The Pun’s (Lack of) Humor From A Bakhtinian Perspective

I knew someone whose prime source of laughs was the pun. The pun! The most delight this person got from jokes was prompted by this paronomasiac form of jest. However, I found that this person consistently failed to get the ironic, the sarcastic, the satirical, the parodic, or the ludicrous. The pun was this person’s champion of jest, and all other forms of jovial double-speak were a lost cause.

Yeah, sure, this person isn’t here to mount a defense against my accusations, but I feel, I’ll call the person Pat for the sake of ease, that Pat had every opportunity to develop a feel for other forms of humor. Pat enjoyed wealth and education as a child, and continues to now as an adult, living a professionally leisure-filled life of ease. Thus, I might conclude that a developed sense of humor is more related to mental aptitude, not social status or monetary remuneration, or the four-year vacation at college for which that daddy paid. Besides a passing review in a linguistics class, I do not understand why anyone would devote much more time and energy to the paltry pay-off of a pun than one would devote to throwing junk mail into the paper shredder. This idea leads me to believe that something suspect exists within those who do take time and energy to read and propagate puns.

Puns are thinly veiled mistakes; puns are fortuitous; puns test one’s patience; puns are non-recursive grammar errors; puns are simple; puns are like infomercials: rarely do they succeed and almost always do they cause one to pull one’s hair out of one’s head. Within the context of novels, Bakhtin championed double-speak as he called it (note that double-speak does not mean speech with two meanings, but speech with meanings amounting to more than one), the sideways glances of sarcasm and off-handed comments, the multivalent utterances that cause sentences to spiral parabolically towards multiple levels of meaning, both for the utterer and the listener(s).

Okay, so we know that Bakhtin likes multi-voiced utterances with many meanings. But what would he say about puns? They are grammatically ambiguous, abortive pieces of sometimes intentional yet equivocal one liners whose effect is always varied, if not consistently bland. If the always “humorous” pun did something besides annoy, Bakhtin’d probably get behind the “clever” construction. Non-pejoratively, he’d call it a flip-flopping utterance with the ability to always get the last word in, but I think he would fail to find that puns create exteriorized tropes of meaning telling of a literary character’s indications of “outsidedness” due to pun’s grammatical and structural limitations; they, after all, can only posit two possible meanings. They’re but jovial accidents.

This entry was posted in Bakhtin, Comedy, Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay.

One Comment

  1. Anonymous December 2, 2008 at 3:24 pm #

    Puns are a form of word play, and can occur in all natural languages. By definition, puns must be deliberate; an involuntary substitution of similar words is called a malapropism.

    “Puns are the gag hand buzzers of conversation. It hurts a bit but everyone gets a good laugh out of it.” ~Grey Livingston

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