Monday, January 23, 2012

Some serious unseriousness

I was reading an article which used the term "shaggy dog story," despite the fact that the rest of the article had nothing to do with dogs. What, I wondered, is a shaggy dog story? Wikipedia came to the rescue, explaining that it's a form of humor I've loved for years: a winding tale with tons of irrelevant detail and random tangents, culminating in an anti-climax that is hilarious precisely because it is so non-hilarious and completely unrelated to the rest of the story.

Eager for more, I decided to head to the "See also" section, where I clicked on "No soap radio." Again, I was floored to learn that there is a term for something I've experienced for years: a joke with a non-hilarious punchline (typically the words 'no soap, radio?,' but not always), told between a couple of people who are in cahoots with each other to laugh no matter what. The point is to tell the joke in front of a third person, and see how they react: do they try to conform and laugh along with the first two, thus looking like a birdbrain? Or will they be understandably confused, opening themselves to ridicule from the two jokesters? Needless to say, this is intimately related to "anti-humor."

As I read about this, I had a flashback to eighth-grade English class. Our weekly assignment was to learn twenty new assigned vocabulary words, and then create analogies for the class where the vocabulary words would be the answers. Pretty straightforward stuff, until one time a couple of guys decided to have some Dada-esque fun. One of them announced the following analogy to the class:

"Stoplight is to Marilyn Monroe, as carpeting is to...?"

The class sat stupefied for a moment, until the second guy gleefully announced "Varnish!" which, as you may have guessed, was one of our vocabulary words for the week. They clearly had rehearsed this, and were having a fabulous time.

We being a bunch of bored eighth graders, the whole class burst out with some mild laughter. We were all set to shrug off the nonsense and move on, until our teacher said shrilly, "I don't get it. I just don't get it!" So we laughed some more.

But our teacher started having an honest-to-goodness meltdown. "I'm serious! I don't get it! SOMEONE PLEASE EXPLAIN THIS TO ME AT ONCE." She may or may not have stomped her foot in consternation.

We were all howling by now.

The classroom madness lasted for several minutes, with our teacher getting more and more shrill, and the rest of us laughing harder and harder to the point of challenging our bladder control. The two guys, meanwhile, were both grinning like Cheshire cats and waiting to see what would happen next.

Anti-climactically, a gal (NOT I) quietly explained to our teacher that the two guys were being humorous dopes, and there was nothing to get about the joke -- it was hilarious precisely because it was non-hilarious.

"Well, I think you're all crazy," our teacher declared. Needless to say, she was never one of my favorites anyway, and this occasion pretty well confirmed my opinion.

P.S. Look up "Snowclone." Like the word "philtrum," I'd never realized a term existed for such a thing until fairly recently. I feel so much smarter now.


  1. No soap, radio. I never heard that term before. Thank you for teaching me something new today! :)

  2. No problem! Let us offer up our gratitude to the Wikipedia oracle, which sees all, knows all, enlightens all, and offers entries on things as ridiculous as 'no soap, radio.'