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On the Comic and Laughter

On the Comic and Laughter

Jean-Patrick Debbèche
Paul Perron
  • Book Info
    On the Comic and Laughter
    Book Description:

    The author of the widely acclaimedMorphology of the Folktalehas written an original, comprehensive, and exciting study on how humour works, and on everything you wanted to know about the genre, in a clear, approachable, and insightful manner.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-9781-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-2)
    Jean-Patrick Debbèche and Paul Perron

    Vladimir Jakovlevich Propp’s posthumous work,On the Comic and Laughter,² which was published for the first time in Russian in 1976 asProblemy komizma i smekha, six years after his death on 2 August 1970, makes a significant contribution to the study of humour and laughter. Far from being yet another treatise on the comic, this work – a thorough analysis of the underlying principles of humour – focuses mainly on the forms and functions of the comic in literature while also examining its manifestations in many other media. This is the first English edition of a seminal work that has so...

  4. 1 Methodology
    (pp. 3-10)

    An overview of existing theories of the comic gives a somewhat depressing picture of the state of affairs. The question that arises here is this: do we need any theory at all? A certain number of theories have appeared over the years; is it worth adding one more to those that already exist? Maybe this new theory would be a simple mental exercise, a form of lifeless scholasticism; aphilosopheme¹ of no use in real life. At first glance, scepticism seems to be justified as the greatest humorists and satirists did quite well without theory. Modern professional humorists and writers,...

  5. 2 Types of Laughter and Ridiculing Laughter as a Type
    (pp. 11-13)

    As mentioned above, the classifications suggested by the majority of aesthetic and poetic theories are unacceptable and we need to look for new and more reliable ways of systematization. I will begin with the fact that the comic and laughter are notabstract elements. It is people who laugh, and the comic cannot be studied outside the psychology of laughter and the perception of the comic. Therefore the question of the different types of laughter will be raised first. One may ask: Are certain forms of the comic linked to certain kinds of laughter? We have to decide and note...

  6. 3 Those Who Laugh and Those Who Do Not
    (pp. 14-18)

    Laughter occurs when two elements are present: the funny object and the laughing subject. As a rule, nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers studied either one or the other: the comic object in works on aesthetics, the laughing subject in works on psychology. Yet the comic is determined by neither the former nor the latter, but by the influence on us of objective phenomena. The importance of the psychological factor has been mentioned in aesthetics more than once, as Kagan¹ notes: ‘It is impossible to understand the nature of the comic without investigating the psychology of feelings related to it, or to...

  7. 4 The Ridiculous in Nature
    (pp. 19-22)

    We will now examine all those things that can never be funny, as this will help to determine what can be comical. Generally speaking, it is easy to see that nature around can never be comical. There are no funny woods, fields, mountains, seas, or funny flowers, herbs, cereals, etc. This was noticed long ago, and can hardly be disputed. Bergson (2005, 2) writes that ‘A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly. It will never be laughable.’ He takes credit for this discovery: ‘It is strange that so important a fact and such a simple...

  8. 5 Preliminary Observations
    (pp. 23-26)

    People express affects caused by impressions of the external world in various ways. When we are frightened, we shudder, we turn pale and start to shiver for fear; when we are embarrassed, we blush, or lower our eyes; when surprised, on the contrary, we open our eyes wide and throw up our hands. We cry with grief, yet we also cry when we are moved by impressions of the world. But why does a human laugh? Because of what is funny. There are certainly other reasons, but this is the most common and natural one. But the assertion that ‘it’s...

  9. 6 The Physical Side of Humans
    (pp. 27-35)

    If it is true that we laugh when external, physical forms that express human actions and aspirations overshadow their inner meaning and significance, which end up being petty or base. Our analysis should begin with the simplest cases of these forms. And the simplest one is this: a laughing person sees primarily a person’s external appearance, that is, literally, his or her body.

    Everybody knows that fat men are considered to be funny. Before attempting to explain the cause, we must examine the conditions under which it is true or not. Bergson writes: ‘Any physical incident is comic that calls...

  10. 7 The Comic of Similarity
    (pp. 36-39)

    The observations above make it possible to solve the dilemma that Pascal raised in hisPensées(Thoughts): ‘Two faces which resemble each other make us laugh by their resemblance, when they are seen together’ (1994, 196). When answering this, as in similar cases of theoretical difficulties, the following question must be raised: Is this always so or not? Under what conditions is similarity comical or not?

    Similarity is hardly ever comical, and parents of twins will never find it funny. In the same way, similar twins will not seem funny to those who see them daily and who have gotten...

  11. 8 The Comic of Difference
    (pp. 40-45)

    The reasons why similarity is comical and the conditions that make it possible have been examined but the explanation is incomplete. The similarity of twins in life and the similarity of paired or multiple characters in literary works, corresponds at the same time to their dissimilarity to all other people. They have a particular trait that distinguishes them from everyone else. This observation can be generalized and expressed as follows: anyfeatureorodditythat distinguishes a person from his or her environment can make that person funny.

    Why is this so? This is one of the most complicated and...

  12. 9 Humans Disguised as Animals
    (pp. 46-50)

    Thus far, we have examined cases in which the comic evolves from a correspondence of some inner intellectual or mental qualities with the external forms of their manifestation. This involved revealing the negative qualities of the person being portrayed or studied as they relate to his or her inner and external features. A different kind of comparison is also possible: the object to be compared is taken from the world around us. In comic and satiric literature, as well as in art, humans are more often compared to animals or to objects, which also causes laughter. Making a human similar...

  13. 10 Humans as Things
    (pp. 51-55)

    Representing a person as a thing is comical for the same reasons and under the same conditions as portraying him or her as an animal: ‘You blathering magpies,’ ‘nightcap,’ ‘potbellied toadstools’ (The Government Inspector,in Gogol 1998, 335). It is with these and other words that the town governor rails at Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky. Animals (magpies) and objects (nightcap, toadstools) are mentioned in the same breath.

    In Ostrovsky’sTalents and Admirers, the old actor Narokov says this about the entrepreneur: ‘A tree he is, a tree, an oak, a beast’ (1973–80, V, 237). Similarly, ‘You ninny!’ (1998, 4) (‘bedside-table’...

  14. 11 Ridiculing the Professions
    (pp. 56-59)

    After having examined humans with respect to their appearance, we should next analyse them in terms of their activities. Some professions can be portrayed satirically, and when they are, their activities are depicted only in terms of their external manifestations, which render their content meaningless. The most striking examples are found in Gogol. In ‘The Overcoat,’ Akaky Akakievich is described as a copy clerk totally absorbed in the act of copying texts regardless of their meaning and content. This is the only feature the reader sees, which makes him both pitiful and funny. The same principle of representation is applied...

  15. 12 Parody
    (pp. 60-63)

    The cases examined so far are forms of hidden parody. Though everyone knows what parody is, it is not at all easy to give a precise scientific definition of it. Here is how Borev defines it in his bookO komicheskom(On the Comical): ‘Parody is an imitation of comic exaggeration and it is an exaggerated and ironical reproduction of characteristic individual features of the form of a certain phenomenon that exposes the comic and brings its content down to a lower level’ (1957, 208). One can see that this definition is based on a tautology: ‘Parody is comic exaggeration...

  16. 13 Comic Exaggeration
    (pp. 64-68)

    Various techniques of exaggeration, which are critically important for some theorists, are closely linked to parody. Podskalsky writes that ‘comic exaggeration, is the key issue in the specific description and realization of a comic character and a comical situation’ (1954, 19). Borev expresses a similar idea: ‘Exaggeration and emphasis in satire are manifestations of a more general rule: the tendentious deformation of the material from life that helps to reveal the most essential flaw of the phenomena deserving satirical ridicule’ (1957, 363). Hartmann also expresses it assertively: ‘The comic always deals with exaggerations’ (1958, 646). These definitions are valid but...

  17. 14 Foiled Plans
    (pp. 69-74)

    Up to now, comic characters have been examined, as well as some of the techniques by which they can be represented in a ridiculing way. Comical situations, plots, and actions, which are very different and comprise a very extensive area of investigation, will now be considered. Comical plots can be found in dramatic art, cinema, circus, and variety shows; much humorous and satirical literature is based on them, and so is a significant amount of narrative folklore. The available material is inexhaustible, and the cases that occur most frequently cannot be itemized even approximately. However, it is not necessary to...

  18. 15 Duping
    (pp. 75-80)

    In all of the cases analysed, laughter occurs because of the characteristics of the person who is the object of it. In other words, failure is caused involuntarily by the person himself, who is the only one involved. Even so, someone else can deliberately cause failure or foil plans, in which case two people are involved. There is a very expressive word in Russian for these acts:odurachivanie[making a fool oforduping].

    Duping occurs quite often in satirical and humorous literature where the presence of two characters makes it possible to develop a conflict, a struggle, or an...

  19. 16 Incongruity
    (pp. 81-87)

    In some instances, for both external and internal reasons, a victim’s lack of wit is ridiculed along with foiled plans. Laughter can be caused by stupidity, lack of power of observation, or an inability to see a connection between cause and effect.

    There is a dual aspect to incongruity in literary works and in real life: either people say absurd things or they do stupid things. On closer examination, however, this division appears to be superficial since both cases can be combined into one. In the first, an incorrect train of thought results in words that produce laughter, whereas in...

  20. 17 Lying
    (pp. 88-91)

    An examination of the conditions under which stupidity and lack of logic can create a comic effect will help us answer another question: Why, and under what conditions, cantelling a lie cause laughter? In answering this, we should bear in mind that there seem to be two different types of comical deceit. Sometimes a liar tries to deceive the person he is addressing by presenting falsehood as truth. The scene inThe Government Inspectorwhere Khlestakov tells a lie is a good example. In other instances, the liar does not mean to deceive the listener; rather, his aim is...

  21. 18 The Verbal Devices of the Comic
    (pp. 92-104)

    Thus far the material has been classified according to the causes of laughter, which reflects my intention to examine the means that create comic effects. It is now time to widen the range of observations and focus on linguistic devices. This vast field requires detailed and lengthy research; however, only a number of striking examples will be highlighted.

    Language is not comical in itself but becomes so when it reflects some feature of the speaker’s intellectual and moral life – that is, some flaw in a mental process. It has already been noted that a person’s speech can reveal a lack...

  22. 19 Comic Characters
    (pp. 105-113)

    I will now turn to another large domain of the comic, namely, comic characters. It should be made clear at the outset that strictly speaking comic characters do not actually exist. Any negative characteristic can be ridiculed using the same methods by which a comic effect is produced. What are the main techniques for portraying comic characters? It was Aristotle (1984) who said that ‘as for comedy, it is (as has been observed) an imitation of men worse than the average’ (II:2319). In other words,exaggerationof negative traits to draw the reader or spectator’s attention to them is required...

  23. 20 Role Exchange: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’
    (pp. 114-118)

    Kant formulated the following idea about the comic: ‘Laughter is an affect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing’ (1987, §54 332, 203; italics original). These words are often quoted, always with some criticism. Richter expressed this critique in a gentle and tactful manner: ‘The new Kantian definition of the comical, that it consists in the sudden reduction of an expectation to nothing, raises objections’ (1813, 1. Abteilung, VI. Programm, §26). Schopenhauer is more definite, he disagrees both with Kant and Richter: ‘The theories of the comical by Kant and Jean Paul are well-known. I consider it...

  24. 21 Benign Laughter
    (pp. 119-125)

    Explicit or hidden ridicule caused by certain flaws in the person being laughed at is the only type of laughter studied thus far. Although it is the most widespread and frequent form, appearing both in everyday life and in fiction, it is not the only one that exists; and before drawing any conclusions about the nature of laughter and the comic, we should study all types if possible. It is also quite clear that we laugh not only because some flaws in the people around us are revealed, but for other reasons as well that still remain to be determined....

  25. 22 Bitter and Cynical Laughter
    (pp. 126-128)

    The explanation of benign laughter helps us understand and define its opposite, bitter laughter. In benign laughter, the minor flaws of the people we love only emphasize their positive and attractive qualities. We willingly forgive such flaws. With bitter laughter, flaws, even if they are non-existent, imaginary, or only ascribed to the person, become exaggerated and magnified, giving rise to ill feelings and spite. This laughter usually characterizes people who do not believe in noble impulses, who believe that everything is false and hypocritical. It is the laughter of misanthropes who do not understand or believe that good deeds can...

  26. 23 Joyful Laughter
    (pp. 129-130)

    All the types of laughter analysed so far have been directly or indirectly associated with real or imaginary, major or minor flaws in those who cause it. Though there are other types of laughter that, in philosophical terms, do not correlate with any flaws in people. The comic does not cause these types of laughter, nor are they connected with the comic. They represent a psychological rather than an aesthetic problem; they can cause laughter or ridicule but do not contain any themselves. Since these types of laughter are not directly related to the comic, I will examine them only...

  27. 24 Ritual Laughter
    (pp. 131-132)

    It was believed a long time ago that laughter increases both vital forces and energy, and at the dawn of human culture it was an obligatory element in some rites. From the point of view of modern humans, deliberate, artificial laughter is insincere and objectionable. But this was not always so. In earlier times, laughter was sometimes obligatory, in the same way that crying sometimes was, whether a person experienced grief or not. A detailed examination of this kind of laughter is beyond the scope of this work, especially since it has been studied by others elsewhere.² Even though I...

  28. 25 Carnival Laughter
    (pp. 133-136)

    We have so far considered laughter as something uniform as far as intensity is concerned; even though it has gradations that go from a weak smile to loud, unrestrained guffaws. We have also indicated a certain restraint in the means used to create comicality. In discussing Gogol, it became clear that one of the manifestations of his mastery of the comic consists in his restraint, that is, his sense of proportion. The awareness of limits – a certain measure of proportion within which a phenomenon can be perceived as comical, and whose violation halts laughter – is an achievement both in world...

  29. 26 Conclusion, Results, and Further Thoughts
    (pp. 137-148)

    All the material that merits investigation has not been studied, but one must stop somewhere and should when repetitions begin to occur and when everything can be summed up with some certainty, or at least probability. In light of the material analysed, some questions that would have been difficult to answer before, now can be. Among the most important is this: How many types of comic and laughter are there? Previously,sixdifferent types of laughter that are possible both as aesthetic and extra-aesthetic categories were identified, mainly on the basis of their psychological traits. The number of types of...

  30. 27 On Aesthetic Qualities
    (pp. 149-172)

    My theoretical research enabled me to study the nature of the comic and its forms. At first glance, it may not seem that any theory of the comic is needed in everyday life. This is false because a good theory is important not only from a theoretical and cognitive standpoint but also from a practical, applied perspective. Humorous and satirical literature, comic plays and films, variety shows and the circus are very popular and much appreciated in Russia. Our society supports them because they represent satirically all the flaws of our daily life that we have not eliminated but that...

  31. Notes
    (pp. 173-184)
  32. References
    (pp. 185-191)