlikely setting can be an ongoing joke in itself” (34) and it causes “pursuit by authority figures” (36). We see all these in The General because the film is an endless chase/pursuit scene.

So all this is interesting. It’s all Keaton against the machine. Maybe even more interesting because it was a surprise is The Playhouse. I absolutely loved the first half, in which Keaton played all the roles, the conductor, the musicians, the actors--ten or twelve across the stage (Mr. Brown, I think it was, in Blackface), the audience. It was so cool, particularly since they all were on camera at the same time (at least the ones on stage)—and this in the early 1920s, so it had to be done with amazing camera and film trickery unheard of at the time. It’s so elaborate that he even runs fake credits in the middle of the film with Buster Keaton listed for each of the actors and the crew. It’s very funny, I think. Unfortunately, though, the film goes on to include a bunch of Vaudeville skits, unremarkable mostly. One minor exception is a skit where Keaton dresses up as a monkey in a stage scene. The amazing thing about it is that he manages to capture the motions a monkey would make pretty remarkably, including running up the wall and walking on his hands and feet. But ho hum. There’s another sort of funny part of a skit where a man smoking a cigar catches his beard on fire and Keaton grabs an axe out of the place in the wall where it says “IN CASE OF FIRE.” Using the axe, he chops the man’s beard off, essentially shaving the man. It’s pretty funny, actually, but it lasts about 20 seconds. Ho hum too. I thought the same ho hum about Cops. It’s funny slapstick. The plot is not remarkable enough to recount here. More remarkable, though, are the amazing group scenes of parading cops which turn into huge numbers of cops chasing Keaton. The sheer choreography of it is worth noting—and of course it’s funny.

Keaton choreographs people and objects in ways that were stunning for the time, and they still are stunning because they require no special effects. They all just magically occur without stunt people or animation—impossible today.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Paul Lewis’s “Politics of Comedy and the Social Functions of Humor”

In Chapter Two, Lewis begins with Suzanne K. Langers argument that comedy has various degrees of humor (31). Lewis explains that a “critical controversy” exists between “universalists and anti-universalists,” saying that for “some theorists comedy can be defined by its use of humor; that is, comedy is the humorous genre. For other th

Lewis summarizes the main theorists’ views:

  • Walter Sorrell’s 1970 work: “Laughter is a physiological phenomenon, comedy is the product of a creative act of one man’s humorous capacity” (32).
  • Aristotle says in The Poetics that “comedy invites us to laugh at low characters,” or the ones, according to Lewis, who have “small defects and minor vices” (33). However, says Lewis, “we discover which characters are low by learning to laugh at them” (33).
  • “Bergson sees comedy as social reprimand,” in other words as a way to correct the behavior of others.
  • “Northrop Frye sees comedy as a movement from an old social order to a new one.”
  • Wylie Sypher says “comedy always supports some value system” but that “the system can be conservative, reactionary or revolutionary.”
    Scott Cutler Shershow sees the struggle in values “between cynicism and optimism, between how the world is and how it should be.”
  • Harry Levin “has identified an essential comic clash between killjoys and playboys” (33).

Now, let’s try to distinguish specifically between HUMOR and COMEDY, which is a major concern of the anti-universalists.

Lewis says that no matter whose theoretical approach we ascribe to, we still must analyze a joke in terms of its incongruity. One way to
think about it is to take a look at “how humor acquires its rhetorical
force” (34).

Lewis says, “An incongruity analysis suggests that humor embodies values not by virtue of its content alone but as a consequence of what it does with its materials” (34). He’s talking about here what we do with humor’s apparent message and how we might process the unconscious message (this is from Freud’s work, obviously. Freud thought that one reason for taking pleasure in jokes was the “temporary freedom from the ork of repression” (34).

Lewis gives an example of a joke that might illuminate:

Q. Why do mice have such little balls?
A. Because so few of them know how to dance.

So the idea here is that one might laugh, or one might not think it funny for one of any number of reasons. Either it isn’t funny because the sexualized content it approximates is too touchy or it gets too close to the animal rights issues…or whatever. Lewis says “The rhetorical force of humor in comedy derives from the mobilization of such implied value judgments. Freud notes that a joke ‘bribes the hearer with its yield of pleasure into taking sides...without any very close investigation.’” In other words, by telling such a joke, we expect the listener to join us in our beliefs. If the listener does not, we feel thwarted.

It may seem unimportant but the distinction is a social make-or-breaker…figure that if we tell a joke or two to people who don’t laugh, we usually don’t make friends, right? Indeed, the studies back me up. According to Lewis, “Sociological studies have shown that, because it expresses shared values, humor can be a social lubricant and a tool or force in the exercise of power in social groups.” Lewis cites a 1972 study that found that “in intergroup relations humor can serve to foster consensus or to damage or redefine the relationship between the groups, and in intragroup relations humor can serve either to solidify the group, control in-group behavior or foster a hostile disposition toward an out-group” (37).

The study really proves what is, to me, common sense. Groups use humor to demonstrate what is expected—or who is ostracized. Lewis also cites studies that show how these dynamics are demonstrated at work and in prison.

Interestingly, though, Lewis brings up some of Freud’s discussion of how jokes sometimes are used between strangers “to register [...] resentment, without risk of punishment” to provide “a social mechanism, short of violence for the venting of anger” because individuals “who can joke instead of fighting will be less offensive and destructive” (38). So of course, people can joke to thwart the urge to kill (I speak now figuratively, rather than literally, for the most part).

Now, Lewis analyzes “the politics of comedy and social functions of humor” in several literary works in this chapter, but the most interesting of these analyses is called “From Shakespeare to Sitcoms.” He reminds us at the beginning of this part of the chapter that many theorists tell us that humor is not a necessary element of comedy—but then says “we are left to wonder why there is so much humor in comedy” (64).

Lewis works to distinguish further between humor and comedy here by looking at the form of each, discussing Frye’s definition of a “traditional comedy,” in which “a young man” falls in love with “a young woman who is kept from him by various social barriers: her low birth, his minority or shortage of funds, parental opposition, the prior claims of a rival. These are eventually circumvented.” Another obstacle may arise near the end that may seem as though the two may not marry, but indeed they do and the “conclusion is normally accompanied by some change of heart on the part of those who have been obstructing the comic resolution” (Frye qtd. in Lewis 64). Lewis, citing Eyre, argues that humor also “has a definite structure” in that it moves “from the perception to the resolution of an incongruity” (64). We may perceive humor as “a molecule, rather than an attribute” of comedy, “the irreducible but complex substance out of which comedy is made” (65). These ideas are complex. What do they mean?

Lewis tries to explain the idea with a structural analogy, saying that the idea of humor as a molecule of comedy “may help us understand the vital functions of humor within comic structures” (65). Within Frye’s definition of humor, we “see that comedies move from a problem to some easy [...] solution, just as humor glides past incongruities, refusing to pause long enough for meditation or fear” (65). So according to this view, comedy deals with the big picture, whereas humor deals with the small. Hmm.. I didn’t think about it this way before.

Next, Lewis takes up comedy within the form of the situation comedy, discussing David Grote’s 1983 book, The End of Comedy: The Sit-Com and the Comedic Tradition. Grote distinguishes between the kind of comedy in a traditional comedy and a sit-com, saying that the difference is found in “the way they resist change” (Lewis 65). Lewis explains:

“The traditional comic plot focuses on love and marriage; the typical sit-com plot revolves around an unchanging family unit. Traditional comedies feature stock characters like the fool, the scoundrel, and the innocent who implicitly or explicitly attack the social and moral norms; the sit-com avoids these characters and the anarchic world they inhabit. The result, Grote insists, is that in the sit-com we have subverted the radical impulses and energy of comedy, producing a sterile and conservative middle-class dramatic form, one suited to a country that no longer looks to the future with hope and idealism” (65). David Marc says something similar a little later on. If both Davids are right, then maybe the situation comedy is to blame for all those red state votes?

Lewis’s criticism of Grote’s argument is apt: he notes that Grote completely misses the humor in situation comedies. If we ignore the one-liners, the “dynamic humor” in the shows, then we miss their charm completely. Lewis’s example is “the running intergenerational bickering of Norman Lear’s All in the Family, in which the audience surprisingly identifies with the “deliberately ethnocentric, racist, malaproprian anti-hero, Archie” because of the humor (66).

So in lining up the important functions of humor as well as distinguishing between comedy and humor, Lewis writes an important chapter in this one.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Love's Labour's Lost: Wooing A Bunch of Jacks

Love’s Labour’s Lost is an early Shakespearian comedy; it does not have all the elements of classical comedy down exactly. The characters themselves step outside the narrative to alert us of the play’s peculiarities. Berowne says, "Our wooing doth not end like an old play;/ Jack hath not Jill: these ladies' courtesy/ Might well have made our sport a comedy" (V.ii.867-9), referring directly to the end-without-marriage (note, incidentally, the cool eye-rhyme on line 868—can you imagine how hard it was to write a play in verse?).

To understand my comments, it will help to know a summary of the plot. We are supposed to believe that four ostensibly straight men—the King of Navarre and three members of the court—decide to take an oath of celibacy so that they will be better equipped to focus on their “studies.” Right. They agree not to consort with women on the palace grounds. So suspend disbelief and go along with Shakespeare believing that they actually do want to date the women that come up in the next part.

Now when they take this oath, only one of them, Berowne, does so against his will. He tries to remind the king that the Princess of France is on her way to visit, but the king doesn’t listen. This is an excellent ruse, incidentally. Clearly Berowne is in love with the king. But seriously (or not), when the Princess and her court near, the king has to circumvent his own rule by inventing a way to visit her outside the grounds of the palace.

Well, of course as luck would have it, all four of the men fall for the princess and the women in her court—but the romance of it all is interrupted when the princess learns that her father has died. The women must leave and end the romances for a year—but promise to continue them later…and that’s the end, other than Berowne’s little speech-out-of-character there at the end. (Of course, this stroke of luck leaves them in tremendous relief to their homosexual rompings—which provides the REAL happy ending. But nobody’s supposed to notice THAT, right?)

So what does this mean? Well, it certainly still follows the plot arc of old comedy—up to a point. In the article, “The Structure of Aristophanic Comedy,” G.M. Sfakis proposes a standard narrative structure for Old Comedy: First we see “[v]illainy, lack or misfortune” (129). In the case of LLL, it is a lack the four men bring on themselves (at least ostensibly) when they agree to foreswear women. The second step is the men's “[d]ecision/plan to counteract misfortune,” (129) and in this case we see the plan to “step around” their noble plan of studying. They decide, instead, to bend the rules and meet the women outside the palace grounds. Third in the structure is “[s]ervice or help of a supernatural or quasi-magical helper” (129).

I’m not so sure about this one, though I do see Boyet, who is the attendant to the women, as somewhat of a helper and in many ways a catalyst to building the relationships, since it is his role to joke around with the men and to facilitate their meetings. Fourth in the plot is “[t]ransference” (130). I see this element as crucial to a romantic comedy because it’s so evident any romantic comedy. Here, we see that Costard, the clown, is supposed to deliver letters from the men to their respective ladies, but he makes a mistake and the wrong letter goes to the wrong lady. Number five, “[o]pposition or obstacles” (130), in this play means the confusion over connecting the proper man with the proper lady after the letter confusion. However, ultimately Love's Labour's Lost's plot is problematic because another major obstacle does not get resolved; the princess’s father dies and thus delays the wedding. Thus, the remaining plot elements, “persuasion exercised in debate…liquidation of villainy or misfortune….[and] triumph of hero” are not included (400).

Further on what it all means is to ponder the notion that for thousands of years, we have managed variations on a single form of plot without getting sick of the story. That goes to show us, though, that the form of a story is quite different than the delivery, subject matter, or characters.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Paul Lewis’s
Comic Effects: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studying Humor
Chapter One

Paul Lewis’s book on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of humor in literature was helpful in a number of ways. I thought that the way he brought in the theory of humor in social sciences (particularly Freud and various interpretations of Freud’s theory) was particularly interesting. He sees the application of the study of behavior as quite appropriate to literary humor, since after all writing about the lives of people is writing about their behavior. In a sense, then, the “mixing of methodologies” that occurs in interdisciplinary research is especially apt for humor research (ix-xi) Another helpful part of the book was seeing the way Lewis applied theories of humor to specific literary works like Poe’s gothic stories and poems or to “fictions of development” like Catcher in the Rye. I liked his close readings, and the way he specifically applies the theories, avoiding the generalizations he warns against is a good example to follow.

Lewis talks a lot about the potential pitfalls in theorizing about humor. First is “the universalist mindset,” which he defines as “the danger of universalizing or globalizing literary humor,’ which may lead one to think that “humor can be easily explained or subsumed under a catchy formula or definition” (x). Another danger can be found in humor study’s own subjectivity (this echoes a concern about American Studies). Lewis asks, “if humor appreciation is subjective and contextual, rooted in individual affective and intellectual responses, how can critics isolate such elusive phenomena for analysis?” (x-xi). The answer, Lewis decides, is that we cannot have as our critical goal to “standardize humor appreciation but to refine our understanding of the humor we perceive in literature by helping us see how it is structured, how it functions, and how [...] it is one determinant or component of character, genre, and writer” (xi).

In his first chapter on “Humor Criticism and Humor Research,” Lewis tries to dispel long-lived assumptions about Humor, replacing them with truths grounded in research. For example, a common assumption has been that “one of the root causes of humor is fear” (4). Lewis disputes the connection, saying that in fact such a connection has never proven the connection, that “research is demonstrating [...] humor and fear often seem to arise together or in sequence not because fear causes humor but because they have a common origin in incongruity” (5).

Lewis also discusses James F. English’s argument that “we needed to move away from traditional comic theory toward a broader interest in literary humor generally” or what English calls “trans-generic” criticism (8). That way, according to English, we could think “more precisely” about humor and determine “form, content, function and context” (8). That would allow us to more thoughtfully mix literary criticism and “social science research,” and the result would be that when we analyze the humor of a character, we would know specifically whether indeed we “are focusing on humor appreciation, humor creation or both” (8).

If we accept certain “distinctions” and draw on the existing research, says English, then we don’t have to belabor the established ideas in humor studies, namely that: (1) “humorous experiences originate in the perception of incongruity [...]; (2) in most cases humor appreciation is based on a two-stage process of first perceiving an incongruity and then resolving it; [...] (3) that humor is a playful, not a serious, response to the incongruous;[...] (4) that the perception of an incongruity is subjective, relying as it does on the state of the perceiver’s knowledge, expectations, values and norms, that, because the presentation of a particular image or idea as a fitting subject for humor is based on value judgments[and ...] (5) the creation and use of humor is an exercise of power; a force in controlling our responses to unexpected and dangerous happenings, a way of shaping the responses and attitudes of others and a tool of intergroup and intragroup dynamics (qtd. in Lewis 8-13). So if those assumptions are givens—and indeed they are stated repeatedly by many theorists—that gives us room to move forward into discussions of why and when that others haven’t thought of.

Lewis also discusses Victor Raskin’s real/unreal dichotomy for understanding jokes (in The Semantic Mechanisms of Humor [1985]) in which Raskin defines three means of interpreting jokes: “the actual versus the non-actual, the normal versus the abnormal and the possible versus the impossible” (12).

Looking back at those assumptions, then, we can begin there and move forward into analysis. Arthur Koestler’s Act of Creation, says Lewis, examines “cognitive and emotional responses to the incongruous” (14). Koestler discusses “how the fool, the artist and the sage follow similar cognitive processes, moving from the perception of an incongruity to an assimilation that results in the creation of humor, art or knowledge” coming to the conclusion that the creativity he discusses applies “to literary works as well” (14). In other words, says Lewis, “we can learn a good deal about the generic properties of particular works, about the personalities of given characters and about the ways in which given writers tend to use humor by observing (1) what they regard as incongruous and (2) how they deal with the incongruities they contain or perceive” (15). Here, Lewis applies Koestler’s idea to interpreting and analyzing literature—we begin where the idea of defining incongruity left off and, in effect, answer the “so what” question about it. Lewis says we can ask two questions to analyze a humorous text: “within the fictive world it creates, what is normal and what is not?” (15)

Similarly, Mary K. Rothbart’s “safety-arousal model of humor appreciation” finds “three primary responses to incongruity,” namely, “fear, problem solving and amusement” (15). Rothbart asks: “(1) Is the stimulus dangerous?; (2) Is the stimulus evaluated as a serious challenge to the person’s knowledge or is it seen as playful or inconsequential?’ (3) Can the incongruity be resolved?” So in this model as well, we can see reactions that “may lead to smiling and laughter” (15).

What is interesting is that incongruity doesn’t necessarily guarantee hilarity. The difference between tragedy and comedy is often minute. According to Susan Snyder, “Shakespeare’s great tragedies achieve much of their impact by following but then subverting comic structures” (qtd. in Lewis 18). Lewis also points out G.W. Knight’s “classic study of humor in King Lear” that argues that “Lear’s downfall is due in part to his inability to laugh at himself” (18).

Another interesting part of Lewis’s discussion points at the “shift in taste away from writers like Cooper and Poe in America toward writers like Twain and Howells.” According to Lewis, this shift could be attributed “in part to the development of a new sense of humor.” Lewis cites Edwin Cady’s argument that the shift in sense of humor began because of satires of romantic texts (20).

Lewis also points out another way to get at the incongruous, by character analysis. He says, “we can better understand a character by seeing the extent to which he or she deals with incongruity by way of defensive reactions, fear, problem solving and/or humor” (20). In addition, says Lewis, “Humor uses and appreciation can also reflect a given character’s openness to change, his or her adaptive potential” (21).

To study the way an author uses humor seems fruitful—in fact, it might seem as though there would be a certain pattern of life for the humorous author, but in fact there isn’t one, says Lewis. According to Lewis, Seymour and Rhoda Fisher tried to find out in their Pretend the World is Funny and Forever: A Psychological Study of Comedians, Clowns, and Actors. They found the typical comedian:

* “[H]ad to deal with contradictory and incongruous messages from his or her parents about such fundamental matters as the parents’ expectations and feelings about being parents” (22). They describe the typical mother as “severe and non-nurturant” and with low expectations for the child’s behavior. The typical father is described as dependent “on his child for emotional and even material support” (22). As a result, the comics often had to care for siblings and act as “adult beyond their years” and “gave more psychologically to their parents than they received” (Fisher qtd. in Lewis 22).
* Demonstrated “a magnified fascination with contrasts of moral values—good vs. bad, virtue vs. vice” as well as size when they were given a Rorschach test (22). The Fishers related this ability to detect contrasts to a sense of incongruity necessary for a sense of humor.
* Demonstrated “a sense of relativity of all norms and an impulse to deny or evade danger or menace” which would contribute to “two humorous strategies employed by comics in dealing with the incongruous” (23).

Some of the personality types sound a little suspect—like the cold mother. It seems reminiscent of the schizophrenic “cold mother” type. They always want to blame the mom has become a cliché. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to consider the above as a template.

Lewis explains, in sum, in his first chapter, that interdisciplinary models of humor were at one time considered flawed because it was thought impossible to have “’universal components of humor” that would apply to literature (26). However, Lewis holds that the argument was probably never valid because no need to focus on “humor as universal and constant phenomenon” exists (26). Lewis believes it is important for literature scholars to follow the work of humor scholars in the social sciences (27).