With an eye towards appreciating humor, we are going to analyze a few choice XKCD comics. Why? Because researching this article involved reading them for 4 hours. (A complete aside: because of its bilateral symmetry, I for years thought XKCD was a sophisticated emoticon not an unphonetic string.) As you can imagine, the humor may be lost once the analysis begins. First, we need to briefly treat an elementary theory of humor.
Excluding slapstick, most humor is based on irony. Some types of irony are: verbal irony, language whose literal meaning is contrary to what is intended; situational irony, events proceeding proceeding int the opposite manner to what was expected; and dramatic irony, a situation where the audience knows more than the characters. All three have in common the notion of a disparity between what is stated and what is implied. The space between what is shown to the audience and what is known by the audience we will refer to as “the knowledge gap“. It can be either positive (the audience knows more than is shown) or negative (the audience knows less than is shown). Humor can include both, though it is usually positive. Negative knowledge gaps in mystery novels, horror films, and magic tricks tend to make people uneasy which can be enjoyable, but rarely funny.
A layperson might say that what makes a gag funny is the punchline. An amateur comedian might say that it is the setup. A master comedian would say that it is neither the setup nor the punchline, but the space between them, called “the beat“, which creates humor. Crossing that space, the hang-time of the mental leap, is at the heart of humor and the larger the gap that is crossable, the funnier the gag. Like jumping a canyon on a motorcycle, if the gap is too narrow, it’s unimpressive; if too wide, you slam into the side of a cliff. A cogent analogy would be the bump-set-spike process of volleyball wherein the flashy, visible spike is merely the follow-through of a well-executed set. The setup and punchline mark out the gap to be crossed and in what manner. Now that we have a primer, let’s jump into the comics.
The Double Meaning
The joke is based on a pun involving the word “miss.” The humor is enhanced in a number of ways by widening the knowledge gap. The phrasing of the pun mimics that found in sappy advertising to contrast with the morbid nature of the implied meaning. Using “loved ones” creates a much wider disparity between the two meanings of “miss” by directly invoking the extremes of love and murder than a weaker phrase such as “friends,” or “husband,” or “neighbors” might. The use of a laserscope which is ancillary to the rifle adds to the gap by making the reader take an extra mental leap to connect lasersights to improved accuracy for killing. Had the box had a picture of a rifle, the smaller gap would not be as funny.
This joke type is simple: start in one direction, then veer off to the side. The gap is between what is expected, which is set up by a recognizable pattern, and what actually happens. It is intensified by having one character, often the straight-man, follow the expected train of thought that the reader follows. Sometimes they continue oblivious to the change of direction (Who’s On First), and sometimes they mirror the reader’s reaction as in the comic. We see here a variant where the straight-man catches on before the end and tries to steer the premise back while the funny-man maintains the diverted course oblivious to the original direction.
This joke technique employs a negative knowledge gap until the very end when it becomes positive making for a very wide gap even for soft punchlines. XKCD employs a weak punchline with the visual reveal in the third panel followed by a soft punchline in the fourth panel which increases what is revealed using dialogue and therefore the gap. Usually the reveal works best as a hard punchline to have as intense a reversal from negative to positive gap as possible. However, in this case the visual reveal is still a negative gap because we don’t know the relevance of what is revealed until the last panel and so the effect of the partial reveal in the second panel adds to rather than detracts from the humor.
That’s So True!
This common technique in stand-up comedy comes from a knowledge gap that is both negative and positive. It usually involves describing something which is accepted as normal or correct, but about which there is something strange or wrong. The negative gap is how we usually think of the thing, and the positive gap is how the comedian gets us to think of it with some incisive wisdom or careful observation. As in the reveal, combining negative and positive knowledge makes for a much wider gap and hence more comedy. In this instance the knowledge gap is enhanced by showing not only the gap between ideals and reality, but between the stereotypical male and female view of relationships correspondingly. The author has of course chosen the characters’ genders to match the direction of the knowledge gap. Were the joke to be “all the boys,” it would be more confusing than funny because the knowledge gaps would work against each other.
Satire is unlike a gag in that it does not have a punchline. However, the theory of humor as based on irony still applies. Satire uses contemporary knowledge of the audience as a setup to contrast with an feigned ignorance of that knowledge by the subject of the satire. The implied knowledge is almost never stated openly making it difficult to recognize satire, sarcasm, and parody without context. It differs from the previous example in that instead of presenting a view of the self as foolish it presents a view of the other as foolish. The knowledge gap is all positive as the audience feels superior in their superior knowledge while they laugh at the ignorant objects of the satire. The brilliance of this piece of satire is that the subjects are themselves thinking how superior they are to others and it is this misguided belief that we laugh at. Should we not be careful that as we use satire to feel superior it is not we who are the objects of the very satire we are laughing at?