Humor in “The Road to Little Dribbling” by Bill Bryson

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” E. B. White

At the risk of fulfilling White’s prophecy, I will attempt to analyze Bryson’s humor.

Bryson frequently communicates using various kinds of humor:

  • Hyperbole
  • Incongruity
  • Slapstick
  • Surprise
  • Sarcasm
  • Irony
  • Pun

Context is important. For example, if you witness someone suddenly falling down while walking on a sidewalk, you are immediately concerned for the person’s welfare. If you observe the person slipping on a banana and then falling, you might initially have a twinge of funny before focusing on the person’s misfortune. If the setting is a circus and one clown drops a banana peel which another clown unwittingly steps on and falls in an exaggerated motion, you are free to laugh aloud at the second clown.

There are some things I find humorous others will not. Nevertheless, I will give my best analysis on things in Little Dribbling I find funny.

Let’s look at one of Bryson’s passages, which stuck me as quite funny.

“In a glass case nearby was the original manuscript copy of the Natural History, along with bound copies of almost every edition of the book ever printed (and there have been hundreds). White’s own copy, according to the caption beside it, was bound in the skin of his pet spaniel. I am guessing that the spaniel died at a convenient moment and wasn’t sacrificed specially, but the caption didn’t say.” (p. 127)

Why is this passage funny? Actually, if we leave off the last sentence, the passage is not in the least funny, but rather macabre. What changes with the addition of the last sentence?

Perhaps comparing alternatives might provide some insight.

“I am guessing that his beloved spaniel died and he wanted to have a memory of him that was worthy.”

This comes off as an explanation to ameliorate the strangeness of the action. Certainly, the action requires an explanation, because we and Bryson are disturbed by the action.

One way to relieve our discomfort, dare I say horror, is to offer an explanation that makes Gilbert White and his action appear more normal.

Another way is to provide release of our discomfort  by poking fun at it.

So, two options: explanation or humor.

We still haven’t gotten to what exactly makes Bryson’s addition humorous rather than explanatory.

Adding the phrase, “at a convenient moment,” starts the ball rolling toward humor. The key word on the phrase is “convenient.”  Juxtaposing death with convenience heightens the macabre. Then Bryson heightens the macabre to the breaking point with the phrase, “wasn’t sacrificed specially,” suggesting the possibility that White might have sacrificed his pet on a whim.

Then comes the total release, “but the caption didn’t say.” Bizarro would be a caption even evoking by way of explanation, as I did above, the possibility that foul play could have been involved. The addition of “but the caption didn’t say” is genius. Read the passage without that last sentence. It comes across as a bit cheeky, but not nearly as funny as with it.

Can we make the above observations in a theory of humor?

  1. A necessary condition is that there be a juxtaposition that is surprising, that gets our attention.
  2. In cases like the above, we experience emotional discomfort.
  3. We are released from our discomfort.
  4. The release occurs as the result of another surprise.

Let’s test this theory on other funny passages in *Little Dribbling.”

“I recently realized with dismay that I am even too old now for early onset dementia. Any dementia I get will be right on time.” (p. 33)

Dementia is an emotional topic, anxiety producing. The first sentence is puzzling, possibly humorous on its own: the juxtaposition of a dreaded disease and dismay at being old for early onset dementia creates tension. The second sentence releases the tension caused by the first by a bizarre notion that dementia could have a specific time it occurs and that Bryson appears to celebrate the possibility that he would be right on time for the event!

Bryson also makes frequent use of puns. He is quite clever in exploiting syntax for his puns, as we can see in the following.

“Keiller then invested in a car with seats that folded down to become a bed, but unfortunately the business folded before very many seats did.” (p. 135)

I think that the pun is less effective, when we replace the last word “did” by “folded.” By using *did” he forces us to read the meaning of the implied *fold” as the meaning of fold appropriate to a business folding, which doesn’t really fit. Then we realize that there is another syntactically less favored option: the folding of a seat. It is interesting to think of the humor of puns as also involving the resolution of a type of discomfort: linguistic discomfort.

Exercise 1: Analyse the following passage.“there are two fundamental ways to avoid having a stroke. One is to die of something else first. The other is to get some exercise.”

Exercise 2: Find as many types of humor in “Little Dribbling” as you can from the list at the beginning of my essay. (This essay is already too long and I am tired.)

References

Twenty Types of Humor

Examples of Humor (Enjoy!)

Humor in Writing Fiction

Humor, Irony, and Satire in Literature

Humour

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