It is a safe bet that, if one’s voice naturally found its tenor at what might be constituted as a disputatious row, we would, rather quickly, cease to believe he be perpetually angry, but merely irritating. If one’s eyes resembled the First Flood at the sight of every minor misdeed the world put forth, we would equally decipher this candidate as not to embody Empathy itself, but Shallowness. If it were one’s predilection to encode all of one’s statements with hidden meanings, we would likewise understand this character as not infinitely interesting, but rather a purveyor of falsified information. And it is this healthy suspicion of the abject that may be safely translated in understanding why most contrivances of humor today are so outrageously unfunny: there lacks a baseline, irreverence palls as the new orthodoxy, and the signaling that one was “just kidding” makes the whole thing into a total joke. Luckily for us, no philosophical exploration is required to better ourselves as regards this matter. The formula? Euphemism, Understatement, Overstatement.
Why does this combination work? It greatly enhances the most important elements of humor: tension, misdirection, unpredictability. If things were, as they currently are, one giant, ostentatious break of decorum, then all Funny ceases to exist, and one is merely in observance of a kind of anarchy, a form of government entirely without nuance: pooh-pooh. For a fix, seek no further than a therapeutically winsome dose of nineteenth-century irony. The art of laughter reached perfection in Jerome K. Jerome’s 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat, a novel teeming with decorous interpretations of the indecorous, deadpan observance of the grotesque, and—with the good conscience not to laugh at itself—tasteful overreaction to the mundane; a novel I should wager as a remedy for the recent comedic unpleasantness.
By those much wiser than we, the gentle Euphemism has been exposed over the last hundred years or so as “being fake” or “not keeping it real;” the sagacious horde responsible for this social enlightenment reminds us that not all of us have been blessed with such significant neurodiversity as to know the “real” to be better represented by grunts and bludgeonings. However, we press onward in our ignorance, for we know euphemisms to be the direct path to a good laugh, and that is, after all, what we Cretans desire most.
Euphemisms are our baseline—a place of secure inoffensiveness—and come ready-made for humor, as their very existence depends on irony. Consider J., the narrator and main character of Three Men in a Boat, and his delineation to a local doctor of his many maladies. Whereupon, said medical professional sniffs out a hypochondriac and writes J. a helpful prescription, which J. “did not open,” and on which was written:
1 lb beefsteak, with
1 pt bitter beer
Every six hours.
1 ten-mile walk every morning.
1 bed at 11 sharp every night.
And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.
When J. tenders this prescription to a chemist, who “read it, and then handed it back,” and “said he didn’t keep it,” J. is inclined to ask if the man truly is a chemist, whereupon a wonderful euphemism occurs: “I am a chemist. If I was a co-operative stores and family hotel combined, I might be able to oblige you. Being only a chemist hampers me.” Through just this wee smidgen of propriety, humor is created. The Wise Ones would have preferred this line to read a bit more in the imperative, contain a few four-letter imprecations, and a gun to someone’s head, but that’s why we remain the unenlightened.
If the Euphemism is our baseline, then the Understatement is our gentlemen’s agreement, a subtle handshake of understanding that the writer enjoys with the reader without offending his sensibilities by asking if he “gets it” or by reminding him it was a joke. The Understatement is the king of humorous narrative-modes. According to Thomas Whissen in his book A Way with Words, the Understatement “is a sophisticated type of irony in which the speaker wants to be tactful and truthful at the same time.” Additionally, Whissen writes that true irony, much like the definition of true wit, is difficult to master, for it requires “two meanings [to be] conveyed, one literal, the other intended.” Furthermore, he reassures us that “[i]t is the tension between the two meanings that produces the ironic effect.”
As a general thing, Three Men in a Boat is laden with Understatement, indeed to the extent wherein one laughs even more at the consideration that he might not be reading humor at all. Consider the simple example of J. describing what it is like to eat whilst camping in the rain: “[r]ainwater is the chief article of diet at supper.” Or, if one enjoys something a little more highbrow, consider J.’s depiction of his aunt and uncle during a bit of DIY around the home: “Aunt Maria would mildly observe that, next time Uncle Poger was going to hammer a nail into a wall, she hoped he’d let her know in time, so that she could make arrangements to go and spend a week with her mother while it was being done.”
However, it is the Overstatement that best expresses the novel notion of incongruity through the unpredictable. Different from the recent Modern phenomena of comedy as a screaming-match of ill-conceived jokes regarding genitalia, classic Overstatement is closer to a form of well-crafted word-level hyperbole. According to Whissen, this effect can be easily achieved with something as simple as adding a “contradictory” adverb to a verb, creating a type of oxymoron: “remarkably unnoticeable… devastatingly plain… bewilderingly simple…distressingly soothing….” For a well-developed Overstatement, we may again consult J.’s rendering of his uncle performing some minor home-improvements: “And then he would have another try, and, at the second blow, the nail would go clean through the plaster, and half the hammer after it, and Uncle Poger be precipitated against the wall with force nearly sufficient to flatten his nose.” Now that is quite a hammer swing.
One may also refer to J.’s account of a local mode of transportation: “I called for the cheeses, and took them away in a cab. It was a ramshackle affair, dragged along by a knock-kneed, broken-winded somnambulist, which his owner, in a moment of enthusiasm, during conversation, referred to as a horse.” One indeed wonders how J. is privy to this horse’s habits of slumber. These are the more important questions to ask oneself.
It seems, in this case, the old soporific of less is more lives up to its thrice-beaten name. To shamelessly gormandize upon embellishment whilst blatantly semaphoring one’s every half-baked machination are the witless ways of humorless clowns. Do not be like these people. Do not be fooled by the masses who laugh at solemnity masquerading as a good time. Instead, seek a good time masquerading as what seems like solemnity. Seek the bad news turned good. Seek the grotesque turned commonplace. Seek the ludicrous turned monotonous. Seek help.