February 3, 2007

When one word is funnier than another.

So, we've established that "naked" is funnier than "nude," and now I feel like this is a subject comics have riffed on hundreds of times. I'm trying to find some good examples of this. Oh! Wikipedia has it -- don't you love Wikipedia? -- under the heading: "Inherently funny words" (a somewhat broader topic).
In Neil Simon's play The Sunshine Boys, a character says: "Words with a k in it are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a k. Ls are not funny. Ms are not funny."
Hence the pickle jar in the "Seinfeld" episode.
In an article in the New Yorker published in 1948, H. L. Mencken argues that "k words" are funny: "K, for some occult reason, has always appealed to the oafish risibles of the American plain people, and its presence in the names of many ... places has helped to make them joke towns ... for example, Kankakee, Kalamazoo, Hoboken, Hohokus, Yonkers, Squeedunk, and Brooklyn."...

In the ["Simpsons"] episode "Homie the Clown", Krusty the Clown tells Homer during a lesson at his clown college: "Memorize these funny place names: Walla Walla, Keokuk, Cucamonga, Seattle." Upon hearing the word "Seattle", Homer bursts into laughter.

In another episode, Krusty the Clown paralyzes his vocal cords when he tries to cram in too many "Comedy K's".
And "naked," unlike "nude," has a k. Presumably, it's even funnier when spelled "nekkid."
Dave Barry's 1991 book Dave Barry Talks Back reprints a column on linguistic humor. He contrasts the phrases "Richard Nixon wearing a necktie" with "Richard Nixon wearing a neck weasel", and "Scientists have discovered a 23rd moon orbiting Jupiter" with "Scientists have discovered a giant weasel orbiting Jupiter." He concludes that weasel is a very funny word - "You can improve the humor value of almost any situation by injecting a weasel into it."
I don't remember reading that, but once, on throwing out the trash, I felt moved to say -- and got a big laugh -- "I don't want the weasels to get it." The normal thing to say was "raccoons," which does have a k. And that either goes to show you just how the word "weasels" is, or it's not about the word at all, but the fact that there are no weasels trying to break into the trash cans, and there are raccoons.



By the way, what's funnier: "trash," "garbage," or "rubbish"?
An old Internet phenomenon involved taking lines from the Star Wars movies and replacing one word from the line with the word "pants", with comedic effect. This suggests that "pants" may be an inherently funny word....

In his DVD commentaries, Simpsons creator Matt Groening has proclaimed the word underpants to be at least 15% funnier than the word underwear. This idea is based on a theory by Futurama writer Ken Keeler. In the show Futurama, underpants is almost always used in lieu of "underwear."

David Letterman has frequently used pants as a subject of humor, from screaming out "I am not wearing pants!" over a megahorn during the Today Show to naming his production company Worldwide Pants Incorporated.
I used "pants" for comic effect in the naked gym post.

Consider this dialogue in the dramatic movie "Anatomy of a Murder." The judge has called the lawyers to the bench after the word "panties" -- at a murder trial -- has caused laughter in the courtroom. There are times when the funny-sounding word is a problem. The defense lawyer -- Paul Biegler, played by Jimmy Stewart -- has been trying to bring in evidence that his client killed the man who raped his wife:
Judge Weaver: Mr. Biegler, you finally got your rape into the case, and I think all the details should now be made clear to the jury. What exactly was the undergarment just referred to?

Paul Biegler: Panties, Your Honor.

Judge Weaver: Do you expect this subject to come up again?

Paul Biegler: Yes, Sir.

Judge Weaver: There's a certain light connotation attached to the word "panties." Can we find another name for them?

Mitch Lodwick: I never heard my wife call 'em anything else.

Judge Weaver: Mr. Biegler?

Paul Biegler: I'm a bachelor, Your Honor.

Judge Weaver: That's a great help. Mr. Dancer?

Claude Dancer: When I was overseas during the war, Your Honor, I learned a French word. I'm afraid that might be slightly suggestive.

Judge Weaver: Most French words are.
And that's a whole other subject: words that sound dirty.

14 comments:

Meade said...

Weasels in the rubbish with their panties in a twist sounds sort of dirty. ngKay?

hdhouse said...

way way way way too much free and idle time

rsb said...

Der Bauch, was k├Ânnt er sagen?

Bissage said...

Ann Althouse,

Your naked v. nude thing flushed out a mammary from Manny Moons ago. Back in the late 60s or early 70s I saw a standup comic on T.V. riffing about licentiousness and how the world was going to hell in a hand brisket.

He said, more or less: You go to Los Angeles and all the bars have signs outside, all lit up, that say NAKED, NAKED, NAKED. In New York, we don’t know what that means; the signs all say NUDE, NUDE, NUDE!!!

Balfegor said...

In the ["Simpsons"] episode "Homie the Clown", Krusty the Clown tells Homer during a lesson at his clown college: "Memorize these funny place names: Walla Walla, Keokuk, Cucamonga, Seattle." Upon hearing the word "Seattle", Homer bursts into laughter.

There's some kind of comedy sketch in Japan that's mostly people saying place names in funny voices. See here for a flash video using that. Here is another. The second one is better, actually.

Palladian said...

Shoe... Megaphone... Grunties...


Wankel Rotary Engine...

John Kindley said...

"Simpsons creator Matt Groening has proclaimed the word underpants to be at least 15% funnier than the word underwear."

Semper ubi sub ubi.

Joe said...

Knickers for panties? or is that too many K's?

YAMB said...

Along the lines of substituting "weasel" as funnier--here's an example of substituting just one letter for another (wang for wand in Harry Potter):

http://www.albinoblacksheep.com/text/wang.php

YAMB said...

Dave Barry also has a rift about the word "placenta" being automatically funny.

"I sentence the defendant to look at three placentas."

No k.

Beth said...

When my dad died, two of my brothers went to his office to collect his things. They found a little notepad in his desk labeled "funny words," containing pages and pages of words Dad thought were funny, and would try to work into a conversation. I wish I had it now; I'd enjoy trying to derive his principles of what's funny.

Richard Fagin said...

Now deceased columnist Lewis Grizzard wrote in one of his books that "naked" means you have no clothes on. "Nekkid" means you have not clothes on and you're up to something. As in when the POHlice saw Bobby Earl nekkid in the back seat with Kathy Sue, they turned on their sireens to scare 'em.

vbspurs said...

Has someone mentioned that Latin-derived words are less funny than Germanic ones?

Naked = nakt (Ger.)
Nude = nue (Fr.)

I once saw a documentary on Your Show of Shows, where the most talented comic scriptwriters perhaps ever assembled under one roof, were talking about what made one word funnier than the other.

Sid Caesar and them came to the conclusion, one day, that anything with "k" in it was funny, and also the number 3 was a hoot.

For whatever reason.

Someone should do a comedic study one day. Seriously-k.

Cheers,
Victoria

Eric said...

Judging by (Mexican) Spanish nicknames for radio and TV personalities, "ch" seems to be the funny sound in Spanish.

I think "pants" is funny, but nowhere near as much as someone who posts comments as "Huh?" on the Crazy Apple Rumors website (recent examples here, here, and here).