Pish Tosh

Wednesday, February 16

The Rhetoric of Blog Humor

Or: I've been thinking about this since I started blogging and had to choose between CAPS and italics.

I'm compiling a tipsheet or reference list of blog humor. Your thoughts and examples are especially solicited!


Being funny: there're conventions, there's a syntax, and you can learn these things.

Conventions are important, because they tell people when to laugh. For example, think about what follows after these statements:

I'm like HELLO?!

Okay, I get that you're X? (pause.) But Y!

(Pause.) I'm just saying.


I once busted CV for using these conventions in this way: instead of listening to my story, he was THINKING ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE and just laughing because he could hear the way my voice went up? And paused. For the laugh.
ME: Are you just laughing cause you know you're supposed to, but not really listening?
CV: [laughs again, sincerely this time.] Yes.

So it is important to realize that sometimes, when you're practicing these techniques, and the others I introduce below, what you're saying isn't all THAT funny, and people will laugh anyway, because you've trained them too. BUT THIS IS IMPORTANT. YOU'RE TRAINING THEM TO LAUGH. It's also important because you get the method of joke-telling DOWN, so when you really are telling something super-funny, you can just rattle it out and the timing and the conventions will be there, at the ready, to make your delivery perfect! You will be fuckin' hilarious!

blurt's short course in blog funniness

1. Extra periods. One of the important blog ways of emphasizing funniness is to add periods between words.

A pretty standard way for this to appear is in the introduction of the superlative, as in BEST. THING X. EVER.

Here's a variation on this technique, from dooce.

The second gay guy I dated who didn’t know he was gay liked anal sex, except, he wanted it performed on him. I am not into kinky sex with motorized objects or things that strap onto the body, so he suggested that I use objects around the house. To put into his butt. In. To. His. Butt. Dad, if you have made it this far in this post I promise to pay for your ambulance trip to the ER.

NOTE: This is a virtuostic piece of humor-convention-using, because Dooce uses here not just one but TWO of the blog-humor-conventions: she also talks about sex, which is rule 8, below. But because I just introduced it here, it's also rule one.

2. Capitalization.

This is a particularly Dooce-ian convention. It works on the principle of contrast: you can be telling an apparently-mundane story, but the addition of CAPITALS FOR EMPHASIS can give your story that air of hyperbole, which is funny.

On Christmas Eve we drove north to see Jon’s family, and while this may seem like the beginning of a happy holiday tale it is in fact not. This is the beginning of a story about how my husband almost lost my dog FOREVER.

“CHUCK! CHUCK! I screamed, still thinking about where he could be, smushed on the road or kidnapped by mutt poachers or lost! LOST! IN THE MOUNTAINS! WHERE THERE ARE MOUNTAIN LIONS! and GOATS!

from dooce.

A few comments about why these techniques, that is, rules one and two, yield funny:
In cases like this, cases which are essentially about punctuation, I think the humor comes from the imagined pace at which the story would be told out loud. Periods and capitals work as pauses or as HYSTERICAL OUTBURSTS, and when we read them, we understand their relationship to verbal conventions of funny storytelling.

3. Decontextualization: otherwise known as editing.

For this technique, you choose just one small part of a larger conversation or a larger situation, and you put your frame around that. It's a little like haiku in that way. You choose the telling moment, the funniest moment, or the moment of greatest contrast. This is funny partly because of the charm of the non-sequiter, partly because the chosen moment might arise mundanely but, removed from its step-by-step logic, it can seem difficult to believe that such a bit of random funniness can arise in real life! Yet they do. And all you have to do is learn to spot them.

Bitch. Ph.D.'s Pseudonymous Kid conversations are a notable example of this rhetorical genre:

Excerpt from what was, in fact, a very long convo on the subject earlier today:

PK, sighing: "I hate pooping."
me: "why?"
PK: "It smells bad, and it's icky. And poop is not a toy. It's just poop."

from Bitch. Ph.D.

Mr. B.: Right, and then, hit "play." Thanks. (Pause, followed by goofy-ass grin) Do you know, this is a dream of mine.
Me: ??
Mr. B.: To have my beautiful wife sitting there, and ask her to start the next episode of Star Trek.
Me: (Rolls eyes.)
Mr. B.: I didn't say it was a nice dream. But it is a dream.

from Bitch. PhD.

This is why I will never be as funny as these people I'm quoting: Editing. Is not important to me. This is because MY brain chemistry problem is anxiety, otherwise known as TOTAL MANIA ALL THE TIME. Which makes speaking a lot very rapidly, very Important.

Fortunately for me,

4.Enthusiasm is funny. I don't know why. But taking someone's offhand comment, getting really enthused and then elaborating on the comment and relating it to your grandmother's aubergine teapot and then commenting on your comment and then relating it back to the point and culminating that that aubergine teapot is why you love the comment! and capping it with the occasional exclamation point. That's funny!

But even without enthusiasm, elaboration or tangents, used judiciously, are also funny techniques.

5. Oddball answers to rhetorical questions. The rhetorical question can come from you. It can also come from some implied audience member, denigrating your blog, making this technique akin to rule 7, below.

For the benefit of new readers, yes, we used disposables. But before anyone yells at me for so far sending 3,500 diapers to the landfill, just hold on. Nothing went to the landfill. They're all in a storage unit out on Highway-54 for safekeeping.

(From The Trixie Update, a site that also demonstrates that data is funny. The more specific the data, the funnier.)

6. Being Mean is Funny. Yep, Mean Girls, where they're three-way calling, is funny. That's why it's so fun sometimes to gossip, especially if the gossip is about something someone else did that was TOTALLY OUTGRAGEOUS.

But this kind of funniness is corrosive over time, so don't do too much of it.

Relatedly, lists are funny.

7. Self-deprecation is funny.

After brushing off strange looks on the subway this morning, I walked into the ladies room at work only to see that the set of 10 peel and stick stamps that I bought over the weekend and stuffed into my purse had now somehow stuck themselves on to my scarf, hair and side of hat without my knowing.

And as if that wasn't enough...over the weekend friends of ours asked us to join them to see a performance of Flamenco music at Carnegie Hall which was fantastic. At one point I dug in my bag for my glasses and pulled out two cans of cat food I had bought three days ago. Duh.

from More than Donuts.

And you've already read this recent example from Bitch. Ph.D. But isn't it great?

A homeless person, witnessing my plight (digging through wallet at snack bar, "oh damn, I don't have any money, nevermind"), gives me a couple of bucks, which has to be one of the most humbling moments of my life. I try to refuse, but he insists. On the grounds that it feels good to help others, I think I did the right thing, but admittedly, "oh, I've just returned from a foreign vacation and have absolutely no American money on me, would you be a darling, Mr. Homeless Man, and buy me dinner?" is, well, fairly obnoxious.

8. Talking about sex? Funny!

There comes a point in every relationship when you have to ask yourself, “Am I willing to stick a bottle of A1 sauce up this person’s butt?” And in that relationship the answer was, “Just once and now I never want to see you again.”

from Dooce.

Relatedly, talking about drinking can be funny. (Any given week of posts at Wonkette will usually provide an example.)

9. Really an addendum of rule 8. Don't forget about the hilariousness of contrast. Innocent and raunchy. Young and old. Powerful and peon. Likeable and incompetent. And, most especially, don't forget about sacred and profane.

From a post called "Dear Jesus,"

You are a figure of some historical importance, and to those who think you are important you are also wise and forgiving and can do a little magic. I like magic. Well, I like the kind that is staged and performed by David Copperfield on television. Do you know him? He performs miracles. In fact, I once saw him walk through a wall. You ever see that? Cool.

(from Tony'sblog)

And this is a nice one:

So, since it's the weekend, here is the idosyncratic Dr. Bitch advice on "how to deal with sex toys around kids."

First, stay away from too-realistic dildoes. Now, personally, realistic dildoes kind of squee me out anyway: wow, I think, that looks like an amputated body part! Not sexy. So maybe this advice stems more from my own personal wiggishness on those particular devices. But still, I just am not sure I want to try explaining why we have pretend penises lying around in a box, and you just know that the kid would try to play dress up with them, like putting a rubber hand inside your sleeve and offering to shake someone's hand and then having it fall off, and you'd end up laughing and also feeling like a really sick fuck. Not going there.

from Bitch. Ph.D.

NOTE: This scenario is made infinitely funnier by the inclusion of the word "squee."

Now here's another one -- again kid-related (is this it's own rule? kids are funny?) -- that gets its humor by exploiting the gap between the aesthetic and the domestic. Plus it has that gross-out element: a handful of chewed-up food! Ew!

And speaking, in my usual elliptical way, of throwing crockery around the room, one of perennial laments of the stay-home parent is that the general drift of your daily conversation does not exactly smack of the Parisian salon; as much as you might want to convince yourself that the recurrent struggle with your child over social roles has a weird, Henry James undercurrent to it, full of half-stated import and subtle grabs for power, this conviction tends to crumble when your daughter reaches into her mouth to remove a handful of tortellini, offering up only the explanation that "I think the tortellini touched a vegetable."

from Daddy Zine

See how this one also has tangents? It's related to rule 4, enthusiasm, above.

10.The adjective "apeshit" is always funny.

There you have it. Ten techniques used in funny blogs. Doesn't it make you happy? To know how funny the world is? And how good some people are at making you see that way?

Now, I know I've left some funny folks out. Please feel free to make your additions in comments. Also feel free to point to your own funniest post. Or someone else's that you like.



At 3:10 PM, Blogger Tony said...

i'm glad you read dooce's post about the gay ex's. i tried to e-mail you about it but your inbox was too full the e-mail was rejected. she's great.

At 6:11 PM, Blogger New Kid on the Hallway said...

I LOVE this post - hysterical! And so true! Nothing I could add. (Except that I so share your editing problem. I think we were separated at birth or something.) Personally I have to go with the honest, sharing blogger persona, b/c I can't pull off the funny one (although now that I've read your tip sheet...).

At 8:46 PM, Blogger bitchphd said...

You like me! You really like me!

This is great, I really love it. I find the rhetorical play of blogging just great. Another great writer who manages to beatifully combine pathos, profundity, and humor is flea at One Good Thing: buggydoo.blogspot.com. Also with the kids are funny.

Am now musing on other humor techniques. One is simply fucking around with sentence structure, i.e., "Also with the kids are funny"--not a hilarious example, admittedly, but you know what I mean. The punctuation thing is a specific example of this larger thing. Another, maybe related, is the deliberate imitation of casual conversational patterns, especially in contrast with "serious" subjects. This falls under contrast of course, as does swearing--profane.

I'm amused that you think that I'm good at editing, b/c I too am anxious and tend to go. on. and. on. But with the PK stories (and here is why kids are funny), what happens is that they will often state the blindingly obvious ("poop is not a toy"), often out of the thin blue air, and it's that "out of the thin blue air" effect that, I think, I'm going for in taking them out of context. But *totally* out of context isn't so great either--you don't want *just* the punchline (although, "poop is not a toy" is hilarious on its own, admittedly), but the sense of normalcy that creates the contrast.

This post of yours, you realize, is fucking hilarious. Again, the contrast: high (rhetorical analysis) with low (stories about poop and fucking. In blogs).

At 9:06 PM, Blogger bitchphd said...

Oh, here's another technique: the rant. Ideally over something petty. Which I guess is contrast, but the rant seems its own little subgenre.

See Dr. Pretorious's Rules for Papers as an example.

At 1:19 AM, Blogger Rana said...

This is such an awesome post! :)

(Not least because I've seen these conventions in action, and used a few myself. Here's another one: the afterthought aside. That is, you ramble away about something, then, at the end, say something else as a throw-away nonsequitur that somehow casts the whole preceding ramble in a new light. Oh, and the use of explanatory footnotes (ala flea at One Good Thing) can be very funny.)

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Tony said...

yeah, yeah, blurt is SO funny, blurt is SO special, everyone loves blurt. well, this may be true, but you shouldn't forget that she's standing on the shoulders of giants. or, more precisely, Tony needs some attention, too.

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Ms. Pipestem said...

Thanks everyone! Tony, blame CV's sister and her inability to edit digital photos down to a manageable size.

NK: I know! I'm basically your twin. Your twin without a Ph.D. Or a job. :)

Prof. B: Yeah... I found myself quoting your blog a lot for this post. What can I say, I'm a sucker for sex stories, precocious kids, and geeks. But I love your elaborations on the subject in comments here.

Prof. B and Rana: Terrific suggestions. I'll definitely have to do a version 2 of this post to include them, attributed, of course, to you guys.

At 9:48 AM, Blogger Ms. Pipestem said...

Tony, you crazy. You're doing a younger brother thing here, no? Want me to get out the toothpick? :) Kidding.

At 3:19 PM, Anonymous d said...

i'm partial to "batshit crazy" personally. it's like "apeshit", but two words. and it just rolls off the proverbial tongue.

At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is all fine and good, but it does not, as far as I can see, account of the absolute hilariousness of someone like The Manolo, who is frequently funny in ways I've never before witnessed.

At 1:11 AM, Anonymous didier said...

I usually try to put amusing remarks in parentheses (like I'm doing right now: I'm making smart/sarcastic remarks about what I've just written). I don't know if it works, but it's the most natural way for me to try to be funny.

At 11:28 PM, Anonymous Eclair said...

Assuming a ridiculous alter-ego is another way of mocking oneself, as well as being mean. My only funny post is The Princess and The Pee (under icing at Eclair). It even involves cat pee, for bonus points, although the rest is probably maudlin crap.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Ms. Pipestem said...

I don't know, Eclair, I think your recent post about intellect vs. housework, Batman style, is pretty funny!


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