Literary Terms Associated with Humor

Absurd, The: literary mode where characters find themselves in a state of existence where their actions and lives are not only meaningless, but often the object of cruel jokes. This idea has its roots in existential philosophy; the works of Samuel Beckett provide many examples. Somewhat different from Black Comedy in that terrible things need not happen. Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel's The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, where a group of characters can never get served a meal despite their constantly trying to eat, exemplifies Absurdist cinema.

Black Comedy: literary mode in which terrible or morbid things are not only laughed at, but are expected, even wished for. Death and depravity are not excluded. Flannery O'Connor's work could often be labeled black comedy.

Burlesque: humor characterized by treating a dignified subject in a base manner or a crude one with mock dignity. Mock epics are all burlesques.

Malapropisms: A favorite tool of the Southwestern Humorists, often combined with heavy use of dialect to indicate pretension or stupidity. A famous example is the king's repeated use of "funeral orgies" for "funeral obsequies" in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The device can be overused, but it is powerful in the hands of a humorist like Mark Twain or Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The very term comes from Sheridan's The Rivals, where one meets Mrs. Malaprop, famous for her mangling of the language.

Meiosis: a satirical device that is belittling--the use of any "ugly or homely images" which are intended to diminish the dignity of any object (Inge 81). Reference by Becky Workman.

Pantaloon: A comic character, traditionally an old man foppishly dressed, who becomes the butt of a joke, often a cruel one. In modern drama we see pantaloons who act pretentiously urbane and cultured, sometimes "above their stations" in life. The snotty Malvolio from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, in his yellow stockings, provides a perfect example.

Picaro: A rogue involved in a series of adventures, often as part of a journey, recounted in a Picaresque tale. Don Quixote, and for that matter, Odysseus, are picaros.

Satire: In such work the foibles of humans become the subject of humor. Much modern situation comedy uses satire very well, whenever a character's greed, lust, or envy become the motives for humorous actions.

Scatological Humor: What we call "potty humor" today. Anything that uses bodily functions, especially urine and feces, to make a joke. The fart in Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale," Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo from South Park, and Gulliver's urinating to extinguish the fire at the Lilliputian royal palace all come to mind.

Works Cited:

Inge, Tomas M. Faulkner, Sut, and Other Southerners. West Cornwall, CT: Locus Hill, 1992.

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