They laughed when I told them I wanted to be a comedian. Well they’re not laughing now.
Wit is notoriously difficult to analyze, and any effort to do so is likely to turn out dry and witless. But two recent authors have done a remarkably effective job of trying to make sense of what constitutes wit and they manage to do so wittily. That’s a risky venture, which most sensible people would avoid like COVID-19. One book is Wit’s End by James Geary; the other is Humour by Terry Eagleton. The epigraph comes from Eagleton. Both have the good sense to reflect on the subject without analyzing it to death or trampling on the punchline. Eagleton uses Freud as a negative case in point:
Children, insists Freud, lack all sense of the comic, but it is possible he is confusing them with the author of a notoriously unfunny work entitled Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.
Interestingly, Geary says that wit begins with the pun.
Despite its bad reputation, punning is, in fact, among the highest displays of wit. Indeed, puns point to the essence of all true wit—the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time.
In poems, words rhyme; in puns, ideas rhyme. This is the ultimate test of wittiness: keeping your balance even when you’re of two minds.
Groucho’s quip upon entering a restaurant and seeing a previous spouse at another table—“ Marx spots the ex.”
Instead of avoiding ambiguity, wit revels in it, using paradoxical juxtaposition to shake you out of a trance and ask you to consider an issue from a strikingly different angle. Arthur Koestler described the pun as “two strings of thought tied together by an acoustic knot.” There’s an echo here of Emerson’s epigram, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” Misdirection can lead to comic relief but it can also produce intellectual insight.
Geary goes on to show how the joke is integrally related to other forms of creative thought:
There is no sharp boundary splitting the wit of the scientist, inventor, or improviser from that of the artist, the sage, or the jester. The creative experience moves seamlessly from the “Aha!” of scientific discovery to the “Ah” of aesthetic insight to the “Ha-ha” of the pun and the punch line. “Comic discovery is paradox stated—scientific discovery is paradox resolved,” Koestler wrote.
He shows that wit and metaphor have a lot in common.
If wit consists, as we say, in the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time, this is exactly the function of metaphor. A metaphor carries the attention from the concrete to the abstract, from object to concept. When that direction is reversed, and attention is brought back from concept to object, the mind is surprised. Mistaking the figurative for fact is therefore a signature trick of wit.
Hence is it said, kleptomaniacs don’t understand metaphor because they take things literally.
Both wit and metaphor have these qualities in common: “brevity, novelty, and clarity.”
Read my lips. Shoot from the hip. Wit switch hits. Wit ad-libs. It teaches new dogs lotsa old tricks. Throw spaghetti ’gainst the wall—wit’s what sticks. You can’t beat it or repeat it, not even with a shtick. Wit rocks the boat. That’s all she wrote.
Eagleton picks up Geary’s theme of how wit and metaphor are grounded in the “aha” of incongruity.
There are many theories of humour in addition to those we have looked at. They include the play theory, the conflict theory, the ambivalence theory, the dispositional theory, the mastery theory, the Gestalt theory, the Piagetian theory and the configurational theory. Several of these, however, are really versions of the incongruity theory, which remains the most plausible account of why we laugh. On this view, humour springs from a clash of incongruous aspects – a sudden shift of perspective, an unexpected slippage of meaning, an arresting dissonance or discrepancy, a momentary defamiliarising of the familiar and so on. As a temporary ‘derailment of sense’, it involves the disruption of orderly thought processes or the violation of laws or conventions. It is, as D. H. Munro puts it, a breach in the usual order of events.
“The Duke’s a long time coming today,” said the Duchess, stirring her tea with the other hand.
He talks about how humor gives us license to be momentarily freed from the shackles of reason and order, a revolt of the id against the superego. But the key is that reason and order are quickly restored, so the lapse of control is risk free.
As a pure enunciation that expresses nothing but itself, laughter lacks intrinsic sense, rather like an animal’s cry, but despite this it is richly freighted with cultural meaning. As such, it has a kinship with music. Not only has laughter no inherent meaning, but at its most riotous and convulsive it involves the disintegration of sense, as the body tears one’s speech to fragments and the id pitches the ego into temporary disarray. As with grief, severe pain, extreme fear or blind rage, truly uproarious laughter involves a loss of physical self-control, as the body gets momentarily out of hand and we regress to the uncoordinated state of the infant. It is quite literally a bodily disorder.
It is just the same with the fantasy revolution of carnival, when the morning after the merriment the sun will rise on a thousand empty wine bottles, gnawed chicken legs and lost virginities and everyday life will resume, not without a certain ambiguous sense of relief. Or think of stage comedy, where the audience is never in any doubt that the order so delightfully disrupted will be restored, perhaps even reinforced by this fleeting attempt to flout it, and thus can blend its anarchic pleasures with a degree of conservative self-satisfaction.
Like Geary, Eagleton shows how a key to wit is its ability to hone down an issue to a sharp point, which is captured in a verbal succinctness that is akin to poetry.
Wit has a point, which is why it is sometimes compared to the thrust of a rapier. It is rapier-like in its swift, shapely, streamlined, agile, flashing, glancing, dazzling, dexterous, pointed, clashing, flamboyant aspects, but also because it can stab and wound.
A witticism is a self-conscious verbal performance, but it is one that minimises its own medium, compacting its words into the slimmest possible space in an awareness that the slightest surplus of signification might prove fatal to its success. As with poetry, every verbal unit must pull its weight, and the cadence, rhythm and resonance of a piece of wit may be vital to its impact. The tighter the organisation, the more a verbal slide, ambiguity, conceptual shift or trifling dislocation of syntax registers its effect.
There is a strong lesson for writers in this discussion of wit. Sharpen the argument, tighten the prose, focus on “brevity, novelty, and clarity.” Learn from the craft of the poet and the comedian. Less is more.
One problem witb academic writing in particular is that it takes itself too seriously. It pays for us to keep our wit about us as we write scholarly papers, acknowledging that we don’t know quite as much about the subject as we are letting on. Conceding a bit of weakness can be quite appealing. Oscar Wilde: “I can resist anything but tempation.”
Everyday life involves sustaining a number of polite fictions: that we take a consuming interest in the health and well-being of our most casual acquaintances, that we never think about sex for a single moment, that we are thoroughly familiar with the later work of Schoenberg and so on. It is pleasant to drop the mask for a moment and strike up a comedic solidarity of weakness.
It is as though we are all really play-actors in our conventional social roles, sticking solemnly to our meticulously scripted parts but ready at the slightest fluff or stumble to dissolve into infantile, uproariously irresponsible laughter at the sheer arbitrariness and absurdity of the whole charade.