This is the collected version of a series of posts I did on punning in August and September of 2012. I hope to use this as the basis for an essay in a book on humor someday, so please do let me know what you think about my conclusions. As usual, I end up dismantling as many points as I make, but I guess that seems to be the way humor works, leaving us off in exactly the same situation we started in–except a little wiser and a little happier.
John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises (to which I owe thanks for spawning all this thinking I’ve been doing lately about puns) traces the history of the pun in human culture as a wild roller coaster. Anyone who’s ever gotten groaned down after making a perfectly joyous pun knows that they are the most unfairly derided form of humor in our current culture, but it was news to me that at various points in history they’ve been celebrated as not only as great wit, but an important rhetorical technique.
For example, Pollack writes that ancient Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians “took wordplay very seriously. In fact, it wasn’t considered ‘play’ at all, in the modern sense.” When two words sounded similar, it wasn’t so much an opportunity to crack-wise, as a sign of their connection.
In contrast, he also describes the veritable crusade against punning that took place in England during the Age of Enlightenment. In part, the backlash against punning had to do with literacy, as the printing press “helped transform what had been an oral culture into written one and forced writers, punsters included, to commit to a single spelling before the type was set.” This is indicative, though, of a larger shift in thought toward rationalism, which saw “the pun’s very ambiguity as a flaw.”
As much as I love the pun, I think it’s rightful place is down with the jesters instead of up on the throne with the philosopher princes—but maybe that has something to do with how much more likely I am to pay attention to humor over rhetoric. Language is flawed; there is no point in denying that it is an arbitrary, confusing, and unstable mess. Given how caught up they were in the early stages of language and the invention of writing, it is easy to sympathize with (and thank) the ancient Sumerians for seeing power and magic in words. But with hundreds of examples for foreign and ancient languages easily available to us today, many of which have noises that never even occurred to the speakers of the others, it is clear that we might just as easily have decided to call a whiner a winner and a winner or whiner—or called them both whiggledyblunks and let the context clarify. In any event, we certainly shouldn’t invest much other than laughter in the fact that they both sound a little like wiener (which can refer to food, anatomy, disposition, or an unfortunate family name).
The pun’s proper place, then, is to remind us of the absurdity of language. No one does absurdity better than the Marx Brothers, and there are no better examples of how sometimes, despite all of language’s subtle complexities, conveying our simplest ideas to another person can feel utterly impossible. Here’s some of my favorite punning, from A Night at the Opera:
Chico: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
Groucho: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Chico: Well, I don’t know…
Groucho: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Chico: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Santy Claus.
Rationalists hate the pun because it points out just how inescapable irrationality is. While everything may seem perfectly sensical in our heads, expecting that someone else will understand exactly what we’re thinking from a few grunts or pencil scratches is complete insanity. This is not to say communication is impossible or worthless; language is an incredibly useful tool that works remarkably well most of the time. It is important, though, to remind ourselves that to think it infallible or inalterable will usually have you ending up looking the fool.
It should be noted, too, that all those incredible Chico/Groucho puns have to do with the language barrier between their two characters while relying on the language understanding between them as performers and us as an audience. As such, no one who spoke Spanish, the Italian that Chico is pretending at, or ancient Sumerian could get a giggle out of the routine, even if it was translated into their native tongue. Most puns are lost through translation (and most of the snap of wit is lost through footnotes). Sadly, several of the Marx Brothers puns of more antiquated usage are already lost on me.
As a result, while an important form of humor, I think puns usually lack the universality to be truly great. A well constructed scene that gets at the grand absurdity of the human experience can often be translated into different languages and still deliver it’s message after hundreds of years. The pun’s place seems to be pointing out the elusiveness of that sort of connection. With such a necessary function, I fell the pun’s derision is not only unfair but dangerous for our culture.
In The Pun Also Rises, John Pollack posits that puns fell out of fashion in the 1960′s as audiences came to expect something less contrived and more socially relevant out of their humor. He then goes on to explain that it’s continued unpopularity is due to the obsession with irony in our popular culture, quoting Gilbert Gottfried: “People want to show they’re a lot more intelligent or above something.”
This ironic stance leads to the knee-jerk groan and the assumption all puns are bad. But we all know from a classic pun what happens when you make an assumption; in his Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler wrote (and this is, again, brought to my attention by the well-read Pollack):
“The assumption that puns are per se contemptible, betrayed by the habit of describing every pun not as ‘a pun’ but as ‘a bad pun’ or ‘a feeble pun,’ is a sign at once of sheepish docility and a desire to seem superior. Puns are good, bad, and indifferent, and only those who lack the wit to make them are unaware of the fact.”
It should be noted that other attacks against punning throughout history have been based on a fraudulent sense of superiority. For example, in describing the crusade against puns Jonathan Swift fought against in England, Pollack cites growing class consciousness as a reason puns fell out of fashion; the new upper class of London began to mock regional accents and grammatical constructions, stigmatizing the sort of linguistic flexibility puns require by trying to enforce one exact spelling, pronunciation, and meaning for each word .
This brings me back to those confusers of conformity, the ultimate dashers of pretension: the Marx Brothers. In each film they bring a different set of self-inflated elites down to an honest level, often using puns to parody their affectations while underlying just how empty their superiority ultimately is. In this hilarious example from Horse Feathers, Groucho skewers academics with a biology lecture full of puns. Pointing at a anatomy diagram as if it is a map:
“We now find ourselves among the Alps. The Alps are a very simple people, living on a diet of rice and old shoes. Beyond the Alps lies more Alps. And The Lord Alps those that Alps themselves. We then come to the bloodstream. The blood rushes from the head, down to the feet, gets a look at those feet, and rushes back to the head again. This is known as auction pinochle. Now in studying your basic metabolism, we first listen to your heart speed. And if your hearts beat anything but diamonds and clubs, it’s because your partner is cheating…or your wife.”
Note, please, that I’m not some reactionary saying we should ship all the academics back to whatever communist stronghold President Obama was actually born in to protect all the real Americans. I just think it is important for everyone to be reminded of how arbitrary and fragile most of our conventions are: to invest too much in them, such as basing your sense of worth on your diction, will only lead to stagnation and disappointment. What I think Groucho is doing here is pointing out that while science may aspire to precision, the language it uses is a mess, so it had better take itself less seriously. To not do so—to continue reading directly from the textbook in a self-assured tone—is hubris that blinds us to the abstractions and imprecisions inherent in human language and the inevitable trouble that will arise from them.
Perma-irony is hubris of another sort, the naive belief that you can somehow stay above being human. I think the vain hope inherent in most sarcasm and irony is if you say, “I’m too cool for that,” to enough things, you’ll eventually be too cool for all the ugly things in life—or at least detached enough not to feel them. Do people fear that if they are caught out enjoying a pun they’ll be dragged down into the mess of language? What other good reason could someone have for not enjoying something? As if a stoic eye-roll might be able to guard them against ever saying the wrong thing or misunderstanding someone again.
The problem is, no one can avoid being human. Death, heartbreak, fear, and all the rest of it will find you, no matter how cool you are. To think you are above anything, even verbal foibles, will only ensure you’re too detached to deal with it when it inevitably happens. All you pun-haters need to quit pretending to be something other than one of us. You are not some invincible groaning monster—you’re a human, so go ahead and laugh like one.
With that said, I sat down to write this last section thinking I’d come up with 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 seeBatman 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, it turns out 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.