Ben Sandman elaborates on two strategies for crafting the comic metaphor—and shows us that the recipe for inducing laughter is different from what we might whip up for more serious writing.
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“scarlet handful of fire” (Hardy) “the blue flames fluttered like a school of fishes in the coal fire” (Bellow) “cooking fires wagged in some of the lalwapas” (Rush)
For Wood, these metaphors succeed largely due to their efficiency. A good metaphor, Wood writes, “estranges and then instantly connects, and in doing the latter so well, hides the former.” (LaPlante, too, values speed: a good metaphor convinces us “immediately.”) Wood also notes how these examples take us as far as possible from the thing described—how “school of fishes,” for instance, takes us underwater, where fire can’t go; how the word “handful” surprises because fire can’t be held in our hands. Wood advises a “leap toward the counterintuitive, toward the very opposite of the thing you are seeking to compare”—this, he writes, is “the secret of powerful metaphor.”
There is, however, a risk in going too far toward the opposite, at least according to Wood. Nabokov compares an oil slick to “asphalt’s parakeet.” Wood is lukewarm:
. . . whenever you extravagantly liken x to y, and a large gap exists between x and y, you will be drawing attention to the fact that x is really nothing like y, as well as drawing attention to the effort involved in producing such extravagances.
Wood is right here to note the effect of a large gap between x and y, how this highlights the “effort involved,” but he doesn’t explore how this approach might be used for the purpose of humor. In fact, such gaps are exactly what creates humor, at least according to incongruity theory, a leading theory of humor.
As Noël Carroll writes in A Very Short Introduction to Humour, the simplest form of incongruity theory states that “comic amusement” is the result of a “perceived incongruity”—a category that includes all kinds of subversions, deviations, and contrasts. Among Carroll’s examples are Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm “[worrying] life’s small anomalies into major confrontations,” Sarah Silverman appearing “sweet-looking” and “stereotypically ‘innocent’” and then “[speaking] in a way that would make a sailor blush,” and comic duos like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello, which consist of a “very thin man and a very fat man.” Incongruity theory can help us understand how comic metaphors work. “Incongruity is a comparative notion,” Carroll writes, which “presupposes that something is discordant with something else.” If serious metaphors—the kind that James Wood appreciates—strive for congruity between x and y, then the funny ones tend toward incongruity, enlarging the gap between x and y.
One way to create incongruity in a metaphor is to exaggerate. Wood’s favorite metaphors, despite their “leap” toward the “opposite,” tend to depend on precision and rightness. But comedy “is an art that exaggerates,” as the French philosopher Henri Bergson points out in Laughter, his book on humor from 1900. Examples from the world of jokes spring to mind: the insult joke, for instance, in which no one’s mother is ever just a little bit fat or a little bit ugly. Similarly, when Lockwood describes the gap between her Dad’s thighs—“so wide it seemed like there might be a gateway to another dimension”—it’s the hyperbole that makes the simile funny. Anything less than “another dimension” seems less funny, less original: thighs spread so wide you could drive a truck through them; thighs spread so wide it looked like he was doing a split. Brautigan employs the same trick. His toilet paper isn’t as old as the Declaration of Independence; it’s as old as the Magna Carta, taking us back to 1215. It’s the extremity—as well as the incongruity between the two types of paper: one used to wipe your ass, the other the bedrock of so-called Western civilization—that makes this comic simile work.
One way to create incongruity in a metaphor is to exaggerate.
Another way to heighten incongruity in a comic metaphor is through specificity. Writers often preach the gospel of the specific: small details, like a pine-scented burr snagged to the shaggy ear of a dog or a record store clerk’s t-shirt that says “Robbie Robertson is a Cop,” help immerse the reader in scene. But Wood’s fire metaphors contain a mix of the general and the specific. Precise language does matter—Wood loves the verb “wag” in Rush’s metaphor, for example, which captures how flames move—but too much detail risks bogging us down. For Wood, efficiency is essential, and they must be kept somewhat vague: it’s a “rushing bouquet,” not a “rushing bouquet of red roses”; it’s a “school of fishes,” not a “school of bright clown fish.” Wood’s favorite metaphors leave something to the imagination, and the reader fills in the gap. Specificity, like exaggeration, increases the gap between x and y.
Think of Brautigan’s creek: “like 12,845 telephone booths in a row with high Victorian ceilings and all the doors taken off and all the backs of the booths knocked out.” If we strip out the hyper-specificity, this simile looks closer to one that Wood might appreciate: “the creek was like a long room with high ceilings.” It’s not great, but it does summon the feel of the indoors one can get in a narrow gorge, which is (I think) at the heart of Brautigan’s image. What makes Brautigan’s original funny and absurd is how he stacks so much excess specificity: not a generic interior, but a “telephone booth”: not just “high ceilings,” but “high Victorian ceilings”; and, of course, not just “many” telephone booths or “thousands” of them, but “12,845.” Then there’s Brautigan’s toilet paper: “so old it [looks] like a relative, perhaps a cousin, to the Magna Carta.” The specificity of “Magna Carta”—compared to “parchment” or “vellum”—does much to widen the gap, as does the absurd exactitude of the phrase “perhaps a cousin.” How would a toilet paper “cousin” of the Magna Carta look any different from a brother or sister? The detail is unnecessary, excessive, and this is part of what makes the metaphor funny.
These two strategies—exaggeration and hyper-specificity—emphasize incongruity and make a metaphor funny. If we start with a serious metaphor, we can exaggerate and specify our way toward absurdity. We might describe Bellow’s flames as so blue they look like a pair of Gap jeans soaked with Gatorade Frost. Or, using Lawrence’s metaphor as a starting point, we might describe fire as a bouquet of orange carnations that rotate in an airport vending machine. I’m not sure these edits succeed in making fire funny, exactly. But they at least destabilize things. And by drawing attention to the fact that “x is nothing like y,” as Wood puts it, absurd metaphors help to undermine the whole endeavor of literary comparison—mocking metaphor itself, making it the butt of the joke. This seems useful: to knock the metaphor from its marble pedestal with the fluted column. To get the metaphor down on the carpet—a maroon shag carpet, let’s say, in the finished basement of a 70s split level—where we can play with it, knock it around, and experiment.
Ben Sandman’s fiction has been published in Story, Joyland, and Stone Canoe, among others, and his criticism has appeared in The New Republic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Full Stop. A graduate of Vassar College, he earned an MFA in fiction from Oregon State University and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati.