The Wag v. The Knave

Years ago when I wrote a column for AML-List, Ben Parkinson and I had several discussions about humor narrative voice, style and tone. As Ben pointed out to me, traditional literary humor usually required a sustained, single narrative voice throughout the piece like other literature, whereas contemporary humor, both written and performed, may mix style in a stream of consciousness, expecting a modern audience to follow any sudden shifts in voice, style or tone. In performed humor these shifts are easily understood due to a variety of signals from the performer, whether via changes in voice tone, facial expression or gesture. In writing, however, such changes are difficult to follow, although the modern reader may more readily recognize those shifts as a result of hearing and seeing comedic performances and recognizing many of its conventions translated to the page.

Ben further suggested that humor writing had essentially only two narrative postures: the wag and the knave (or fool). The wag is understood as a clever wit, a comedic observer with the reader’s point of view, whereas the knave is not a wit, but mostly an unreliable narrator and (you hope) unintentionally funny.

The wag has several attractive qualities. Unless offended by the wag’s comments, people are usually sympathetic to her viewpoint, standing next to her in the text and viewing the same situation together. It is most like a natural conversation, a virtual visit with an amusing friend. The more casual, the more observational, the more cool, the better. It is not as risky a venture as the knave’s errand, but the potential payoff isn’t as grand either.

The knave has several unattractive charateristics. The knave is ignorant, his exaggerated stories often way over the top. And for many people, plain stupid isn’t funny and the author may appear to be trying too hard. The knave, like his prototypical court jester counterpart, is in actuality attempting a stunt. He might try to stylistically juggle bowling balls on a unicycle on a trapeze in order to achieve the desired effect. If there’s just one slip … well, look out below and call the ambulance because in writing humor there is no safety net. But if you can pull off this high wire act, your audience will stand clapping, begging for more.

I have typically used the wag as narrator. But once or twice I have tried to employ the knave, but with fear and trepidation, and, my apologies to Ben, not always with a pure narrative point of view.

In the 1990s I participated on a Sunstone panel with Robert Kirby and Elouise Bell where we read works in progress. My piece was called “A History of Mormon Pets” (eventually published in Sunstone).  I had collected a variety of historical and anedoctal “stupid Mormon pet tricks” and wondered how best to serve them up. It occurred to me (whether right or wrong) that in our Post-Camelot Mormon History era, most significant issues had been covered, leaving LDS researchers to scrounge around for lesser issues to write about. Knowing I would have to read the paper, I was determined to do it straight-faced, without any sense of irony, as if I were such an historian delivering a paper about pets in LDS history. Think Leonard Arrrington if he had smoked a lot of dope. I was performing a text more than reading it, and I counted on visual and auditory cues to assist me.

At the beginning, it became obvious our audience was ready to have a good time. We had a couple of easy and loud laughers, the kind that spread contagious hilarity. Elouise, a delightful wag, went first and warmed up the group with the greatest of ease. She was lead-off batter, bound to get a double or triple. Kirby was clean up (we only had three). If I happened to get a single, even better. And if I struck out, Kirby would at least knock someone home for a winning run. When I stood and declared I would read a paper constituting an introduction to the history of Mormon pets, people were uneasy, not sure how it would turn out, and neither was I. In short order I recounted the miracle of the seagulls–not technically pets, but I hoped no one would notice. I declared, in earnest, they were the Danites of the bird family who literally chewed up and spit out the enemies of the early LDS church. I noted that if they had done this today, LDS Social Services would have helped them find less self-desctructive ways of dealing with their issues.

Although I had been afraid someone might think I was mocking a cherished miracle or making fun of eating disorders, I exercised faith in my narrator’s stupidity. To my relief, my gracious audience shared my belief. It was the most fun I’ve ever had presenting a paper or participating on a panel.

I’ve had several questions about the wag and the knave since my presentation about Mormanimal history. How much can you disregard Ben’s rule and mix the knave and fool in print? Shoud you? If you start out with the fool and then switch to the knave, will this jerk the reader around too quickly and spoil the effect, or can you effectively send subtle signals to guide the reader? If you begin as a knave and then assume a fool’s voice momentarily once or twice before returning to the knave, will this better replicate stand-up comedy’s performance and be more easily followed by the reader on the page? My problem is when I write humor it just seems to happen and I’m too grateful and afraid to tinker with whatever gift the humor gods have given me, although I know this is the type of humor Oliver Cowdery would have written, merely asking and not thinking it out in my mind first (or, that is, last). One final question: how smart, or self-aware, can the knave be and still be a knave?

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17 Responses to The Wag v. The Knave

  1. Wm Morris says:

    I believe it’s been suggested that Barry Monroe in Alan Rex Mitchell’s [i]Angel of the Danube[/i] is a sort of holy fool. But it’s been too long since I have read it that I’m not exactly sure. Nor am I sure exactly how the knave manifests in literature. Do you have more examples?

  2. Th. says:

    .

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how my different personae fit into this dichotomy, but I’m still undecided.

  3. Ed Snow says:

    Here are 2 examples: David Sedaris invariably writes as a wag–think about his essays in the New Yorker or his Santaland Diaries. Jack Handy (Deep Thoughts guy on SNL–real name) invariably writes as a fool. 2 movie examples: Christmas Story is told by a wag, whereas most Monty Python movies are "told" by a fool.

  4. Ed Snow says:

    Here’s where there might be confusion: it’s not actually the characters, but the narrative voice, the implied author, who is either the wag or the knave.

  5. Wm Morris says:

    Jack Handy is an excellent example of writing as a fool. That makes sense. I think I spend too much time in wag land and need to hang out with more knaves.

  6. Th. says:

    .

    Online, knaves are often mistaken for trolls.

  7. Ed Snow says:

    Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are 2 examples of performance humor that swims between categories of knave and wag sometimes in mid-sentence and their works in print seem to do the same, yet the reader can follow their written work since they are familiar with their performance humor. In fact, when I read them, I can visualize their antics and hear their voices on the page.

  8. jendoop says:

    Thanks for a little instruction on writing humor. I wrote something I thought was humor recently and showed it to a group of online friends. One thought I was really angry. I haven’t tried to write humor since.

    I wonder if different tastes in humor have something to do with a writer’s success or failure with it. British humor is definitely different than American humor and then there’s all kinds of layers of sarcasm, irony, tongue in cheek, black, etc. How does your audience know your style and understand what you’re presenting if you’re new to them and you aren’t reading it in a public place with the benefit of body language, facial cues, and voice intonation?

  9. jendoop says:

    I just thought of a great knave – Confederacy of Dunces!

  10. Ed Snow says:

    Jendoop, it’s interesting that a lot of humor theory suggests that humor is a form of aggression or at least involves hierarchical elements. This has several different trajectories that I might focus on at a future point.

  11. Moriah Jovan says:

    Quite frankly, writing humor is a far too sophisticated endeavor for me.

  12. Ed Snow says:

    I’ll suggest one more way of looking at these issues. In writing fiction, the author must choose between first or third person narrative voice and find some method of consistency for the reader. Humorous fiction is no different. But humor writing that is not fiction is what I’m focused on in this post and is better characterized as an essay that has a peculiar narrative voice in the first person but that first person narrator is either a smart aleck or an idiot.

  13. Th. says:

    .

    I need to be more analytical in how to bring the funny. Because sometimes I can’t bring it when I need to.

    I have a pretty good one-liner to follow that last paragraph, but it has a bad word in it. Darn.

  14. Ed Snow says:

    Th., maybe I’ll do something on that too. My suggestion is that putting humor into a work of fiction is like putting symbols into fiction (see Angela’s earlier post)–it has to come out of the work, not superimposed into the work.

  15. Th. says:

    .

    That I 100% agree with.

    The thing that bugs me is how often my initially funny stories turn serious on me. Most often into psychosexual tragedies.

  16. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Eric, in case your brother didn’t tell you, his presentation of your TWILIGHT paper at the BYU SF Symposium was not only insightful and interesting, but his delivery was just humorous enough to make it enjoyable as well.

    You’ll have to ask him what he did, but it had to do with how he indicated your quotes, and how he wrapped it up at the end.

    We missed your reading of it, but his reading gave us a good impression of you, so thanks for making that possible.

  17. Th. says:

    .

    Happy day!

    He’s definitely a talented wag and I’ll wager he got more laughs out of it than I did at Sunstone. I’m with Ed on this one: it’s so relieving when the audience is willing to laugh.

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