27 February 2020
Incongruity in Comedy: Twain vs. Sedaris
Accordingto O`Shannon,adults form and live by a big rulebook in which they have a normativerange of things and details of how the world should behave. Adultinteractions with the world are a series of comparisons with thisrulebook. Incongruity occurs when something appears beyond the normalrange of the rulebook. Theincongruity theory posits that one perceives humor at the instant ofrealization of incongruity between an idea involved in a givensituation and the real objects thought to relate to the idea. Humoroften holds an unexpected, often abrupt, change in perspective. Shannonwrites, “Themind can find the information so shocking or threatening that itrejects the truth of it, rendering the information nonsense. Thebrain then tries to make sense of the nonsense by filing it undercomedy – just.” The rules that determine incongruity may be fromthe rulebook or may come up at the time the audience is trying tomake sense of the joke(O`Shannon).
TheCelebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County isa humor-laden narration about a famed gambler Jim Smiley. In thenarrator’s description, “If he ever seen a straddle bug start togo anywhere, he would bet you how long it would take for him to go towherever he going to, and if you took him up, he would foller thatstraddle bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was boundfor and how long he was on the road.” The writer, himself anaudience, has to suffer through a Western man’s tale about ajumping frog. It is difficult to read the story aloud with a straightface due to the heavy accent. A paragraph in the story goes:
Itwas a good pup, was that Andrew Jackson, and would have made a namefor himself if he`d lived, for the stuff was in him, and he hadgenius I know it, because he hadn`t had no opportunities to speak of,and it don`t stand to reason that a dog could make such a fight as hecould under them circumstances, if he hadn`t no talent. It alwaysmakes me feel sorry when I think of that last fight of his`n, and theway it turned out.(Twain).
Inhis book Me Talk PrettyOne Day, Sedarisdescribes their migration to Raleigh and their parents’ attempts tostop them from acquiring the Raleigh accent, and the curious terms ofendearment between his father and their last-born brother Paul, aclear misfit in the family. Sedaris portrays his father as seeking tomicromanage everything in their life and feels that, as payback forthat, life sent Paul, a half-literate misfit who punctuates hislanguage with outrageous profanities. He is surprised at how thestandards go drastically low to accommodate Paul. While for them,using the abbreviated form of ‘you all’, would have earned thempunishment, Paul can say, “Certain motherfuckers think they canfuck with my shit, but you can`t kill the Rooster. You might can fuckhim up sometimes, but, bitch, nobody kills the motherfucking Rooster.You know what I`m saying?" and he even calls his father to say,"Motherfucker, I ain`t seen pussy in so long I`d throw stones atit." Nothing prepares the writer for the phenomenon that Paulis. Sedaris describes it as a complex hybrid of the local deepcountry laborer accent and hard-core rap music. He says that theconversation with Paul is “like speaking to a foreigner andunderstanding only the terms motherfucker, bitch, and hoss and thephrase "You can`t kill the Rooster."(Sedaris)”
Incongruity has been used to great effect in both of Sedaris andTwain’s stories. Twain uses objects in his story that wouldnormally count as insignificant in most readers’ minds. He uses adog that is inadvertently funny to bring the humor in Smiley’scompulsive gambling. There seems to be some understanding betweenSmiley and Andrew Jackson, the dog. Andrew would get into dogfightsbut weather the storm until all the bets against it were high enough,then it would predictably grab the other dog’s hind leg and not letgo until the opponent conceded defeat. Just when it looks impossiblefor Andrew to lose a fight, it faces a dog that had no hind leg.Andrew Jackson lost the fight and paid for it with its life. Twainemploys the same comic tool when describing Smiley’s newfoundchampion, Dan`l Webster. Webster is a frog that Smiley caught and‘trained to jump.’ Wheeler describes it as being capable ofresponding to Smiley’s verbal cues, and even describes it as beingmodest, not bragging about its talent. In Me Talk Pretty One DaySedaris sets up his family to look like an ordinary family dealingwith the difficulties that come with moving to a new place, and afather trying to stop them from acquiring the local accent. With thisin mind, the reader forms a new rule, which emphasizes theincongruity when Paul Sedaris comes into the fold. ‘The Rooster’as Paul calls himself, is the source and the punch line in the story.He does not conform to any notion that the reader had formed earlieron reading about the Sedaris family.
Twain and Sedaris used incongruity in a similar manner, usingcharacters that are inadvertently funny and do not conform to anynorms. They both bear the indicators for the comic potential thatO’Shannon describes in the first chapter of his book visceral andcognitive indicators. However, ‘The Rooster’ may come out asoffensive to most readers due to the profanity-laden talk thatcharacterizes him. Some readers would not view "Motherfucker, Iain`t seen pussy in so long I`d throw stones at it." as beingfunny at all. In some cases, some readers may not understand the jokedue to a lack of cognitive ability to relate to the source of thejoke. The hyperbole in Twain’s two characters, Andrew Jackson andDan`l Webster may be too much for some readers or recipients torelate with their ‘rule book’ and they may miss the joke whilestruggling to determine the logic of it(O`Shannon).
O`Shannon, Dan. WhatAre You Laughing At? : A Comprehensive Guide to Comedic Event.New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012. paperback.
Sedaris, David. Metalk Pretty One Day. New York: The NewYork Times Company, 2000. paperback.
Twain, Mark. TheCelebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.California: Bret Harte, 1865. document.