Humorous Literary Genres

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Humorous Literary Genres

  • by Don L. F. Nilsen and
  • Alleen Pace Nilsen

Two Important Literary Journals for High School Teachers

Writers vs. Readers

Literature with Fan Bases

  • Trekkies &
  • Nerdfighters
  • Riorden
  • Meyers & Rowling

Nerdfighters and DFTBA: “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome”


Two Literary Conundrums:


  • Modes can be communicated through all kinds of symbols as illustrated by the Giuseppe Archimboldo paintings from the 1500s where he used plants to represent the four seasons of the year.
  • Even though weather patterns differ around the world, the four seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter) are recognized and celebrated as universal symbols of our overall life experiences.
  • This inspired Northrup Frye to divide different kinds of literary works into four modes symbolized by the four seasons.

Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism


  • Symbolically, Romance is connected to spring, babies, sunrise, and other new beginnings.
  • The popular culture ties romance to love, while in literary criticism it is tied in with a quest and exaggerations in which the fears of nightmares are changed to the happiness of daydreams.


  • Symbolically, comedy is connected to summer, youth, bright and active parts of the day, and other happy representations of vigor and strength.
  • The popular culture ties comedy in with smiles and laughter, while literary criticism ties it to the optimistic idea that chaos and disruption will be changed to order and hope.


  • Mimetic is cognate with remind and mime. It refers to “realism” but can also be applied to fantasy.
  • It is less optimistic than romantic and comedic writing and symbolically ties to adulthood or middle-age, and to evening and a decrease in energy, vigor, or prestige.


  • Tragedy is connected to old age, winter, night time, fear, discouragement, darkness, and death.
  • It lacks optimism and is filled with irony and pessimism.
  • The pop culture idea is that audiences come away from tragedies (e.g. King Lear) with renewed faith in the human spirit’s ability to survive.

Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons

  • Spring:
  • Summer--Presto:
  • Autumn:
  • Winter:

So What Does This Mean to Humor?

  • Let’s brainstorm and see if we can figure out what kinds of animals, weather, food, or geological formations an author would likely use if he or she wanted to establish one of these four modes.
  • Try thinking of examples from television, film, or literature that clearly fit into one of the four categories.
  • Then let’s look a little deeper and think of examples that move from one mode to the other.
  • The phrase “A Happy Ending,” shows that readers expect modes to change. See the next slide for a more dramatic example.

A Mode Change from Comedy to Tragedy

  • A good example occurs in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio is wounded in a sword fight and Romeo says, “Courage, man, the hurt cannot be much.”
  • Mercutio responds, “No, ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a chuch-door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”

Another Mode Change from Comedy to Tragedy

  • Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax begins with beautiful, pastel-colored illustrations of a pleasant village and surrounding meadow.
  • But as the story progresses, and people get greedier and greedier about harvesting what the trees produce, the pictures get darker and darker, and so does the future of the city.
  • It’s enough to just thumb through the pictures to document the change in mode.

Spoiler Alert:

The Harry Potter Guide to the U.K. :



  • ROMANCE (SPRING): Romances present idealized and exaggerated worlds with plots focusing around what Joseph Campbell called “The Journey.”
  • The journey does not have to be literal, but it does have to incorporate some psychological distancing from family or authority figures.
  • Archetypal figures who play a role in journey stories include a Hero on a Quest, a Villain or a Trickster, a Challenge, a Prohibition, a Sacrifice, a Sage, and at last some kind of an Accomplishment or Success.

Why A Journey?

  • When author Richard Peck spoke to one of our classes, he said that in his novels he always includes some kind of a journey because:
  • The characters can meet and interact with new people, which offers opportunities for new experiences and new humor.
  • On almost any trip there are bound to be complications which adds excitement to the plot.
  • Because he writes for teenagers, who are looking forward to “leaving” their families as they go off to college or “move out,” young people “relate” to the idea of a journey.

ROMANCE continued

  • The accomplishment might be symbolically shown through a physical accomplishment, but the reward is really an emotional or intellectual epiphany.
  • Well-known examples include The Divine Comedy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lord of the Rings, and Paradise Lost.
  • One of the symbolic expectations in basic stories is that the epiphany connects Heaven and Earth, which is why epiphanies often come to characters on a mountain top, a tower, a lighthouse, a ladder, or a staircase.
  • Examples in famously humorous stories include Jack’s beanstalk, Rapunzel’s tower, and Yertle’s stack of turtles in the Dr. Seuss book.
  • Famous characters who go on journeys include Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Charlotte and Wilber in Charlotte’s Web, and most recently Harry Potter in J. K. Rowling’s books.

COMEDY (summer)

  • In the classical sense, “comedy” isn’t necessarily funny, but in contrast to “tragedy” it has a happy ending.
  • High comedy (what we now call ‘smart comedy’ or ‘literary comedy’) relies for its humor on wit and sophistication, while low comedy relies on burlesque, crude jokes, and buffoonery.
  • Jessica Milner Davies says that “whether it be English, medieval Dutch, Spanish, French, Viennese, Russian, improvised “commedia dell-arte,” or even Japanese kyògen or theater, farce is both the most violent and physically shocking of dramatic forms of comedy…,
  • but it is almost the most innocent in that unlike satire or burlesque it does not offend either individuals or society.

There are Two Main Types of Comedies, 1. Comedy of Manners

  • In these stories characters work to outwit the establishment or the upper class. The traditional Comedy of Manners was based on an unfair law, which the common person had to defeat.
  • For example, in Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro, the unjust law was that the Lord of the Manor had the right to take the virginity of any woman marrying one of the Lord’s serfs.
  • In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the unjust “law” was that Shylock was approved to take a pound of flesh.
  • But Portia, the smart (woman) lawyer, outwitted the situation by proving that Shylock had not been approved to take a drop of blood; therefore he could not take the flesh.

Comedy of Manners (CONTINUED)

  • In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest Jack (who represents the common man) responds affirmatively to Lady Bracknell’s question of whether he smokes.
  • Her response is, “I am glad to hear it. A man should have an occupation of some kind.”
  • Later, Jack answers one of her questions by saying he “doesn’t know,” to which she cheerfully responds,
  • “I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.”

“Tragedy of Humours,” and also “Tragedy of Manners”


  • A Picaresque Novel is a mock quest done by someone who does not have money, power, or prestige. The Picaro lives by his wits as he encounters various powerful eccentrics in his episodic adventures. Examples include Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, and Pickwick Papers.
  • Here are six characteristics associated with the picaresque novel:
  • The first person account tells a part or the whole life of a rogue or picaro.
  • Rogues and picaros come from a lower social level, are of loose character, and if employed, do menial labor and live by their wit and playful language.

Picaresque Novels (CONTINUED)

  • Picaresque novels are episodic in nature.
  • Picaresque characters do not mature or develop.
  • The story is realistic. The language is plain (vernacular) and is filled with vivid detail.
  • Picaresque characters serve other higher class characters and learn their foibles and frailties, thus providing opportunities to satirize social castes, national types, and/or racial peculiarities.

Type 2: Comedy of Humors

  • This second type of Comedy goes back to the belief of medieval physiology that human dispositions are based on the balance of the four basic fluids: phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile.
  • If the balance is not right a person might be phlegmatic, sanguine, melancholy, or bilious. Characters whose humors are out of balance, are eccentrics or grotesques.
  • Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is filled with humors characters, although they are not quite as funny as is Sheldon in TV’s The Big Bang.

Alazons and Eirons as Humors Characters

  • Alazons and Eirons are stock humors characters going back to Greek drama. Alazons are overly confident braggarts getting their way by blustering and bullying.
  • At the other extreme, are the eirons, who are sly rogues getting their way through feigned ignorance or dumb luck.
  • The term “eiron” is related to the term “irony,” because the Eirons say one thing, but mean another.
  • In Japanese culture, the Samurai are the Alazons, and the Ninja are the Eirons.

Quotes from Famous Authors:


Mimetic or “Realistic” Humor (Fall)

  • This is the largest part of people’s lives and includes all kinds of humor making use of a variety of techniques.
  • “Realistic” humor demonstrates an interesting crossover between literature and real-life because in a way it is measuring the care and the skill with which authors observe and record people’s actions and thoughts.
  • The concept of metamorphosis, as developed in Faust, The Metamorphosis, Pinnochio, Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, shows tremendous changes that encourage us to become more aware of changes occuring in our own lives.

Mimetic or “Realistic” Humor (CONTINUED)

  • When comedians don masks and borrow voices, the interplay of conflicting masks and voices results in an awareness of open or subtle incongruities.
  • French scholar Daniel Royot says that without the interplay, the result is parody and grotesque humor— “too much like Jerry Lewis’s stuff.” He contrasts the visual humor of Mel Brooks with the satirical humor of Woody Allen.
  • Here also, we are encouraged to take a new look at aspects of our lives that have been overlooked. The titles of Regina Barreca’s books invite reflections on real life:
  • They Used to Call Me Snow White, But I Drifted.
  • Perfect Husbands: and Other Fairy Tales.
  • Untamed and Unabashed: Essays on Women and Humor in British Literature.

Mimetic or “Realistic” Humor (CONTINUED)

  • Barreca says that “Women’s lives have always been filled with humor.” It emerged “as a tool for survival in the social and professional jungles” and works as a “weapon against the absurdities of injustice.”
  • Women did not suddenly get funny in the 1990s any more than women suddenly got ambitious in the 1970s or sexually aware in the 1960s or intelligent in the 1980s.
  • Wendy Wassserstein adds, “When I speak up, it’s not because I have any particular answers; rather, I have a desire to puncture the pretentiousness of those who seem so certain they do.”


  • A 240-Year-Old Swiss Automaton:


  • Tragedy is the opposite of comedy in that the happiness appears at the beginning or the middle. Somebody is privileged, but with a fatal flaw (such as hubris or an obsession) which causes the downfall. Well-known examples include The Great Gatsby, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet.
  • Gothic Humor also fits into this dark side of life. It typically occurs in haunted houses, deep forests, or mysterious caves. The weather is dark and stormy and the supernatural characters are mysterious as shown in such books as Dracula, Frankenstein, The House of Usher, Northanger Abbey, The Langoliers, and Wuthering Heights.

People tend to create ironic humor when they feel that all is lost so there is nothing left to do but laugh at one’s own predicament. The dark humor that became popular in the mid- 20th century was created in response to fears induced by the atomic bomb and feelings of helplessness .

  • People tend to create ironic humor when they feel that all is lost so there is nothing left to do but laugh at one’s own predicament. The dark humor that became popular in the mid- 20th century was created in response to fears induced by the atomic bomb and feelings of helplessness .
  • The creators of satire, on the other hand, are purposely exposing some kind of a problem and pointing toward a solution. French scholar, Daniel Royot, says that while utopias and dystopias might be token fantasies that are grotesque, they still contain “an implicit moral standard.”
  • Benign Humor is a mild type of satire with much word play. Examples include Alice in Wonderland, the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves novels, Peter Rabbit, Through the Looking Glass, The Wind and the Willows, and Winnie the Pooh.
  • Scientific Study of Literature:

A Satirical Example Using Benign Humor

  • This Make-Way-for-Ducklings sign near a Tempe park is a parody of an incident in Robert McCloskey’s picture book where a Boston policeman stops traffic for a family of ducks.
  • People familiar with the story smile and also recognize that they too should watch for ducks.

Tragedy, Irony, and Satire (CONTINUED)

  • Three types of humor that contribute to a tragic mode.
  • Gallows humor includes Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye, Fargo, The Loved One, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Portnoy’s Complaint, Pulp Fiction, Slaughterhouse 5, and The World According to Garp.
  • Horatian Satire is mild and amusing. It is named for Horace, the Roman poet and writer who lived 65-08 BCE. Contemporary examples include Animal Farm, Brave New World, Gulliver’s Travels, Little Big Man, Lysistrata, and The Screwtape Letters
  • Juvenalian Satire is harsh and bitter. It is named for the Latin author Juvenal, who lived in the 1st and early 2nd Centuries A.D. Contemporary examples include 1984, Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, and A Modest Proposal


  • Now that we live on a “flat earth,” authors are welcome to use humor to explore complications connected to such changes and to include vernacular humor.
  • Excellent examples include Sherman Alexie’s Confessions of a Part-Time Indian and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.


  • Readers cannot—and do not want to—laugh all through a book. But they want some humor to balance out serious and tragic parts.
  • Virtually all authors who promote their books on TV talk shows (e.g. The Colbert Report) are expected to engage in witty repartee that will hint at romantic and comic modes.


  • William Shakespeare is only one of several famous authors who would probably be surprised at how today we use his words and phrases as an efficient way of establishing mode.
  • Kiss Me Kate alludes to his Taming of the Shrew, Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap alludes to the tragic play within the play from Hamlet, and we all recognize the tragic implications of “Et tu Bruté?”


  • These are stories that trace the growth and development of a young person. Most contemporary examples are really romances disguised as realism.
  • Successful authors are the ones who can write about the young people’s problems humorously without disrespecting the young readers.
  • Louis Sachar, M. E. Kerr, Gary Paulson, and Jack Gantos are able to do this.


  • The immediacy and the advancements in film technology, such as computer graphics, means that authors of books have to work harder to create humor that will compete.
  • But authors of books do have one advantage over film makers in that they can use an omniscient viewpoint and include interior monologue (what the characters are thinking).


  • Because fantasy and science fiction require a special suspension of disbelief, the creators are given freedom to develop new and different kinds of humor.
  • Examples include the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Peter Pan, and The Adventures of Walter Mitty.


  • As shown by this teenager buying a ticket to watch Johnny Depp in The Pirates of the Caribbean, people want to be personally involved in creating their own humor.

ALAN Workshop at National Council of Teachers of English

How It Should Have Ended:


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