Sunday, November 27, 2011

Humor Categories

Rather than categorize comedy by its humorous subject matter, comedy can be distinctly categorized between the ill-bred, insolent, profligate, and obscene or the elegant, polite, witty, and good humored by categorizing humor by its delivery device. 

Distinguishing comedy as humor applied to tragedy or to celebration gives us a clue as to why we laugh rather than weep at the mishaps of others. 

Humor is an inherently adaptive device and can be applied to tragedy or to celebration. Humor applied to tragedy shifts the realism of it into an extreme metaphysical truth, comically confronting the end of life or the sadness associated with loss and despair. 

Applying humor to tragedy doesn't make tragedy funny; it simply utilizes humor as a device to communicate a tragic message. Laughter in the presence of tragic humor is common, however, it is humor as a device, which has been adapted to a concept (in this case, tragedy) that instigates the laughter, not the tragedy itself. 

Humor applied to celebration steers us toward happiness in a delightful and engaging way. Focusing on celebration improves our mood and allows us to capitalize on our strengths. 

There are a number of neural mechanisms associated with the biological bases of altruism and the effects of positive interventions on the brain. 

Martin Seligman is the Director of Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of positive psychology, a branch of psychology which focuses on the empirical study of positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions. Dr. Seligman unveiled his theory on positive psychology in his book Flourish. 

The effects of positive emotions gives us further insight into how and perhaps why humor should be categorized according to its delivery device. In this way, a joke can be associated with positivity or negativity.

Often times, negative jokes are inadvertently told at the expense of another person's pain. This is why jokes can be offensive and evoke negative responses. However, it is not always the intention of the person delivering the joke to offend. The ambiguity in how we define 'humor' causes confusion as to how a joke should be categorized, further compounding the uncertainty about why some jokes fail to elicit genuine laughter. While laughter has been the historical barometer as to whether or not a joke was funny, negative humor should not be automatically categorized with positive humor just because it causes someone to laugh.

It is for this reason that I feel categorizing jokes and comedy delivery devices according to positive (celebratory) or negative (tragic) concepts is important, which can allow us to debunk a joke and choose one according to our intention rather than because someone previously laughed. The person who laughed was most likely not person about whom the joke was told. 


Cynicism causes us to question whether something will happen or more precisely, whether it is worthwhile in the first place. Cynicism is pessimism about the future. 

Invectives are insulting, abusive, or highly critical language. 

Irony is the purposeful expression of an opposite for humorous or emphatic effect. It references dramatic or tragic concepts, such as those used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of the character's words or actions are clear to the audience or reader but unknown to the character. 

Quips are quick and inventive verbal humor, similar to irony in the respect that the speech is usually directed at an individual rather than an object. Quips utilize ambiguous language or prevaricates to conceal the truth. 

Satire utilizes comedic applications of tragic humor such as irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices. 

Negative humor is contemptuous in nature and uses scorn and sarcasm to deliver a concealed message rather than emphasizing achievement, delight, joy, happiness, pride, success, or satisfaction, as is commonly expressed in positive humor. 


Aphorisms are concise or terse statements used to express an idea. Historically, aphorisms developed from the Spartan propensity for austerity and were used in military jargon for means of efficiency, for philosophical reasons (Stoic minimalism) or to reference scientific principles as an aid in defensive strategy. 

Aphorisms developed into dry wit or "laconic humor," which contrasted with the refined, poignant, delicate humor of Athenian "Attic salt" or "Attic wit" (prestigious dialect spoken in Attica). 

Hippocrates' "Life is show, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive, judgment difficult" is an example of this type of humor, which later evolved into maxims that utilize the same concise, cleverly and pithily delivered language to express a subjective truth or observation. 

Folklore utilizes the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories to describe and transmit valuable information to a community as a tool for adaptation and survival. Folklore, therefore, consists of legends, music, oral, history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales, theologies, and customs that attempt to "preserve" the community as an aesthetic unit. 

Maxims are short, pithy statements expressing a general truth or rule of conduct that developed from an austere application of adaptation and survival. Maxims were concisely expressed subjective principles of behavior intended to motivate individuals toward future action. The advent of prior success, developed into principles or rules, which were then judged as moral if they had universal value. Once a maxim was judged universal (i.e., moral), it was verbally expressed with the same austerity from which it derived, resulting in a short statement subjectively understood as action that would, by nature, yield positive outcomes. The maxims therefore "motivated" individuals to repeat actions that would strengthen the community as an aesthetic unit. 

Mot pour fire is a "complimentary" expression that acknowledges an individual who evokes humor irrespective of the circumstance, tragedy or celebration. I have listed it as a positive humorous device given its "complimentary" delivery. It is the epitome of acknowledgement and adaptation verbally expressed. "That was a hoot," and "You crack me up" are English examples of the French expression "Tu a toujours le mot pour rire" (you always have a funny thing to say). 

Parables are succinct stories, delivered in prose or verse that illustrate one or more instructive principles or lessons. They differ from fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human characters. 

Parables, as a device, use a prescriptive subtext suggestion indicating how a person should behave or believe, while providing guidance and suggestions for proper action in life. Parables generally refer to any fictive illustration that might naturally occur, by which spiritual and moral matters might be conveyed. Parables "teach" an abstract argument, using a concrete narrative, which is more easily grasped, for the "benefit of the community" as an aesthetic unit. 

Plaisanteries are inconsequential remarks made as part of "polite" conversation that often times result in a laugh at ones own "pleasantry".  Plaisanteries include cultural bandinages and witty conversations about art and life. The energie is light in mood, and is structured like a fast gavotte dance, sharing the same energie as the rigaudon, a lively, French, baroque, folk dance for couples. 

Some historical plaisanteries include "Jamais you ne sommes plus heureux sue quand nos plaisanteries font rire la bonne" (Never are we as happy as when our jokes result in laughter from the good) by Jules Renard; "Quand on observe la nature, on y découvre les plaisanteries dune ironic supérieure" (When you observe truth in nature, there you discover the pleasantries of superior irony) by Honore de Balzac; and "Tant qu'on fait fire, c'est des plaisanteries. Dès sue c'est pas droll, c'est des insultes" (As long as we laugh, they're jokes. As soon as it's not funny, they're insults) by Coluche. 

Proverbs are short, pithy sayings that are concise as they are forceful in their expression. Existing since ancient times, the Book of Proverbs or the "Proverbs of Solomon" were wise sayings in the context of transmitting knowledge for ones own household, royal setting, or house of learning. Proverbs offered "advice for successful living" and were ostensibly written as a legacy for the "benefit of offspring or future generations." 

Wit is the aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to invoke humor. Like parables, wit makes something already said or referenced clearer. Wit utilizes intelligence, shrewdness, astuteness, cleverness, common sense, wisdom, sagacity, judgment, acumen, insight, savvy, or what is called "street smarts" as a repartee, badinage, banter, or wordplay. 

Puns fall under the category of applied wit, much like comedy falls under the category of applied humor. 

Categorizing comedy delivery devices according to a positive or negative nature allows us to freely choose which message we intend to deliver as we explore the heights of the humor scale and expand our definition and understanding of what makes something funny - or not. 

When people can look to humor and feel uplifted rather than apprehensive, that will be the day when we've raised the expectations of humor to the level where humor's true power resides. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011


In my previous post on selected Epitaphia from the Anecdota SCHOWAH Number One, I selected some of my favorite epitaphs to share. 

An epitaph is a short text honoring a deceased person that is inscribed on their tombstone or plaque. Some epitaphs are in poem verse, though most are brief records of the person's life, death, and notable achievements or relationship to family members. 

An Epigram is a brief, witty statement. 

"There is little difference between epigram and epitaph. Both genres aim at brevity; both frequently employ heroic couplets; both allow either serious grace of thought or pointed wit (i.e., Greek Anthology)." Peter Thorpe, Eighteenth century English poetry. 

The name epigram is derived from the Greek word for "inscription." 

In 18th century literary circles, epigrams were often given as gifts to patrons or published for pure enjoyment as entertaining verses. Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined an epigram: "What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole; its body brevity, and wit its soul." 

Epigrams and inscriptions on funeral monuments date back to the classical and Hellenistic epoch of ancient Greece when funerals included joyful elements such as games, competitions, dancing, and even carnal acts intended to recreate life and restore balance to the earth in response to a belief that nature was dying. 

These festivals represented a combination of mourning for the dead followed by a celebration of new life. In ancient times, the Earth's fertility was related to a woman's fertility, so naturally it was presupposed that human death was correlated with the dying of nature.

Roman epigrams were more satirical than Greek ones, and at times, used obscene language for effect. Latin epigrams were more like graffiti, though not in the modern sense of social and political unrest. 

"The enjoyment in the food, good mood and laughter that followed, fits into the interpretation of eating as an act of confirmation and manifestation of life." Plato, Republica, 2, 363, c. Aristophanes, Fragmenta, 488,6.

The relationship between the grave and food is also notated in Roman sources. Culina initially referred to the place where the meal was sacrificed for the dead. From this word, we derived culinary, and all the words group around the same family that in many modern languages denote skills of cookery and many concepts related to gastronomy. 

The main source for Greek literary epigrams is the Greek Anthology, a 10th century AD compilation of older editions of epigrams from the Hellenistic period through the Imperial period and Late Antiquity into the compiler's own Byzantine era - a thousand years of short elegiac texts on every topic under the sun. The Anthology includes one book of Christian epigrams as well as an amorous book of epigrams called "The Boyish Muse." 

Connecting comedy (applied humor) to myth and ritual is not new. The original convergence of early attitudes toward life and death, laughter and tears, and comedy and tragedy, resulted in two separate concepts: celebratory and tragic humor. The act of laughing at a funeral was the first sign that mourners were returning to the reality of living. 

Death and humor can therefore be seen as two aspects of the same phenomena, with one of those aspects always representing the parody of the other. The humor of our ancestors was a hubristic, defiance directed toward the gods, an exercise in the early concepts of free will and our ability to affect our environment, even if only by our ridicule of it. 

In this respect, tragic moments expressed in epigrams, transformed tragedy into something humorous. While, applying humor to tragedy does not make tragedy funny, the history of the funeral rite gives us insight as to how the two became linked. 

Our ancestors transformed tragic moments into small festivities - into the carnival - challenging and reinforcing the forces of life and our innate ability to laugh in the face of death. 

Humor, when applied independently, is a communicative (verbal or physical) device that is adaptive in nature and can be applied to either celebration or tragedy. In this way, humor is an ancient adaptive tool employed during natural cycles of life and death, providing a balance against tragedy.

Humor is, therefore, an adaptive inherent trait that is maintained and evolved by means of natural reaction and selection. Humor intensifies the absurdity of everyday problems that preoccupy people, in relation to the shortness of life and its termination. Accordingly, it can be applied to celebration or tragedy. Humor, applied to tragedy, shifts the realism of it into an extreme metaphysical truth, comically confronting the end of life, which gives "black humor" its power to oppose anything and anyone (anarchist humor). 

The development of humor is a natural reaction.  It allows us to laugh in the face of death. We laugh at tragedy, we laugh at changes in our environment, and we laugh at changes in ourselves. Laughter, as such, is a conscious action. We can choose to laugh "at" someone, "with" someone, or not at all. 

I refuse to remain fixated in the belief that tragedy is funny. Historically, mourning came first, whereas humor was a corrective that resulted from our collective unconscious, giving us in exchange, the regenerative power of life-giving laughter.

Orator, lawyer, politician, philosopher
(106BC - 43BC)


Selected Epitaphia from the 
Anecdota SCHOWAH Number One: 


Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs.
Richard II, Act II, Scene ii

The Body 
Benjamin Franklin, 
(Like the cover of an old book, 
Its contents torn out, 
And stript of its lettering and gilding,) 
Lies here, food for worms. 
Yet the work itself shall not be lost, 
For it will, as he believed, appear once more, 
In a new
And more beautiful edition, 
Corrected and amended
The Author. 

Let there be no inscription upon my tomb; 
let no man write my epitaph.
Robert Emmet

Here lies the body of Johnny Haskell, 
A lying, thieving, cheating rascal; 
He always lied, and how he lies, 
He has no soul and cannot rise. 

Here, reader, turn your weeping eyes, 
My fate a useful moral teaches; 
The hole in which my body lies
Would not contain one half my speeches. 

Here lies the body of Jonathan Stout. 
He fell in the water and never got out, 
And still is supposed to be floating about. 

Here lies the body of Mary Ann Bent, 
She kicked up her heels, and away she went.

Here lies a man that was Knott born, 
His father was Knott before him, 
He lived Knott, and did Knott die, 
Yet underneath this stone doth lie. 

It wasn’t a cough that carried him off, 
It was a coffin they carried him off in. 

Here lies my wife in earthly mould, 
Who, when she liv’d, did naught but scold; 
Peace, wake her not, for now she’s still, 
She had, but now I have my will. 

As I am now, so you must be, 
Therefore prepare to follow me. 
[Written under:]
To follow you I’m not content, 
How do I know which way you went? 

Here lies Sir John Guise: 
No one laughs, no one cries:
Where he’s gone, and how he fares
No one knows, and no one cares. 

On the twenty-second of June
Jonathan Fiddle went out of tune. 

Grim death took me without any warning, 
I was well at night, and dead at nine in the morning. 

Here lies a bailiff who oft arrested men, 
And for large bribes did let them go again,
Now seized by death, no gold can set him free, 
For death’s a catchpole proof against a fee.

Reader pass on, ne’ever waste your time
On bad biography and bitter rhyme;
For what I am this cumbrous clay insures, 
And what I was, is no affair of yours.

Here I lie, and no wonder I am dead, 
For the wheel of a wagon went over my head.

Here lies Jane Smith, 
Wife of Thomas Smith, Marble Cutter. 
This monument was erected by her husband
As a tribute to her memory
And a specimen of his work. 
Monuments of this same style are
Two hundred and fifty dollars. 

The manner of her death was thus: 
She was druv over by a Bus. 

Since I was so quickly done for, 
I wonder what I was begun for. 

A jolly landlord once was I, 
And kept the old King’s head, hard by; 
Sold mead and gin, cyder and beer, 
And eke all other kinds of cheer; 
Till death my license took away, 
And put me in this house of clay; 
A house at which you all must call, 
Sooner or later, great and small. 

Copies Printed
Here lies the Grabhorn Press. 

Historically, jokes have been related to human frailties and their close relationship to our subjective lives, shifting abruptly from realism to metaphysical truth. Humor allows us to overcome the feelings of helplessness in the presence of death, reducing everything to the absurdity felt in self-awareness, which allows us to laugh and may indeed be the only antidote for living. 

“If I did not laugh I should die.” 
Abraham Lincoln

(Anecdota SCOWAH no. 1) San Francisco: 
Privately printed for members of the Roxburghe Club, April 1, 1962.
Courtesy The Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, San Francisco Public Library

Anecdota Scowah - Number One

On April Fools’ Day, 1947, Nat Schmulowitz (1889 – 1966), a nationally known attorney, civic leader and bibliophile in San Francisco, California, donated ninety-three volumes, five hundred dollars, and an edition of the Hundred Merry Tales, towards the establishment of the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor (SCOWAH). 

Francis K. Langpaap, retired head of cataloging, wrote in her reminiscence of Schmulowitz that she recalled him saying, “It’s a disease! My spare moments are completely filled with reading catalogues and sending orders. It’s a wonderful, wonderful disease!”

During the 1950s and 1960s, Nat Schmulowitz published at the Grabhorn Press, five keepsakes titled, ANECDOTA SCOWAH, for his fellow members of the Roxburghe Club in San Francisco. The Roxburghe Club was formed in San Francisco on April 3, 1928, in honor of the original Roxburghe Club of England, a renowned bibliophilic society (itself named after the Duke of Roxburghe). 

“It is our hope that ANECDOTA SCOWAH will be regarded as medicine for a variety of mental ailments – as antidotes to continuous cold wars, chronic disorders, and the numerous etceteras in the catalog of life’s miseries.” 

It would seem that the ANECDOTA SCOWAH was Schmulowitz’s antidote for the ills of the world. 

It was Mr. Schmulowitz’s own fascination with humor that kept him adding to the collection himself. Throughout the years, Schmulowitz added to the collection, sometimes at a rate of one hundred items per month, which he gathered from around the world in a diligent and far-reaching search for materials. Amassing over 20,000 volumes and 160 periodical titles, in more than 35 languages and dialects, spanning more than four centuries, Schmulowitz was to Wit & Humor what Poggio was to the rediscovery of classical Latin texts. 

Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380 – 1459) was an Italian scholar, Papal secretary, and Renaissance humanist credited with the invention of the Roman type.  Bracciolini ran a joke club at the Vatican called the Bugiale - the “fib factory” - where papal scribes would gather at the end of a long day to hang out and tell scandalous stories. 

During Poggio’s travels through Europe, Poggio recovered, copied, and disseminated a great number of classical Latin texts that he discovered in German and French monastic libraries. It is thanks to Poggio that we have Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, the architectural writings of Vitruvius, additional orations of Cicero, and of course, Poggio’s own Facetiæ, a 1451 collection of humorous and indecent tales in Latin. The Vatican did not condemn the volume, though it mostly contained invectives and salacious jokes. It was presumed that the jokes would only be savored by the clerical class and would not corrupt the morals of the masses that were not fluent enough read in Latin.

The Schmulowitz collection notably holds the works of Nasreddin Hojah*, the Facetiæ of Poggio, a number of Joe Miller joke books, and an impressive collection of periodicals such as Nebelspalter (Switzerland), Eulen-spiegel (Germany), Le Canard enchaîné (France), Lao Fu Tzu (Hong Kong) and, of course, Mad Magazine.

Schmulowitz distributed a catalog to friends, acquaintances, and libraries around the world in 1962.  A supplement to this catalog was published in 1977. The Book Arts & Special Collections Department at the San Francisco Public Library has been working diligently cataloging the collection. To date, the English language collection has been catalogued, with the foreign language collection being worked on now. Andrea V. Grimes, Special Collections Librarian, ensures the visibility of the collection by selecting key materials for the annual wit & humor exhibition, which she curates on behalf of the San Francisco Public Library. 

Following Mr. Schmulowitz’s death in 1966, Kay Schmulowitz, his sister, continued to support the collection with generous donations until her death in June 1984. Income from the combined bequests of both Nat and Kay Schmulowitz contribute substantially in maintaining the collection. 

In my next post, I will share my exploration of Schmulowitz’s “rare, obscure or choice anecdotes, or superior items of wit and humor which may be found in a comprehensive collection upon those subjects in their broadest significance," which thanks to Schmulowitz will be enjoyed for many generations to come. 

With special thanks to: 
Andrea V. Grimes, Special Collections Librarian
San Francisco Public Library