A Rhetorician, a Psychoanalyst, and a Comedian Walk into a Bar. . .

By Sean Zwagerman

July 30, 2015

I’ve been asked to write a blog entry about the class I’m teaching in the Fall. Well, the class is English 375, Studies in Rhetoric, which, fortunately for those of us who teach it, can be about damn near anything. The version I’ll be teaching is about humour and rhetoric. This too could be about almost anything, since “humour” is as capacious a term as “rhetoric.” And indeed, I suspect the course will be about a lot of things, but they’ll radiate out from the central question, the rhetorical question (so to speak), of what humour does. That is, if speaking and writing are forms of action, what can you do—and what, if anything, can you not do—with humour, and why would you choose to do it that way? After all, if you want people to take your ideas seriously, doesn’t it follow that you should act serious, and use serious language? I suppose the most obvious reason one might use humour is to make people laugh—and there are, in turn, all sorts of reasons one might want to do that. But laughter is by no means the only goal; you might instead—or also—be trying to make people angry, or make them think, or get them to help you overthrow the government. Freud wrote a well-known book about humour, Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious, and mixed in with a fair amount of nonsense are some sound observations. “To laugh over the same witticisms,” Freud says, “is proof of absolute psychic agreement.” I think that’s an overstatement, but the basic point is valid: to laugh with someone is to feel we share, if only briefly, something important and authentic—a perspective, a sensibility, or a bit of cultural understanding. So as a rhetorical strategy, humour can be an effective and efficient way to make a connection with someone. We can reword the question “Why use humour?” as “Why (and in what circumstances) might one want to produce and experience likemindedness, or ‘psychic agreement’?” If we put this question in contact with Kenneth Burke’s idea that the motive of rhetoric is not just persuasion in the narrow sense but, broadly, identification (of ourselves with others), then the connection between rhetoric and humour writes itself: if humour works, it establishes an identification, some particular sort of shared understanding (of which, it should be noted, antagonism is one possible sort) between the speaker and the audience. So as a purposeful strategy of “persuasion by identification,” humour has great rhetorical potential. But like any purposeful use of language, humour is susceptible to failure.

Freud concentrates mainly on jokes, and though I’m not sure how much we’ll actually end up talking about jokes in English 375, I’ve been thinking about jokes over the past week, ever since a friend sent me the following joke and asked me if I could explain it:

“What do you get when you cross a joke with a rhetorical question?”

That’s it. That’s the joke. Get it? You see, it has the “What do you get when you cross...” form of a joke, and it’s also a so-called “rhetorical question” in that there’s not actually an answer. Get it now? For me, this example proves that getting a joke is necessary but not sufficient for finding it funny. I don’t know if I have a favourite joke—I’m not a big fan of jokes per se, nor do I go around telling them—but this one from Henny Youngman would be high on my list:

“I met a hooker who said she’d do anything for fifty bucks. I made her paint my house.”

I love this joke. Still. Every time. Like a half-bright two-year-old with a jack-in-the-box, who claps his hands and laughs with glee every time the clown pops up, I’m always pleased by that unexpected second sentence. I can never re-hear this joke for the first time, but that doesn’t seem to matter. As a late-middle-aged homeowner, I enjoy (and relate to) the absurd logic of it. I’m amused as well by the mental image of a prostitute, who is no doubt extremely pissed off about how this encounter turned out, up on a ladder with a bucket and a roller. And of course I’m pleased—I have to be, to like this joke—by the way the second sentence pulls the rug out from under my expectations of what “do anything” might mean. For that’s how the joke works, that’s the link between the two parallel “scripts,” as Salvatore Attardo calls them, which structure simple jokes like this. In this case, one script is sexual—the prostitute who will do anything—and the other is, I don’t know, let’s call it domestic: the priorities of a homeowner who can have any service he wants for fifty dollars. Once you know that structure, you can, as Henny Youngman did, crank these things out by the dozen:

A guy with a broken tail bone waited in pain for over two hours in the operating room. Finally the surgeon sauntered in. “What the hell took you so long?” the patient demanded. “Look,” said the doctor, “just because you busted your ass to get here doesn’t mean I have to.”

No, it’s not a very good joke, but I’m not spending my entire Sunday writing this blog entry.

Now some people will love that previous rhetorical question joke (I guess). Others won’t find the Henny Youngman joke funny. They may not like one-liners. They may like more sophisticated humour. Who knows, perhaps some people, though I would hope their numbers are few, might take offense because the joke is disrespectful to sex workers (though being righteously offended by humour is no doubt its own sort of pleasure). Others may simply find it not funny, without really being able to say why.

Imagine trying but failing, through rational argumentation, to convince a group of people to take your side on some issue. Now imagine telling a joke to a group of people and no one laughs. How would these two experiences of rhetorical failure feel different? Which would feel worse? In the first instance, I’d feel frustrated and would spend time later obsessing over the arguments I should have made. In the second case, I’d feel humiliated and want to disappear. What if I’d wanted to amuse people but I ended up offending them all? Given the rhetorical risks of humour, why mess with it, especially if the stakes are high? Just play it straight and be serious. Save humour for trivial matters. But Cicero writes at length about the value of using humour in court, a very high-stakes scene. If we pull it off, Cicero says, we can not only please our judges, but persuade them to our side by convincing them of our “wit,” that great word which makes the connection between a sense of humour and intelligence. But it is risky, Cicero warns; use too much humour, or use it inappropriately (don’t make fun of poor people, he warns us), and one will come across not as a wit but as a buffoon or an insensitive lout. That’s the risk of serious humour. On the one hand, as Mark Twain writes, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” On the other hand, sometimes the only injury is to the person wielding it.

Sean Zwagerman is interested broadly in rhetoric and writing, in the compositional relationship among the word, the self, and the world. Particular interests include the intersections of rhetorical theory and speech-act theory, the rhetoric of humour, and public outrage about plagiarism and student literacy. Publications include:

"Local examples and Master Narratives: Stanley Fish's Blog and the Popular Appeal of Current-Traditionalism." Forthcoming in CCC.

Women and Comedy: History, Theory, Practice (co-editor). Fairleigh Dickinson, 2013

 "A Cautionary Tale: Ann Coulter and the Failure of Humor." In Women and Comedy, above.  

“A Marked Resemblance: Students, Teachers, and the Dynamics of Plagiarism.” In Critical Conversations About Plagiarism. Parlor Press (2013).

Wit’s End: Women’s Humor as Rhetorical and Performative Strategy. Pittsburgh, 2010.