During my lifetime I have noticed a shift in the focus of humor–laughs are no longer based on situations but humorous conversations. Wise-cracking retorts are funnier than amusing events. In fact, often the events would be minimal.
The sitcom Seinfeld became a standard in comedy TV programs. The creator admitted this program was based on the life of characters in which nothing much happened. Sometimes, the entire plot revolved around the character’s illusions, and was delivered with humor through clever conversations. At times the events 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. He achieved fame largely through his short novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and his hit play, The Importance of Being Ernest. Oscar Wilde was known for his lectures on aesthetics and his epigrams, wry observations about life. An example of his wit is found in his 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 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, 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.
A litote is a rhetorical device that uses a negative to discreetly mention something that is not particularly pleasant without being too critical. As Oscar Wilde write one 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.
Euphemisms are softened ways of describing what we fear, such as death, or discussing inappropriate matters, like sex and violence, in public. Similar to a litote, a euphemism underplays the impact and true meaning of words. Oscar Wilde created his own euphemism in The Nihilist.
Experience, the name men give to their mistakes.
Satire is a type of parody which ridicules the follies of society by seeming to imitate real things, 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 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.