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For Whom the bell tolls

I wish to lament the passing of an old friend.

Whom do I mean? About whom am I speaking?

I think you know who.

It’s whom.

Our old friend whom is disappearing. Our old friend whom we will surely miss.

It is to whom I dedicate this blog post.

Wait a minute, what?

I don’t know.

(Third base.)

Whom is the object form of who, in the same way him is the object form of he and them is the object form of they.

We used to be more strict about this. When you talked to someone you didn’t know, you used who.  Any time you needed to talk about someone you didn’t know, you used whom. For example:

  • Who are you?


  • About whom are we speaking?

Thing is, whom instead of who only sounds right when it comes after a preposition.


  • Whom is that cup for?

As opposed to:

  • For whom is that cup?

The first sentence sounds awkward. Don’t believe me? Try saying it to the barista at Starbucks.

However, the second sentence sounds stiff outside of classic literature and English class. Actually, it sounds stiff even there. No one talks like that anymore.

So, third time’s the charm:

  • Who is that cup for?

There. That’s what you say to the barista.

It’s because the silly rule “thou shalt not end a sentence with a preposition” is disappearing. In fact, it was never a rule in the first place, just a myth born of a few crusty old linguists’ pet peeves. And, along with other so-called rules like “thou shalt not start a sentence with a conjunction”, I won’t miss it.

Using whom just doesn’t sound right unless it follows a preposition. So it becomes collateral damage when we take down the whole “end a sentence with a preposition” thing.

Now, I’m not saying we should start every sentence with a conjunction and end every sentence with a preposition, just to spite our old English teachers. The point is, English is a language with innate beauty and endless flexibility. To keep it flexible, we need to stretch it now and then.

Plus it’s an amalgamation of many languages, and it keeps evolving.

Still, I’m a language purist. English can’t stay beautiful if we stretch it all out of shape. I’ll still use whom now and then, just for variety.

Now you pick up the ball, and throw it to Whom…


Our permanent state of superultrahyperbole

According to Webster, hyperbole is “the representation of something in terms that go beyond the facts”.

In other words, it’s lying.

In fiction, or comedy, hyperbole is acceptable because everyone knows you are exaggerating for effect.  You are trying either to impress or amuse.

There are clichés like “my head feels like a freight train ran through it”, or “she made enough food to feed an army”, or the directly related “she has as many chins as a Chinese phone book”.  Those are exaggeration for effect, and not meant to be funny.  More sad.

However, and of course, hyperbole is the cornerstone of humor.  Jacob Cohen got a lot of respect for statements like, “And we were poor too. Why, if I wasn’t born a boy, I’d have nothing to play with.”

And what comedian hasn’t tried something like: “My dick is so big, I entered it in a contest and it came in first.  And second.  And third.”

Unless the comedian is a comedienne I suppose, but then she would do a boob joke.  Or a thighs joke.  Or a shoes joke.  Oh good God! the shoes.  The streets are paved in shoes.  How many feet do women have…

My point is, hyperbole in certain situations is expected.  However, hyperbole in news articles is unacceptable.

It used to be restricted to tabloids, but it’s leaking into mainstream media as well.  See if you have noticed the following trends:

  • anything apparent is blatant
  • anything obvious is glaring
  • every misfortune is a nightmare
  • anything unexpected is a shocker
  • anything shocking is a bombshell
  • anything ugly is a horror
  • every worry is a terror
  • every disagreement is a slam
  • every debate is a crisis
  • every trend is an epidemic
  • any expression of surprise is a freakout
  • everything hidden is a “secret shame”
  • every shame is a disgrace
  • every disgrace is a scandal
  • anything romantic is steamy
  • every want is a “desperate desire”
  • every setback is a failure
  • every disappointment is a disaster

Most people don’t even notice anymore.  When you are in a permanent state of hyperbole, it becomes the new normal.

Soon we will need the superhyperbole.  Then the ultrahyperbole.  Then the superultrahyperbole.

Or we can boycott any news media that has to exaggerate to get your attention.

Because — think about it — if it really was worth your attention, they wouldn’t need to exaggerate.

Hail to the Chiefs

It seems like everyone gets to be Chief something or other these days.  It started with the now-ubiquitous CEO.  Then we got the COO, because the CEO was so busy with his E that he didn’t have time for his O.  (Isn’t that what secretaries are for?  Ba-dum-pum.)

Then we got the CTO and CFO, because naturally the CEO didn’t have the F’ing time to keep up with T.  Then came the CIO, CCO, CLO…

Sure, it seems like overkill.  Especially when each ‘C’ means another seven figure salary for companies already having to cut employee bonuses and health benefits… because of the down economy.

Never mind that — it’s the new corporate way.  Companies need more highly paid executives than their competitors, just to be competitive.  Even if it means laying off workers.

Taking a look at the alphabet, there is still lots of room for more Chiefs.  So here are some of my suggestions, along with companies who might be interested:

CAO = Chief Acceleration Officer (Toyota)

CBO = Chief Bluescreen Officer (Microsoft Corporation)

CDO = Chief Dancing-silhouettes Officer (Apple Inc.)

CGO = Chief Gambling-debts Officer (Citigroup, AIG, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, etc.)

CHO = Chief Horsemeat Officer (Tesco, Burger Chain)

CJO = Chief Jihad Officer (Al Jazeera)

CKO = Chief Knockoff Officer (TJ Maxx, Winners, Marshalls)

CMO = Chief Monopoly Officer (Wal-Mart)

CNO = Chief Nugget Officer (McDonald’s, Tyson Foods, Pampers)

CPO = Chief Propaganda Officer (Fox News)

CQO = Chief Queef Officer (Maxim)

CRO = Chief Rightwing-nut Officer (Koch Industries)

CSO = Chief Spill Officer (Exxon)

CUO = Chief Underwire Officer (Victoria’s Secret)

CWO = Chief Whitewash Officer (British Petroleum)

CVO = Chief Value-dilution Officer (American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Air Canada)

CXO = Chief Xmas Officer (North Pole Industries)

CYO = Chief Yabbadabba Officer (Hanna Barbera Productions)

CZO = Zero? Zulu? Zygote? um…

I ran out of ideas for ‘Z’.  Any suggestions?

Another humorous rule of three: characters

Regular readers may remember my discussion about the Rule of Three when it comes to humor, when I explored Humor in the Unexpected.

It occurred to me that there is another Rule of Three about humor: three characters.

For drama, the magic number is two: two characters discussing, arguing, competing, fighting, et cetera.  A third character disrupts the flow, and saps the energy from the conflict.  In drama, you do not want a “distraction from the action”.

However, for humor, a distraction from the action is exactly what you want.  A scene with two people joking back and forth can’t go on for long, because the scene loses focus.  No matter how funny the scene, it has to accomplish something for the story.  It has to advance the plot, or reveal something about a character, or both.

So a third character can add some levity to a scene while the two other characters keep the action going.  If the scene is tense, the third character can add some breathing room, otherwise known as comic relief (see Humor Under Stress).

For example, take C3PO in The Empire Strikes Back, when he is stuck with Han and Leia on the Millennium Falcon.  His constant nattering irritates Han in particular, which is amusing to us, and adds comic relief because our main characters are in terrible peril, being bashed about by asteroids and whatnot.  But then C3PO accomplishes something very important: he breaks up an attempted kiss between Han and Leia.  He brings great news, but the timing was terrible.  It’s funny because he has no idea what he did wrong — but the main purpose of his intrusion was to create a try/fail with Han and Leia’s romance, so Lucas and Kasdan could draw that subplot out for a whole other movie.

(What’s a try/fail?  Actually it’s part of another Rule of Three!  Stay tuned to this channel for more.)

Another example is Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace.  Unfortunately Jar Jar is only funny to audience members who haven’t outgrown Yu-Gi-Oh and Hello Kitty as high art, but without Jar Jar’s presence, the scenes would have been dry as dust because Jedi are supposed to be flat and unemotional.  And unfortunately, they were.

Oh what a movie that would have been if Lucas had hired a cowriter, like he did with Empire…. Sigh.

Of course, it is certainly possible to create an engaging and downright hilarious story where the two principals are flat and unemotional.  Take The Blues Brothers.  Jake and Elwood had a couple of weird habits, and a weird childhood, but that’s about it.  The humor came from the situations they created while they were “on a mission from gahd”.  Plus there were some wacky characters like Carrie Fisher’s character.

That’s right.  Princess Leia was in The Blues Brothers.

Conversely, if two characters are funny, add a third character to act as the foil.  The foil makes the funny characters seem even funnier.  He is the straight man… or woman, since in stories women almost never get to be funny.

As examples, Moe of the Three Stooges acts as the (relatively) straight man to his outlandish brothers, and Groucho fills the same role for the Marx Brothers (yes there were five of them, but you get the idea).

Note the second or third character doesn’t have to be an actual character.  It can be a thing or an obstacle, or even the goal itself.  Just something to lend a presence.

For example, take Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  If it was only Don Quixote versus a windmill, it would have been amusing.  But when Panza joins in and acts the foil while Quixote acts the fool (hey, that’s pretty good, I’d better trademark that), the scene is amplified to hilarious.  The scenes where they are traveling together move the plot and reveal character, but aren’t terribly funny.  However when they encounter other people, or windmills, that’s when the humor starts.

However, like I said above, even a humorous scene must accomplish something toward the story.  It should have some action or conflict to keep it moving, and it must advance the plot or reveal something about a character.  Or why not all three?

Scenes that accomplish several things at once and still get a chuckle out of the reader are the ones people will remember forever.  Like the aforementioned kissing scene in Empire.

As another example, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, there are several scenes when Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are talking with Marvin, the paranoid android.  These scenes are funny because Marvin is playing the straight… er… robot in bizarre situations while Arthur and Ford try to extract some information from him, or get him to do something.  With the humor Adams manages to advance the plot.

For example, remember the scene (one of my favorites) when they are plunging into the sun, with the dialogue:

Ford, how many escape capsules are there?


Did you count them?


It ends with poor Marvin being “volunteered to” …. well I won’t spoil it for you.

But wait!  You say.  What about a story told in first person by an amusing narrator?

Well, think about it.  A story told in first person involves a second person: you.  The narrator is including you in the story!  However, if all the narrator does is tell you jokes, it’s a comedy monologue, not a story.  How long would that last?

But now the narrator only needs one more person to complete the triad.  For example, Slippery Jim DiGriz in The Stainless Steel Rat series has a delightful narrative style that is amusing by itself and keeps the reader’s interest, but the scenes do not become actually funny until he encounters other characters.

For example, there is the scene where he is trying to steal Get-stuffed candy bars from a shop, and he is fighting his invention while his schoolmates are fighting the shop owner.  If it was only him stealing candy bars, it would not have been that interesting, no matter how clever the dialogue with you, the reader.  The other characters, the distraction to the action, is what makes the scene work.

So my point is, if a scene doesn’t accomplish something for the story, if its only reason for being is to get a snicker from the audience, it has to go, no matter how funny it is.

However, you can save it by introducing a third character to keep the focus on the action, where it belongs.

The Funny Thing About Humor Part 6: Un-humor

This is Part 6 of my series on humor.

What is un-humor, and why would I include it in a series on humor?

The easiest way to illustrate un-humor is by a joke.  Well, it’s sort of a joke.  Please resist the temptation to skip to the punch line (!!) or you will ruin the effect:

A guy goes to the doctor.  He says he is feeling terrible.  He hasn’t laughed in weeks.  He has tried going to see funny movies, live comedy, everything he could think of.

The doctor gives him a full examination and says, “Sorry sir, your sense of humor is dead.”

“Oh no!” the man cries.  “Is there nothing you can do?”

“I’m afraid not,” the doctor says.

The guy goes to another doctor and gets the same opinion.  He tries a third doctor and gets the same thing.  However, as he is leaving the third doctor’s office, the doctor adds, “Well, there is one thing that might help.  It’s just a rumor, but…”

“Really?” the guy asks.  “I’ll try anything.”

“You could try the great Kaping Kapong,” the doctor replies.

“Where do I find the great Kaping Kapong?”

The doctor pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it.  “This is the address of an old friend of mine.”

“Is he the great Kaping Kapong?” the guy asks.

“No,” the doctor replies.  “But he can tell you where to go next.”

So the guy goes to the address on the paper.  It’s in a slightly rougher part of town.  He finds an old guy in a small office behind a massive oak desk.  He tells the old guy his sense of humor is dead, and he needs the great Kaping Kapong.

“Oh, I have heard the great Kaping Kapong is very powerful,” the old guy says.  “Here.”  He pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it.  “You need to see this woman.”

“Is she the great Kaping Kapong?” the guy asks.

“No,” the old guy replies.  “But she can tell you where to go next.”

So the guy goes to the address on the paper.   It’s in a much rougher part of town.  He finds a wizened old woman working in back of a Chinese restaurant.  He tells her his story.

“I see,” she says.  “You seek the great Kaping Kapong.”

“Yes,” the guy says.

She pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it.  “You need to see this man.”

“Is he the great Kaping Kapong?” the guy asks excitedly.

“No,” the old woman says.  “He is the Guardian.”

The guy rushes to the address on the paper.  It’s in a really rough part of town.  He enters a dingy bar and runs to the back.  There is an enormous figure in a gray, hooded cloak there.  From under the hood, a deep voice booms out: “So you are the seeker of the great Kaping Kapong?”

“Yes,” the guy says, trembling with excitement.  “Please hurry.”

The enormous figure swings its arm up and points at a door.  “Go through there.”

“At last!” the guy cries as he bursts through the door.  He comes to a landing at the top of a tall flight of stairs.  There is a shiny metal ball on a small table.  Next to the ball is a slip of paper with something written on it.  The guy snatches up the paper and reads:

For the great Kaping Kapong to appear, throw this ball down the stairs.

So the guy does.

And as the ball bounces down the stairs, it goes: Kaping! Kapong! Kaping! Kapong!

“Well,” you say, “that was actually kind of funny.”  To which I say, “Really?”

In that case, here is a better example.  It’s shorter, I promise:

This guy walks into a bar and asks to use the bathroom.  The bartender says, sure, it’s in the back.  So the guy goes in, comes out, and leaves.  A few minutes later, four pink flamingoes come strolling out of the bathroom and head out the front door.  Everyone watches this in shock.

The next day, the same guy enters the bar.  He asks to use the bathroom.  The bartender says sure, it’s in the back.  The guy goes in, comes out, and leaves.  A few minutes later, a two orangutans come swinging out of the bathroom and head out the front door.  Everyone watches in shock, but the bartender is getting suspicious.

The next day, the same guy enters the bar and asks to use the bathroom.  This time, the guy goes in, comes out, but the bartender stops him from leaving.  Sure enough, a few minutes later, five baby hippos squirm out of the bathroom and head out the front door.  The bartender rounds on the guy and demands, “Did you put those animals in there?”

And the guy answers:


What do these two jokes have in common?  Right!  They aren’t funny.

So what is un-humor?  It’s the joke that doesn’t happen.  All that build up, and then… nothing.

So when would you use un-humor?  Well, generally speaking, you wouldn’t.  For two obvious reasons: first, it’s not funny.  Isn’t the point of a joke to be funny?

Second, it’s breaking an implied promise with your reader or audience.  They will feel cheated if you don’t deliver.

For example, there is the dumbest, most hackneyed, saddest excuse for a plot device ever invented: the dream sequence.  (I would rate it even worse than deus ex machina only because people still use the former, and true examples of the latter have become thankfully rare since the Greeks stopped writing tragedies.)

You know how it goes.  You are watching a show, or reading a book, anticipating a big climax, wondering how the hell the hero is going to get out of this one, then bam! the hero wakes up.  Hahaha!  You fool, it was all just a dream.  Everyone is fine.  I, the writer, am feeling far superior to you and I am now laughing at your expense.

People want to get caught up in stories.  They expect them to matter somehow, even if it’s only to a fictional character.  The dream sequence is just a waste of time for everyone.

Now, I’m not talking about scenes where it’s obviously a dream, or it becomes obvious that it is a dream long before the audience becomes invested in it.  These are reasonable, if a tad too easy and cliché, ways to convey information to the audience.

I’m also not talking about yarns like Dreamscape or Nightmare on Elm Street which take place in dreams because, in fact, people can die in them.  (Otherwise they would suck too.)

Anyway, I have digressed.  My point is, un-humor is like a dream sequence — a joke played on the audience, and not for their amusement.  Mr. Writer, we are not amused.

However (you were expecting this, right?), there are two cases where un-humor can work.

Note that I’m not talking about a last minute twist on the joke, where a character tries something funny and fails, but it then morphs into something more unexpected and therefore even funnier.

I’m talking about scenes or dialog that end in a big… splat.

The first place you can use un-humor is where a character tells jokes that are so un-funny it’s funny.  For example, in How I Met Your Mother, Ted is famous for his lame puns.  His friends tell him to stop, but he never will.  Then there is Marshall’s fish list — his standup comedy routine that was simply reeling off names of fish.  He thought it was funny.

Or the character of Dug in Up, who told this kneeslapper in his hyperactive deadpan:

Hey, I know a joke! A squirrel walks up to a tree and says, “I forgot to store acorns for the winter and now I am dead.”  Ha!  It is funny because the squirrel gets dead.

The key here is, we already like the characters and so we laugh anyway.  Thus these are examples of Humor in the Expected.

The second place you can use un-humor is for dramatic effect.  You harness the letdown to play with the audience’s emotions.

For example, there is the scene — a cliché in Saturday morning cartoons — where the protagonist is failing and tries to win everything back with an elaborate stunt, and fails.  The hero doesn’t get the laughs she was expecting.  She comes off as pathetic, everyone abandons her for good, she is truly alone.  The audience is crying along with her.  Hopefully.  Plus they are mostly five year olds and near to crying anyway.

The failed humor dramatizes the fall.  It makes us feel rock bottom along with the character.

On the bright side, there is nowhere to go from here for the character, but…. up!  (no, not the movie)

Well, that wraps up my series on humor.  I hope you found it useful and, of course, amusing.

Think of any major humor types I missed?  Any more examples to share?  Sound off in the comments!

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