What’s Funny

My earliest memory of what’s funny is that it meant trouble. Someone had done or was doing something indecorous, insubordinate or inappropriate. Inappropriate. “Johnny, that is inappropriate behavior! And don’t you laugh either, Tommy Flynn.” Inappropriate. What a scolding, pecksniffian, thin-lipped, cold-blooded, brittle, airless, nasal Aunt-Polly-taking-Tom-Sawyer-by-the-ear word. It is Malvolio telling the roistering Sir Toby Belch that he should MENDHIS WAYS. So I cheer for Sir Toby’s boozy answer: “Dost think because thou’rt virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

That was my first idea—that laughter is on the side of the bad boys—a small portion of relief for those under the thumbs of Sister Margaret Mary, drill sergeants, customs of officials, maitre d’s at French restaurants. It is encouragement for sassy counterattack by those accused of being inappropriate.

A half-dozen ideas buzzed in. I looked for help from psychologi cal and philosophical experts, ancient and modem. I discovered that the subject of humor has a vast bibliography, almost none of which is useful as how-to advice. I went to a lecture and heard some Freud. None of the jokes that Freud gives as examples of humor are at all funny. Someone said they were funnier in German and people laughed.

I was happier with a book called Laughter (Le Rire) by Henri Bergson, and it’s worthwhile, partly because once in a while his examples of humor are funny and partly because he directly con tradicts my first notion that we laugh to cheer up the misfits. Bergson thinks that laughter is a way to bring the misfits in line. He believes in society in a wonderfully optimistic way; he believes that there is a shared social consciousness that punishes crime with legal penalties and lesser asocial behaviour with laughter. “Our laughter is always the laughter of a group… However spontaneous it seems, laughter always implies a kind of freemasonry or even complicity with other laughers, real or imaginary.” “Laughter is a kind of social ‘ragging,’ a method of ‘breaking in’ people to the forms and con ventions of society, a way of curbing eccentricity and unsociability in their early stages.” (Encyclopedia)

This idea is a more democratic version of a line of thought I’d heard at the lecture. For the Ancients (Aristotle, Cicero, Quintillian, et al.), comedy was satire, a reproval of vices, and Renaissance fol lowers of this line—for example, Hobbes and Castiglione—thought laughter was chiefly used as a way of putting people in their place, of maintaining hierarchy against upstarts. Of the philosophers and social theorists mentioned, only Spinoza goes for joie de vivre asa cause of laughter. Later on he was joined by Henry Fielding, the only writer mentioned so far who actually made readers laugh.

To continue with Bergson. Laughter is not in sympathy with the aberrant person. “Try for a moment to become interested in everything that is being said and done; act in imagination with those who act, and feel with those who feel….” No laughter. “Now step aside, look upon life as a disinterested spectator: many a drama will turn into comedy. It is enough for us to stop our ears to the sound of music in a room where dancing is going on for the dancers at once to appear ridiculous” (Berg 10).

A shorter version of this lack-of-sympathy theory is a remark by Mel Brooks: “Comedy is when you get eaten by a lion. Tragedy is when I cut myself shaving.”

This notion is borne out by the experience of an actor friend of mine. He had to take a pratfall on stage. When he fell far upstage, everyone laughed. When he fell halfway downstage, every one laughed except the first two rows. When he fell right on the lip of the stage, nobody laughed. Several people in the front row, who’d heard the thump of his hipbone, said, “Ow!” This actor’s experience may put to rest the facile theory of humor as malice, that we laugh at someone slipping on a banana peel because we’re mean. We’re not mean—we say “Ow,” at least if we’re close. As we get farther away we become cartoon watchers.

It turned out that what Bergson thinks laughter is reproving isn’t roister-doister, isn’t social misfits because they’re misfits per se—what laughter is reproving is inelasticity. One way he begins to make this clear is by pointing out that most tragedies are named for the principal character. Andromacque, Phedre, Le Cid. It’s true for Shakespeare as well as for Racine & Cornielle. Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello. Moliere’s comedies are called The Would-be Gentleman, The Miser, Les Précieuses Ridicules, The Hypochondriac. They are named for a vice or a pretension. In the tragedies the main character has more than one quality, is pulled back and forth between qualities. In comedies the main character is a marionette, and all the strings attach to one quality, often one that the character is blind to. The tragic characters are more or less aware of their qualities, but in any case they are trying to adapt. The comic characters are not; they are operating in mechanical obedience to their obsessive quality. They are inorganic, and Bergson’s idea of good social life is that it is organic, always in a process of vital adjustment.

A variation on a character who is comic because controlled mechanically by one quality is a character who believes that things are happening mechanically when they are not. Bergson cites a pas sage in Tartarin sur les Apes in which “Bompard makes Tartarin accept the idea of a Switzerland chock-full of machinery, like the basement of the Opera House, and run by a company which main tains a series of waterfalls, glaciers and artificial crevasses.” (This may have been a funnier idea before the late 20th century invention of theme parks—now it might just be scary.)

A friend of mine owns a hundred-ton Newfoundland schooner. One summer Martin Scorsese was making a movie of the novel The Age of Innocence. There’s a scene in which the hero is look ing at the heroine who is standing by the sea. He says to himself something like this: If that schooner passes the lighthouse before she rums around, it’s all over. Winona Ryder was hired to play the part of the heroine; my friend’s schooner was hired to play the part of the schooner. An assistant director was buzzing back and forth in a speedboat, talking to Mr Scorsese by walkie-talkie, and to the schooner by bullhorn. He yelled through his bullhorn, “Action” and the crew weighed anchor and hoisted the sails. The assistant direct tor yelled, “Go past the lighthouse!” The sails filled, the how wave began to gurgle. A minute later, the assistant director listened intent ly to his walkie-talkie and then yelled through his bullhorn, “Hold it right there! Now back it up a few feet!” then added as an after thought, “Winona sneezed.”

The repeated Bergsonian formula for the comic is “the mechan ical encrusted on the living” and the living schooner and the mechan ically-minded assistant director fit neatly.

So far so good. But there are a few quibbles. According to Bergson, repetition or duplication inevitably suggest the mechani cal. If we see two people on stage doing exactly the same thing we laugh. The more the merrier. Yes—sometimes. But are the Rockettes funny? It’s not entirely a rhetorical question. By themselves they’re impressive and kind of sexy. What might make the mechanical aspect more apparent and therefore comic is the kind of thing we’ve seen in a score of movies—the heroine or hero gets mixed up in the Rockettes or their equivalent—she faces the wrong way, her face is in anxious movement, in contrast to the fixed smiles of the Rockettes—perhaps she almost gets kicked. She’s like Charlie Chaplin, caught in the huge cogs of the machinery in Modern Times. But that we have to make an adjustment points to a crack in the veneer of the shiny theory.

A stronger quibble is with the idea that the mechanization of the human body is funny per se. Frankenstein’s monster isn’t funny. We could make him funny: Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein….

Before picking on Bergson some more, I’d like to say that his book does belong on the short shelf of works helpful to writers—along side Stanislaysky’s An Actor Prepares, Aristotle’s Poetics and Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Of these, only the Nabokov is a work of art. The others are uphill going, but the view is worth the climb.

As ingenious and sometimes fruitful as the encrustation-of- the-mechanical-on-the-living theory is, there are other ways to explain the same funny event. The passage from Bergson that put me in mind of the schooner story is this: “… when reading the newspaper I came across a specimen of the comic …a large steamer was wrecked off the coast of Dieppe. With considerable difficulty some of the passengers were rescued in a boat. A few customs-house officers, who had courageously rushed to their assistance, began by asking them ‘if they had anything to declare.'”

Bergson isn’t very good at telling a funny story. There are two weak points. One is the phrase “some of the passengers were res cued in a boat.” This implied to me, for a moment at least, that other passengers drowned, and I became sympathetically alarmed. More awkwardnesses arise in the next over-elaborate compound sentence. “A few of the customs-house officers, who had coura geously rushed to their assistance …”  Their rushing to the rescue is a piece of action better put in its proper chronological order and in its own sentence—after the wreck but before they all gather on shore. It is also odd that “a few customs-house officers … began by asking them ….” Were the officers speaking in chorus? Clarity, clar ity, clarity. And then the punchline loses immediacy by being in indirect speech rather than direct—”Have you anything to declare?”

I’d also like to see the passengers, just a glimpse. Probably miss ing various articles of clothing, wouldn’t you think? Water pouring out of the pockets of the men’s frock coats. The women’s ringlets clinging to their cheeks like strands of a wet mop.

A good exercise for someone interested in comic scenes would be to rewrite the incident. Where to start? What point of view? How to have the shipwreck frightening, but not mortal? Everything true enough, so that the customs officer’s question is wildly incongruous.

Incongruous. Out of proportion. Is it just the officer’s mechanical response that is comic? I think we also need the large ness of the large steamer, and, although Bergson doesn’t bring it up, it might help if there were some enormous waves rolling in from a North Atlantic storm. If this whole affair were about a row boat that overturned while crossing the Rhine on its way to a cus toms house in Strasbourg, there might still be some contrast between an emergency and being asked a silly question, but not the contrast between the force of the sea, which has just tossed around a ship the size of a shopping mall, and the suddenly pipsqueak voice of human regulation.

Incongruity comes in different modes. One thing doesn’t fit with another because it is too big or too small. A small child wearing her father’s overcoat. A three-hundred pound man wearing a thong bikini. Or they’re the wrong shape: a square peg in a round hole, or a long sofa being carried up a two-turn stairway. Or of incompatible textures—something that’s flaccid when it should be stiff: Trying to use a wet noodle as a pipe cleaner, is what came to my mind.

Incongruity, like the encrusted mechanical, isn’t necessarily funny but it is often an auxiliary or a catalyst to a comic scene.

Topsy-Turvy

Reversal of fortune is Aristotle’s favorite tragic plot. But in tragedy it comes after a long struggle, and we are as sympathetically aware of the inner turmoil of the main character as we are of the objective events. The doom is an inevitable consequence of the relation between the internal and the external. Topsy-turvy also is a reversal, but with a banana-peel oops-a-daisy swoop of suddenness. The primal form of topsy-turvy is jouncing a baby on your knee. “This is the way the ladies ride—trot, trot,” and then the gentlemen canter, the huntsmen gallop, until “Here comes the country boy” and you swoop the kid into space from one side to the other saying, “Hobbledehoy! Hobbledehoy!” Or the New England variant: “Trot trot to Boston, trot trot to Lynn. Look out, Maud, you’re going to … fall in!”

If it gets a laugh, it’s because of the gasp of weightlessness, and then it’s all right again. But there has been, in the midst of the usual gravity, a sudden alternative.

Oscar Wilde’s wit thrives on the sudden unexpected alterna tive. When he was on tour in America, he was taken to Niagara Falls. His escort said, “Will you look at that. Isn’t it amazing?”

Wilde said, “It would be amazing …if it went up.”

The reason Wilde was on tour, by the way, is that Gilbert & Sullivan had had a great success in England with their show Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride. The main character of fun is a poet who swans around in a lovely velvet jacket with a lily in his hand. Gilbert & Sullivan wanted to put the show on in America, but they were afraid Americans wouldn’t get the joke, so they secretly fund ed Wilde’s tour and sent their play along in his footsteps.

Back to Niagara Falls. “Oh come now, Mr. Wilde,” one of the white-gloved matrons said. “It is such an inspiring sight that couples come here on their honeymoon.”

Wilde said, “Then it must be the second biggest disappoint ment in a young bride’s life.”

In The Importance of Being Earnest a lot of the comedy is topsy-turvy, particularly in its turning the English caste system on its ear.

ACT ONE, SCENE ONE.

Morning-room in ALGERNON’S flat…. The room is luxuriously and artistically furnished. The sound of a piano is heard in the adjoining room. LANE [the butler] is arranging afternoon tea on the table, and, after the music has ceased, ALGERNON enters.

ALGERNON: Did you hear what I was playing, Lane? LANE: I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.

After some to-and-fro about the servants drinking the cham pagne and Algernon asking Lane about Lane’s married state, Algernon abruptly but languidly says, “I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.”

LANE: No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.

A bit later, Algernon, aside: “Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good exam ple, what on earth is the use of them?”

Each one of the men, while remaining in their apparently undisruptable master-servant relation, catches the other off-balance and executes a verbal judo throw. Algernon’s enthusiasm for his own piano playing is met not with direct contradiction but with a side-step and a foot-sweep of wicked politeness. Algernon’s dis missal of Lane’s family life is met with such total agreement that it is as if Lane fell on his back and flipped Algernon up and over. But Algernon lands on his feet, and, with a comic turn of his own, twists the conventional wisdom, about the correspondence of the social and moral order, upside down.

And now he’s ready for Jack, Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen, Cecily, Miss Prism and the Reverend Doctor Chasuble.

Cecily and Gwendolen also flip each other, but sometimes each achieves a sudden weightlessness on her own. In the following pas sage Gwendolen and Cecily are quarrelling with exquisite correct ness. The Ernest in question is of course both Algernon and Jack.

GWENDOLEN (quite politely rising): My darling Cecily, I think there must be some slight error. Mr. Ernest Worthington is engaged to me. The announce ment will appear in the Morning Post on Saturday at the latest.

CECLILY (very politely rising): I am afraid you must be under some misconception. Ernest pro posed to me exactly ten minutes ago. (Shows diary).

GWENDOLEN (examines diary through her lorgnette carefully): It is very curious, for he asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at 5:30. If you would care to verify the incident, pray do so. (Produces diary of her own.) I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sen sational to read in the train ….

Riffs go on.

CECILY (thoughtfully and sadly): Whatever unfor tunate entanglement my dear boy may have gotten into, I will never reproach him with it after we are married.

GWENDOLEN: Do you allude to me, Miss Cardew, as an entanglement? You are presumptuous. On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.

Neither Mr. Wilde nor we are laughing at the innocently intent maidens in order to reprove their faults. On the contrary we are happy to see them wafting lightly upwards into the realm where pleasure is more than moral duty and narcissism is just one of many sweet odors to be savored.

There is an additional comic skill at work here, perhaps not readily apparent in extracted passages. The broad comedy of mas querade and deception—Algernon and Jack both pretending to be Ernest, the mystery of Jack’s parentage, Lady Bracknell’s snobbism capsized—is an old but worthy tune played on the A string of Wilde’s violin. What produces the sense of life being lighter than air is that Wilde is simultaneously trilling on the E string, double-bowing hemi-demi-semi quavers. The trills wouldn’t be as good without that tune.

Wilde’s light-hearted nimble bad-boy reflexes unfortunately did him in. When he sued the Marquis of Queensbury for libel—the Marquis had referred to Wilde as a sodomite—Sir Edward Carson was the lawyer for the defense. When Wilde was in the wit ness box, Carson hammered away at him about his having entertained a stableboy.

“Did you invite him to dinner?” “Did you give him wine?”

“Did you… did you… did you…” “Did you kiss him?”

Wilde said, “No.”

Carson paused. This pause has become famous among trial lawyers. The Carson pause.

Wilde said, “He was far too ugly.”

Sir Edward Carson went on to become an Ulster Unionist leader. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde lost his civil case, was then prosecuted criminally, and went to jail. He wrote De Profundis there, The Ballad of Reading Gaolshortly thereafter, and died in exile three years later. I don’t know but hope that it is true that Wilde’s last words in a run-down hotel room in France were these: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”

To return to our own land and the subject of the comic as a function of abrupt inversion—there is this report from volume II of Shelby Foote’s history of the Civil War: General Bragg, having been driven east through most of Tennessee and on past Chattanooga, won the battle of Chickamauga for the South. Longstreet and Polk urged him to follow through and destroy Rosencran’s Northern army completely. Bragg wasn’t sure the northerners were in such utter retreat, in spite of the loud cheers of his own troops. “…a Confederate private, who had been captured the previous day, escaped and made his way back to his outfit. When he told his cap tain what he had seen across the way—for instance that the Unionists were abandoning their wounded as they slogged northward…he was taken at once to repeat his story, first to his regimental and brigade commanders, then to Bragg himself. The stern-faced general heard him out, but was doubtful, if not of the soldier’s capacity for accu rate description, then at any rate of his judgment on such a com plicated matter. ‘Do you know what a retreat looks like?’ he asked.

‘I ought to, General,’ The private said. ‘I’ve been with you dur ing your whole campaign.'”

Who laughed then!

To laugh at a private getting the better of a general, you have to be a civilian, or have the soul of a civilian under your gold braid. Do you also have to be at least momentarily unaware of what was outside and less than a mile from Bragg’s tent, which was ten-thou sand dead? Shelby Foote writes, “…the butcher’s bill (of dead and wounded) North and South, came to 16,170 and 18,454 respective ly. The combined total of 34,624 was exceeded only by the three-day slaughter at Gettysburg …”

In Bragg’s tent, who laughed?

We can’t know. Shelby Foote doesn’t tell us. Can you imagine who might have laughed then? An attendant brigadier, colonel, major, or captain? And if he’d come to the tent through the field of dead, what would you think of his laughter? Would you think it inappropriate? Or would you see it as relief, a short, earned leave from service at the front? I can imagine laughter as a reaction to honor or grief, but how much better if there is something comic to accommodate it.

Shelby Foote does tell us this: “(What the private said) endeared him to his comrades, then and thereafter, when it was repeated, as it often was, around campfires and at future gatherings of veterans.” I laughed when I read what the private said. In Shelby Foote’s book it comes before the listing of the dead and wounded. It is on a printed page, here and now, not then and there.

Another sudden inversion. Giorgio Bassani’s novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is about a Jewish family in Italy during the 1930s and World War 11. The Italian Fascists didn’t systematically kill Jews, but they treated them in a way that made it possible for the Nazis to ship them to concentration camps after the collapse of the Italian Government. However the opening chapter of the novel includes a scene that takes place after the war. A family and friends drive to Cerveteri to have a picnic among the Etruscan tombs, a usual and popular Roman outing. On the ride back to Rome the narrator is enjoying the view of the sea through the pine trees. They’re all happy—except the little girl. The narrator asks her what’s wrong.

“It was sad.”

“What was sad?”

“The Etruscans.”

“But, Lucia, they died, oh, three-thousand years ago.”

“What difference does that make?”

A sudden alternative, an upending of complacency. It’s cer tainly not comic. Does the topsy-turvy theory therefore fail? I think not, but it needs help. Perhaps none of the factors—neither distance, nor encrustation of the mechanical, nor incongruity, nor topsy-turvy—works in isolation. And, more importantly, if one of the factors is at odds with the others, the comic effect becomes something else. What the girl said put us at a distance from the picnic party, but it also removed the distance of three-thousand years. Either by reason of ignorance or innocence or simply standing outside of time, she didn’t think of the Etruscans as far away. More importantly, for the narrator riding beside her in the open car under the pines, what she said also removed whatever distance he had managed to put between him self and the deportation of the Finzi-Continis, between himself and their unfindable graves.

Precision & Immediacy

We noticed that Bergson, in re-telling the story of the large steam er and the customs-officer, made his point, but also made the telling somewhat awkward and as flightless as a dodo. There was a need for order, precision, and direct, immediate speech. I also sug gested more details, and that suggestion may be a problem. Details can either make a story more immediately visible or slow the pace. A lot of the art of storytelling, not just funny storytelling, is in the balance between detail and pace. Both are necessary to immedia cy—it’s sort of like being able to believe in the particle theory of light and the wave theory simultaneously.

If you are putting a comedy on stage, the two oldest rules in the book are pace and bright light. You don’t want shadows or sight lines into darkness, but what is this bright light to someone putting prose on a page? I think the translation is precision.

A by-the-way piece of circumstantial evidence: any fiction writer who gives a public reading is often surprised when the audi ence laughs at a passage the writer thought was just simple clear description. But, coupled with the good will of the audience and the slight nervous tension in the room, simple clear description has the effect of sudden illumination. And bright light or its equivalent has another happy effect: you realize that you are going to be shown things so dearly that you aren’t going to have to think.

Precision is a component of wit, which is sometimes comic and sometimes just a bit different. It must be precise, perhaps even more precise, but sometimes it makes you think and that detour between words and the blossoming of them in the inner senses, that detour by way of thinking, produces a pleasure that is too slow to trigger the physical response of laughter.

The Duke of LaRochefoucauld wrote relatively few pages, but he worked his maxims over and over. It is true that he spent a great deal of time making love and war, but once he settled down, he wrote and rewrote, polishing his brief remarks until they became, at their best, as spare as haiku: “We all have enough strength to endure the misfortunes of others.”

LaRochefoucauld was careful not to use either obsolete or out-of-the-way words, or words that he thought were not likely to survive. There are no references to the military equipment of the Seventeenth Century, nor to customs, dress or architecture. In his ambition to leave a text that would not require footnotes, he has been successful. This is an exercise that the French have greatly admired, and also two professors at Duke University who have writ ten a style manual called Clear and Simple as the Truth, an awkward but finally justified title. LaRochefoucauld is their chief icon of classic style, and their initial quotation of his work is a description of a lady:

Mme de Chevreuse avait beaucoup d’esprit, d’ambition et de beauté; elle était galante, vie, hardie, entreprenante; elle se servait de tous ses charmes pour réussir dans ses desseins, et elle a presque toujours porté malheur aux personnes y a engagées.

translation I

Madame de Chevreuse had wit, ambition and beauty; she was flirtatious, lively, sure of herself and enterprising; she used all her charms to fur ther her plans, and to anyone she involved in them, she almost always brought disaster.

translation II

Madame de Chevreuse had sparkling intelligence, ambition and beauty in plenty. She was flirtatious, lively, bold and enterprising. She used all her charms to push her projects to success, and she almost always brought disaster to those she encountered on her way.

Neither translation really sews it up. The problem is partly the particle y, which serves many purposes in French: it can mean there, thereto or thereby, or in, for, to or about, me, you, he, she, it, us, them. But it can be inserted neatly, like the tip of a finger on the first half-hitch of a knot so that the final bit of tying will end up taut. The two translations handle the y problem differently, but the more important difference is that the older translation (no. II) is lengthened with modifiers—”sparkling intelligence,” “in plenty”—and the final phrase “to those she encountered on her way” is a modifying subordinate clause that dribbles off the end.

To modify, to improve exactness or to leave spare? One answer to that question is this parenthetical remark from an Adam Mars-Jones story in which a man has just been convicted of murder at the Old Bailey. The judge comes in with the bit of black cloth on his head that means bad news. The omniscient narrator comments, “The phrase ‘sentence you to death,’ like the phrase ‘I love you,’ is better left unadorned.”

That quoted passage could serve as an Occam’s Razor for any one trying to write precisely.

The polar opposite of the spare and ageless precision of the LaRochefoucauld is precision through abundance. Here are two footnotes from David Foster Wallace’s narrative of his Caribbean cruise on a luxury liner. The title is “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

38 This is the reason why even a really beau tiful ingenious powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift, i.e. it’s never really for the person it’s directed at.

40 This is related to the phenomenon of the Professional Smile, a national pandemic in the serv ice industry; and no place, in my experience, have I been on the receiving end of as many Professional Smiles as I am on the (S.S.) Nadir: maitre d’s, Chief Stewards, Hotel Manager’s minions, Cruise Directors—their P.S.s all come on like switches at my approach. But also hack on land at banks, restaurants, airline ticket counters, on and on. You know this smile—the strenuous contraction of circumoral fascia with incomplete zygomatic involvement—the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signi fies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee. Why do employers and supervisors force professional people to broadcast the Professional Smile? Am I the only customer in whom high doses of such a smile produce despair? Am I the only per­son who’s sure that the growing number of cases in which totally average-looking people suddenly open up with automatic weapons in shopping malls and insurance offices and medical complexes and McDonaldses is somehow causally related to the fact that these venues are well-known dissemination-loci of the Professional Smile?

Who do they think is fooled by the Professional Smile?

And yet the Professional Smile’s absence now also causes despair. Anybody’s who’s ever bought a pack of gum in a Manhattan cigar store or asked for something to be stamped FRAGILE at a Chicago Post Office, or tried to obtain a glass of water from a South Boston waitress, knows well the soul-crushing effect of a service worker’s scowl, i.e. the humiliation and resentment of being denied the Professional Smile. And the Professional Smile has by now skewed even my resentment at the dreaded Professional Scowl: I walk away from the Manhattan [cigar store] resenting not the counterman’s character or absence of goodwill but his lack of professionalism in denying me the Smile. What a fucking mess.

This passage is a cascade, a torrential rant. But within the wave the particles are particular. There is, for example, the high-falutin’ anatomical terminology: the circumoral fascia and the incomplete zygomatic involvement. (I finally looked it up—”pertaining to the zygoma.” Okay. At least it’s on the same page. “Zygoma: the bony arch on each side of the skull in vertebrates, consisting of the malar or jugal bone (cheek bone) and its connections, and forming a junc­tion between the cranial and facial bones; the zygomatic arch.”)

This is mildly funny—the guy is in such high dudgeon about these smiles that he obsesses to the point of lunatic, but accurate, research. He immediately zags back from his zig into second-year med school jargon and puts it in plain language: “…the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes.”

The next time he reverses field it’s from the smile to the scowl, i.e. denial of smile. And now he’s moving faster—Manhattan, Chicago, South Boston—all quick cuts but with immediately recog nizable detail fragments. By the end he’s moving so fast, and with such accumulated weight and friction, that he just melts.

So there’s another, and last factor in this catalog of comic effects: the melting or collapsing of an elaboration. I think the rule is that the labor in the elaboration has to be honest labor. The writer has to take part as whole-heartedly in the construction as in the collapse. David Foster Wallace is serious about the Professional Smile; he builds a case that is eerily logical and rhetorically well made. At the same time he shoots himself off like a rocket with a loose fin.

A sub-corollary to the honest-labor-in-elaboration theorem. I have heard from others and noticed in my own work that when a writer wants to let a character have a ridiculous, a preposterously bad idea, if the idea is concocted, made out of a kit for bad ideas, there is little comic effect. If, on the other hand, the idea is a notion that I have once believed and held dear and only finally got over, then that idea planted in a character is more likely to have enough life to it to be truly funny.

Somewhere in the midst of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon quotes a French historian who says, “Nothing is beautiful if it’s not true.” That applies to what’s funny too.