Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tropes in Humor Writing

I picked up a library book with the ungainly title of Spunk and Bite: A writer's guide to punchier, more engaging language and style. A chapter on rhetorical devices caused me to review the various tropes that humor writers favor. The common tropes, accompanied by a few examples from my store of humor books, are given below.

Indirection is a prevalent trope with humorists. Mark Twain was fond of capping a humorous narrative with a "snapper." Dave Berry, in particular among modern humorists, owes much of his career to this form of verbal judo.

Paraprosdokian (indirection, surprise twist at the end of a phrase or series)

* Dave Barry, Greatest Hits, Why Sports is a Drag: "Mankind's yearning to engage in sports is older than recorded history, dating back to the time, millions of years ago, when the first primitive man picked up a crude club and a round rock, tossed the rock into the air, and whomped the club into the sloping forehead of the first primitive umpire."

* Dave Barry, Greatest Hits, Peace on Earth, but No Parking: "Once again we find ourselves enmeshed in the Holiday Season, that very special time of year when we join with our loved ones in sharing centuries-old traditions such as trying to find a parking space at the mall."

* Woody Allen, Without Feathers, The Scrolls: "Scholars will recall that several years ago a shepherd, wandering in the Gulf of Aqaba, stumbled upon a cave containing several large clay jars and also two tickets to the ice show. Inside the jars were discovered six parchment scrolls with ancient incomprehensible writing which the shepherd, in his ignorance, sold to the museum for $750,000 apiece."

* Woody Allen, Without Feathers, The Early Essays: "Of all the wonders of nature, a tree in summer is perhaps the most remarkable, with the possible exception of a moose singing "Embraceable You" in spats. Consider the leaves, so green and leafy (if not, something is wrong). Behold how the branches reach up to heaven as if to say, "Though I am only a branch, still I would love to collect Social Security."

* S.J. Perelman, Acres and Pains: "If you can spare the time to drive sixty miles into the backwoods of eastern Pennsylvania, crouch down in a bed of poison ivy, and peer through the sumacs, you will be rewarded by an interesting sight. What you will see is a middle-aged city dweller, as lean and bronzed as a shad's belly (I keep a shad's belly hanging up in the barn for purposes of comparison), gnawing his fingernails and wondering how to abandon a farm."

* S.J. Perelman, Somewhere a Roscoe...: "This is a story of a mind that found itself. About two years ago I was moody, discontented, restless, almost a character in a Russian novel. I used to lie on my bed for days drinking tea out of a glass (I was one of the first in this country to drink tea out of a glass; at that time fashionable people drank from their cupped hands). Underneath, I was still a lively, fun-loving American boy who like nothing better than to fish with a bent pin. In short, I had become a remarkable combination of Raskolniknov and Mark Tidd."

Prosospopoeia (personification)

* S.J. Perelman, Westward Ha!: "Four days out, my stomach and the Arabian Sea arrived at a modus vivendi: it was agreed that the ocean would do its own heaving and my viscera the same."

Catacosmesis (ordering words from greatest to least, especially when the least is surprisingly trivial)

* Woody Allen, Without Feathers, Selections from the Allen Notebooks: "I believe my consumption has grown worse. Also my asthma. The wheezing comes and goes, and I get dizzy more and more frequently. I have taken to violent choking and fainting. My room is damp and I have perpetual chills and palpitations of the heart. I noticed, too, that I am out of napkins. Will it never stop?"

Meiosis (understatement)

* Woody Allen, Getting Even, A Look at Organized Crime: "It is no secret that organized crime in America takes in over forty billion dollars a year. This is quite a profitable sum, especially when one considers that the Mafia spends very little for office supplies."

Change of diction (alternating between slang and high-toned language)

* Dave Berry, Greatest Hits, Making the World Safe for Salad: "I've been thinking about technology of late, because, as you are no doubt aware (like fudge, you are), we recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Etch-a-Sketch. I think we can all agree that, except for long-lasting nasal spray, this is the greatest technological achievement of all time. Think, for a moment, of the countless happy childhood hours you spent with this amazing device: Drawing perfect horizontals; drawing perfect verticals; drawing really spastic diagonals; trying to scrape away the silver powder from the window so you could look inside and try to figure out how it works (Mystery Rays from space, is what scientists now believe); and just generally enjoying the sheer childhood pleasure of snatching it away from your sister and shaking it upside down after she had spent 40 minutes making an elaborate picture of a bird."

* S.J. Perelman, Acres and Pains: "Not long ago, while waiting around Grand Central to have my pocket picked, I was approached by a rather dashing woman of the world with a request for a light. I am not one of those who kiss and tell, but, frankly, men, she was the bee's knees. Her general appearance suggested a younger Lillian Russell; she was dressed in skunk-dyed sable, had a sable-dyed skunk on a leash, and altogether resembled a yacht of the Defender class. Naturally, I was somewhat wary at first and nervously fingered the lunch money that Mummy had pinned inside my jumper. I indicated a newsstand close by at which matches were being offered for sale, but my fair suppliant confessed the headmistress of her boarding school had cautioned her against strange newsstands. My innate chivalry rose to the surface, and I escorted her forthwith to a snug little boite where we could discuss her dilemma."

Synecdoche (substitution of a part for a whole)

* Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Hearing a bearlike sound in the woods, Bryson notes that his pocketknife is "patently inadequate for defending oneself against 400 pounds of ravenous fur."