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Elements of Comedy in Literature
After reading Mark Twain, James Thurber, and Ring Lardner for a week, I thought I was pretty funny. I told a joke in my first period class. Nobody laughed. Three people in the front row slobbered. Bobby Langston's blood pressure dropped so low, he died.
Racked with guilt I decided to punish myself by reading puns. After the 29th page, I passed out. When I awoke, the ghost of George Carlin sat at my desk, writing lesson plans on analyzing humor and irony in literature. He said a few words that resembled swear words, smiled, and said, "Maybe next time you can use this lesson plan, and nobody will die."
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The Writer's Tools
Writers are at a disadvantage when it comes to humor. They, unlike the comic, do not have voice inflection or physical movements to cause laughter. They do, however, have the following:
- Understatement or Meiosis: When an author deliberately understates the obvious, he or she is using meiosis. Shakespeare uses understatement in Romeo and Juliet with one of his wittiest creations: In Act II, scene i, Mercutio describes his mortal wound "not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve." More recent examples include Mark Twain's famous "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," and Richard Dreyfuss' "We're gonna need a bigger boat" from Jaws (Yes, I know Jaws was a movie, but it was a book first.).
- Hyperbole: The opposite of understatement, a writer uses hyperbole to exaggerate his or her point to create humor. James Thurber's "The Night the Ghost Got in" narrates the exaggerated mind of a child who hears a noise downstairs and assumes it's a ghost. Before the story ends, the mother calls for help and the grandfather shoots a police officer in the shoulder.
- Comic Irony: A writer creates comic irony by stating one thing while meaning another. It is an application of verbal irony used with humorous intent.In his speech "Advice to Youth" Twain mocks standard wisdom: "If a person offend you, and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick."
- Dialect: the usage or vocabulary that is characteristic of a specific group of people is called dialect. Ring Lardner uses dialect to create humor in You Know Me Al: "I says Well I won the pot didn't I? He says Yes and he called me something. I says I got a notion to take a punch at you. He says Oh you have, have you? And I come back at him. I says Yes I have, have I? I would of busted his jaw if they hadn't stopped me."
- Satire: Writers use ridicule to point out human folly. Satire is not limited to fiction pieces as demonstrated by Bright Hub maven Trent Lorcher's description of hiking in the Dominican Republic: "A three day, two night trek up Pico Duarte, the highest peak in the Caribbean, provides sore feet, blisters, mosquito bites, and bragging rights back home for a year." More famous satirists include Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and Voltaire.
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Lesson Ideas for Analyzing Humor in Literature
- Create a six-column chart with the following headers: Example, Meiosis, Hyperbole, Comic Irony, Humorous Dialect, Satire. Read a humorous work--"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" by Mark Twain, "Gary Keillor" by Garrison Keillor, any of Shakespeare's comedies, "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, or "The Once and Future King" by T.H. White, for example--and identify elements of humor and categorize which type. For an extension activity, assign a paragraph analyzing the humor in a passage that includes a discussion on the author's purpose in using humor.
- Imitate a humorous work with a creative writing assignment. Read several humorous works in class and instruct students to choose one to use as a model.
- Take a serious work and make it a parody, using humor techniques. For example, students enjoy writing Shakespeare's plays in slang or taking a humorous piece and writing it in Shakespeare language.
- Assign each student a class presentation on a humorist.
Lesson Plan: Analyzing Humor in Literature
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