Humor, Literature, and How Amusement Becomes a Muse: Guest Blog by Lori Eby
Updated: Jan 13, 2021
If you want to kill a joke, analyze it. Humor doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny, as we all discover when we come upon a group of laughing friends and ask, “What was so funny?” Nine times out of ten, the humor drips through the sieve of explanation and we’re left standing awkwardly with a flat, humorless “story.” Similarly, studying the dozen or so theories of humor won’t make you laugh, I promise.
Humor is also very personal; things that I find hilariously funny can leave my husband scratching his head and wondering who exactly he married. On the other hand, I have a low tolerance for comedians, and you’ll rarely catch me even browsing movies labeled “comedy.” I’m probably a touch too serious, but I do have a sense of humor, and my favorite books (not labeled “comedic”) are laced with it.
“Show, don’t tell” might be the most common advice given to young writers, and although most stories probably need a bit of showing and a bit of telling, humor in a character brings them to life as well as providing the reader with essential insight into who this person really is. As a bonus, we feel friendly toward (even fictional) people who make us laugh.
I grew up on C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and I find that its characters and situations and stories live in my mind more than any other books. I’d be surprised to hear anyone call The Magician’s Nephew a funny book, but humor plays a significant role in a few scenes. In this book (the first of the series if we’re figuring chronologically), Aslan brings Narnia to life. The Lion is now surrounded by the new-made Talking Beasts he has called into existence. He has just given them voice, and now he speaks:
“Creatures, I give you yourselves,” said the strong, happy voice of Aslan. “I give to you forever this land of Narnia. I give you the woods, the fruits, the rivers. I give you the stars and I give you myself. The Dumb Beasts whom I have not chosen are yours also. Treat them gently and cherish them but do not go back to their ways lest you cease to be Talking Beasts. For out of them you were taken and into them you can return. Do not so.”
“No, Aslan, we won’t, we won’t,” said everyone. But one perky jackdaw added in a loud voice, “No fear!” and everyone else had finished just before he said it so that his words came out quite clear in a dead silence; and perhaps you have found out how awful that can be--say, at a party. The Jackdaw became so embarrassed that it hid its head under its wing as if it were going to sleep. And all the other animals began making various queer noises which are their ways of laughing and which, of course, no one has ever heard in our world. They tried at first to suppress it, but Aslan said:
“Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”
So they all let themselves go. And there was such merriment that the Jackdaw himself plucked up courage again and perched on the cab-horse’s head, between its ears, clapping its wings, and said:
“Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke? Will everybody always be told how I made the first joke?”
“No, little friend,” said the Lion. “You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke.” Then everybody laughed more than ever; but the Jackdaw didn’t mind and laughed just as loud till the horse shook its head and the Jackdaw lost its balance and fell off, but remembered its wings (they were still new to it) before it reached the ground. (1)
Imagine you are writing about a brand new world and want to show that it is a joyful, comfortable place and that the ruler is “a good guy.” Now imagine Lewis introducing Aslan by telling: “Although it was clear that this mighty Lion, ruler and creator of this new world, was awe-inspiring and solemn, he also had a sense of humor and obviously cared about the animals.” Gah! I’d be putting the book down immediately. What Lewis does, though, is set up a scene in which we laugh with the animals.
Even though the jackdaw’s “No fear!” really isn’t a funny response at all, the situation makes it laughable, and we sympathize with the embarrassed jackdaw who probably feels shame and vulnerability. What will happen now? Will he be ostracized or demeaned, laughed away as stupid? Will the other creatures withdraw? How will the Lion respond to their nervous, stifled giggles? The underlying question pervading this scene is the question of whether this is a world where laughter is safe. Does dignity rule out hilarity? Is Aslan’s authority dependent on maintaining order at all costs? Is this a world of pride and hierarchy where dog eats dog and scorning our neighbor takes us to the top?
Aslan’s answer tells us what kind of society this is: “Laugh and fear not,” he says, and later calls the jackdaw not a buffoon but “little friend.” Not only do the other animals burst into relieved gales of laughter (and readers imagining the scene grin too, because laughter is contagious), but the jackdaw also laughs until he loses his perch. To laugh at ourselves, we need to feel safe, and the jackdaw knows now that this space is safe.
In Narnia, both justice and jokes are valued, and both are placed in the realm of thought and speech that distinguishes the Talking Beasts from those without speech. In this brave new world, laughter and camaraderie characterize the first official meeting between the creator and created. This tells us all we really need to know about The Lion and about Narnia as it was meant to be. Additionally, without realizing it, we have become emotionally invested in this community.
An early theory of humor, the Superiority Theory, appeared in the 18th century. Hobbes and also Descartes suggested that laughter is an instinctive response to a feeling of superiority, or perhaps the knowledge that we see something someone else doesn’t (2). In this Narnian scene, however, laughter is a sign of equality, of acceptance, and of humanness.
No theory of humor covers all the bases: laughter can be cruel, or it can show inclusion and acceptance; it can be joyful and playful, or ironical and harsh. For this reason, I find it most helpful to think of humor on a sliding scale, as William Coles suggests in his essay “Humor in Fiction”: “on one spectrum end is buffoonery, ridicule, slip-on-a-banana-peel sort of humor—primarily visual or auditory—and on the other end is humor based on ideas—often incongruous, new awareness, comparisons, mutually understood and agreed upon disparities,” (3). The common element in different types of humor seems to be a sense of discovery or surprise, a knee-jerk response to serendipity.
In relation to art and creativity, this idea of incongruity (also a significant theory of humor) interests me. Like the Superiority Theory, it fails to explain all kinds of laughter, but it suggests that we laugh when we are surprised. Surprise is not always humorous, exactly, but delight and curiosity and discovery somehow all get mixed up with a sense of humor. My poetry teachers taught me to seek the element of surprise in my own creation—if you’re bored, your reader will be bored, they told me.
As an Enneagram One, I used to want to know where the poem would end up before I began, but I soon recognized this as a death wish. Instead, I learned to look for a discovery. Stephen Dunn says, “Your poem effectively begins at the first moment you’ve surprised or startled yourself. Throw away everything that preceded that moment, and begin with that moment,” (4). It is the juxtaposition of “jokes” and “justice,” of hobbits and Mordor, of a Toad in Toad Hall, of “shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings,” that makes art work. It’s the delight of orange and blue in the painting, or the unexpected shape or texture appearing in an abstract work of art.
This love humans have for incongruity explains why creating is part planning, part surprise, and why it’s possible to plan a painting to death. Artists can be way too serious, and we often take ourselves too seriously. Maybe that’s why Julia Cameron counsels us to schedule not practice dates but play dates. Play calls us to trade navel-gazing for curiosity and wonder. Whether it’s in a story or a surprising image, a sense of humor might save our souls—and our art.
(1) Lewis, C.S. The Magician’s Nephew. 1955. HarperCollins, 1994.
(2) For an overview of humor theory more accessible than the books I read in grad school, see this overview:
Morreall, John. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/humor/.
(3) Coles, William. “Humor and Fiction.” Story in Literary Fiction. www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/how-humor-works-in-literary-fiction/
(4) Dunn, Stephen. “The Poet as Teacher: Vices and Virtues.” Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry.” BOA Editions, 2001. 137-44.
Lori Eby is a dabbler who reads a little, writes a little, bikes a little, and teaches a little. She received a BS from Frostburg State University (2006) and an MA from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (2016), both in English Literature. She loves following intellectual bunny trails searching for serendipity. (She also enjoys a good oxymoron.)