Category Archives: E.B. White

Is a (tired) goat like a (dead) frog?; or Some thoughts on the objections to the humorous object as an object of study

Tracy Wuster

When computers learn how to make jokes, artists will be in serious trouble.

–Donald Barthelme, “Not Knowing”

We have all had the experience of having something we are fascinated by dampened by learning more about it.  The tragedy of poor schooling is not unmet standards or bad test scores–the tragedy of school is having the natural curiosity of childhood deadened.  Of course, much of the transition from magical world of wonder to rational world of knowledge is necessary… we wouldn’t want an entire nation of clowns who do not understand that magnets are not miracles.  But thought and study don’t have to lead to the death of wonder–what I, and I would hope other scholars of humor (and of almost any subject, really), would like to convince you is that study can lead to both a knowledge and a deeper appreciation of the subject, a deeper fascination with the complicated and, yes, fun workings of humor.

But when it comes to humor, people often have a different reaction.  Humor, of course, is not a science–and there is not formula that a computer can learn to tell a joke properly in front of an audience, even if computers can make jokes.  Jokes and laughter are a different kind of subject, and one dominant thread holds that turning humor into an object of study might diminish the vitality of the work.

The objection that the study of humor takes something alive and turns it into something like a computer program is a real fear, and surely one with some basis.  But often, and maybe unfortunately, this real issue for discussion gets wighted down into one simple, and somewhat misleading, metaphor: “killing the frog.” Both Sharon McCoy and I have taken on E.B. White’s semi-famous warning that studying humor is like dissecting a frog.  I have seen several versions of this saying:

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.

Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog.  Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.[1]

Sharon nicely explains that the metaphor is off–frogs are already dead when they are dissected–and that the act of dissecting the frog leads to scientific understanding of not only frogs, but of ourselves and of our environment.  In my post, I explained that White states this position, and then he goes on to offer some definitions of humor–partaking in a long tradition of people claiming you can’t define or discuss characteristics of humor and then going ahead and doing so.  I call it a “definitional denial.”

What I think the prevalence of this quote points to is a larger fear that the study of literature–or of film, or of television, or of any piece of artistic expression–somehow seeks to lessen the experience of that object.  That to seek to understand a cultural object is to lessen the authentic interaction one might have with that object.  That to call something a “cultural object,” and to point out that it might have a historical or sociological or psychological or linguistic or any other academicalistic meaning, takes that thing out of the realm of enjoyment, of relaxation, of appreciation and then puts it into the realm of school.  And with humor–which most people  experience as enjoyment, as laughter–the feeling is either heightened or easier to vocalize.  For those who didn’t get pleasure out of school, putting humor into the scholarly realm might be a heightened betrayal [2].

When encountering a frog, most people just want to watch it, not cut it open to see how it works.

But some of people like to think about how humor works.  We are scholars.  Just as there are scholars of frogs, and of schools, and of Texas music, and of male flight attendants, and of religion, and of stadiums, and of just about everything else, there are scholars of humor.  And unless you don’t like scholars in general, there should be no need to defend any particular branch of study: from frogs to funny.

That being said, I seem to be venturing close to my a corollary form of the “definitional denial”: the defensive denial–claiming I don’t need to defend the study of humor and then doing so.  Instead, let’s turn not to a dissecting a frog, which is not a terribly good metaphor for humanistic study of humor, to looking at a goat.  Not just any goat.  This goat:

Robert Rauchenberg, "Monogram” (1959)

Robert Rauschenberg, “Monogram” (1959)

Seeing this piece, we might have any number of reactions–“What does it mean?”  “Who is it by?” “is it supposed to be funny?” “I like it” “I hate it” “eh” “wow” “is it art?”  These reactions are not much different from the reactions people might have to a piece of humor more generally.  Your answers to these questions, your reactions, matter to you.  And the range of reactions a cultural object might have are important as evidence of audience reception.

But to the art historian, or the aficionado of art more broadly, the historical context of Rauschenberg’s combine matters, along with its formal characteristics and its place in his development as an artist.

Continue reading →

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On E.B. White and the definition of humor.

Humor in America

Tracy Wuster

For two follow-up posts on this question, see:

Sharon McCoy, “Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?” and my piece here.

Born July 11, 1899.  White is famous for children’s books, style guides, and his work at the New Yorker, but in humor studies, he is probably best known for his introduction to the 1941 book, A Subtreasury of American Humor, which he edited with Katherine White.

E. B. White, subtreasury of american humor, frog

The beginning of White’s introduction is one of the most widely known statements about the study of humor, functioning as a witty injunction against the serious study of humor. It reads:

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific…

View original post 666 more words

Is a Joke Really like a Frog?

One of two pieces for today that discuss E.B. White’s famous discussion of jokes and frogs.

Humor in America

A commonly accepted truth holds that to explain a joke ruins it.

But is it true?

Humor depends upon some level of shared ground — a shared communal or cultural background that helps give the joke meaning.  Whatever theory of humor you ascribe to, or whichever theory is appropriate to a particular joke (the exposure of incongruities, aggression, assertion of superiority, masked aggression, suspended defense mechanism, surprise, etc.), it is the shared experience, assumptions, and vocabulary that together create the joke.  Humor reveals, therefore, the boundaries of a particular community.  Further, humor draws or re-draws those communal lines based on who “gets” the joke and who does not.  But whether the joke’s purpose is to more firmly draw the line between “us” and “them” or whether it seeks to bridge communal gaps and make “us” a larger set of people, explaining a joke works only when it is successful in…

View original post 1,893 more words

Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?

A commonly accepted truth holds that to explain a joke ruins it.

But is it true?

Humor depends upon some level of shared ground — a shared communal or cultural background that helps give the joke meaning.  Whatever theory of humor you ascribe to, or whichever theory is appropriate to a particular joke (the exposure of incongruities, aggression, assertion of superiority, masked aggression, suspended defense mechanism, surprise, etc.), it is the shared experience, assumptions, and vocabulary that together create the joke.  Humor reveals, therefore, the boundaries of a particular community.  Further, humor draws or re-draws those communal lines based on who “gets” the joke and who does not.  But whether the joke’s purpose is to more firmly draw the line between “us” and “them” or whether it seeks to bridge communal gaps and make “us” a larger set of people, explaining a joke works only when it is successful in inviting more people into the joke’s particular community.

Explaining a joke means taking a risk.  It is a way of reaching out and trying to make a connection with someone who does not “get” it, someone who is outside the domain of the joke because he or she lacks some particular shared ground with you.  The fear that explaining a joke will ruin it reveals a fear that you don’t have as much in common with someone as you may have hoped.  The failure to actually explain the joke forces you to admit it.

Let’s look at this almost axiomatic quip on the subject, paraphrased from E.B. White¹:

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog.  Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

Personally, I have always found this to be a silly formulation in itself, because dissecting a frog does not kill it.  Think about it.  Can you imagine more a ludicrous slapstick routine than a bunch of students trying to dissect live frogs?  What makes anyone think that the frog would stand still for it?  A frog is dead before dissection, either preserved in formaldehyde; etherized or chloroformed; or, if a beating heart or reactive nervous system is required, pithed (the process of rendering the frog “brain dead” by inserting a needle and “scrambling” the brains).  No matter how you slice it, a frog is already dead before you dissect it.

White’s formulation shifts when we think of humor as founded in shared ground.  Analyzing humor becomes like dissection only if you assume that the joke is already dead, that there is no common ground between those who “get it” and those who don’t — and no way to create it.  His statement becomes, then, not a statement about the futility of analyzing humor, but about the lack of willingness to expand one’s community — or the profound pessimism and insecurity about whether the recipient of the explanation would want to join that community:   “Few are interested.”  I’m reminded of Groucho Marx’s quip, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

But setting aside for a moment the question of whether a joke can really be a frog, let’s examine the idea of analysis and dissection.  Dissecting a frog teaches us about frog anatomy, which is something relatively “few” people might be “interested” in, true.  But actually, the most important things we learn from such a dissection are about our own anatomy and physiology, or about the impacts of environmental or pollutant factors on one of the most vulnerable partners in any ecosystem.  In other words, if we’re willing to learn from it, dissecting a frog can teach us much about ourselves and about context.

So can analyzing humor, or explaining a joke.  Sometimes, explaining the joke can even become the joke.  Continue reading →

Happy Birthday…E.B. White!

Tracy Wuster

For two follow-up posts on this question, see:

Sharon McCoy, “Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?” and my piece here.

Born July 11, 1899.  White is famous for children’s books, style guides, and his work at the New Yorker, but in humor studies, he is probably best known for his introduction to the 1941 book, A Subtreasury of American Humor, which he edited with Katherine White.

E. B. White, subtreasury of american humor, frog

The beginning of White’s introduction is one of the most widely known statements about the study of humor, functioning as a witty injunction against the serious study of humor. It reads:

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.[1]

But as with many essays on the subject of humor, this statement acts as a clever dodge, what I have taken to calling a “definitional denial.”  With a definitional denial, an author says “humor is undefinable”–often in a witty or humorous manner–but this rhetorical move is almost always followed by a definition of various aspects of humor. It is like saying “one can’t define ‘virtue,’ but everyone knows that virtue is this or that, but not the other.”  Thus, for another instance, William Dean Howells’s review of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad from the November 1869 Atlantic Monthly begins:

The character of American humor, and its want of resemblance to the humor of Kamatschatka or Patagonia,—will the reader forgive us if we fail to set down here the thoughts suggested by these fresh and apposite topics?  Will he credit us with a self-denial proportioned to the vastness of Mr. Clement’s (sic) very amusing book, if we spare to state why he is so droll, or—which is as much to the purpose—why we do not know? [2]

And then Howells spends some time discussing humor, not defining it per se, but exploring pertinent aspects of humor in relation to Mark Twain.  And Howells and White are not alone–many discussions of humor begin with this almost ritual denial of the inability, or even the inadvisability, of defining humor, followed by an essay, review, or article that says a good deal about what humor is. Why do authors feel that they must deny their aim of defining humor, or the very existence of such a definition, before they are willing to discuss humor? In the case of E.B. White, after denying the possibility of defining humor (and even pointing to the undesirability of such a task), he goes on to make some pretty large generalizations about humor.  Many of these points, in fact, echo essays on humor from the nineteenth century by Howells and others, such as the line between the humorous and the serious:

Practically everyone is a manic-depressive of sorts, with his up moments and his down moments, and your certainly don’t have to be a humorist to taste the sadness of situation and mood. But there is often a rather fine line between laughing and crying, and if a humorous piece of writing brings a person to the point where his emotional responses are untrustworthy and seem likely to break over into the opposite realm, it is because humor, like poetry, has an extra content. It plays close to the big hot fire which is Truth, and sometimes the reader feels the heat.

But even though humor is afforded this moment of potential “serious” content in proximity to the big hot fire of Truth, White then notes the lower status afforded to humor, what Brander Matthews and other nineteenth-century critics had dubbed “the penalty of humor.”  White writes:

The world likes humor, but it treats it patronizingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with Brussels sprouts. It feels that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be some- thing less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious. Writers know this, and those who take their literary selves with great seriousness are at considerable pains never to associate their name with anything funny or flippant or nonsensical or “light.” They suspect it would hurt their reputation, and they are right. [3]

Thus, the humor collection is a “subtreasury,” and thus humor studies confronts some longstanding critical and cultural views about humor as a subject of knowledge.  But then again, much can be learned from dissecting a frog, can it not?


[1]  See http://hs.hpisd.org/uploads/45/f69347.pdf

[2] [William Dean Howells], “The Innocents Abroad,” 24: 146 (December 1869), 764.  Kamatschatka (now Kamatchka) is a peninsula in eastern Russia, which had a port prominent in Alaska’s exploration.

[3] Table of Contents of the book:  http://www.modernlib.com/authors/misc/misc/miscMiscToCs/G73Subtreasury.html

(c) Tracy Wuster, 2011-2