Pragmatics as comedy

« previous post | next post »

The theory of Speech Acts gives us a couple of dozen descriptive categories for the things people do with words and phrases. The theory of Dialog Acts gives us a couple of dozen descriptive categories focusing specifically on the things people do to a conversation with words and phrases. Rhetorical Structure Theory (RST) and its various competitors give us a couple of dozen descriptive categories for the ways people use relations between words and phrases in framing an argument or telling a story. There are several other descriptive systems for discourse structures, such as the one used by the Penn Discourse Treebank.

Discourse analysis using such categories, though often insightful, is rarely funny. But you can make people laugh by caricaturing a text or conversation through self-referential descriptions of discourse functions and relations, abstracted away from specific content.  I can think of two specific examples of this, though I'm sure that I've seen others over the years.

What brought this to mind was Chris Clarke's recent blog post, "This is the title of a typical incendiary blog post", 1/24/2010. It starts this way:

This sentence contains a provocative statement that attracts the readers’ attention, but really only has very little to do with the topic of the blog post. This sentence claims to follow logically from the first sentence, though the connection is actually rather tenuous. This sentence claims that very few people are willing to admit the obvious inference of the last two sentences, with an implication that the reader is not one of those very few people. This sentence expresses the unwillingness of the writer to be silenced despite going against the popular wisdom. This sentence is a sort of drum roll, preparing the reader for the shocking truth to be contained in the next sentence.

This sentence contains the thesis of the blog post, a trite and obvious statement cast as a dazzling and controversial insight.

Each sentence gives an abstract description of its function in managing the interaction between reader and writer, and often also a description of its relationship to preceding or following material. These are the same sorts of things provided by theories of dialog acts and rhetorical structures and so on, except that Clarke's descriptions are much finer-grained, e.g. not "preparation", but  "a … drum roll preparing the reader for the shocking truth to be contained in the next sentence"; not "statement" but "a trite and obvious statement cast as a dazzling and controversial insight".

An older instance of the same sort of thing, long a favorite of mine, is this sketch from the Neo-Futurist's show Too Much Light Makes the Baby go Blind:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


(Transcript here.)

The sketch starts like this:

He:  Statement.
xxxxxStatement.
xxxxxStatement.
xxxxxQuestion?
She: Agreement.
He:  Reassuring statement.
xxxxxConfident statement.
xxxxxConfident statement.
xxxxxOverconfident statement.
She: Question?
He:  Elaborate defensive excuse.
She: Half-hearted agreement.

Again, part of the fun is the elaboration of dialogic categories — a bit later in the script, we get items like "Self-assured agreement as denial",  "Extremely exaggerated elucidation", and "Attempted condescending conclusive statement". But in this case, the comedic effect depends crucially on what the actors add in their performance.  The script is not particularly funny to read, at least in my opinion, but the sketch is a hoot to listen to.

In John Cleese's doubletalk neuroscience lecture, embedded below, the discourse caricature is almost entirely embodied in the performance. It's clear that he's explaining something, and it all seems to fit together somehow, but I don't think that we're getting a clear picture of relations like exemplification, concession, generalization and so on.  Still, Cleese convinces us that there is a structure there, somehow implicit in the discourse particles, prosody, gesture, and posture:

I suspect that  linguistic theories of discourse and dialog would be better if they gave us a language for  characterizing interpersonal and rhetorical functions at the level of Clarke's caricature of a blog post, or the neo-futurists' caricature of a failed flirtation. And Cleese's  performative abstraction of professorial rhetoric may expose some similar opportunities for theories of prosodic interpretation.

[Update -- in addition to the several other examples cited in the comments below, there's also Spamalot's "A Song Like This".]

Share:



28 Comments »

  1. Nate said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    Bioware (the video game design company) echoes the neofuturists shtick in its Star Wars-themed RPGs Knights of the Old Republic and sequel. One of the droid characters prefaces every line of dialogue with a pragmatic description.

    "Statement: …"
    "Query: …"
    "Patronizing agreement: …"
    "Condescending explanation: …"
    "Irritated answer: …"

    Seems there's a fan in the writing staff. Or, at least, a fan of that sort of comedic trope.

  2. Richard Sabey said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    David Moser was here ages ago, with his story "This Is the Title of This Story, Which Is Also Found Several Times in the Story Itself".

    Douglas Hofstadter reprinted it in his Metamagical Themas column in the January 1982 Scientific American.

  3. braindancer said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

    I'm sure you read this, but just in case.

    HEY EURAKARTE
    INSULT
    RETORT
    COUNTER-RETORT
    QUESTIONING OF SEXUAL PREFERENCE
    SUGGESTION TO SHUT THE FUCK UP
    NOTATION THAT YOU CREATE A VACUUM
    RIPOSTE
    ADDON RIPOSTE
    COUNTER-RIPOSTE
    COUNTER-COUNTER RIPOSTE
    NONSENSICAL STATEMENT INVOLVING PLANKTON
    RESPONSE TO RANDOM STATEMENT AND THREAT TO BAN OPPOSING SIDES
    WORDS OF PRAISE FOR FISHFOOD
    ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AND ACCEPTENCE OF TERMS

    (c) http://bash.org/?23396

  4. dana said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    This was done in 2001 in a group I read at the time – lets see if I can get the link to work:

    http://groups.google.com/group/alt.callahans/browse_thread/thread/9c2104c0c1ddb2e6/5448b1737fc9e57a?lnk=gst&q=existential+flame+war#5448b1737fc9e57a

  5. braindancer said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    Duh. It stripped the names.

    [Donut[AFK]] HEY EURAKARTE
    [Donut[AFK]] INSULT
    [Eurakarte] RETORT
    [Donut[AFK]] COUNTER-RETORT
    [Eurakarte] QUESTIONING OF SEXUAL PREFERENCE
    [Donut[AFK]] SUGGESTION TO SHUT THE FUCK UP
    [Eurakarte] NOTATION THAT YOU CREATE A VACUUM
    [Donut[AFK]] RIPOSTE
    [Donut[AFK]] ADDON RIPOSTE
    [Eurakarte] COUNTER-RIPOSTE
    [Donut[AFK]] COUNTER-COUNTER RIPOSTE
    [Eurakarte] NONSENSICAL STATEMENT INVOLVING PLANKTON
    [Miles_Prower] RESPONSE TO RANDOM STATEMENT AND THREAT TO BAN OPPOSING SIDES
    [Eurakarte] WORDS OF PRAISE FOR FISHFOOD
    [Miles_Prower] ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AND ACCEPTENCE OF TERMS

  6. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    Da Vinci's Notebook deconstructed boy-band love songs in the same sort of way, and wonderfully:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dny1MNJyQvw

    The title of the song is "Title of the Song."

  7. eloriane said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    Nate, Bioware does something like that in Mass Effect as well. The Elcor apparently use body motions, pheromones and "subvocalized infrasound" too subtle for other species to understand, and therefore describe their emotions and intentions to aid in communication. It's even more amusing because Elcor, unlike robots, actually do have emotions. I believe I recall insulting one once, and getting the descriptor, "With mounting rage…"

  8. Phil said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    There's a scene like that in Stephen Soderbergh's Schizopolis, too.

    … and by coincidence, the top link on reddit right now is a self-referential news report by Charlie Brooker:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtGSXMuWMR4

  9. John Cowan said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

    A (probably apocryphal) telegram: FUCK YOU STOP INSULTING LETTER FOLLOWS.

  10. Alec said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    And the musical equivalent: "Title of the Song"
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoCGKFg-WYw

  11. speegster said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

    "Metadiscourse"?

  12. Roger Lustig said,

    January 28, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

    Tom Johnson's The Four-Note Opera should be mentioned here. Its four performers sing only A, B, D and E with a libretto that describes just what they're doing at that moment.

    Works in German translation, too! Many operas don't.

  13. Graeme said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 12:30 am

    With Cleese on board we can add Eric Idle's 'I Bet you they Won't Play this Song on the Radio' – though it's more referential on its broadcast than in its internal or self-reference:

    http://mm.iit.uni-miskolc.hu/Lart/monty/radio.pyt

  14. Nathan said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 2:08 am

    The DVD for the Adam Sandler film 50 First Dates includes a deleted scene with a conversation between Sandler and Drew Barrymore that goes something like this:

    He: Incredibly brilliant pickup line.
    She: Encouraging response.
    He: Hilarious comeback.
    She: Flattered acknowledgement.
    He: Uncontrollable enthusiasm.
    She: Invitation to sit down.

  15. logan mohseni said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 3:39 am

    saw this

    http://www.boingboing.net/2010/01/28/how-to-report-the-ne.html

  16. Ginger Yellow said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    I believe I recall insulting one once, and getting the descriptor, "With mounting rage…"

    It's all the funnier because they say everything in a bored monotone.

  17. neil. said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    I just saw this today, in the same vein:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtGSXMuWMR4&feature=player_embedded#

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    @John Cowan:

    "…une de ces dépêches dont M. de Guermantes avait spirituellement fixé le modèle: «Impossible venir, mensonge suit»…"

    (That is, "Impossible to come, lie follows".)

    Proust, Le temps retrouvé (first part), 1927.

  19. PLT said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    See also [title of show], with productions happening this year all around the U.S.: http://www.titleofshow.com/

  20. Julie said,

    January 29, 2010 @ 6:39 pm

    funnily, within about half an hour of reading this, I cam across this:

    http://www.todaysbigthing.com/2010/01/28

    the "typical news report," along the same lines…

  21. Ben said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 1:42 am

    I'm surprised nobody's mentioned literal music videos yet. The most popular–and definitely one of the best–is Total Eclipse of the Heart:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj-x9ygQEGA

    But this is just one among several dozens of them. I found an article listing someone's preference for the best 7 literal music videos:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/08/03/the-7-best-literal-music_n_249976.html

  22. codeman38 said,

    January 30, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    The John Cleese brain lecture reminded me of a guy named Durwood Fincher, who's made a career out of this sort of thing. He'll do these presentations and interviews that seem to flow perfectly well pragmatically, but make absolutely no sense in syntax or semantics.

    Here's his YouTube channel:
    http://www.youtube.com/user/MrDoubletalk

  23. Joe said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    Another self-referential song is Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah:

    I heard there was a secret chord
    That David played to please the Lord
    But you don't really care about music do you?
    It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
    The minor chord, the major lift
    The baffled king composing Hallelujah

    It's interesting to note that the impact of the "poem" is best realized when the "secret" chord is played along with its spoken instructions.

  24. Aaron Davies said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

    There's also the chicken presentation, of course.

  25. rootlesscosmo said,

    March 10, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

    In the late 1950's an off-Broadway revue, "Diversions," included a number called "Here Comes the Ballad," the lyrics of which were instructions for creating a song of the type; all I can remember is that the bridge ended "A change of key/We're now in E."

  26. Jennifer M said,

    March 11, 2010 @ 12:02 am

    The video below is also in the same vein, mocking movie trailers and (painfully) common plot and character elements:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbhrz1-4hN4

  27. John said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    Unfortunately, this comment will most likely never be read. :(

    But anyways, I just found another example on a forum: Vague Thread Name

  28. Sophie said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

    I know I'm quite late, but I just read this post and it made me think of a skit from Quebec comedian Alexandre Champagne (if you understand French) (actually there's even a little English in there too). It's called "Toune d'amour" ("Love Song") : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ks8YeLYMEGI. Conclusion : A comedic strategy that's already been widely used!

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment