Thursday, June 25, 2009


Ambiguity is the property of being ambiguous, where a word, term, notation, sign, symbol, phrase, sentence, or any other form used for communication, is called ambiguous if it can be interpreted in more than one way. Ambiguity is different from vagueness, which arises when the boundaries of meaning are indistinct. Ambiguity is context-dependent: the same linguistic item (be it a word, phrase, or sentence) may be ambiguous in one context and unambiguous in another context. For a word, ambiguity typically refers to an unclear choice between different definitions as may be found in a dictionary. A sentence may be ambiguous due to different ways of parsing the same sequence of words.

Colbert Interview on Charlie Rose

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Early Chapelle

Here Chapelle does a thought experiment that exposes a ridiculous creation myth behind a racial slur, that at the same time feels realistic and hits at human truths. Brilliant.


Hyperbole (pronounced hye-PER-bə-lee) comes from ancient Greek "ὑπερβολή" (meaning excess or exaggeration) and is a figure of speech in which statements are exaggerated. It may be used to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is rarely meant to be taken literally.

Hyperbole is used to create emphasis. It is a literary device often used in poetry, and is frequently encountered in casual speech. It is also a visual technique in which a deliberate exaggeration of a particular part of an image is employed. An example is the exaggeration of a person's facial feature in a political cartoon.

I've told you a million times, stop exaggerating. (I've told you many times not to exaggerate.)

METHOD OF HUMOR: Reductio ad absurdum

Reductio ad absurdum (Latin: "reduction to the absurd") is a form of argument in which a proposition is disproven by following its implications to a logical but absurd consequence. An example of a reductio ad absurdum would be to note the consequences of an ad coelum theory of property would be that a land owner would have ownership over other planets.

Attempts at making a reductio ad absurdum argument can easily create a straw man fallacy if it distorts the proposition which one is trying to disprove. The example above can very easily lead to a straw man fallacy in that it states that a person cannot own land because no one person has the right to own a planet if other people require the land. The fallacy, thus, lies in the difference between the ability to own land and the right to own land, which are not equivalent.


The pacing of the delivery of a joke has a strong impact on its comic effect; the same is also true of more physical comedy such as slapstick.

A beat is a pause taken for the purposes of comic timing, often to allow the audience time to recognize the joke and react, or to heighten the suspense before delivery of the expected punch line. Pauses can be used to discern subtext or even unconscious content — that is, what the speaker is really thinking about.

Jack Benny and Victor Borge are two comedians famed for using the extended beat, allowing the pause itself to become a source of humour beyond the original joke. George Carlin and Rowan Atkinson are two other stand-up comedians well known for superior timing.

Slapstick timing

Comic timing can also be seen in the more physical forms of comedy as well. Every slapstick comedian from Charlie Chaplin onwards has relied on the physical joke being made at just the right time. The bucket of water never falls until the audience has built up for it to just the right level.


The farce is another prime example of comic timing. Here, the humour is derived both from rapid speech and rapid movement — people running into and out of rooms at breakneck speed and managing to cause havoc in the process as done to perfection in the series Fawlty Towers.

Pregnant pause

A pregnant pause (as in the classical definition, "many possibilities") is a technique of comic timing used to accentuate a comedy element, where the comic pauses at the end of a phrase to build up suspense. It's often used at the end of a comically awkward statement or in the silence after a seemingly non-comic phrase to build up a comeback. Refined by Jack Benny, the pregnant pause has become a staple of stand-up comedy.

Examples of comedians who employ comic timing

Bea Arthur

"Her ability to detonate a joke, to momentarily harness a punch line before releasing at full force, brought her Emmy-winning success in two groundbreaking sitcoms - Norman Lear's 1970s classic "Maude" and "The Golden Girls." -- Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2009[1]

George Carlin

Carlin's most famous routine is his "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television", in which much of the humour is derived from a sudden, rapid-fire delivery of the seven words (see link). The remainder of the routine is a mock-scholarly analysis of why these words are not as bad as the world would have us believe. Here, comic timing is used again as Carlin moves from the rapid list to a more reasoned — but nonetheless funny — dissection of the words.

Rowan Atkinson

Atkinson is another example of timing in this regard. His "No One Called Jones" routine involves his reading a class roll of students at what we can assume is an exclusive English boarding school. In one version of this routine, each name is a double entendre. In this sort of routine, it is very important to use beats, as simply racing through the list would spoil the effect of many of the jokes.

Victor Borge

Commonly recognized as the master of comic timing, Danish-American comedian Victor Borge provides even more examples of this art. Much of his routine involved references to particular pieces of classical music, opera and composers. Having learned English as a second language, Borge was known for frequently playing around with its conventions. A prime example is his question to his audience, "Is there anyone who would like to hear the famous Polonaise in A Flat by Chopin?" After hearing the inevitable calls of "Yes, yes", Borge would respond, "Very well, is there anyone here who can play it?" Another famous line is his explanation for the third foot pedal on a grand piano — "The pedal in the middle is there to separate the other two pedals...(beat)...which could be a problem for those of you who have three feet."

Borge, therefore, builds his audience up to the joke, but only delivers the actual punchline when he is fully aware that they are silent and prepared to hear it. His famous "Inflationary Language" routine demonstrates the other side of this statement. In this routine, Borge adds one to every "number in the language", (making "wonderful" into "two-derful" and so on) and his "Phonetic Punctuation" routine, wherein he assigns a sound to every punctuation mark. These routines then consist of Borge reading a story under one of these systems. The comic timing is seen by the way that he reads alternately slowly and rapidly, in keeping with the action of the story.

Margaret Cho

In addition to the uses mentioned above, a beat can serve to allow the laughter to die down after a punch line so that an unexpected second and even funnier punch line can be delivered. One example from Margaret Cho's repertoire is the following: "I performed at the only gay bar in all of Scotland. It was called CC Bloom's. CC Bloom is the name of the character Bette Midler played in Beaches. That is the gayest thing I've ever heard in my entire life. They should just call it Fuck Me Up The Ass" (laughter) (pause) "...Bar and Grill."

Sacha Baron Cohen

In his mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the character Borat is coached on the importance of comic timing. He is to state "That suit is black (pause) NOT!" However, he does it with both no pause, with too long a pause, and even the word "pause."


Humor can be verbal, visual, or physical.

Root components:


Rowan Atkinson explains in his lecture in the documentary "Funny Business"[12] that an object or a person can become funny in three different ways. They are:

  • By behaving in an unusual way
  • By being in an unusual place
  • By being the wrong size

Most sight gags fit into one or more of these categories.

Humour is also sometimes described as an ingredient in spiritual life. Humour is also the act of being funny. Some synonyms of funny or humour are hilarious, knee-slapping, spiritual, wise-minded, outgoing, and amusing. Some Masters have added it to their teachings in various forms. A famous figure in spiritual humour is the laughing Buddha.

Wit, Or Derisive Humor

The French philosopher Henri Bergson in his Le rire (Laughter, 1911) made the point that wit or derisive humor is a universal corrective for deviancy in the social order. He softened the idea of overt hostility by saying that the creators of wit undergo "a momentary anesthesia of the heart" as they poke fun at the actions of someone. According to Bergson's point of view, wit is a tool of satire in that its purpose is to bring about change. Such thinkers and writers as Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Will Rogers, Carl Sandburg, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Oscar Wilde used their wit to focus attention on the kinds of behavior they thought inappropriate or damaging to society as a whole. Most of the twenty-first century's editorial cartoonists and late-night comedians use wit for similar purposes as they criticize changing social, sexual, religious, and political mores.

John Simon in Paradigms Lost describes wit as "aggressive, often destructive (though one hopes, in a good cause), and almost always directed at others." He compares it to humor, which he describes as "basically good natured and often directed toward oneself, if only by subsumption under the heading 'general human foolishness'" (p. 72).

Simon's description of self-deprecating humor as being "basically good natured" is important in understanding why members of ethnic groups can tell jokes about themselves but get offended when someone from outside the group tells the same joke. When a person is inside a group and clearly identifies with that group, then the telling of a joke about the group usually falls under the category of good-natured encouragement for group members to think about changing their ways. Henry Spalding in his Joys of Jewish Humor (1985) says that many Jewish jokes come in the form of "honey-coated barbs" at the people and things loved most by Jews. While they verbally attack their family and friends as well as their own religion, they do it with a great sense of affection. A joke teller from outside of a group has little or no influence on group beliefs and actions and so by telling such jokes is cementing negative stereotypes rather than bringing about changes.

Christie Davies, who has collected and studied jokes across different cultures, as has the cultural anthropologist Alan Dundes, explains that there is great satisfaction in assigning a negative trait to someone outside of one's own group. Placing negative traits far away from oneself is satisfying because it frees the joke tellers from having to think about whether these characteristics are pertinent to their personalities. The comedy writer Max Shulman, in a 1982 talk at Arizona State University, said something similar when he explained that if one of his stories makes a reader say, "I know someone like that," the reader is amused and laughs. But if the story is so on target that the reader says, "Oh, no, that's me!" the reader is not amused.

Read more:

Superiority Theory

Conflicts over the censorship of humor go back at least to the fifth century B.C.E., when Plato expressed the idea in his Republic that jokes and humorous incidents should be removed from stories about the gods before they are presented to young people. Plato's idea was that if children were amused by the gods, they would feel themselves superior and hence would lose respect.

Several centuries later the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes spelled out more clearly the idea that humor is an expression of superiority. In his 1651 Leviathan, he defined humor as "the sudden glory arising from the sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others." In the seventeenth century Blaise Pascal, a French scientist and philosopher, proposed, "Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees." In 1750 the Scottish philosopher Frances Hutcheson further developed what has come to be known as the incongruity theory. In his Reflections upon Laughter, Hutcheson pointed out that people do not go to asylums to laugh at the "inferior" beings, nor do they laugh at animals except when they resemble human beings. Even when someone slips on a banana peel, observers laugh not because they feel superior but because of the incongruity between expectations and reality.

Release Or Relief Theory

The subjects that people joke about are likely to be things that make them feel unsure or uncomfortable, as with questions about religion, politics, sex, and ethnic differences. People joke about these subjects as a way of releasing feelings of tension and also as a way of sending up trial balloons. If they say something that does not go over well, they can backtrack and hide behind the cliché, "I was only kidding."

At a 1984 humor conference held at Arizona State University, Robert Priest, a psychologist at West Point, reported on his Moderate Intergroup Conflict Humor (MICH) theory. He agreed that for people to be inspired to create a joke they must feel some tension, but he argued that joking will relieve only moderate levels of tension. If groups or individuals are feeling strong—rather than moderate—levels of tension, they will feel frustrated rather than satisfied by jokes. He illustrated his point by showing how history is filled with jokes about the so-called battle of the sexes, but in the late 1970s and the 1980s, as the feminist movement developed and hostilities between men and women increased, sexist joking was no longer viewed as humor. Instead, it was viewed as aggression, and those who told sexist jokes were taken to court and punished for creating hostile workplaces.

A related way of explaining this idea that people need some distance from a problem before they can find humor in it is the statement that "tragedy plus time equals humor." James Thurber has been credited with this observation, but many people, including Steve Allen and Bob Hope, have commented on the idea. After the September 11, 2001, tragedy, it was a topic of general public discussion when comedy clubs and late-night comedians took time off.

Other Views of Humor

While scholars still believe in theories of superiority and hostility and of surprise and incongruity, the twenty-first century's mass media
provides the world with so many different kinds of humor that few scholars try to make observations about all humor. Instead, they study humor to gain insights into their particular areas of expertise. For example, in They Used to Call Me Snow White … but I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor (1991), the feminist scholar Regina Barreca uses examples of women's humor to illustrate how a group's humor is shaped as well as evaluated according to the roles that the members play in society. Henry Louis Gates did something similar in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988) by showing how African-American slaves developed double entendre trickster signifiers because they were denied the use of normal and private communication.

For obvious reasons, performers, comedians
, public speakers, and advertisers are interested in the features or the characteristics of humor. They want to know what makes people laugh so that they can create and re-create such situations. Rhetoricians and teachers of writing are also interested. Mary Ann Rishel, a professor in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, teaches a class in comedy writing and has authored a book on the subject. Her idea is not to prepare students to move to Hollywood or New York to join comedy writing teams. Instead, she wants to use the pleasures of humor to help students develop the skills needed for most kinds of writing: originality of vision, a keen eye for observation, the inclusion of telling details, and most importantly, succinctness.

The historian Joseph Boskin collects joke cycles, what he calls comic zeitgeists, and uses their popularity as data for revealing Americans' preoccupations and attitudes. He concludes his book Rebellious Laughter (1997) with "Tattered Dreams," a chapter about how "the roseate years of expansion" (p. 180) that followed World War II collided with such technological failures as the meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, the radioactive explosion at Chernobyl, the loss of the Challenger space shuttle, and such oil spills as that of the Exxon Valdez. These catastrophes "overwhelmed sensibilities from the late 1970s into the 1990s," and the jokes were as extreme as the events (Boskin, p. 181). They offered "the specter of a totally irrational universe," where the only defense was to engage in what has been labeled "a hellish laughter" (Boskin, p. 190).

Modern literary critics often focus on this kind of humor as they work with deconstructionism, postmodernism, and magical realism. They have long defined satire (which often includes elements of irony and wit) as humor designed for the specific purpose of convincing readers and viewers of the need for some kind of action or a change in attitude and beliefs. On the other hand, black humor or dark humor (also referred to as gallows humor, absurd humor, existentialism, and film noir) illustrates the futility of looking for easy and neat answers to the tragedies of life. In such humor, the lines between fantasy and reality and between tragedy and comedy keep shifting. People laugh because they do not know what else to do. The laughter is itself a testament to the strength of the human spirit in showing that people can laugh in spite of bewilderment, death, and chaos.

Linguists, especially computer programmers working with artificial intelligence and translation, study jokes because their abbreviated scripts leave listeners to fill in the mundane details that "go without saying." Many jokes provide an even greater challenge for computers because they are designed to lead listeners to interpret the story along mundane lines, but then comes the climax or the punch line, which makes listeners laugh in surprise as they realize they have been led "down the garden path." The linguist Victor Raskin at Purdue University is working to program computers with the ability to bring in a myriad of cultural references while simultaneously testing possible interpretations so as to arrive at the one that is "funny." In his book Semantic Mechanisms of Humor (1985) Raskin distinguishes between what he calls bona fide scripts and joke scripts. Joke scripts differ from stereotypes in that a stereotype is an idea that many people seriously believe in and act on, while joke or comic scripts are more literary than sociological or political. They are amusing ideas that serve as the nucleus for folklore. New Englanders do not really believe that French-speaking Canadians are stupid, nor do the British think that the Irish are dirty, nor does the world at large think that Italians are cowards, yet extensive joke scripts circle around these and many other groups. The fact that joke scripts develop rather haphazardly out of the history of particular countries helps to explain why people from different cultures have a hard time catching on to each other's jokes, many of which are variations on old themes or examples of one's expectations being suddenly violated.

The idea of looking at the creation and reception of humor to trace the intellectual (as opposed to the emotional) paths that humor takes through the brain is fairly new. Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation (1964) claims that for people to think in new and creative ways, they must engage in bisociative thinking so as to bring concepts together in original ways. The "Ah!" kind occurs when people have an emotional reaction as they create or recognize artistic originality. The "Aha!" kind occurs when they bring divergent concepts together into scientific discoveries, while the "Ha Ha!" kind occurs with the comic recognition of ridiculous situations.

As indicated by these examples, the humor research of the future is likely to focus on particular kinds of humor as created and received by individuals in particular situations. And as the world grows smaller and people are forced to communicate with and adapt to people with different customs and beliefs, there will probably be increased interest in understanding both the bonding and the out-bonding as well as the release of frustration that comes when people laugh together.

Author E.B. White is the archnemesis of this blog!

Some claim that humour cannot be explained. Author E.B. White once said, "Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind."

The Incongruity Theory... LATTA AND BOYD AND KOESTLER

Humour frequently contains an unexpected, often sudden, shift in perspective, which gets assimilated by the Incongruity Theory. This view has been defended by Latta (1998) and by Brian Boyd (2004). Boyd views the shift as from seriousness to play.

Nearly anything can be the object of this perspective twist; it is, however, in the areas of human creativity (science and art being the varieties) that the shift results from "structure mapping" (termed "bisociation" by Koestler) to create novel meanings.

Arthur Koestler argues that humour results when two different frames of reference are set up and a collision is engineered between them.

The Incongruity Theory... BERGSON

In Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Henri Bergson describes the process of laughter used in particular by comics and clowns, as the caricature of the mechanism nature of humans (habits, automatic acts, etc.)

The Incongruity Theory... FREUD

One of the ideas expressed by Sigmund Freud in his 1905 Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious was that Scatological humor is incongruous in that it "unmasks" people as it reminds them of their animal nature. Freud viewed the jokes that people told as a window to their minds.


who tell stories in sets of three (two to establish a pattern and one to break it) are relying on surprise and incongruity.

The Incongruity Theory... SCHOPENHAUER

Arthur Schopenhauer agreed with HAZLITT in 1844, when he explained in The World as Will and Idea that laughter is a way of acknowledging an incongruity between the conceptions that listeners or viewers hold in their minds and what happens to upset their expectations.

The Incongruity Theory... HAZLITT

William Hazlitt, in his 1819 Lectures on the Comic Writers, credited laughter as coming from the incongruity that results when one idea disconnects or is bumped up against another feeling.

The Incongruity Theory... KANT

The Incongruity Theory originated mostly with Kant, who focused on the requirement of surprise and claimed that laughter is an emotion that arises from a strained expectation suddenly reduced to nothing. (The Critique of Judgment)

In ancient Sanskrit drama..

Bharata Muni's Natya Shastra defined humour (hāsyam) as one of the eight nava rasas, or principle rasas (emotional responses), which can be inspired in the audience by bhavas, the imitations of emotions that the actors perform. Each rasa was associated with a specific bhavas portrayed on stage. In the case of humour, it was associated with mirth (hasya).

Later, in Greek philosophy...

Aristotle, in the Poetics (1449a, pp. 34–35), suggested that an ugliness that does not disgust is fundamental to humor.

Western humour theory begins with...

Plato, who attributed to Socrates in the Philebus (p. 49b) the view that the essence of the ridiculous is an ignorance in the weak, who are thus unable to retaliate when ridiculed.