Monday, February 27, 2017

Nicolas Cage, Koi Ponds, and the Power of Commentary

This past weekend, I went out to dinner with some friends to celebrate one of their birthdays.  We had agreed beforehand that we would be spending most, if not all, of the evening together, but we were unsure of what we should do after dinner.  There had been heavy rain earlier that day, so we decide it would be best to go back to campus instead of walking around Towson with the threat of another downpour.  As we waited for our Uber to arrive, we admired a small koi pond in the entrance of the restaurant.  My eyes followed a fish to the edge of the pond, where I noticed a small sign, about the size of an iPhone, leaning against the wall.  The sign read, “PLEASE DO NOT HOLD THE FISH.”  This made all of my friends laugh.  We wondered aloud why there was a need for such a sign, until someone mentioned that the fish did look very friendly, so it was no surprise that some would want to hold them.  We laughed even harder at this observation, and we all began having a friendly conversation with the koi, who lifted their heads above the surface of the water. 
            Later at night, we decided to watch National Treasure.  The movie about Nicolas Cage trying to steal the Declaration of Independence to find a secret treasure map once held a place of genuine interest in our young hearts, but that faded once we gained the ability to identify bad acting.  We watched the movie because we were feeling nostalgic.  We knew that the movie was awful, but we had an enjoyable night because we provided a commentary to go along with the movies that made us all laugh at the bad acting and melodrama. 

            These two examples of humor I experienced this past weekend connect to one of the main ways that Sedaris makes his collection of short stories funny: humor is not necessarily inherent in certain situations, but it can be created with well-constructed commentary. For example, when he explained the sleeping habits of his family, he mentioned that his mother slept irregularly, often in her clothes.  The children would give her pajamas for Christmas, and Sedaris notes that she would give them a strange look, “as if, like the moment of one’s death, the occasion of sleep was too incalculable to involve any real preparation” (Sedaris 30).  The fact that his mother struggles with sever sleep problems is not a matter that many people would find humorous.  However, Sedaris’ comments on her reaction to her sleep problem make the leader laugh at a serious issue.  In this way, Sedaris builds his theory of humor on a combination of past experiences with new observations.  Taking time to step outside of a situation can allow someone to reexamine the event and provide new insight that is a humorous.  However, extensive time is not always necessary; in the case of the friendly fish comment, the only amount of time needed to make an observation was the time required to formulate the thought.  Being able to respond quickly and lightly to an event can be very funny as well.  The humor in the situation can also depend on the relationship between the person making the commentary and the person listening.  In the case of the National Treasure commentary, part of the reason I found it funny was because I was friends with the people who were making the comments.  An outsider without any connection to the people making comments may not have found them as funny.  In the case of Sedaris' book, the reader does not necessarily have a personal relationship with the author, but Sedaris gives the reader an intimate look into his life so that a relationship can be formed relatively quickly.  This shows that using commentary as a form of humor is not always a foolproof formula for evoking laughter.

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