Funny foreigners: laughing with the
barbarians in late antiquity
In the 1980s and 1990s, the cartoons of Gary Larson became very popular on both sides of the Atlantic; indeed Larson's work, 'The Far Side', has a special relevance to early medievalists, as Vikings were a favourite topic.1 One thing that makes Larson's cartoons amusing is his knack of setting familiarthings in inappropriate settings orcircumstances. The people (or animals, or amoebas) are rarely saying or doing anything–in itself – especially amusing. What makes us laugh is, simply enough, the idea of serious, intellectually brilliant nuclear physicists playing school-yard pranks on each other, cows playing 'knock on the door and run' with the farmer, and so on. Similarly, in the earlier 1990s in Britain, whilst Larson's archaeological cartoons were being employed in the journal Antiquity, a startling, runaway success was scored by Rob Newman and David Baddiel's 'History Today' sketches. Here, two old Oxbridge historians in suits, ostensibly debating the origins of the Crimean War, rapidly ended up trading the sorts of insult that we associate with primary-school days. The humourwas especially enhanced when this was sprinkled with phrases of academic language: 'I am familiar with her work. ' The dialogue itself was, mostly, no funnierthan if it had indeed been spoken by two eight-year-olds in a playground. What made it funny was who was speaking it.
Incongruity has always been central to humour theory. Much humour works by constructing a set of expectations that are then juxtaposed with an unexpected conclusion, orby the bringing togetherof anomalous components into the same event orimage. 'Humormay … depend on the combination in one object orevent of attributes orlines of thought that are normally unrelated–incongruous juxtapositions of sights and____________________