David Madore's WebLog: Absurd humor

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Absurd humor

We had a private viewing of some Monty Pythons' Flying Circus sketches, together with The Meaning of Life, two days ago. I'm a great fan of their form of humor (except perhaps when Terry Gilliam's influence becomes too obvious: he's the odd one in the band and I usually don't like his jokes, nor do I find his animation bits generally funny). The strange thing about Meaning of Life was that I didn't like that film far on first viewing (I thought Holy Grail was much better), I liked it considerably more the second time (by then I had come to think that Life of Brian was their best movie), and now I really love it.

Anyway, I didn't just want to mention Monty Pythons, but about this absurd kind of humor in general. (This reminds me, incidentally, of a talk Douglas Hofstadter—of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame—gave, just three years ago, at the École polytechnique, on artificial intelligence and the sense of humor. It was quite eerie because DougHof has a great sense of humor, but his talk was very serious and not at all funny. Anyway.)

Another form of humor, rather similar in my mind (and almost equally delightful) to the Monty Pythons', is that of Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). In fact, I am told that Adams had a hand in writing the scenario of the last Python sketches (not the best ones, admittedly, because John Cleese had left the group). However, strangely enough, there is one author whom almost every fan of Adams and the Pythons likes and which I find mostly tedious, namely Terry Pratchett. Even Good Omens, which is widely recognized as (thanks to Neil Gaiman's co-authorship) one of Pratchett's best ever, I found only moderately funny (the beginning was really good, but beyond the middle of the book I found that new ideas were too scarse and the subject was getting thin). And what disturbs me greatly is that I am utterly incapable of explaining what the difference is which would imply that I don't much like Pratchett's humor as opposed to those of Adams and the Pythons. Thee only hint I could find was that he tends to dwell upon things too lengthily whereas the Monty Pythons are constantly hopping from one idea to another (if possible, totally unrelated); but this doesn't come near to accounting for everything.

Now let me just mention one other form of humor I find hilarious, and which generally leaves people completely cold: zippyisms. It originally comes from a cartoon character, Zippy the Pinhead, drawn by Bill Griffith, but the idea was taken by hackers (mostly Emacs users, the sort who like mock-zen philosophy) much beyond the original strip. There isn't much to explain: a zippyism is a totally absurd phrase with certain words written in upper-case (as if shouting), but there is a special savor common to them which is impossible to comprehend except by reading a great number of them (and only then can one come to find them funny—or not, as the case may be). And, of course, they can be loaded with private jokes or catchy references (or not!). Here are some examples (of my own devising):

Yow! Is the Universe REFLEXIVE? Am I still in NUTLEY, New Jersey?

I am no longer THE SAME MAN now I know there is a department of ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE at the UNIVERSITY OF READING.

Can I have my IMAC BANANA-FLAVORED? Are we having FUN yet?

I would like a complete illustrated CHILDREN'S EDITION of the DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE—with FOOTNOTES.

I'm sure BEETHOVEN never composed a concerto for DRUM AND ORCHESTRA!

I'm SORRY, I'm only vegetarian on SECOND THURSDAYS. I've just been TERRIFIED by the sight of a MACRAMÉ OWL!


Consider THIS: how much would a FULL-SIZE REPLICA of SAINT PETER'S BASILICA made out of genuine HOLLAND GOUDA CHEESE cost?

I didn't expect the SPANISH INQUISITION! How do you say PUKE in ANGLO-SAXON?

Is this a feeling of DÉJÀ VU or have I read the COMPLETE WORKS OF W.V.O. QUINE?

I met EX-KING ZOG OF ALBANIA while going SHOPPING. I'm sure YOUR keyboard doesn't have a LAMBDA key on it.

Why did I find my SOCKS under an old BOY GEORGE CD? This is as beautiful as a COMPUTATION OF RESIDUES in LOG-ÉTALE COHOMOLOGY!

Lords and Ladies, PEERS OF THE REALM, I really must have that CHIPPENDALE WRITING DESK!

The part where you can tell the very expert author of zippyisms from the merely competent amateur is capitalization: all the knack is knowing which words to write in upper-case. 🤪

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