As a preface, this paper will contain certain elements of the official style (besides already this sentence), and therefore, will bask in hypocrisy from its intention: to examine the irony in using the communication method most conducive to anti-laughter- the official style- to explain humor. The critique will start with contextual analysis of two scholarly articles examining humor, followed by examples of how comedy writing and the official style often clash, but also show certain striking similarities.
My first source, titled “Comedy and History,” explores, fittingly, historical pieces of literature that contain traces of humor. It is written by Richard Keller Simon, and published in the journal “Studies in the Novel” at the University of North Texas. This is the only section of the journal pertaining to humor; the rest consists of topics ranging from “The Young Adult Novel” to “18th Century British Novels.” Richard Keller Simon is no stranger to studying humor, either. He is a well respected author who is arguably best known for his book “Trash Culture,” where he entertains the possibility of the sitcoms “Friends” and “Seinfeld” as modern adaptations of “Much Ado about nothing” (Shakespeare) and “The Man of Mode” (a restoration comedy of manners by Sir George Etherege).
My second source is written by Dorothy Markiewicz, a professor of psychology at Brock University, and Ph.D. from Ohio State University. It's titled “The Effects of Humor on Persuasion,” and takes a psychological approach to examining humor. It was published by the American Sociological Association. This should be an Official Style red flag for everyone, and sure enough, the article is drenched in it.
The point of boring contextual analysis is to ensure that even if a piece of writing’s only intention is humor, it can have that humor extrapolated entirely by use of the official style. Lets look at specific passages indicating notable patterns:
“In the late sixties and early seventies interest shifted to the ways in which comedy was an adaptive response to suffering, and, in general, to questions of social utility” (Simon, 322).
“Relevant studies typically employ satire in producing humor; those reviewed in this section omit serious message counterparts making the results difficult to interpret. That is, the humor-only designs used confound the effect of humor with other variables also likely to influence attitudes” (Markiewicz, 408).
Now, it's obvious from looking at these two examples that the official style is in use. Excessive prepositional phrases, relative clauses, noun modifiers, the typical things you would see when becoming Lanham-esque and reviving sentences individually. But one rhetorical device stood out while reading these two pieces, the recurring use of sentential adverbs. In the first passage, the sentential adverb is “in general,” and in the second passage, it's “that is.”
Sentential Adverbs are single words or short phrases used to lend emphasis on the words proximate to the adverb and to maintain continuity of the thought. But what’s intriguing is how the use of sentential adverbs in the daunting Official Style relates to comedy writing. In comedy writing, a small amount of text that’s used to clarify a thought and maintain continuity of that thought is coined by a different term: a tag line. Tag lines in comedy writing, in conjunction with the set up of the joke (or, for comparisons sake, the first piece of information given in the Official Style), provide continuity of the joke by adding more material.
Of course, when you take them out of context and compare the two, they look shockingly different. But, they both fundamentally share the same purpose. They’re words used to modify proximate phrases and maintain continuity by adding additional pieces of- information in the official style, and jokes in comedy. Sentential adverbs allow for increased flow of information, and tag-lines allow for increased flow of humor. Both completely different, used in different contexts, and defined differently, however serving similar functions.
I’ll give an example of tag-lines from a stand up comedy act. And since this is critiquing the official style, it would only be right to use George Carlin’s joke about euphemisms. He expresses his disinterest in using euphemisms to hide behind the magnitude of specific phrases, and starts the joke by describing the evolution of the phrase “shell shock” into “post-traumatic stress disorder.” He then says,
The set up- “And it is a function of time. It does keep getting worse. I'll give you another example. Sometime during my life…”
Punch line- “Sometime during my life, toilet paper became bathroom tissue.”
The joke gets a good laugh. But then, to modify and express continuity of the original thought of euphemisms changing language, he adds a multitude of tag lines. They are as follows:
“Toilet paper became bathroom tissue. Sneakers became running shoes. False teeth became dental appliances. Medicine became medication. Information became directory assistance. The dump became the landfill. Car crashes became automobile accidents. Partly cloudy became partly sunny. Motels became motor lodges. House trailers became mobile homes. Used cars became previously owned transportation. Room service became guest-room dining. And constipation became occasional irregularity.”
Each one of those sentences is a tag line, and each serves its purpose of modifying and continuing the original thought of euphemisms destroying language.
Comparing these to the sentential adverbs in the passages given, notice the similarities. In Simon’s quote, “In general” is used after the conjunction, maintaining continuity of the intended message (“In the late sixties and early seventies interest shifted to the ways in which comedy was an adaptive response to suffering,”) and adding an additional piece of information “to questions of social utility.” The difference between sentential adverbs and tag lines, besides the fact that tag lines always come after what they're modifying and sentential adverbs can modify phrases before or after them, is that sentential adverbs connect and modify pieces of research, and tag-lines connect and modify pieces of humor.
In Markiewicz, the sentential adverb “that is,” is used to modify the previous piece of information, “those reviewed in this section omit serious message counterparts making the results difficult to interpret,” and to add more information after, saying “the humor-only designs used confound the effect of humor with other variables also likely to influence attitudes.” Modifying continued thought, and adding more to that thought.
Tag lines and sentential adverbs: used in completely different contexts, yet functioning in similar ways. The difference between sentential adverbs and tag lines, besides the fact that tag lines always come after what the punch line they're modifying and sentential adverbs can modify phrases before or after them, is that sentential adverbs connect and modify pieces of research, and tag-lines connect and modify pieces of humor.
It's easy to pry the differences between humor and the official style. In comedic writing, the object is to be relatable and understandable. The average reading level for Americans is the 7th grade; Carlin’s readability score showed an average grade level of 6.1. But when the intention changes, and the writing is now to educate ABOUT humor, that preferable 7th grade reading level is neglected, making the piece less relatable, understanding, and funny. The average grade level for Simon’s piece is 13.3, and for Markiewicz’s it's 15.5.
The intention of the official style is widely speculated. It could be used to whole-heartedly inform, to intentionally confuse the reader, or as a writer’s way of puffing out their chest and showing off their writing skills. All can, and have been argued. But the official style effectively does one thing: distance the writer from the words they write. There’s no use of personal pronouns, no emotion, and therefore barely any writing voice.
Writers use the official style to dissociate themselves from their words just as comedians use the idea of humor to hide behind theirs. Comedians are known for saying crude, inappropriate things. There’s a specific branch of comedy called “insult comedy,” and we watch them get on television and “roast” celebrities once a year. But we’ve all heard the same line when a comedian crosses that very fine line: “c’mon, it's just a joke.” Their job is to tell jokes, and if what they say gets a laugh, that’s what it's going to be; just like the author of a scholarly article will write pertinent information from their research. Both comedians and well-respected authors use their words with a certain effectiveness that allows them to dissociate from their words completely. Both humor and the official style are hid behind.
It's ironic, yet understandable that the official style is used to explain humor. Sure, they are seemingly entirely different things: comedic writing lacks the official style, and nothing about the official style is humorous. But, different spheres of activity require different methods of writing. One is to inform (official style) and one is to create laughter. Arguing for the official style to be abolished, and for it to be necessary that whenever writing about humor, the author need be humorous is ill informed in the same sense that reading about the effects of depression doesn’t make everyone sad. The official style is used to educationally inform, not convey laughter. It lacks emotion and doesn’t strive for it. but, However contrasting the intentions of official style and humor may be, the use of rhetorical devices and comedic techniques show that they do share similarities.
By Zachary Olson