Here’s something entertaining: the appearance on The New Yorker magazine’s video channel of my favourite You-tubers, Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, hosts of Rhett and Link’s Good Mythical Morning channel, and authors of Rhett and Link’s Book of Mythicality. The New Yorker no less! Finally! They have reached the pinnacle of sophisticated American humour, the laid-back, citified subtleties and sarcasm beloved of New Yorkers.
These two were asked, alongside other famous humorists, to take a shot at The New Yorker’s cartoon-caption contest which is a regular feature of the magazine. In the short video of 6.5 minutes, they demonstrate their ability to think up a funny caption for a picture, which may, or may not, look inherently funny. And how did they do it? They wrote fast; went with their gut reactions; and interpreted the situation in each picture accurately by picking up small details. And they said it’s better to do it when you’re on your lonesome ownsome. See if you can spot the comedic devices they used. (No cheating – answers at the bottom of the page.)
Here is a list of comedic devices or ways of expressing, or evoking, humour. Which ones will work for what depends on the culture and the language of the person you want to make laugh. What’s funny in China would probably not be funny in Canada (with the exception of physical humour and slapstick, which is universally amusing.) This explains why humour, when translated, works better when it is completely recreated in the new language.
Each device works best, depending on how the joke is presented – as a picture or video, spoken, as text, or physically demonstrated. I have yet to get a joke written in code or presented as a taste or smell. Is it even possible to have a collection of smells that will make people laugh? Can anything taste funny – as in funny ha-ha, not funny peculiar?
Imagine being a stand-up comedian and having to write a show and decide on a device that works best with a topic or an image, or having to come up with them at the drop of a hat, depending on the audience reaction, like on the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? It takes effort, great language fluency and a lightning-fast mind. Robin Williams, with his marvellous wit, used all of these techniques, whether he was ad-libbing or performing, and often used some of them simultaneously.
- hyperbole / exaggeration
- double entendre (saying something that has two meanings, often one is rude)
- oxymorons (an idea that contradicts itself)
- pun (intentionally confusing two homophones)
- juxtaposition / incongruity
- combining opposites
- mistaken identity
- black humour ( taboo, shocking, gruesome or death references)
- blue humour (sexual tension or innuendo)
- dry humour / deadpanning (all sorts of humour, delivered without emotion or passion – or exclamation marks)
- farce / Improbable coincidences
- attribution swapping
- extremism / screwballing
- parody / spoofing (to imitate, make fun of, or comment on a work by creating a less flattering version of the original)
- satire (poking fun at society or politics by exaggerating particular aspects)
- clowning / misunderstanding (deliberately misinterpreting clear information)
- anticipating a flawed plan
- acting like a fish out of water
- role reversal
- absurdity / surrealism (magical thinking, situations beyond this world, outrageous things that are described as normal)
- observational / situational comment (describes an over-idealized version of the world – the joke is that the situation or an aspects of it is not perfect)
- highbrow (containing “intellectual” references that are obscure or obtuse)
- physical or slapstick humour (works best when presented physically or using video)
Probable answers to how Rhett and Link captioned those cartoons
(Note that they did it very quickly and were probably not putting mental labels on the specific techniques they were using. They have a natural tendency towards understated black humour.)
- Eden: pun/ play on words; blue humour
- Office: combining opposites; incongruity
- Bedroom: surrealism; physical humour; attribute swopping? Perhaps highbrow?
- Hamster wheel: incongruity
- Royal cat: Black humour; satire
- Airport: Black humour
- Party: fish out of water; observational
- Apocalypse: understatement; black humour
- Pirates: farce; anticipating a flawed plan