Sometime in the eighties I noticed a shift in the focus of television sitcoms–the humorous situation was gradually being replaced by humorous banter. Witty retorts were more important than amusing events. In fact, often the events would be minimal. The entire plot may have been based solely on the character’s illusions, often nothing happened but clever conversations. Sometime the events in comedies actually struck a painful nerve. But, the audiences continued to laugh as the actors cut each other down a notch with witty retorts.
This is not the first time that ‘witty’ words have been prized over plot. Oscar Wilde, a 19th century Irish writer and poet wrote many poems, essays, short stories and plays. However, other than the fame achieved through his one novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and his hit play, The Importance of Being Ernest, Wilde is mainly known for his epigrams, wry observations about life. An example of his wit is found in an article in the New York Tribune.
And, after all, what is a fashion? From the artistic point of view, it is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.
Epigrams are short, clever statements (or poems) that have been recorded ever since Ancient Greece. Each culture has its own kind of humor but there are some basic devices:
Paradox–like Wilde’s quip about fashion it states an apparent contradiction or incongruity that on second glance may actually be true. Wilde is also quoted as saying the following concerning one of his critics in The New-York Herald:
If it took Labouchere three columns to prove that I was forgotten, then there is no difference between fame and obscurity.
Litote –a rhetoric device that uses a negative to discretely mention something that is not particularly pleasant without being too critical. As Oscar Wilde would write in “The Birthday of the Infanta”
He is really not so ugly after all, provided, of course, that one shuts one’s eyes, and does not look at him.
Euphemism–a softened ways of describing what we fear, such as death, or discuss inappropriate matters to like sex and violence. Similar to litote, a euphemism underplays the impact and the words true meaning. Oscar Wilde created his own in The Nihilist:
Experience, the name men give to their mistakes
Satire–is type of parody which ridicules the follies of society by seeming to imitate real events, but not quite. Satire can also be leveled against work of art and fiction and especially other writers. Familiarity with Shakespeare’s monologue from As You Like It makes the satirical restatement by Oscar Wilde more cutting:
The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast
In each case there is an irony, a play on words where ordinary wisdom is twisted into a new meaning in a way that seems humorous–at least on the surface. But the underlying meaning may end up being as bitter as Oscar Wilde’s own end.
Photo by Napoleon Sarony [Public domain]