What is narrative humor? With this question in mind, my essay (in two parts) reviews several studies of narrative and humor. Part 1 discusses Edmond Wright (2005), who argues that both humor and narrative crucially require audiences or readers to switch between “intentional perspectives”: between the intentions, goals, beliefs, motivations, emotions, and so forth of different agents or participants. Although an important idea, it does not explain the difference between humor and narrative or the composite concept of narrative humor. My essay shares Wright's intentionalist thrust but points out differences between humor and narrative. While narrative has minimally two layers of intentionality (oriented to the action and to its presentation), humor need not have them. While humor always requires agents to perceive incongruity and induces (or confirms) feelings of superiority in them, narrative is not defined by incongruity and superiority (although it can create those effects). An intentionalist description of narrative humor—the composite concept— now emerges: humor is narrative when it creates and/or exploits incongruity and superiority relations between the participants (“agents”) of narrative texts: author, narrator, reader, spectator, character. Thus to explain narrative humor is to show how narrative enables its participants (“agents”) to produce humor. I analyze some types of narrative humor: “metanarrative humor,” “comic narrative suspense,” and “comic narrative surprise.” Some analysts add “comic character” and “comic action logic” as forms of narrative humor. This is wrong, because narrative is not just story (actions, characters) but discourse (narration) about story, although it is true (and relevant) that narrators can back- or foreground themselves and their characters. The narrator's degree of fore- or backgrounding (i.e., of perceptibility) may influence the type of humor perceived in narrative (e.g., narratorial sarcasm or irony, dramatic irony). Finally, I point out that the notion of narrative perspective complicates Wright's (or any other) definition of comic narrative in terms of “pleasure” or “happy ending.” Part 2 of this essay will argue that such intentionalist analysis is more basic than the psychoanalytic concepts that Alenka Zupančič (2008) brings to bear on comedy. Also, the intentionalist framework will be contrasted there with Salvatore Attardo's (2001) and Isabel Ermida's (2008) less intentionalist (“script-based”) views on narrative humor.
Jeroen Vandaele; Narrative Humor (I): Enter Perspective. Poetics Today 1 December 2010; 31 (4): 721–785. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-2010-011
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