Humor. A thing worth officially studying, per a recent decision of mine. And I’m going to share my notes with you. Warning: This is a somewhat nerdy post.
In my attempt at efficient observational study, I’ve selected the novel I’m currently reading, The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. This isn’t a particularly comedic book, but the three friends Wil, Sim, and the main character Kvothe demonstrate several instances of comedic scenes that have made me burst out laughing, so I thought I’d start here. As I racked my brain further for funny examples, a couple scenes from the Disney-Pixar film The Incredibles also surfaced, and I’ll use dissections of those in my Part 2 sister post.
I will do my best to avoid overall spoilers of either book or film, while giving context as best I can to the particulars of each scene.
1. Kvothe is Humbled by Alchemy
Sim is helping Kvothe with his newest scheme by concocting him an alchemical potion that will render Kvothe temporarily immune to the burn of fire. As Sim explains the limitations of the creation, Kvothe shows himself arrogant and refuses admit that he knows nothing about alchemy. Sim tells him that adding water to the fire-proof potion will render it flammable. Kvothe scoffs at this. Sim prods Kvothe to help him add water and, lo-and-behold, the container rises into three-foot-high flames.
Sim set down the crucible with a slight click and looked at me gravely. “Say it.”
I looked down at my feet. “I know nothing about alchemy.”
(The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 266)
Why this is funny: We’re prepared for the laugh because Sim already tried to get super-intelligent Kvothe to admit ignorance in this field. Kvothe is proud. When Sim’s demonstration proves the facts and Kvothe repeats the line that he previously refused to utter, we feel satisfaction in his humiliation and feel it doubly so because we hear the line itself repeated again. “I know nothing about alchemy.”
2. Kvothe is Poisoned by the Plum-Bob
This is a prank played on Kvothe by one of his enemies, right before he needs a clear mind for an extremely important interview with University staff. The plum-bob poison causes Kvothe to say anything and everything that he thinks and feels, without the usual social filters to trap the inappropriate bits from coming out. He reveals the extremes of his revulsion for his sworn nemesis (Ambrose), his attraction for his classmate and friend (Fela), and repeatedly performs actions on the impulses of comfort or reflex without the cautioning thought for how they might be awkward or rude (i.e. spitting on Sim’s floor, stripping off his clothes because he’s too warm). During these antics, the reaction of those who witness Kvothe is strong and vivid.
“Fela, you are just gorgeous,” I said. “I would give you all the money in my purse if I could just look at you naked for two minutes. I’d give you everything I own. Except my lute.”
It’s hard to say which of them blushed a deeper red. I think it was Sim.
“I wasn’t supposed to say that, was I?” I said.
(The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 77)
Why this is funny: We witness a bizarre alteration in Kvothe’s regular behavior and laugh out loud when we see the reactions of his friends, who are doing their best to neither mock him nor explode with indignation. At first glance, I thought it was the weird circumstances that were comedic, then I realized it’s the friends’ reactions to the situation that bring out the fullness of the comedy. We enjoy seeing the astonishment and embarrassment of others more than we like to see the strangeness itself.
3. Denna Wins at Corners
Kvothe’s pretty female friend, Denna, is visiting with him, Wil, and Sim at the Eolian (a music-venue tavern). The men are having a few drinks and playing a card game called Corners. They invite Denna to play with them. She says she doesn’t know how to play, but she’s a quick learner. They excitedly teach her the rules, then sit down to play. Denna plays a hard, fast, and expert round of Corners, revealing she knew the game all along. The men realize they’ve been fooled into assuming her ignorant (perhaps because she is a woman?). What was more, their eagerness to teach the little lady how to gamble blinded them completely to her competence.
(After the hand of Corners is over)
“Well that was instructional,” Wil said as he slid a jot toward Denna. “I might need to lick my wounds for a bit.”
Denna lifted her glass in salute. “To the gullibility of the well-educated.”
We touched our glasses to hers and drank.
(The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 158)
Why this is funny: As a reader, we’re also prepared for Denna to know nothing about the card game, so we’re just as surprised as the men when she unveils her skill. We applaud her trickery and charade of ignorance (though I think if she hadn’t outright lied about knowing the game, and just asked for them to explain the rules, the deception would have been even better). Denna has also thrown off the stereotype that women do not know the sly ways of gambling card games, which makes her a more dynamic and interesting character.
4. Sim and Wil Marvel at the Mystery of the Opposite Sex
I think the comedy in this is almost self-explanatory from the title for an adult audience, but it’s worth digging deeper. In this instance, the beautiful Fela is dressed up for a date to distract the reviled Ambrose while Kvothe, Sim and Wil stage a raid on his rooms. She appears completely lovely from Kvothe’s point of view, but another woman in the scene, Devi, steps forward and coaches Fela in how she should hide most of her cleavage at the start of the evening, then bring out a little more of it gradually as the evening wears on so that Ambrose has the illusion that he’s “getting somewhere.”
“This is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” Wilem said quietly.
“Do all the women in the world secretly know each other?” Sim asked. “Because that would explain a lot.”
(The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 280)
Why this is funny: This humor caters to the age-old challenge of trying to comprehend the opposite sex. I observe that the comedy is typically weighted on the side of men trying to figure out how women think and behave and this side of the coin is also embodied in the example I’ve given. It’s amusing because Sim assumes that the instruction Devi gives to Fela is a secret known by all women, and implies that women team up and share tactics for how to seduce and bewitch men. Once the men suspect this is reality, they are left bewildered and perplexed. It also implies that Sim and Wil wonder if similar techniques have already been applied to them, individually, leaving them to guess whether their love-interest was genuine in her behavior, or simply embracing strategy. The handling of this kind of humor should be done delicately (which, I would say, is generally the case thus far in this book), because it has the potential to become sexist. Jokes about men who can’t understand the full wiles of women ring true for many, and this seems to make for a long history of laughs.
I’ll be continuing this study with a couple scenes from The Incredibles and I’ll do a small summation of my observations there. In the meantime…
If you have any examples of something funny and what you thinks makes it funny, I’m all ears! This study of humor is going to be a long one for me, and I’m just getting my toes wet.