Woody Allen: “The Whore of Mensa” (1974) Woody Allen is probably the funniest man on the planet. He has been consistently funny, smartly funny, from the 1960s to today (although his best material is from the fertile first 25 years). “The Whore of Mensa” is not his funniest story, but it is perhaps the best-known of his short works of fiction, and it offers a good launch pad to examine what makes for funny writing.
There is essentially one joke in “The Whore of Mensa.” A prostitution ring traffics in women who engage their johns in intellectual conversation, rather than sexual activity. The style of the story is mock-noir, a take-off on hard-boiled detective fiction, aping the tone and format of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Our hero is the wonderfully-named Kaiser Lupowitz, one of Allen’s many characters whose names are part WASP, part Jewish (my favorite is Fielding Melish, from Bananas). He is a detective hired to look into this prostitution ring, wherein johns order up blondes or brunettes to discuss Wallace Stevens, Melville or, for extra cash, a comparative study of Melville and Hawthorne. All of the tropes of prostitution are used, with intellectual discussion in the place of sexual favors. One prostitute is one credit away from her Master’s in Comparative Literature, trying to earn money to cover tuition.
A desperate client (the also-wonderfully-named Word Babcock) is being blackmailed, and walks into Kaiser’s detective agency for help. This launches Kaiser’s investigation, and the story. The story is lacking in jokes per se, but jokes are just one type of humor. There is hardly a line that makes you laugh out loud (although the idea that the Hunter College Bookstore is a front for this prostitution ring is pretty good), but the humor is, instead, situational.
There is, believe it or not, a field of study known as “humor research.” Just knowing that may well suck the fun out of anything you find funny, because to explain why something is funny is to destroy what was funny about it. But from a writer’s perspective, peeling away the façade of a story to look at how it stands up is a useful exercise, even if a few temples to hilarity are torn down in the process.
Experts break down the funny into three categories of humor: situational, physical, and satirical. Physical humor is just what it sounds like—something physically happens to a character that is awkward, surprising, or incongruous. It often involves someone being injured, but there is a fine line between funny injury and serious injury. Slipping on a banana peel is funny. Getting hit by a train? Not so funny. Situational humor employs an absurd situation—one that we might even recognize as having comic potential before we read any further. Mistaken identity is a popular tool of situational humor, as is cross-dressing. Mrs. Doubtfire, in which Robin Williams pretends to be an old woman in order to win back his love, focuses on situational humor—a man pretending to be an old woman is a funny, absurd circumstance. Misunderstandings, mistaken identity, improbable situations are all part and parcel of situational humor. Satire, and its cousin parody, are about mocking specific things, people, events, and trends. Parody is more direct, for instance a Saturday Night Live sketch making fun of the film Titanic by mimicking certain aspects of the film. But parody is only really funny if the audience is familiar with at least the basic outlines of the target of the parody. If you know nothing of Titanic, then you probably won’t enjoy a parody of it. Satire is the broader umbrella category, describing humor that mocks human actions and shortcomings in general, without aping a specific source, but rather making jokes out of a situation that the audience will recognize as contemporary. The Daily Show or The Colbert Report are good examples of today’s best satirists.
None of these categories are about jokes. Sigmund Freud wrote a book about humor, and considered that we find funny what the unconscious lets slip out, an expression of what society normally forbids or encourages us to suppress. This might define a joke, which lets out thoughts or feelings that we usually think we must keep shut away. Jokes either surprise us by their endings, and therefore we smile from surprise, or they make fun of other people in ways that we would not permit ourselves to do in regular conversation, where there can be hurtful consequences. Jokes are the bricks and mortar of satire and parody, and they also may be used in situational humor, to point out the oddities of the situation. Jokes are not normally involved in physical humor, unless they comment on the humorous physical action after it has taken place. A program like Blackadder employs all three types of humor. The situations are funny (in one episode Blackadder must impersonate a prisoner he has never seen, and he learns as he goes that the prisoner has weird traits, including a very high voice and only one leg). Physical humor plays a role (Blackadder jumping on one leg to try to impersonate the prisoner, and often whomping his sidekick, Baldrick, with various implements). And there are jokes, often made by Blackadder at Baldrick’s expense, making fun of how he smells, how dumb he is, and how inept.
I was recently hired to write the script for a new Croatian comedy series. I’ve never before written a sitcom or written for television. My stock in trade is art history books and dark thriller novels. I also know next to nothing about Croatia, but I’m certainly game for the challenge. This new commission has prompted me to examine how humor works, from a writer’s perspective, and I’ve found some interesting things. Woody Allen’s work is as good a place as any to begin our study.
If we turn back to “The Whore of Mensa,” we can say almost all the humor is situational. The key is replacing sexual favors with intellectual conversation in this story of cerebral prostitution. There is a parody element, as well, that is amusing as Allen’s narrator approximates the persona of the hard-boiled detective—letting him delight in the loaded similes of the genre: “he was shaking like the lead singer in a rhumba band.” There is no physical humor (it is harder to use successful physical humor in a written story, because the reader has to imagine the action after reading it, as opposed to reacting immediately to seeing it), and there are few jokes; mostly, the laughs come from Allen knowing his audience (readers of the New Yorker) who will smirk at his name-dropping: a prostitute offers a photograph of Dwight MacDonald reading; the “big cheese,” Flossie, has had surgery to look like Lionel Trilling. The whole is clever and humorous, but unlike other pieces by Allen, it is not particularly funny. Not as funny as other stories of his, not as funny as his early films, and not as funny as his stand-up comedy, which is utterly brilliant.
Perhaps it’s simply that the targets—crime fiction and pseudo-intellectuals—are too easy, and yet one wonders: would it be possible to write something this clever with one of the stories on the playlist as the basic situation to parody?