Shock Therapy

The frenzy of modern communications makes it more and more difficult to get attention. Advertising research claims nearly one thousand ads vie for our attention each day, so our attention span gets shorter. When future generations open today's buried time capsules, they'll feel positive that every major decision in our lives was made in thirty seconds. They could be right.

If Moses brought down the Ten Commandments today, Dan Rather would probably broadcast the news this way: "Today, in the Middle East, Moses carried God's Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai. We'll be back with the three r^st important after this message from Bartles and Jaymes."

Writers must have a remarkably perceptive ear and insightful eye for the incongruity of language, written or verbal. Their material must be edited down from the short story to the small story. And, as the classic joke goes, to get the jackass's attention, first you have to hit him on the head with a baseball bat. So a great deal of humor language shocks first, surprises second.

Most comedy comes from a climate of rebellion, which results in nihilistic humor. Comedy may question anything that's said or done, nothing is off-limits, nothing so sacrosanct as to be beyond criticism—the Pope, the rabbi, God (God may still be respected, but is not to be feared), the President, mother (who may be put on a pedestal but only as a sacred cow), handicapped children, and debilitating social diseases.

If you kiss him and his lips are on fire and he trembles in your arms—watch out! He probably has AIDS.


Today, irreverence is a salable commodity, and humorists could care less about being in hot holy water. Three of those most famous for antireli-gious material are Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen (Jewish), and George Carlin (Catholic).

A reform congregation member asks his rabbi, "Tell me, Rabbi, is there a God or not?" The rabbi said, "What cheek! To ask this in a temple. We're not here to talk of God, we're here to sell bonds for Israel." —Lenny Bruce

If only God would give me a clear sign, like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.

If I could only see one miracle, just one miracle. Like a burning bush, or the seas part, or my Uncle Sasha pick up a check.

—Woody Allen

They cancelled Easter this year. They found the body.

I think we should all treat each other like Christians. I will not, however, be responsible for the consequences.—George Carlin

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

On the other hand, there are many people, more demure, who would question whether shock language is humorous in any context, or if it's just a verbal example of adolescent exhibitionism. Successful writers should be lauded for the hard work that goes into creative art and not for outrageous acts. Too often, they claim, blue humor doesn't make us laugh, it makes us blush.

And why, critics ask, must humor concentrate on the negative aspects of life: drug and alcohol-related problems, sexual inadequacy, perversion, and communicable diseases?

In the theater, it's been that way since ancient Greece. In The Frogs, Aristophanes tells of a character farting his way across the River Styx. And the theater's oldest running gag is an actor who drops his pants to get laughs. As far back as 1100 A.D. it was a favorite device of the Lenten Players in Kent, England.

Permissiveness has grown rapidly—perhaps too rapidly. Fifty years ago, Clark Gable shocked the nation in Gone With the Wind with his closing line: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!" Today, shock value has diminished. There are no longer any unmentionables. Meryl Streep is winning movie awards saying words that got Lenny Bruce arrested a few years ago.

Is There "Mor-Ass" in the Future?

While there's a difference between being rude and being funny, obscenities are sometimes the perfect words. And when they are, they should be used. I'm not advocating hard-core humor for the vicarious thrill of using shock words. That's too easy a laugh! I am suggesting that a word is not just a sound or a random combination of printed letters. Each word in humor is a carefully designed missile calculated to penetrate the mind and leave a very specific impact. The perfect word is not easily interchangeable, despite an unabridged thesaurus. Consider this story:

A few days before Christmas a postman is greeted at the door of a suburban house by a beautiful, curvaceous wife in a see-through negligee. "I've got your Christmas present upstairs," she says, grabs the man's hand and leads him to the bedroom. In seconds she is making passionate love to him.

Finished, she takes him back to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

"I gotta tell you, Mrs. Martin," says the postman, "I've fantasized this moment since you moved into the neighborhood a few months ago. That was quite a present."

"Oh, and that's not all," says the woman. "Here's five dollars."

"What the hell is this for?" asks the mailman. "Well, if you must know," said the wife, "I asked my husband last night what we should give you for Christmas, and he said, "Screw him. Give him five dollars."

The following two examples are the same joke told with and without profanity. Which do you think is more powerful?

First Version

Two chickens are talking. One says, "My farmer gets sixty cents a dozen for my eggs. Laying eggs is easy." The other hen says, "Not for me, it isn't. I grunt and groan, but my eggs are bigger and my farmer gets sixty-five cents a dozen." The first hen replied, "For five cents a dozen, it doesn't pay to strain yourself."

Second Version

Same opening. The first hen gets sixty cents a dozen, the second sixty-five cents a dozen. The first hen says to her companion, "What! I should bust my ass for a nickel?"

Audiences appreciate clever word play, such as paired phrases without immediate regard for a statement's logic. There's a similar illogical reaction to off-color words. Here's an example:

Toastmaster: "Please be patient with Milton. He's having trouble with his pacemaker. Everytime he farts, his garage door goes up."

Why do we laugh? The jokes don't even make sense. And that's the point. It wasn't the joke, it was the language.

Writers search for the perfect word as composers search for the perfect note; both are searching for the perfect sound. And when it's found, it shouldn't be cast aside because of fear or priggish morality. As we discussed in Chapter 9, fart is a funny word. Even when we're forewarned, the word makes us laugh.

The new ambassador was introduced to the Queen. As they stood talking informally, at the reception which followed, Her Highness asked him if he could get her a glass of wine. "Certainly," he said, "Would you like port or sherry?" "Sherry by all means. To me sherry is the nectar of the gods. Just watching sherry shimmer in its decanter fills me with an otherworldly glow. Its sweet bouquet lifts me on wings of ecstasy. One sniff and a thousand violins throb in my inner ear; one taste and a symphony of pleasure explodes in me. On the other hand," continued the Queen, "port makes me fart!"


I'm in a restaurant and I'm eating and someone says, "Mind if I smoke?" and I say, "Uh, no. Mind if I fart?" —Steve Martin

Humor, to be most effective, must use the authentic colloquial language of its subject and the audience—and, of course, it must be appropriate to the persona of the performer.

A visitor to Harvard asks a prof, "Excuse me, but would you be good enough to tell me where the Harvard Library is at?"

"Sir," said the sneering reply, "at Harvard we do not end a sentence with a preposition."

"Well, in that case, forgive me," said the visitor. "Permit me to rephrase my question. Would you be good enough to tell me where the Harvard Library is at, jackass?" —Charles Osgood

Encouraging humor writers not to shrink from carefully selected risqué language and situations may incur severe criticism from Bible thumpers and English purists. Fortunately, humor is as Constitutionally guaranteed as any free speech—sometimes courts have held that satire is the freest of free speech—and shouldn't be precensored, especially by its own writers.

This story tests the use of acceptable obscene language. Without profanity, there's no point.

A young man walked into a bank and said to the teller, "I want to open a fuckin' checkin' account."

The young lady gasped. "I beg your pardon, but we don't tolerate that language in this bank."

"Get your fuckin' supervisor!" the man said. In a few moments the supervisor came up. "What's the problem?" "I just won ten million in the lottery, and I want to open a fuckin' checkin' account!" The manager said, "I see. And this bitch is giving you a hard time." —Playboy

People who rail the loudest against tastelessness are often the most hypocritical. What magazine in the country could be more conservative and apple pie than the Reader's Digest? Yet, the humor of Reader's Digest is 50 percent jokes on brassieres, girdles, toilets, breasts, and sexual innuendo. I know from personal experience. This anecdote, by Hy Gardner, was reprinted in the Digest in August of 1964:

Advertising director Mel Helitzer flew to the coast to discuss a TV show starring Jose Ferrer. The actor apologized for the absence of his wife, Rosemary Clooney, explaining that she was upstairs caring for their five children. "What ages?" asked Helitzer. "Five, four, three, two, and one," smiled Ferrer. "Say," commented the advertising executive, "I hope I'm not keeping you from anything!"

I teach humor writing at Ohio University's School of Journalism, so I'm a strong advocate of free speech. I never censor language. For some students this means, unfortunately, tacit approval to use obscenities. One prissy English professor once asked why I permit students to use the word "shit" in performances. I had to tell her the truth—they're just too old to say "doo-doo."

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  • Alberic
    How do shocks in humour make us laugh?
    8 years ago

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