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Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History's Greatest Wordsmiths
Oxymoronic Wit & Humor
Malcolm Muggeridge, while serving as the editor of the humor magazine Punch, was accused of publishing a magazine that violated standards of good taste. He defended himself and the magazine by replying:
Good taste and humor are a contradiction in terms, like a chaste whore.
While much humor -- especially sexual and scatological humor -- is clearly of questionable taste, it's an overstatement to regard all humor as opposed to good taste. Oxymoronic humor, which is more cerebral than visceral, can be deliciously tasteful. Stand-up comics have always realized this:
Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering -- and it's all over much too soon.
We sleep in separate rooms, we have dinner apart, we take separate vacations. We're doing everything we can to keep our marriage together.
Last month I blew $5,000 on a reincarnation seminar. I figured, hey, you only live once.
As you can see from these examples, oxymoronic humor is sophisticated humor. It's directed at the most important organ in the human body -- the brain. The self-contradictory aspects of oxymoronic humor appeal to a special part of our mental apparatus, a part that enjoys thinking about some of life's most intriguing contradictions and paradoxes.
The world's great humorists have had a field day with oxymoronic humor:
Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.
--Robert C. Benchley
One martini is all right, two is two many, three is not enough.
The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.
--Mark Twain, attributed but never verified
Our best contemporary humorists have also favored this type of humor. In 1987, Garrison Keillor decided to bring A Prairie Home Companion to an end. The show had been a staple on National Public Radio for thirteen years, developing a huge audience. In 1988, broadcasting what was billed as a farewell performance from Radio City Music Hall, Keillor began the show by announcing:
It is our farewell performance, and I hope the first of many.
With many oxymoronic observations, the meaning is not immediately obvious, and sometimes the best lines can fly right over our heads. But once the meaning becomes clear, we generally admire how cleverly a point has been made or how creatively it's been expressed. Take the dread of going to the dentist. Few have expressed that common fear better than S. J. Perelman:
As for consulting a dentist regularly, my punctuality practically amounted to a fetish. Every twelve years I would drop whatever I was doing and allow wild Caucasian ponies to drag me to a reputable orthodontist.
The pun is another type of humor that appears to be an exception to Muggeridge's observation that humor is opposed to good taste. While some puns are sexual or risqué -- and can push at the boundaries of good taste -- most are simply good-natured attempts at wordplay. But if a pun is considered the lowest form of wit, as has often been said, then oxymoronic humor may be considered one of the highest. While puns -- even the best of them -- are often met with predictable groans, a witty oxymoronic line is often followed by an ahhh! of appreciation and hearty nods of approval. And every now and then, punning is combined with oxymoronic phrasing to produce a special type of hybrid observation. In his 1840 book Up the Rhine, English writer Thomas Hood chronicled his travels throughout Europe. Playing on the words dam and damn, he observed:
Holland ... lies so low they're only saved by being dammed.
An important ingredient in many types of humor is the element of surprise. It's the reason we laugh at the punch line of a joke. In oxymoronic humor, the surprise comes in the unexpected marriage of concepts that are usually considered incompatible. It's the reason you probably chuckled the first time you heard expressions like jumbo shrimp and military intelligence. And it's the reason knowledgeable people derive such pleasure from lines like this one from Milton Berle:
Jews don't drink much because it interferes with their suffering.
What makes the Berle line special is the intermingling of concepts that normally don't go together -- the well-known tendency of people to drown their sorrows in alcohol and the much-chronicled tendency of Jews to get a certain amount of pleasure out of life's many little afflictions, especially physical ailments. This latter phenomenon, by the way, shows up with other religious and national groups as well. The acclaimed journalist James "Scotty" Reston once wrote:
I'm a Scotch Calvinist and nothing makes us happier than misery.
English critic Leigh Hunt might have been thinking about oxymoronic humor when he wrote, "Wit is the clash and reconcilement of incongruities, the meeting of extremes around a corner." Great wits have always been predisposed to this type of humor, but none more so than the incomparable Oscar Wilde:
The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.
Life is too important to be taken seriously.
To be natural is a very difficult pose to keep up.
Wilde and his contemporary, George Bernard Shaw, both had minds with a strong oxymoronic bent, and it is no coincidence that a popular observation about America and Britain has been attributed to both of them:
We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.
England and America are two countries separated by the same language.
In these examples, Shaw was probably influenced by Wilde, since Wilde's witty lines generally came earlier and Shaw was very familiar with Wilde's work. But Shaw also crafted some highly original oxymoronic lines on his own:
I showed my appreciation of my native land in the usual Irish way: by getting out of it as soon as I possibly could.Oxymoronica
Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History's Greatest Wordsmiths. Copyright © by Mardy Grothe. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.