Spider-Ham Must Die!

September 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

I sat down to write this last post in my series on puns planning to elaborate on the dichotomy I laid out last post between puns and irony; this was originally meant to be a manifesto for all the punners in the world, a call for us all to keep our eyes out for sarcastic eye-rollers and arm ourselves against their ironic armor.

But then I actually remembered how obnoxious over-punning can be. When I was a kid, I read a lot of Spider-Man comics. (Not as many as I read now that I get paychecks instead of an allowance, but that’s beside the point). In the late 80’s they sometimes featured back-up stories about Peter Porker, Amazing Spider-Ham, a parody of Spider-Man who fought and allied with other animal versions of Marvel characters such as Ducktor Doom, Nick Furry (Agent of S.H.E.E.P.), and the X-Bugs. They all punned incessantly—no one more so than Frank Carple, aka The Punfisher.

I always felt cheated out of the last few pages of my proper Spider-Man comic when they showed up; I didn’t get why Peter Parker needed parodying. I still love it whenever I get to see Batman treated less seriously than normal (which is to say, as seriously as world hunger or less), but Spider-Man already joked around in his regular comic. In fact, he made good puns nearly every issue and they were all the funnier and more affecting because he made them as a means of coping with the incredible danger and loneliness being a hero brought him. In contrast, Spider-Ham made one joke after another just to fill up the panels until the pages became a tasteless pablum of puns. I think it was my first exposure to making bad puns on purpose, the sort of humor that is purposely so unfunny it is supposed to be funny—a form of irony that is not at all in opposition to the pun.

Wrestling with whether puns and irony were opposed or aligned, I came across this last quote for us from John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises:

Incidentally, both irony and sarcasm are, like puns, a way to say one thing and mean another. However, irony and sarcasm don’t suffer the pun’s poor reputation. Maybe this is because punning, which seeks to create a connection between words and ideas, is inherently an attempt at intellectual construction. Irony and sarcasm, by contrast, tend to be acts of criticism or destruction.

Interestingly, I’d been thinking of them as opposites in exactly the opposite way: puns destroy our illusions that language is exact while irony builds up our false sense of intellectual security. But I don’t disagree with Pollack’s analysis here; I guess it is due to the inexactness I’ve been talking about, but we can both be right while saying opposite things.

Irony and punning can do different things in different situations. Since irony is currently in fashion, the contrarian in me wants to see it degraded. But I could just as easily imagine myself in ancient Sumeria, where the pun was revered enough to start wars, being the guy groaning and rolling his eyes,”Really? You’re going to send all of us off to die in battle just because Prince Apuulluunideeszu pointed out that your name sounds a little like the words for ‘smelly genitalia?’ Really?”

So at the end of three posts, I guess I don’t have much definite to say about puns. Again, I guess I’m just reiterating that one of humor’s most important functions is to illuminate our mistakes, to tear down those structures which don’t build us up but only bind us—including most of the grand sweeping theories we can make about humor itself.

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§ 3 Responses to Spider-Ham Must Die!

  • “I’m just reiterating that one of humor’s most important functions is to illuminate our mistakes, to tear down those structures which don’t build us up but only bind us.” As an occasional humor writer, I feel that this could not be better said.

  • Keri Peardon says:

    Spider-Ham sounds like something out of a Mad comic.

    Interestingly, I think punning requires a greater command of the language than irony or sarcasm. Sarcasm is something that’s often conveyed through tone of voice, so even if you don’t speak a language well, you can sometimes pick up on when someone is being sarcastic. Likewise irony is something you can usually pick up on. In either case, if you read something translated from another language, you’re almost always going to catch both.

    Punning, however, requires that you have a command of the original language because it relies on the fact that the original words sound similar and have some similar meaning.

    Something I’ve noticed while reading Biblical commentary is that the Bible often puns in Hebrew. But none of those puns translate into English, and reading about them out of context is pretty meaningless; they lose their impact. But it’s easy to spot irony and sarcasm. (God and the prophets both can be terribly sarcastic at times.)

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