George, Woody, Gary, and Homer S.: Popular Culture Meets Classical Rhetoric

By Zimmerman, Brett | Style, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

George, Woody, Gary, and Homer S.: Popular Culture Meets Classical Rhetoric


Zimmerman, Brett, Style


One of the many advantages to having a deep familiarity with classical rhetoric--the figures of speech (tropes and schemes) and figures of thought--arises from the fruitful application of that taxonomy to the field of comedy. Doing so, we can better appreciate the often-artful ingenuity of the comics' material and, thus, the comics themselves. Unlike those of us who analyze the written and spoken word professionally, however, passive audience members or readers never go beyond what I call the first or second level of enjoyment-receptivity. With comedy, for instance, the first level is merely a non-analytical response to the humor: "Make me laugh; don't ask me to think." The second, deeper level involves what we might term a "pause moment" because of an intuitive understanding that something clever, something particularly witty, has been said (or written). The third level of appreciation goes beyond the merely passive and intuitive and is the province solely of those of us trained in the arts of language: linguistics, stylistics, rhetoric. We are best equipped to admire the artistry of the brightest of comics because we can identify the devices they use to amuse and astound us, and determine their effectiveness when so employed. Of course, not all humor is linguistically clever and, it must be admitted, outside of slapstick and other visual gags, all humor depends on the verbal, whether we encounter it in written form or in stand-up routines. Sometimes, the message contains the humor, as when George Carlin quips, "Jesus doesn't really love you, but he thinks you have a great personality" (Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help hp); other times, however, the medium contains the humor. In other words, what is comedic is not always so much what is said but how it is said, and that is the brand of comedy with which we are largely concerned here. When we have a ready-made nomenclature, we can more easily glimpse the linguistic and other figurative machinery behind the stage, so to speak: the pulleys, levers, platforms, and ropes that enable the performance. This is not to say that all the verbal and persuasive manipulations enacted by the comic are equally brilliant: sometimes the figures are obvious and not necessarily cerebral (hyperbole, sarcasm, name-calling). Other times they are more subtle and clever, as with certain word schemes of repetition, addition, omission, and arrangement.

Some of the comics who have made a significant impact on American popular culture over the last three decades have done so in part because of their linguistic cleverness. George Carlin--the "thinking person's comic"--is foremost among them. In Brain Droppings, he admits what will not surprise anyone familiar with his work: "For a long time, my stand-up material has drawn from three sources. The first is the English language: words, phrases, sayings, and the ways we speak" (xi). Even a quick perusal of his four books makes clear his fascination with language. In When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops ? he complains about people using differential when they mean difference, devotes several pages to prepositional phrases, rants about what people have written on their bumper-stickers, and wonders why "There are caregivers and there are caretakers, and yet the two words are not opposites" (265). In Napalm and Silly Putty, he ponders for seven pages the unusual language of airline announcements, disputes the accuracy of the phrase "the winds are calm" ("if they're calm, they're not really winds, are they?" [31]), and devotes an entire chapter to "Expressions I Question" ("Legally drunk. Well, if it's legal, what's the problem?" [154]). In Brain Droppings, he sets aside a couple pages for food terms ("If drumsticks are for playing drums, you'd think breadsticks would be for playing bread, wouldn't you?" [13]), considers people's names for seven pages ("There are women named Faith, Hope, Joy, and Prudence. Why not Despair, Guilt, Rage, and Grief? …

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