Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ashley Sterne's Techniques for Humor

I found some references to Ashley Sterne in the 1936 book Can You Write Articles? by Kennedy Williamson (1892-1979), who was editor of the Writer magazine from 1929 to 1942 and wrote about the techniques of writing and marketing magazine articles, short stories, and poetry.  I found a copy of the book on AbeBooks for sale by an Irish bookseller, who promptly sent it winging across the Atlantic to me.

I have extracted excerpts dealing specifically with the analysis of Ashley Sterne's writing techniques from Kennedy Williamson's chapter on humorous articles.


Like every other branch of literary endeavour, Humour has a technique.


One of the commonest devices for raising a laugh is that of bringing into close association objects or (in the case of the writer) ideas which are violently incongruous.

This "juxtaposition of the incongruous," as the technical philosophers call it, is one of the fundamental causations of laughter.

Sometimes the parody is not on any specific literary work but upon a general type.  Hence. Ashley Sterne obtains a ludicrous effect when he describes the suburban garden in which flourish cellula pantsia, flannelia vestia and cottonsoxia.  The mechanics of this jest lie in the fact that such unlovely tokens of washing-day as cellular underwear and cotton socks are made to co-exist with a suggestion of the academic seriousness of a text-book on botany.

In the same way Ashley Sterne reduces to absurdity the familiar kind of scenic description for which travellers and explorers have such a penchant when they write their memoirs.  "The great jungle teemed on every side, regardless of expense.  A brace of pemmican twittered on the twig of a chutney tree.  An anxious peccadillo, followed by her brood of young emerged from beneath the shelter of a spinoza bush.  A gizzard flew clucking into the excavated bole of a hollow tree.  A graceful little biltong jumped timidly against the trunk of a pingo tree.  A herd of elephants trumpeted an imposing concerto as they began greedily to ingurgitate a plantation of macaroni.  A school of hypotenuses and rhinocenuses in the river basin chewed their cuds."


Another device for evoking laughter is a minute particularity about details which are irrelevant.

Ashley Sterne described the adventure of a man who, while bathing, had his clothes stolen by thieves.  He was obliged to go home wrapped in the Engineering Supplement of The Times.


A humorous writer to-day should be evoking a laugh every few lines.  Editors have no objection to situational humour per se, but a humorous situation demands as a rule a good deal of treatment.  You cannot be creating a new situation every few lines.  You can, however, bring off a wisecrack, a piquant jugglery with words, every few lines.  So it comes about that, in practice, situational humour is now less common than verbal humour.

One of the best exemplars of successful humorous journalism in our time is Ashley Sterne, and an examination of his work and methods is likely to be of special value. 

Here are four characteristics which are specially prominent.

Characteristic 1

He quite frankly employs the pun.

This, however, is a generic term, and various subdivisions may be recognized.

(a) There is a pun which consists in a play upon two words, having the same sound and the same form, but no etymological connection.  Such words are called homonyms.

"After a short sprint for a bus, my pants are so numerous that I might be a bargain-day at Austin Reed's."  Here Ashley Sterne is playing upon two words which have the same sound and the same spelling but different meanings and different etymologies: pants meaning rapid breathing, and pants meaning a garment for the legs.

A specialized type of this kind of pun is the portmanteau word where the end of one of the component words has the same sound and the same form as the beginning of the other.  An instance is rhubarbitration in the following passage: "This year many rhubarb fanciers have had to persuade their plants to resort to arbitration – one might almost say rhubarbitration – rather  than force, as otherwise they may be ripe for plucking long before the early spring custards are on the market."

(b) There is the pun which consists in a play upon two words, having the same sound but a different form and no etymological connection.  Shakespeare was found of this type.  "All that I live by is with the awl," said the shoe maker in Julius Caesar.  It rarely occurs, however, in the work of Ashley Sterne.

(c) There is the pun which consists in a play upon two words having a similar sound but a different form and no etymological connection.  This type Ashley Sterne exploits to some extent.

Thus in an article dealing with mountaineering he discusses the difficulty of breathing at high altitudes and mentions some of the alleged suggestions which have been made for solving the problem.  "Various devices have been suggested by mountaineering experts from time to time, among which that of providing the climber with a bottle of air-restorer, and that of filling the lungs at the bottom of the mountain and holding the breath while the ascent is made, seem to be most worthy of consideration."  Obviously there is here a play between air and hair.

Sometimes the quip is wrought with proper names.  In an article on bulb-growing he refers to "blooms fit for the Garden of the Hesperides (before the wreck, I mean)..." where the effect is heightened by the author's reticence.  The jest is not explained by any direct allusion to the Hesperus, but obviously depends upon a deliberate confusion between Hesperus and Hesperides.

In the same way he alludes to those resolutely aspirant people who toil ever upwards crying "Excalibur!"

Instead of being upon words, the play may sometimes be upon phrases.  "To some it was merely a hot-air suggestion, and as such scored only a succes d'estime."

All these instances are admittedly of the cruder variety and belong to horse-collar humour.  We must now note a subtler type.

(d) There is the pun which consists in a play upon different usages of the same word.

"I do not know who invented billiards, but I believe it was Cheops who invented pyramids."  Here there is an implied allusion to the pyramids, the monuments and the Egyptian desert, and to pyramids, the game played on a billiard table.

In another article he deals with a patient suffering from a mysterious disease.  "His pulse was 1, his tongue 156, while his temperature fluctuated between par and three-eighths premium.  The doctor decided that Captain Crashford Joystick was suffering from Hall's Distemper."  A bodily illness and the colour-wash used for interior walls are admittedly very different, but the word distemper is in both cases the same.

In divers guises a pun on the word bar reappears from time to time in Sterne's work.  This same Captain Joystick was treated for his malady by a Doctor of Music, who prescribed a supertonic to be taken before meals.  Unfortunately, however, the patient was "brought home a day or so later after a vain attempt to beat two in a bar (Romano's)."  Likewise, in an article giving hints on dancing, Ashley Sterne writes" "The music consists of the simple measure of one in a bar, and – if you are wise – you will be that one."  However wide be the gulf between the bar which marks a division in a score of music, and the bar which separates customers from the servitors in a tavern, the word bar is the identical word in both cases.

Here is a yet subtler instance.  "The lion is called the King of Beasts, but whoever calls him that cannot have seen old Major Paunchford Bulkley at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Pudding Day."  Here the word beast is used first to mean simply a member of the animal kingdom and then to imply a moral criticism.

Similar in its subtlety is the following: "He could no more balance a ball on the tip of his nose, than he could balance his passbook on the spur of the moment."

Another verb which he is found of using in a similar way to balance is shoot.  In one article he describes Major Bloodstone Gore, "who has shot more tigers than the average man has shot rubbish, and in the article to which previous reference has been made he refers to our friend Captain Crashford Joystick, the big-game hunter "who has shot everything shootable, including the rapids of the Zambesi."

"Every man Jekyll of us has his Hyde, and the question for us is: 'Where does that Hyde park?'"  The phrase man Jekyll on the analogy of man Jack is an instance of the (c) type, but the final phrase comes into the category we are now discussing.  The recently invented verb to park is etymologically the same as the noun park, meaning a piece of land enclosed for a special purpose.

Not only with nouns and verbs, but with adjectives also, does Ashley Sterne work this type of pun. 

For instance, he attributes the authorship of a phrase, "to rare Ben Jonson or perhaps the comparatively frequent Beaumont and Fletcher", where the pun lies in the literal and figurative use of the word rare, to mean both infrequent and of fine quality.

In discussing the possibilities of Guy Fawkes as a theme for pantomime he remarks: "Guy would have to be supplied with the conventional comic widowed mother, who, however, need not be historical – at least not more so than widows so frequently are."  Obviously the adjective historical here is used in a double signification: meaning, first, having actually lived, not fictitious; and, secondly, addicted to reminiscence.

The portmanteau word may occur under this type also.  "The books of these classics are not made of the Peter Pantomime material which will stand the test of annual revival throughout all time."  The last syllable of Peter Pan and the first syllable of pantomime are etymologically the same, being the Greek word for everything.

I am perfectly ready to hear that many readers will cry out upon this process of analysing humour and cataloguing its types.  Almost certainly someone will use the analogy of the entomological specimen that is pinned, classified, and neatly docketed, the thrust of the analogy lying in the suggestion that the subject of this treatment has first had all the life taken out of it.  Many readers will no doubt testify that they do not find at all funny the instances which have here been adduced, and that any attempt to codify an art is inherently futile.

This kind of objection is very old and very stupid.

Stevenson tried to meet it at the beginning of his essay On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature.  He writes: "There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanisms of any art.  All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys."  Further on he says: "These disclosures which seem fatal the dignity of art seem so perhaps only in the proportion of our ignorance; and those conscious or unconscious artifices which it seems unworthy of the serious artist to employ, were yet, if we had the power to trace them to their springs, indications of a delicacy of the sense finer than we conceive."  He states that amateurs "will always grudgingly receive details of method" and that "many are conscious at each new disclosure of a diminution in the ardour of their pleasure".

Certainly it would be a needlessly disenchanting act to offer to the layman an analysis of this kind.  His sole function in relation to humour is to enjoy it, without necessarily understanding how his laughs have been engineered.  There is no need to take the playgoer behind the scenes; he is far better kept on the auditorium side of the footlights.  But just as the man who wishes to be a playwright must familiarize himself with the unromantic details of stage mechanisms, so must the would-be writer of humour understand the devices by which effects can be achieved.  By penetrating to the elementals of a jest he may find it possible to use these same elementals for the creation of a fresh one.

Characteristic 2

Another device of which Ashley Sterne is specially fond is the catalogue of incongruous items.  This invariably opens with items which are normal and reasonable, thus accentuating the incongruity of those that follow.  For example, in an article on a lonely island he mentions that occasionally a vessel calls there for water, letters, old iron, cast-off clothing, disused false teeth, and empty bottles.

Similarly, he once produced this exquisite list of Minor Prophets: Habakkuk, Haggai, Zambuk, Haggis, Micah and Talc.

The same device may be traced in his delicious list of birds.  He states that "the lawn is simply littered with all sorts of birds – the throstel, the mistral, the kestrel, the wassail, the wastrel, the stormy petrel, the corrosive sublimate, the blue tit and the red litmus".  Here genuine birds occur at the first, third, sixth and eighth items, and the intervening names, though referring to things not at all ornithological, have a curious resemblance to the bona-fide names.

Sometimes this device of protective colouring for the incongruous items is omitted, and we get merely a rollickingly joyous combination of incongruities, as in the following directions purporting to be a lesson in dancing:  "Engaging her in a half-nelson, a clove-hitch, a catch-as-catch-can, or other suitable embrace, release the clutch, put her into third speed, execute three twinkle-toes, a Jazz roll, a Swiss roll, and a brace of shimmy-shakes, and in this manner propel her boisterously down the room to the strains of the band."

Characteristic 3

Another devices which may be distinguished in Ashley Sterne's work is that of making a ridiculous embroidery on a well-known phrase.  In one article, for example, he says: "I give my opinion for what it is worth; indeed, I will take less than it is worth for prompt cash."

Take also the sentence from a pseudo-scientific description of the animal life in a forest at night.  "A laughing hyena laughed so heartily that he went into hysterics." 

Similarly, when lamenting the fact that his clothes are so given to gaping, he remarks that his tailor works on the principle that a stitch in nine saves time.  When making a plea for the giraffe as the true king of beasts, he describes it as every yard a king.  He refers to a theatrical manager as complete with vast fur collar trimmed with coat.  He describes the music-hall artist during the period of General Tom Thumb all trying to capture "that shrinking feeling".  In a list of alleged crimes he includes contempt of Hampton Court; breaking into a perspiration in enclosed premises; and being in possession of a dog licence while having no dog.  In an article on "The Slump in the Ghost Business" he says that some ghosts have lived to rue the day, and then he amends lived to have remained dead.  A man emerging from a Turkish bath is said to have been so clean that he would not recognize his own mother.  He promises to eat a whole cloak-room of hats if so-and-so is not the case.

Characteristic 4

Something similar to this device, but distinguishable from it, is his trick of using an unexpected word.  "Time was when I could not see my feet because they moved so quickly; now I can't see them because my lunch sticks out."  Here the grotesque use of the word lunch (a figure of speech which grammarians call metonymy) causes the springs of mirth to be touched.

Sometimes a long and familiar phrase is employed so that, when he begins, the reader is lulled into temporary inattention because he thinks he knows so well what is coming.  In that mental condition the sudden emergence of an unlooked-for word stabs the spirit into startled interest.  The reaction to this stimulus is laughter.  A good example is another of Ashley Sterne's spoof crimes: loitering with intent to commit a bigamy.  The ear accommodates itself in expectation of the word felony and then is piquantly disappointed.

Proper names can be a fruitful field for humour.

Ashley Sterne once wrote of a Russian author named Nokisblokoff.

In the same way, spoof place-names can be a source of mirth. 

In an article on a polar expedition Ashley Sterne describes his settlement at a place with the gorgeous name of Stikdjor.

The names of houses may be treated similarly, for Ashley Sterne has written of Moldeigh Manor belonging to the Mildew family.

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