On the Lighter Side
The study of humor can be serious business
By Stephen E. Smith
“Who was Alexander the Great’s father?” my 11th grade history teacher asked (this was back in the day when educators expected students to know a little something about world history). Before anyone could raise his or her hand, my friend Norman Alton, slumped in the desk beside me, blurted out his answer: “Philip’s Milk of Macedonia!”
Norman wasn’t the class clown. He didn’t make monkey faces or squawk like a jungle bird. He was the class wit, a usually subdued presence whose occasional response to teachers’ questions exhibited a startling degree of wordplay and a remarkable, if somewhat perverse, intellectual insight. Philip’s Milk of Macedonia: Everyone laughed, even the thickheaded ones. Even the teacher.
James Geary’s latest book, Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It, explains how Norman’s agile, word-warping mind worked, analyzing the bits and pieces of intellect and psychology that conspire to make wit and its resultant humor a force in our lives. And Geary would seem to be the man for the job. He’s deputy curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the author of I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, the New York Times best-selling The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism and Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists.
The book opens with a dissertation on the pun. Punning is typically regarded as the lowest form of humor (make a pun and you’ll elicit a chorus of groans), but it isn’t a simplistic exercise; it involves two incongruent concepts connected by sound and, if it’s a truly clever pun, it demonstrates a degree of insight that delights with its absurdity. “Puns straddle the happy fault where sound and sense collide,” writes Geary, “where surface similarities of spelling and pronunciation meet above conflicting seams of meaning.” Philip of Macedonia and Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia have nothing in common except, when spliced together, an unexpected degree of silliness and a certain similarity in sound and structure.
Apparently, Geary counted the puns in Shakespeare’s plays: “There are some 200 puns in Love’s Labour’s Lost, 175 in Romeo and Juliet, 150 in each of the Henry IV plays, and upward to 100 in Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well.” And he offers fascinating facts aplenty: Lincoln was an avid punster. The notion that Adam and Eve chomped into an apple is a misinterpretation of the Vulgate where the adjective form of “evil” malus, is malum, which happens to be the word for apple, thus fixing the misidentification of the apple as the offending fruit. Geary also includes enough obscure puns to last a lifetime, e.g., English essayist Charles Lamb was introduced by a friend who asked him, “Promise, Lamb, not to be sheepish.” Lamb replied, “I wool.” Lamb went on to write an essay entitled: “That the Worst Puns are the Best.” And when Groucho walked into a restaurant where his ex-wife was dining, he proved Lamb right: “Marx spots the ex.” All right, you can groan now.
Geary then delves into “witty banter,” couching his observations in an original faux 18th century play riddled with contemporary allusions. Using research paper format (who among us wants to read another research paper?), Geary explains how the brain reacts to wit and humor, and in a slightly more interesting chapter he explores the neurobiological mechanism of wit — the ability to hold in mind two differing ideas about the same thing at the same time — asserting that comedians who are bipolar have an advantage over their less afflicted peers. If you’re an old-timer, you’ll be reminded of Jonathan Winters, who gave us Maude Frickert and Elwood P. Suggins from Bellbrook, Ohio, a yokel who’d seen “some 76” flying saucers. But Geary focuses on a more derivative and annoying comedian, Robin Williams, as a prime example of a bipolar individual who could make instant disconnected connections. He also presents numerous examples of individuals who suffered bouts of unrestrained wit, such as the case of a 57-year-old man who began constantly joking, laughing, and singing. “After the patient’s death, his wife discovered scores of Groucho Marx glasses, spinning bow ties, hand buzzers, and squirting lapel flowers in their garage. An autopsy showed asymmetric frontotemporal atrophy and Pick’s disease.”
Neurological mechanisms notwithstanding, readers are likely to find their attention waning in chapters such as “Perfect Witty Expressions and How to Make Them” (can we be taught to be witty?), “Advanced Banter” and “An Ode to Wit,” which falls with a predictable thud. In an especially cringe-worthy chapter on “jive,” Geary explains “Dozens,” a form of interactive insult which is “a part of African-American tradition of competitive verbal invention” in which combatants face off before a crowd and “direct aspersions at their adversary’s shortcoming”: Your mother is so ugly that she has to . . . ” He also includes a lengthy out-of-date jive glossary — “Cat: A cool, witty person,” “Chippies: Young women,” “Eighty-eight (88): Piano,” “Knowledge box: Brain,” etc., — which is completely unnecessary.
Do we need to understand the mechanisms at work in the creation of humor? Probably not. But quick-witted people charm and amuse us; we appreciate them, crediting them, whether they deserve it or not, with a high degree of intelligence. Any understanding of how the witty mind works only deepened our appreciation of their talent. And there’s much that’s entertaining and informative in Wit’s End; unfortunately, Geary’s use of various literary conceits and his incessant cleverness wears thin and eventually begs the question: Is it possible to be too clever when investigating cleverness?
My old friend Norman Alton, who is by now on a first name basis with Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia, knew a good quip when he’d delivered one. He didn’t push it. As we all cackled, he remained silent and straight-faced, accepting our laughter as praise.
Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.