Surprise em or Shock em Nihilistic Humor and Language

A walking path bordered the golf course. One afternoon a tee shot nearly smashed into a little old lady. She screamed, "Why didn't you yell fore?"

"I didn't have time," said the golfer.

"Oh, no?" said the woman, "Then how come you had time to yell 'Oh, shit!' "

If we laughed at this story, it wasn't just the element of surprise alone, but a combination of surprise and shock. The vulgarity—so unexpected, so unfettered —delights us, like watching a Mend take a classic banana peel fall. We laugh uproariously, then realize that perhaps we shouldn't have.

But just how vulgar is it? What other words could the writer have used to end this story? What if the language were upgraded? Would it still be funny? For instance, "You had time to yell 'Oh, darn,' said the little old lady."

The answer is obvious. The story would lose a lot in translation. The surprise trip wire may still be there, but the electric shock system is unplugged. "Humor is like guerrilla warfare," wrote Dwight MacDonald. "Success (and survival) depends on traveling light, striking unexpectedly and getting away fast." The original sin may have been nothing more than a bad pun Eve made about Adam's apple.

Lenny Bruce once called George Carlin his comedic heir. Both used the most shocking language possible to enliven their material—and call attention to themselves.

"Isn't it amazing," wrote Carlin, "that most of the women who are against abortion are women you wouldn't want to fuck anyway?" Carlin had other word choices, like "get pregnant," but the vulgarity, because it is a shock, gives the line its flash and power. Carlin added, "If that word shocks you, it's your problem."

Since humor is disguised hostility, violent language can be a device to communicate true feelings.

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