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In this theory, the different elements of the situation which give rise to the N and V views need not be revealed in a particular temporal ordering, since what is required is simply copresence of the two views. Both orders, N followed by V (we may write this as ``N+V'') and V followed by N (written as ``V+N''), can be seen in a variety of laughter-stimulating situations. Relief laughter in general, such as peekaboo, is ordered V+N, where events interpreted as bad precede events interpreted as good (speed or surprise being responsible for achieving Simultaneity of the N and V in the mind). On the other hand the initial laughter of disbelief in learning of a tragedy is ordered N+V, where the previously and held-to-be-ongoingly normal situation has a new V element introduced into it; then after belief is attained, V becomes the sole affective interpretation of the situation.

In perhaps the majority of jokes, the set-up describes a situation that seems quite normal, while it is the punchline that reveals an element of the situation with a V interpretation which is also consistent with the setup. That is, in jokes the order is commonly N+V. However the theory does not require either order in jokes, so we may expect to find cases in which setup includes V elements, while the punchline introduces an additional N interpretation.

In support of this, this section will present a couple of examples where the order is V+N rather than N+V. As mentioned above, in relief laughter in general, including in the inherent humor of peekaboo (discussed in a later section), the elements in the situation which provide the Normal interpretation occur temporally after those that provide the Violation interpretation. Things turn out to be okay in the end, after a period of time in which the dominant interpretation suggested a violation.

Another class of examples mentioned earlier are the Doonesbury cartoons by Garry Trudeau, where a technique frequently used is to follow the presentation of V with an N line in the last frame that continues the interpretation that things are fine, acceptable, normal. Jokes can also have a V+N ordering. The following example is case in point.

Jesus, on the cross, gasps weakly, ``Peter, Peter, come here.'' Peter puts up a ladder, climbs up, leans his ear close by. Jesus speaks: ``Peter, I can see your house from here.''

V, the tragedy of crucifixion, is juxtaposed next to N, a comment that might be made any day by a schoolyard playmate climbing on the roof. The phrase taken from normal, day-to-day life is the punchline, while the historic violation of a revered personage is the set-up. 9

A similar sequence is found in a classic lawyer joke:

Q: What do you call 1000 lawyers chained to a rock at the bottom of the ocean?
A: A good start!

Here a description of an apparent mass murder, certainly a moral violation in every sense, precedes a statement which applauds that situation as so desirable that even more of the same would be more desirable. Only the apparently widespread view that lawyers are the bane of our civilization makes the latter seem like a normal and acceptable reinterpretation of the former. And clearly the ordering is V+N here.

Notwithstanding these two examples, most jokes seem to have N in the setup and V (simultaneously compatible with the N view) in the punchline. In joke-telling it seems to be easier to reveal a violation in an apparently normal situation than to reinterpret an apparently bad situation as acceptable or normal. But both are possible, in any case, so the order of presentation of N and V is not intrinsically important; either order does work.

next up previous
Next: Competing theoretical views Up: Humor is Affective Absurdity Previous: Humor and emotional transformation
Tom Veatch