Humour in an engineer's view

By R. Jayaraman

- INDIAN EXPRESS, Cochin, Saturday, March 17, 1990

I would not have dreamt of writing a piece on humour but for a memorable evening when I had to preside over a college function in which the chief guest, a well-known literary figure, was speaking on the topic of 'Humour in Literature'. The speaker started making a long-winding speech, marked by generous quotations from the Ramayana down to the latest 1988 novels.

As I sat there, sporting a robotic smile whenever the speaker turned in my direction, the 'engineer-in-me' soon became restless, and started murmuring 'not to the point', 'vague' and so on. It was then that the thought suddenly occurred to me: 'If only an engineer spoke or wrote on humour...' The result is this write-up; if it reads like the most humourless piece possible on Humour, the engineer-in-me takes the brickbats!

Scientists and engineers take obsessive pride in making precise measurements. Poets may go into raptures describing the lovely locks of a woman, but scientists and engineers -- not that they don't admire lovely locks -- derive an exalting satisfaction in determining that the thickness of human hair is about 75 microns (1 micron = 1/1000 mm) and that the circuit lines in the Integrated Circuit chips produced by them are 75 times thinner than human hair! If they cannot measure something, they have to at least classify or categorise it. If they cannot even classify it, they reject it as unworthy of their time and attention.

True to my profession, I must first make a clear definition of Humour. The best that I can think of is: 'Humour is the essence of a statement, anecdote or situation that has the potential of producing in the reader, listener or observer as the case may be, a laugh or smile, or at least the desire to laugh or smile.'

Since I cannot measure Humour in microns or megahertz, or in any other way, let me do the next best, ie. classify it. So let us start with the commonest category of Humour.

Stale humour: This, simply, is Humour that totally fails to satisfy its definition, ie. it fails to 'produce a laugh or smile, or the desire to laugh or smile.' Some specimens may even provoke the hapless victim to cry or swear, instead of to laugh!

Stale humour is so common as not to merit any examples here. In fact, nearly 50% of the humour published in our magazines, especially the better-known ones, belong to this category.

Semantic humour: This is easily defined as Humour that cannot be retold in any other language, or can be retold only with loss of impact. Semantic humour can range from the atrocious to the tolerable, as the following specimens show:

Atrocious: "Subramony is never short of money, why?"
"Because there is money in his very name."

Tolerable: "Mac! Did you visit aunty in hospital?"
"Yes, dad! You also told me not to forget to take flowers. Here are the flowers; they were near aunty's bed, and I took them when aunty was looking the other way."

A common form of semantic humour is Pun, which involves play upon the different meanings of a word. Though pun has been denounced as 'cheap humour' by many writers like Dr. Samuel Johnson, the following specimens seem to suggest that Pun, in moderation, can add spice to prose:

'He kept his spirits up by pouring spirits down.'
'He was fed up with the food served at the five-star hotel.'

Lewd humour: It needs no explanation. Though it is supposed to appeal generally to the male youth, men and women of all ages enjoy it. Lewd humour has a particularly wide range -- from the mildly titillating ones which are the staple material for most humorists, to outright pornographic stuff. No examples are given here, as it would be inappropriate to do so in a serious essay!

Elitist humour: It is Humour that can be understood or appreciated only by certain groups of people such as scientists, military officers, freemasons, and so on. Consider the following specimen:

A mathematician was walking in a forest, deeply engrossed in his latest research work, when he came across a circular cage planted by a circus company, with a lion trapped in it. Suddenly, the lion managed to open the cage door, and came out. But, before it could pounce on its prey, the brainy mathematician outwitted the lion and saved himself. How?... He ran into the cage, closed the door, and then applied the 'conformal mapping' w = R/z !

I guess most readers are perplexed! In the above example, the stated mapping function transforms the area inside a circle to the outside, and all the area outside to the inside.

Good humour: Good humour, like good health, cannot be easily defined. Joseph Addison wrote long ago: 'It is indeed much easier to describe what is not Humour than what is, and very difficult to define it otherwise than by negatives.' Obviously, we cannot define good humour, vis-a-vis mediocre humour, as that which produces a greater tendency to laugh. We can however define it indirectly as humour that is not stale or semantic or lewd or elitist. Good humour appeals to all, is not bound by language, and does not need the crutch of lewdness to make an impact. The following specimens are real gems:

A beggar was seeking alms from a notorious rich miser who was firmly refusing to give him anything. Finding the poor man to be equally adamant, the miser relented and said that one of his eyes was a false eye and that the poor man would be given alms if he identified the real eye. The beggar gave the miser a piercing look and then told him in a confident voice that his left eye was the real one. To the surprised miser, he said, 'I could notice a tinge of kindness in your right eye!'

The well-known British politician Lloyd George was once accosted by a lady harbouring differing political views, who shouted, 'Mr. George! if I were your wife, I would have given you poison.' Lloyd George retorted in a quick flash of wit, 'Madam! If you were my wife, I would have gladly consumed it!'