Friday, September 30, 2011


In our last post, we introduced the language concept of paraprosdokian, which is often used in sitcoms and by stand-up comedians.

In this post, we want to take it to the next level and define the three key elements of humor. And in fact, these are not only things that work in sitcoms or for stand-up comedians, but if applied properly, can be used by any English User trying to break the ice of any situation.

So what are those 3 ingredients of humor?

1. Without a doubt, surprise is a major factor. Most comedians take us in one direction, establishing a narrative context that has a certain logic. Then, they completely change directions and break that logic with the surprise.  And if it works, it's the part that will generate the laughs. In fact, it should be no surprise that the term paraprosdokian comes from the Greek word for "expectation".

2. Another trick that usually works in humor is recognition. Whether it's a paraprosdokian or not, this is the kind of situation that will appeal to those that are familiar with specific jargon, experience or information. A special joke for engineers, scuba divers or Star Wars fans will not only work but resonate with them because in addition to the joke, there is the knowledge that they are laughing at something "others" could never understand. And in a sense, it means they're laughing at themselves. Obviously, in stand-up comedy and sitcoms, recognition is also used a great deal.

3. The last one has to do with making fun of yourself and not of others when making a joke. The obvious reason is that if you make fun of someone else, you may offend that person in doing so. On the other hand, if you show yourself as the one with the flaw that can be laughed at, others might feel identified, but by choice.

To illustrate these 3 strategies in humor, let's take a look at the classic "Soup Nazi" episode of Seinfeld. A recap is provided below, but we recommend watching the entire episode for greater effect. 
  • To VIEW the VIDEO RECAP click here.
  • To VIEW the COMPLETE EPISODE click here.
  • To READ the complete TRANSCRIPT of this episode: click here.
So after watching (and reading), does the "Soup Nazi" meet these three conditions?

1. SURPRISE: Certainly, the surprise is the ending, like in all good drama and comedy. After seeing how the maker of the best soup in New York, known by all as the "Soup Nazi" tortures Jerry, George and Elaine with his harsh and arbitrary rules for ordering soup and his frequent punishment of "No soup for you!", Elaine takes revenge in a clever and unexpected way.

2. RECOGNITION: Once we know what the Soup Nazi is all about, we learn that the key to getting his good soup is to behave very well at his shop. So clearly, we recognize that Elaine is making a "big" mistake by behaving the way she does and that the punishment will be equally big.

3. MAKING FUN OF YOURSELF: For years, Seinfeld was described as "a show about nothing". But it's basically a show about four very crazy friends who live in a crazy world. And in this episode, with the excuse of the "Soup Nazi", we see just how willing to put up with abuse Jerry and George are - in this case, for a taste of good soup. They are making fun of themselves. Yet, we might get an extra laugh when we realize that... maybe we also do such silly things in our life.

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