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 a character’s illusions or misgivings and actually struck a painful nerve. But the audiences continued to laughed as the actors cut each other down a notch with witty reposts; meanwhile garnering quotes with which to arm themselves.
This is not the first time that ‘witty’ words have been prized over plot. Oscar Wilde, a 19th century Irish writer and poet wrote one novel and had one play that was a major success. But he is mainly known for his epigrams, wry observations about life, such as one 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:
Satire – emulation of recognizable real events is necessary to create this type of parody which ridicules the follies of society.
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 :
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 (not) to discretely mention something that is not particularly pleasant without being too critical. As Oscar Wilde would say in House of Pomegranates”
He is really not so ugly after all, provided, of course, that one shuts one’s eyes, and does not look at him.
Euphemism – are softened ways of stating embarrassing matters (similar to litote) such as sex, violence, or death. But it can deal with more ordinary things like having a lousy job – “sanitation engineer” for trash collector or losing one’s job – “receiving a pink slip” for being fired.
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]