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1995-06-01 »

Literary Humor: Ha versus Blah

Humour, seldom considered a valid literary technique, is often viewed only as a auxiliary to "more important" details like characterization and theme. Literary comedy, however, can range in importance from a simple means of getting attention to the singular purpose behind a writing's existence. Even theme, one of the most important features in most writing, tends to give way if the humour content is great enough. The different uses of humour can be demonstrated by three selections in particular: The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need by Dave Barry, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Each uses a different method to earn its appeal, and each was written for a different purpose, but the real difference between them is the varying levels importance the authors assigned to humour.

The Hunting of the Snark is an excellent example of a poem written completely for the sake of nothing in particular. The refrain serves as a good example:

      They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
      They pursued it with forks and hope;
      They threatened its life with a railway share;
      They charmed it with smiles and soap.

This seems absolutely nonsensical when taken out of context, but the wonder is that it makes no sense even when taken with the rest of the poem. This is great fun, but any attempt to glean some kind of literary value from the piece fails miserably. Without humour, The Hunting of the Snark would be nothing; with humour, it's still having a hard time.

Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need is completely different; it is based on the exaggeration of problems and the ridiculing of everything from airlines to Disneyland. Here, humour is very important as a way to capture the reader's attention, but there would still be something left if the humour were taken away. Barry makes real points about real annoyances in life; however, by using satire instead of direct insult to make his point, Barry not only avoids lawsuits but makes his opinion more generally acceptable. For instance, rather than stating outright that he cannot believe airplanes are really safer than cars, he says it sarcastically:

      But statistics show that, when you're in an airplane, you're actually four times as safe as when you're driving your car on an interstate highway!*
      * Provided that you are driving drunk and blindfolded

People accept his criticism more readily because it is phrased as a joke. The statement itself is no less real, and possibly more so; humour here is important, but more as a way to gain an audience to the information Barry wants to put forth.

In Catch-22, on the other hand, humour plays a very different role. It is not the whole purpose behind the book, but nor is it simply a particular way to present an opinion. Instead, humour is used to permanently capture the reader's attention at the beginning so that he can be "force-fed" the theme later on. Catch-22's humour serves another purpose as well: it mirrors the feelings of the main character, Yossarian. As things get worse for him, the jokes come less rapidly and eventually trickle to a stop. This plunge from exhilaratingly happy to depressingly serious is made all the more pronounced by Heller's careful consideration of where humour is and is not appropriate. In Catch-22, the highs and the lows of emotion are not as important as the contrast between them. Humour serves along with serious writing to create an altogether more powerful effect.

In each of the three works, theme seems to become less important as humour becomes more important. In other words, the more important humour is to a writing, the less important it is to develop a theme. The Hunting of the Snark, for example, would appear not to have a theme at all. Any individual line, stanza, or fit can be assigned some kind of significance if enough effort is taken, but when considered with the rest of the poem, no overall moral or theme seems to evolve. For example, when the beaver was "Recollecting with tears how, in earlier years / It had taken no pains with its sums," one would almost think a moral is present, encouraging youth to work hard in school; however, upon further investigation it turns out that the particular "sum" with which the beaver had not bothered was two plus one. Of course, this was insignificant since after being taught by the Butcher, the beaver realizes that "It had learned in ten minutes far more than all books / Would have taught it in seventy years." Carroll has contradicted himself, which achieves the desired quota of humour, but fails completely to generate any kind of lasting "deeper meaning."

Compared to this complete lack of cohesion in The Hunting of the Snark, Dave Barry's Travel Guide begins to seem like excellent literary material. The theme here could be loosely defined as "a universal complaint about every possible aspect of travel." There are two ways in which such a theme could be presented: the "old guy whining a lot about something he doesn't like" style, and the "Dave Barry" style. Dave Barry's own personal technique has several benefits, not least of which is that no one really wants to read some old guy's complaints about something he doesn't like. However, Barry manages to present the same complaints in a way that is not only acceptable, but appealing and entertaining. In a "Bonus Packing Tip" which explains "how to pack a suit so it won't come out wrinkled," he lists several complicated steps which conclude with:

      Ha ha! Isn't this fun? You may feel stupid, but trust me, you're not half as stupid as the people who think they can fold a suit so it won't come out wrinkled.

Admittedly, a "general complaint" theme is usually weak, but if it's funny enough, people will not really notice. Few literary techniques can hide a deficiency so well.

In contrast, Joseph Heller would be considered an excellent author in that Catch-22 has not only a theme, but a well-developed one. Catch-22 makes a strong statement about the horrors of war and their ability to change a person very much for the worse. Now, this does not seem something to joke about; in fact, possibly the theme's most important aspect in regards to humour is that they are mutually exclusive. The book alternates between developing a theme, which gives it literary significance, and comedy, which makes it far more appealing to the average person. It cannot do both at the same time. An example probably demonstrates this best. Little is added to the impression of war's evil influence by the following statement from Yossarian's roommate, Orr:

      "With rubber balls in my hands I could deny there were crab apples in my cheeks. Every time someone asked me why I was walking around with crab apples in my cheeks, I'd just open my hands and show them it was rubber balls I was walking around with, not crab apples, and that they were in my hands, not my cheeks."

It is when Orr is lost at sea and presumed dead - which isn't at all funny - that the theme becomes agonizingly clear. The reader is affected all the more because his sentiments about crab apples are lost forever. In the same way, all the sources of "comic relief" in the novel are systematically eliminated and become even more important to the theme by their absence.

Humour, then, is extremely important in literature. Anything that is worth reading despite the complete lack of "traditional" elements like theme is certainly under a powerful influence. However, humour does not have to exist on its own. Books like Catch-22 show that humour, and its carefully planned absence, can make a good thing even better. Besides this, in all three cases humour added an element of enjoyment that would make any writing more popular; as most authors presumably write with the intent to have their work read, humour is not something to be ignored.


Barry, Dave. Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.

Carroll, Lewis. The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits. Champaign, IL: Duncan Research, 1991.

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. New York: Dell Publishing, 1961.

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