The section of Sedaris’s book that stood out to me the most was the “Baby Einstein” chapter. Sedaris’s brother has a baby and buys a toy that really isn’t age appropriate for a newborn, so he decides to make it spell out dirty words instead of using it for its designated purpose—teaching a child to spell.
I have two young nephews back home, and it was my job to babysit them all summer, every summer from the time they were 18 months and newborn to about four years old and two and a half. Long story short, I’ve spent many of their nap times surrounded by talking baby toys. There were always a good age range of toys present since nephew #1 was a year and a half older than nephew #2. So many of them sang and danced and randomly turned on when they sensed motion. For the adults in the family, it became a running joke to scare someone with the toys or to annoy them into a frenzy just by singing one of the songs under our breath.
Years went by with the adults asking each other to play in front of the babies, but using the creepy “toy voice” just to freak the other people out while making the babies laugh. We would also sing the songs when we wanted to mess with someone else in the house by ruining a very rare silence. However, my soon-to-be brother-in-law, Kevin, (father of nephews #1 and #2) decided to take things to the next level. He put a bunch of the motion triggered toys lined up in the dark hallway on the way to the bathroom over night to scare his brother, who lived in the basement apartment, when he got up in the morning. Imagine getting up in the dark for an early shift at work, trying to stay quiet so you don’t wake anyone else in the house only to hear “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME???” followed by playful music. Kevin won the ongoing prank war my taking the creepy factor to the next level.
This example, along with Sedaris’s “Baby Einstein” chapter ask us to question why it’s so funny to use children’s toys in a way in which they were not designed to be used. The even great question, I think, comes up when we think about why babies get bored with the toys when they outgrow them, but adults and older children get such laughter out of messing with these toys and making fun of their silly songs and voices. Is it our way of coping the with constant repetition of simple songs teaching us things we already know, or the whiny mechanical voices that are constantly in our heads for years, or is there something more behind the desire to mess with these toys long after we’ve outgrown the acceptable age range?
While the coping theory seems to fit pretty well, I think the Incongruity theory explains why it is we find using toys inappropriately to be so funny. Making creepy faces while imitating a doll’s voice is the opposite of what someone would expect, so their reaction makes the other person laugh. It’s a bit of a twist on the theory because the person is subverting the other person’s expectations and laughing at the result, not at the subverted expectation. Using cute things to scare people is innocent enough to be funny, because the person who was scared by the toy is able to laugh at themselves for being scared in the first place since the object that scared them is so nonthreatening.
Sedaris’s brother was doing something similar when he tried to get the spelling toy to swear. He was frustrated by the toy picking up on his idea and stopping the word just short of completing the expletive. While people reading the chapter can identify, I also think it’s funny that the toy laughed at him. They toy was programmed to laugh at people who were trying to use it inappropriately. This suggests that the toy makers were aware that people would try to do this sort of thing, and built in the laughter as a sort of safety mechanism so they wouldn’t teach children to swear accidentally and even to acknowledge the misusers attempt at humor and award them with a laugh.