Why the Pun is the Worst Possible Place to Begin A Study of Humour
In this next example, we examine where the pun belongs within the overall dynamics of the joke. This takes us to a point where more can be said about the general use of the pun in humour. In particular, we look at the pun from two contrasting but complementary points of view:
1) From the creative position of the humorist, who looks to find a twist in a situation that can serve as the basis for a joke.
2) From the analytical position of the audience, who are there to understand and appreciate the joke.
In practice, this means looking at two different pathways:
The reason for this dual approach is that the acid test of any model of the joke has to be whether it can be used to create new examples of jokes. One way to do this might be to follow the complimentary path of joke resolution, and see if we can do some reverse engineering on what we find there. So what this dual approach does is take both the start and the end of the joke always with the following question in mind. Can we combine the creative commitment of the humorist with the analytical commitment of the scientist, and set up a model of the joke that actually works in practice?
Here below is another favourite pun of mine, this time based on the visual dimension. Now usually visual puns exploit how, for example, objects and other physical situations resemble each other, but in this case, unusually, this is a visual pun on the appearance of a word. So unlike a normal verbal pun, which exploits a similarity in the sound of a word, this is actually a pun on how language looks, and because of this, the only way to present it is visually. That is, this joke can only be presented on paper, and therefore never in speech, like most of the puns on language.
But before we go any further, a word about the context of the cartoon. Firstly, it takes the form of a classic ‘Your Supper is in the Oven’ joke. Which is a genre of cartoon humour that is now somewhat passé, so an explanation is appropriate here. What the cartoon features here is the domestic context of what are known as ’Latchkey kids’. That is, those children who come home from school, and let themselves in by the latchkey door at the back of the house, whilst the mother is still at work, where they probably find food left for them on the kitchen table. By extension then, the ‘latchkey husband’ also comes home to an empty house, to find his supper ready for him in the oven. In addition, it also helps to know that for a while, the ‘Your Supper’s in the Oven’ note was a staple subject of cartoonists at Punch magazine in the UK, and indeed, this is one of their best examples in the genre.
What happens here is that the reader sees the picture in frame one as the familiar ‘Supper in the Oven’ message, which then leads to frame two, where there is a surprise waiting, leading to a puzzle that must be solved for the joke to work. All very well you might think, except that when three of my own children saw the cartoon, they immediately saw through the trick in the message in frame one without even looking at frame two, making their own ‘path of resolution’ quite different to the one I was expecting. So the joke was on me. Because I should have realised that they were not used to the cartoon cliche that would then ensure the planned misreading of the words in the note. Which is to say that none of them were fooled, and so read the critical word correctly and instantly, but for the purposes of the joke incorrectly and too soon – as Slipper rather than Supper. Which was a timely reminder of the limits of explanation in humour, because even visual humour, which is often more international than most, is nevertheless firmly seated in its subculture, time and age group in a way that makes the explanation of so many jokes dependent on their milieu as much as upon their actual dynamics.
Anyway, back in the old days, when this cartoon was quite celebrated, the reader was almost bound to misread the pun, and this was all due to the careful presentation set up by the cartoonist. Because what Dredge does is deliberately point the observer in the wrong direction by using an easy to recognise note from the wife to the latchkey husband. We have to remember here that the readers of Punch magazine were well used to the cliche of the ‘Supper in the Oven’ note, so no obvious suspicion as to the actual content of the note itself would be felt at this point. In addition, nobody would question why the letters in the note are broken up, because the fact that the note is in stencil form seems consistent with the informal style of the message. So the cartoonist has contrived a well recognised context – the note, and has used a well known style of writing – the stencil, to hide the dual visual identity carried in the one set of letters. Incidentally, two-frame cartoons are good for this because they offer the cartoonist the chance to engineer a ‘before and after’ stage. So the first frame sets up the pun, allowing us to think everything is normal, and then the second frame pulls the rug from under our feet (in this case, with the first of what turns out to be a veritable trio of twists).
We might call frame one the ‘Deception Stage’ in this context, whilst frame two is the ’Trigger Stage’ that points us back to frame one, where we see the pun in what is therefore the ‘Revelation Stage’. Note that it is not until we have understood the whole situation properly that we realise who has been fooled here. It is not just the poor husband that has been duped by his wife; it is us too. But what ensures that we look back to frame one and resolve the puzzle is the rather different twist presented to us in frame two. Because it is in frame two that we find a clear anomaly: there is a slipper in the oven, rather than the supper we have been led to expect from the note. An anomaly that has to be explained in some way, and we know there will be some kind of justification for this as that is how jokes work – they twist reality, but then somehow manage to make the twist look legitimate after all. Which is what takes us back to the message to see if we have missed something. So, let us look at the details of how this, the primary twist of the cartoon in frame two, leads to the rest of the humour in this cartoon. Beginning with the sequence of events that make up the path of resolution, and then going on to that other sequence of steps, the path of creation.
TWIST ONE – THE DISPLACEMENT
In frame two, the cartoonist forces a violation of normal domestic order on both the putative husband and ourselves. Slippers do not belong in ovens, and certainly not in the place of the husbands supper. All of which makes this a clear case of a displacement in the domestic order of things – and one we would certainly not normally expect to find in the average household. So the evident surprise on the face of the hapless husband is perfectly understandable. But his reaction also presents us with a challenge. Because what is going on here really? And the thing is, we know there is somewhere going to be a justification for this anomaly, because that is how jokes work.
Humour works this way: it presents us with a twist like the one here with the slipper sitting in the oven, and then it also offers us some kind of a legitimacy to support the appearance of this twist (not one that it is strong enough to withstand serious scrutiny however). This is how the alternative sense that is humour is preserved, and how we avoid the chaotic situation where just any old twist can be sprung on us without any sort of an attempt at justification whatsoever. So the question in the case of this cartoon is this. Given that we know to expect a justification for there being a slipper in the oven, where do we go to find the license for this displacement? Well, it has to be in frame one, because all frame two does is present us with the twist, with no explanation of why some domestic footwear might be in the oven, so to frame one we turn.
We then look for an explanation, and find it in an alternative reading of the note (‘SUPPER’ turns out to read ‘SLIPPER’). Which means that we must have misread the note, and now that we understand it correctly, we see that there should indeed be a slipper in the oven, because the note says exactly that. So we have found the legitimacy to our first twist – the displacement of the slipper is justified by what is apparently a deliberate pun. And how do we determine if the pun is deliberate? Well, the note is at variance with the usual meaning of ‘Supper’, and as the wife has gone ahead and put a slipper in the oven, the note is clearly carrying the message she intended. All of which means that this pun is deliberate, and is therefore acting as the justification to a displacement twist, because of course now the slipper does belong in the oven (as certainly as if the note had stipulated ‘choux pastry’ for the evening meal).
So the visual pun forms the basis of the ‘revelation’ stage, where the revelation in this case consists of a doubletake about the note on the table. We are duped into thinking one thing, and then the displacement twist in frame two drives us into seeking out an alternative explanation, which then leads to our discovery of the duality of the letters in the word ‘SUPPER’. Incidentally, we will come across this shift from deception to revelation in other cases, but for now suffice it to say that the pun is a classic means of contriving the shift from an engineered expectation to a surprise resolution due to its intrinsic duality within a single visual or (much more commonly) verbal identity.
A quick word about this idea of ‘single visual or verbal identity’ is perhaps in order here. The letter ‘U’ and the letters ‘LI’ are similar, but they are not actually identical, so it is not quite right to say that they have a ‘single’ identity. The words THWIM and SWIM are also similar to each other (even less so), and again are certainly not, by any stretch of the imagination, identical. So it seems that in each case this ‘single’ identity has been smudged a bit. This is not the case in the Mercies → Merci’s joke about the French though, because here the sound of both words really is the same, at least as long as no French accent is employed. But whaever the relative similarity, the main point here is that it is the way that one possibility can be turned into another that makes the pun so efficient in making the shift between the initial set up (the deception stage), and the resolution (the revelation stage).
So, the main point about this displacement twist is that it does have a reason for the slipper being there in the oven, and that this reason is actually a deliberately contrived pun. Which brings us to the next twist in this cartoon.
TWIST TWO – THE PUN
The visual pun between the letters U and LI, and thus the words SUPPER and SLIPPER, makes up the second twist in the dynamics of this cartoon. This is an effective pun because it is difficult to spot the first time round (in the context of habitual readers of Punch that is). This is important because we and the husband must both be duped for the cartoon to be a success. But this is not easy because the letters ‘U’ and ‘LI’ are not visually identical. So Dredge has had to look around for a way to hide this difference. He does this by putting the note from the wife in stencilled form, so that the difference in letters is well enough concealed to stand inspection first time round. Or to put this another way, this time round, we are looking at a manipulation of shapes where the smudging is visual, in contrast to the ‘Thwim’ and ‘Swim’ story, where the smudging is acoustic. Notice that in each case, recourse has been made to a naturally occurring form of that smudging (stencilled writing and spoken lisp), in order to make the result more accessible and more plausible.
Why then is it so important for the pun to dupe both reader and husband? Because if we read the note as a straight statement of what we actually find in the oven, then the idea of the wife deliberately tricking her husband is lost, removing an interesting element of drama from the situation. At the same time, we lose what is a good visual puzzle, along with the doubletake that sends us back to the first frame in our search for an explanation. Leaving just a straight displacement twist, with only a vague intimation of the relationship standing behind it, and the likelihood that the wife is simply mad. An explanation that is generally avoided in humour because it is just too easy to cover just about any twist we care to consider, by making it the product of madness. In any case, it is presence of the visual twist that makes the rest of the joke interesting. Because the pun jumps out and grabs our full attention. How? Well, it tricks us, and it is intrinsically intriguing, and then it makes us work at finding an explanation for its deliberate use. All of which makes the familiar cliche of friction between a married couple far more interesting than it would be without the pun.
Now what about the general rule that a twist benefits by having some form of legitimacy? Does this mean that we can look around for a pointer to the legitimacy of this visual pun as well? But then, surely puns need no additional justification? After all, what better licence do we have than that puns are a part of real life, occurring naturally in language and other domains, and in surprising numbers? Well yes, it is true that they are a commonly recognised part of the language landscape, but in this case, the usage of the pun by the absent wife is ingenious and deliberate. So even if puns enjoy a special status insofar as they are twists that need no justification, our sense-seeking minds are still going to look for a reason for their deliberate employment. Which in this case means looking for an explanation as to why the wife tricked her husband in this curious way. It must have been deliberate of course, because she then put a slipper in the oven, but why did she do that? Well, one likely answer is that the wife is putting her husband down by playing a practical joke on him. Now maybe this is a malicious act on her behalf; and maybe it is just for a laugh; but then again, maybe it really is the start of an outright rebellion. But it does not matter what the precise interpretation happens to be, because now the use of the pun makes sense within the overall domestic picture of the homecoming latchkey husband, and its deliberate use is justified, and it all makes sense. Or in terms of our analysis, the deliberate use of the pun is justified by our perception of the background situation of the married couple, where we surmise that the wife is rebelling against her husband.
But if the wife is rebelling, and turning the tables on her husband, then surely that is a category of twist as well? And a naturally occurring twist at that, just like the pun itself? Which indeed seems to be the case, and not only that, but this is a twist that we already have a name for – the wife is ‘debunking’ her husband. In fact, one dictionary definition of this term actually refers to debunking as an important agent of humour in the very example it offers us: reduce the inflated reputation of (someone): comedy takes delight in debunking heroes. So let us look at this third example of a twist in more detail.
TWIST THREE – THE DEBUNKING
The third twist is about domestic conflict: a naturally occurring problem that is largely concealed from public view. In this case, the wife makes her husband the butt of a practical joke. True, the action of the wife in playing this trick on her husband already provides the justification for the deliberate use of the pun – but the practical joke and its ramifications also form the basis for a new twist, and that is what interests us here. Because the cartoon reveals to us that domestic harmony has been overturned, and that the husband has been turned into the hapless target of an ingenious practical joke. A joke for which the intent may range from playful, through malicious to the last straw and eventual divorce (though the action of the wife seems too clever, and the result too amusing, for extreme displeasure to be the motive). But what we do see quite clearly in the drawing is the surprised and slightly unfortunate look on the face of the husband, who was clearly not expecting such treatment. A clear visual statement that is in marked contrast to the unrevealed (and yet somehow quite tangible) image of the absent wife, who has caused all this trouble in the first place.
So can we claim that the action of the wife in debunking the status quo concerning her wifely duties is really a twist? Especially if it tends to happen as often as it probably does? Well, the fact that comedy dramas often use such situations as the basis for humour, and the fact that the husband in frame two is clearly dumbfounded by the act, do suggest that we are looking at a bona fide twist here. But it is not a powerfully funny twist on its own in this case, nor are we relying on this particular aspect of the joke for the success of the whole cartoon. Because its success clearly hangs on a whole bundle of twists and justifications, each of which provides a source of interest and amusement, as we progress through each step in its denouement.
Given that this debunking of the husband is a twist, do we then need a justification for its use in this cartoon? Well, we do in theory, but in practice, the legitimacy for its use comes from the fact that it is simply part of real life. Because wives really do rebel sometimes, and if they don’t always do it with such captivating ingenuity and wit, well that’s because the cartoon world is sometimes richer than real life. Which is surely one reason why cartoons used to help sell magazines and newspapers so effectively.
Here then is a table summarising the main dimensions and dynamics of this cartoon. Note that the term ‘Legit’ is being used as a short form of the term ‘legitimacy’, and that the term ‘justification’ that has frequently been used in the text above, is just another way of saying ‘legit’.
So the first is a displacement twist (slipper out of place), the second is that well known twist on identity – the pun (similar visual appearance of letters, but different meanings), and the third is a form of status twist (with the wife turning the tables on the husband).
THE PATH OF CREATION
There are a number of questions that arise from this cartoon when it comes to looking at the path of its creation. For example, how on earth did Dredge contrive this artful complex of twists, and how in particular did he spot the visual pun between these particular letters? Then again, how did he think to put the pun into a verbal context so familiar to us (stencilled letters) that he could then use it to dupe not only the husband, but us as well? Or hold on – maybe he somehow came up with the slipper displacement first, and then found a snappy way to set it up? What? So he realised that putting a slipper in an oven looked drole, and could be confused with the normal supper left by a working wife, and all he had to do was find some way of leading one into the other? Seems a little far fetched surely? And it is. Because here is how it really happened.
Cartoonists look for inspiration in many places, and one of those ‘sources’ is the material in magazines like Punch and New Yorker. They even advise each other to do this in their books for aspirant cartoonists. Langdon for example recommends ‘controlled mind wandering’ as an important way of finding inspiration, and others openly advocate leafing through past magazine cartoons for inspiration. So did Dredge spot the potential for a pun whilst sifting through a number of ‘Your supper is in the oven’ jokes in the cartoon literature? Almost certainly, one might imagine. And when I rang him up and talked about it with him, he agreed that this was ‘almost certainly how he did it’, though to be fair, he was ‘not entirely sure any more’.
As for the alternative, well, that really does not bear thinking about it, so let’s think about it right now. Imagine that instead of just spotting an interesting pun in a random cartoon within the Supper in the Oven genre, Dredge had spotted that U and LI looked similar, and had then decided to exploit this pun somehow. For example, he could imagine two words such as ‘CUPBOARD’ and ‘CLIPBOARD’ where the switch would be feasible. Or maybe just ‘CUP’ and ‘CLIP’ in this case? The problem being that the next step would involve some serious effort if the whole thing was going to work. Because assuming that we are going for a two framer in our cartoon, then we need the cup and clip to collide in some meaningful way in the endframe, and we need a viable way of setting up the pun in the first frame, prior to the switch in meaning that precipitates the denouement in the second frame that will then force us back to the puzzle in frame one. All of which has to then make sense for the joke to work. At which point we begin to realise that finding a pun is the simple part of the creative path, and that the real problem lies in how we then use it to set up a joke. A joke that is going to be as much (if not more) about the particular meanings embodied in the pun as it is about the pun itself.
Coming back down to earth however, we can see that once Dredge had spotted the similarity between SLIPPER and SUPPER, the rest of the joke was there for the taking. Because the displacement of a piece of footwear to an oven, precipitated by this newly discovered pun, really does give us a potentially amusing result. A result that, in addition, finds a potential explanation just nearby, because in terms of semantic distance, the wife is offstage by just a few steps, so it is easy enough to give her the credit for the deliberate pun in the supper note on the table. A lucky fit indeed.
But for every joke that works out successfully like this, there are many joke ideas that die stillborn. For example, if the first word from the pun had led to a second word describing an object too large to fit in the oven, then the whole joke would have failed at first realisation. Or if the first and second words both described dishes that could conceivably be cooked in an oven, then again, the result would be a failure, and this however clever the visual pun that led to it. Or if the object described in the second and initially concealed meaning of the message were to come from a rather different domain of experience, such as a starfish, then the displacement might seem less plausible, because starfish are not part of the domestic environment, whilst a slipper is far more appropriate to the context of the family home.
Incidentally, we are assuming that in every case, the cartoonist is true to his art to the extent of presenting the idea in an effective visual form, because an obvious way of failing as a cartoonist is to produce bad drawings, that are clumsy, or without style, or lacking in clarity. But it is the idea that lies behind every cartoon that is our focus here. Because that is the side that requires a serious intellectual input on the part of its creator, and it is that content, rather than the visual presentation of the joke idea, that represents the real challenge. So we can take the presentation skills of the cartoonist for granted a little, at least for the moment.
To return to the creative path of this particular cartoon, we can see that the idea was based on the clever and opportunistic use of a pun spotted in another cartoonist’s work. A pun that, by sheer luck, yields a perfect example of a quality cartoon (and the fact that it was published in Punch is an index of its quality for that particular time). However, there is plenty of credit to be given to Dredge for the skilled ‘mind wandering’ that went into the discovery of such an opportunity, as well as the obvious artistic skill required for its presentation. All of which can be seen in the light of the huge failure rate of joke ideas that do not work out in practice.
But we can also see that it would be very hard to create a joke in reverse order. For example, if we decided to use the ‘slipper in the oven’ idea as our starting point, then we would have to create a clever arguement or juxtaposition to support this displacement. That being the only way our image can move from the surreal to the humorous, and become recognisable as a joke. But if we decided to choose a pun to bring the two domains of oven and slippers together, then we would be presented with quite a task. But ’choux pastry’ has already been mentioned as a possible candidate, located incidentally with the usual technique of ‘controlled mind wandering’. Which in this case involved spotting it just hovering there, within what we might call the ‘naming cloud’ that surrounds the word ’slipper’ (where it sounds like ‘shoe’). Upon which its obvious dual membership in that other naming cloud, the one that surrounds ‘oven’, also jumps out at us, thus fulfilling our search for the acoustic knot that we need for this joke. Which is still just the beginning of our task, because now we have to justify the presence of the pun as a lead in to the displacement twist. (To then answer the question: What is this reference to ‘choux pastry’ doing here?). Which is difficult, especially as we are now probably beyond the help of that semantic oasis, the naming cloud. So, are we going to go the route of deliberate usage, and make somebody set up the pun for what must be a plausible motive, or are we going to slip the pun into a situation as an incidental concomitant of an associated context (sorry about that – but for example, in a Pâtisserie)? Because, whichever we choose, we better find a clever justification, because the pun itself is a fairly banal example, and without an ingenious setting and justication, it will be a damp squib. At which point, we can leave this challenge to the creative imagination of the reader, the difficulty of this particular creative path now being clear enough.
One of the problems we are encountering here is to do with the nature of the pun itself. Because it seems that there is a great element of chance involved in our finding of puns in the first place. But at the same time, it is also clear that puns represent a very major part of the literature in humour because of their power to unite different domains of meaning in a single flash of sound or sight, so how can they be systematically mapped in a way that gives them their proper place in the landscape of meaning?
WHY ARE PUNS IMPORTANT TO HUMOUR?
The slipper pun is both a twist in its own right (on identity), and a legit to the displacement twist (it initially justifies the slipper being in the oven). It is also the means by which the cartoonist engineers what is effectively a doubletake on the part of both husband and reader. Just as clearly, the double nature of the pun is ideal for this role, given the way it sets up one possibility, and then flips it to the other. That is, every joke sets up a puzzle to be spotted by the audience, and the pun is an excellent way of doing this, because it often requires some serious attention if it is to be apprehended (both meanings intended). No question then, about how valuable a pun can be the creator of humour.
Again, the think/thwim pun is an excellent example of a twist that is both intriguing and clever in its own right, and yet also supplies the legit for a further twist (the reversal of status between the USA and the UK). Indeed, many of the less impressive puns in the literature (and there are many), owe their existence to the fact that they serve as excellent legits to other, generally more amusing, twists. And the way such puns knot strings of meaning together, so that we take the twist ‘seriously’, even though we all know perfectly well that the pun is a contrivance, and a creature of chance, is of clear importance. In fact, surely this power of puns to fuse different meanings together could be exploited outside of humour altogether? So, for example, it is not hard to imagine a mystical sect that sets much value on a particular selection of puns that tell of magical connections and powers quite unsuspected by us normal mortals (who would rightly see such a selection as every bit as arbitrary as the connections themselves).
So, given the primacy and ubiquity of the pun, surely we should take them very seriously? Meaning that any attempt to map out the patterns of logic underlying humour is well advised to seek out the puns in that landscape first, before doing anything else. After all, they are easy to recognise, rather common, come in all shapes and sizes, are important as a source of twists in their own right, and provide us with a very useful resource of legits to other forms of joke as well. Surely then, their incidence, frequency and general natural history should be mapped forthwith? But here, it seems, we come across a problem… because how do we do this?
PUNS – THE MUSHROOMS OF COINCIDENCE
Imagine trying to make an exhaustive list of all the puns in English. Or imagine that we have found a good dictionary of puns, and look up an example like Think and Thwim to test its quality. Because if we are to satisfy both the creative needs of the humorist, and the analytic needs of the researcher, then this dictionary of puns would have to detail such an example, or fail us all at the first post. Or imagine a clever algorithm that can spot not only identical sounds with different meanings, but also non identical (albeit rather similar) sounds with different meanings, and even an algorithm that spots similar visual identities between all known physical entities. What would such a list look like, and how might such an algo work in the first place?
Whatever the means used to compile an exhaustive listing of all the puns in existence in our culture, the size of such a list would presumably be very large. We would probably try to organise the whole thing in alphabetical order, just like the words in a dictionary, but that could prove very tricky, as we would have to identify the visual listing that way too. How would such a search engine work? Probably by literally going through every word (and every object for visual puns) in an exhaustive process. An easier matter with words perhaps, because we already have a listing for comparision in the form of a dictionary, though looking for smudged sounds could be tricky. But in the case of visual puns, the software would have to be even more sophisticated as there is no direct listing of things (a dictionary would be of some help, but the visual world goes way beyond words in its diversity and complexity), and matching the look of things would require some very clever graphics software for the result to be acceptable.
Humorists would find the results very useful – there is no doubt of that – because it would represent a huge resource of twists and legits for their craft. But there is one important question that faces the explorer into the contours of meaning in this verbal and visual landscape. Where exactly is the underlying pattern of meaning in such a list? Because if there is no pattern, then there is no science of meaning. So does the verbal or visual coincidence of one word or object with another show a pattern? Well, almost by definition, it does not. Because puns are generallly the result of coincidence (there are some exceptions to this), and this coincidence is basically random, and without meaning. So puns present us with a barren land when it comes to any serious search for pattern in the meaning and dynamics of jokes.
It is worth reflecting on the idea, already mentioned, that a mystical sect could ‘discover’ a serious message in the play of chance within a collection of puns. Such a sect would be attaching meaning to the puns after the fact (a posteriori), whereas a search for the meaning that causes puns to show a pattern would have to be before the fact, and a priori. The problem for us is therefore that puns just pop up everywhere, like mushrooms, without prior warning or pattern. Or, as the title above attests, puns are indeed the mushrooms of coincidence, and thus the products of chance. So yes, we can discuss how they are used by humour, and we can do so in a way that provides a clear picture of their importance, but when it comes to both their origin and their meaning, the picture goes out of focus. Because puns have no sense to their incidence; and all they can ever do is provide us with a geography of co incidence, not a geography of meaning.
So there we have it. The pun, that most attractive and familiar feature of humour, is probably the worst possible place to begin an investigation into the nature of humour because puns pop up everywhere: they are the mushrooms of coincidence.
Which is why, in the next section but one, we sidestep the pun, and look at a different kind of double. A double that is created by ourselves, and therefore a double that serves a number of important facets of human purpose. Making it an agent of meaning par excellence. And an aspect of this domain of humanly contrived puns that allows us to chart its place in the geography of human meaning in a way that leaves the pun far behind. But in order to follow that path, we first need to summarise what we now know about the dynamics of the joke.