E B White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” From time to time I treat humor as a topic for serious analysis, knowing beforehand how few people will be interested and that a joke's internal organs cease functioning as soon as I lay them on our metal tray for examination.
Many years ago, I was reading a New Yorker piece, "Coyote v Acme Company," a lawsuit filed on behalf of the long-suffering coyote of Roadrunner fame. I had been chuckling throughout, but then I came to a list enumerating the results of an Acme bomb's untimely detonation:
1. Severe singeing of the hair on the head, neck, and muzzle.
2. Sooty discoloration.
3. Fracture of the left ear at the stem, causing the ear to dangle in the aftershock with a creaking noise.
4. Full or partial combustion of the whiskers, producing kinking, frazzling, and ashy disintegration.
5. Radical widening of the eyes, due to brow and lid charring.
What is it about the third item that struck me as so hilarious? What can other humorists learn from it?
Of course, taken out of context, the list isn't be as funny and scarcely even makes sense. The essay is delightful from start to finish; it just reached a peak for me at that moment. Just seeing the title, "Coyote v Acme," brings an anticipatory smile to the reader.
One of Ian Frazier's specialties I call "Appropriated Language." It works like this: take a highly distinctive and self-serious writing style - a legal complaint, the King James Bible, a stockholder's report - and apply it to an everyday situation, for example, the directions for assembling a bookcase written like something from Leviticus. In a way, this is just the principle of keeping a straight face while telling a joke: the subject matter is humorous, but the writing style itself is absolutely deadpan and unsmiling. Half the joke is the bubbling sensation that the speaker doesn't realize it's funny. The trick is finding a combination of style and content that is so unexpected and yet so perfectly apt.
Frazier hits upon the perfect combination in at least two other pieces, "How to Operate the Shower Curtain," a maddeningly explicit instruction manual for an overnight guest, and "Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father:"
"And though the pieces of broccoli are very like small trees, do not stand them upright to make a forest, because we do not do that, that is why. Sit as I have told you, and do not lean to one side or the other, nor slide down until you have almost slid away. Heed me; for if you sit like that, your hair will go into the syrup. And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass."
What combination of instinct, luck, or trial and error gave Frazier this idea we can't know, but what a jewel it is. The diction of the frustrated father and frustrated Yahweh are so similar as are their relationships to their willful children, it takes only the slightest adjustment to change, "Now look, that's just what I said would happen," into "And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass." The match between the appropriated style and the content has to be so far far-fetched and at the same time so precise that it isn't merely comic, it seems necessary and inevitable; the reader feels he's discovering something he has thought of himself, but that somehow Frazier got around to writing it first. We'd been waiting all our lives for Wiley Coyote to sue Acme.
I believe it was the cartoonist Brian Savage who said a cartoon must contain time. Even in a one-panel cartoon of a man in front of a firing squad, there's time. Not much, but some. The reader's reconstruction of the past or foreseeing an outcome is the source of his delight in humor. Chuck Jones, the animator of the Roadrunner cartoons, was past master at manipulating time. He knew how to freeze a moment, so when the coyote runs off a cliff, he hangs midair until he has time to study the precipitous distance below and then look at the audience in blinking dismay. When a catapulted boulder smashes him, we never see it hit. Instead, he is blanketed under a widening shadow, and then BAM. The rock is suddenly just there, filling the entire screen, a few puffs of dust rising around it.
Frazier has the same gift with time, but must work in the more recalcitrant medium of words. The impersonal diction of legalese or poetry of King James is essentially timeless, not in the sense that it never changes - although that too - but that it seems to refer to some arid desert of eternity where change does not intrude. It's Frazier's gift for smuggling in bits of time in the stiffest of prose styles that raises his work from something that merely could be great into something that is. Watching the child slide down in his seat until his hair is in the syrup, or hearing the woeful creak of the coyote's half-severed ear: those are the moments we laugh so hard we put down the book.