Friday, April 8, 2011

What's Funny About Words (Guest Blogger)

At my improv class this week, one woman killed the rest of the class with a scene where she described her partner's butt as "two turkeys just bobbing up and down toward the end zone." (I'd explain, but it would take too long. Just know it was damn funny.) The whole scene that followed was hilarious, but it was the "turkey" that put it over the top. "Turkey," all by itself, is a funny word. That "urr" sound is a funny noise to me. And the hard "k" sound has often been cited by comedy writers as something that helps make a word funny. No one has really ever been able to explain why.

For some time now, I've wanted to explore what makes a word "funny." I realized there were certain words I fall back on when I need to be off-the-cuff funny: "Cats," "squirrel," "perturbed," and "pants" are some of them.

So I mentioned on Facebook (you can "Like" right here. WordNerdGirl likes to be "liked.") that I was looking for other people's ideas about what make a word funny when my über-funny, ultra-wordy friend, Dave Ankers, offered some of his thoughts. Then a few more. And then some more. Poor guy is recovering from a Mardi Gras-induced broken ankle and the cabin fever is getting to him. But what he had to say was very interesting and covered way more ground than I ever could with four kids pulling me away from the keyboard every 2 minutes. So I decided to turn today's blog post over to him. Take it away Dave...

Dave Ankers' Random Thoughts About Funny Words
Some random thoughts about funny words, as I procrastinate my hobbling out on crutches to pick up both ground beef and my cholesterol-reducing medication (without irony):

Words can be "funny" in as many ways as there are words and ways to use them, I think. Some word can elicit an amused response just due to how they sound phonetically to us. Haboob. Hurly-burly. Rattletrap. Poughkeepsie. Bulbous. Yabba-dabba-doo. Babaghanoush (which we're all familiar with now, so it's no longer funny. These are usually non-Latin or French-derived words. I realize now that I must personally think words with lots of Bs and Ps are funny.

Some are funny because they are archaic and out of common use, and sound old fashioned, like poppycock, folderol, bolderdash, winsome, or zounds! Or because they're foreign and not familiar to us, like benihana, Addis Ababa, bibimbap, couscous.
Alliteration and rhyme can also make a word stand out.

We laugh at things that are unfamiliar and new and unusual. Making something funny has to do with seeing it in a new way that changes its status and dignity. (See also: drag queens calling out to a cop "Excuse me, miss policeman!" Or a gardener solemnly referring to pests as 'Miss Aphid" or "the esteemed representative of the nation of rabbits." but those examples aren't about funny words, per se.)

Most often, words are funny because they are dropped in places you don't expect them, out of their usual sphere of usage. Like calling a pathetic dinner of canned marinara sauce over chow mein noodle as "fusion" "multicultural" or "sino-Italian."

"Tasty" or "crunchy" aren't particularly funny words, or even noticeable words, when positioned next to "breakfast cereal." But they will probably get a giggle when modifying "Volkswagen" or "sound effects manipulation" or "defense attorney." (Both of these words were once fresh and funny when applied by stoners and jam-band fans to "guitar solo" and so on, but they're now a cliché, so they might as well be modifying "breakfast cereal." That usage isn't funny anymore, to paraphrase Morrissey.)

A very funny usage would be "a crunchy and tasty multicultural fusion snack of chow mein noodles cleverly sauced with a traditional Sicilian marinara." Desperation munchy becomes a parody of food-writing pretension.

Ezra Pound said that the whole point of writing things is to make things new, in our descriptions. Recombining words and images in unexpected ways gives us vivid and new thoughts. Which are usually funny because we're saying something you aren't expecting.

Combining techniques, like using non-funny-sounding words in unexpected ways, can be funny. A great recent book title: "The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society." Not funny enough to get me to read it yet, but certainly an inherently amusing title comprising totally ordinary un-funny words in an alliterative and also dry and dignified way. Combining abstract words (literary, society) with vivid and even undignified words and images (the lowly potato peel, unexpectedly crammed into the form of a probably repulsive pastry) can give you a sharp unexpected blow to the head, in a comedy sense.

People who were really good at this combining ordinary words in multiple ways, for comic effect: SJ Perelman, the Marx Brothers, Monty Python. Sometimes Tom Stoppard.

The word "avalanche" may not be funny to you, but remember, avalanche is better than no lanche at all, yes?

A true benefit of English is that it has all these odd-sounding Anglo-Saxon words, as well as lots of weird words absorbed from non-romance languages, which combine with all the words derived from Latin (both religious and legal) and French (which the Norman conquerors spoke), forming a never-quite-blending stew of sounds and shadings of meaning.

Lots and lots of toys in the toolbox, to mix a metaphoric cocktail.

I really should mention John Lennon as a natural master of funny wordplay. Not his song lyrics, but the funny little books he put out: in "His Own Write" and "A Spaniard in the Works." At their best, they are amazing little case studies on how to replace one word with another, usually a homonym, and make a dull sentence both funny and thought-provoking.

Also, Irish writers historically have been very good at clever wordplay. And I'm sure somebody has a well-reasoned theory as to why, but it's not me. Check out quotations from Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and James Joyce. Please exclude Bono from your investigations -- he is an unfortunate exception to the trend.

Other words: doughboy, wallaby, wombat, ocelot, kazoo, Bonobo. Bebe Rebozo.
Cloris Leachman. Which becomes funny when juxtaposed with "Clorox Bleach."


Conniption. Aneurysm.
(Which aren't so funny to most people, probably. But think of the comedy mileage you get with just an exclamation point: "Aneurysm! The Musical!" Or imagine a solemn and pompous John Grisham legal thriller titled "The Conniption Ruling" or something like that.)

A great exercise is taking a word that is decidedly unfunny, and finding ways to make it funny, to the point of making people really uncomfortable. (Cancer Crispies, anyone?)

Can you tell I am going stir crazy, stuck indoors on crutches, alone all day, with nothing to do?
 We can tell Dave. That's one of the reasons we love you. Comment below on words you think are funny, your thoughts on Dave's thoughts, or what you think Dave should do while cooped up in his apartment in a cast/boot for the next one to three weeks.


  1. MhyphenL4/09/2011

    I'm reminded of an old Bloom County cartoon (or maybe Opus) in which the punch line spoken by Opus included the phrase "Twinkie butt." That sent me into fits of giggles so hard I couldn't even utter the words aloud without losing it. Unfortunately it wore off after many cycles. Words/phrases that still kill, or at least stick in my head like some non-musical earworm:
    Benazir Bhutto
    Boutros Boutros Ghali
    Walla Walla
    Dihwali Sai Kow Tow
    Lapsang souchon and oolong and hu kwah

    Now I see I think I find L, W, K funny, or at least sticky.

  2. In Laughter Yoga there is an exercise called "gibberish" where the idea is to stimulate laughter by using a nonsense language. The recent youtube video showing a pair of twins communicating with each other in their own "gibberish" is a hit because we just cannot help but laugh at them. And sometimes things are just funny because of context. I have family who live on Hooker Street who cannot tell anyone their address without laughing or being laughed at. And for me, sometimes people read my caller ID as Bra Man which strikes some people as hilarious.

  3. @Noreen-- The improv classes have a version of gibberish as one of the games -- you act out/mime an action while describing it in gibberish. My favorite kind of humor is the type where you have to stop and think about it for a second -- usually a cool bit of wordplay, like your "Bra Man" caller ID.

    @MhyphenL I was a HUGE Bloom County fan, and I remember laughing at "Twinkie butt!" In fact, I still have a whole bunch of old Bloom County books on my shelf I now want to dust off. Twinkie is another one of those words that is funny all by itself. Not sure why that K sound is so effective at getting a laugh. I find that my "funny" words revolve around different sounds, as opposed to being unusual words.

    I will also definitely be checking out those books Dave recommended from John Lennon.

  4. I am the partner who allegedly has the "Turkey butt". Boy was that funny.

    She also cracked everyone up with the line that no one reads this blog. Well we do! :)