Surreal humour


Surrealist Manifesto
Surrealist cinema
Surrealist music
Surrealist techniques

Surreal humour is a form of humour based on violations of causal reasoning with events and behaviours that are logically incongruent. Constructions of surreal humour involve bizarre juxtapositions, non-sequiturs, irrational situations, and/or expressions of nonsense.

The humour arises from a subversion of audience's expectations, so that amusement is founded on unpredictability, separate from a logical analysis of the situation. The genre has roots in Surrealism in the arts.


Literary precursors

Edward Lear, Aged 73 and a Half and His Cat Foss, Aged 16, is a lithograph by Edward Lear from 1885
Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1917), an inverted urinal signed "R. Mutt".
Caricature of Jules Anspach dancing with the Zenne (1868)

We can speak of surreal humour when illogic and absurdity are used for humorous effect.[citation needed] Under such premises, we can identify precursors and early examples of surreal humour at least since the 19th century, such as Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass,[citation needed] which both use illogic and absurdity for humorous effect. Many of Edward Lear's children stories and poems contain nonsense and are basically surreal in approach;[citation needed] for example, The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World (1871) is filled with contradictory statements and odd images intended to provoke amusement,[non-primary source needed] such as the following:

After a time they saw some land at a distance; and when they came to it, they found it was an island made of water quite surrounded by earth. Besides that, it was bordered by evanescent isthmuses with a great Gulf-stream running about all over it, so that it was perfectly beautiful, and contained only a single tree, 503 feet high.[1]

Relationship with dadaism and futurism

In the early 20th century, several avant-garde movements including the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Futurists began to argue for an art that was random, jarring and illogical.[citation needed] The goals of these movements were in some sense[citation needed] serious, and they were committed to undermining the solemnity and self-satisfaction of the contemporary artistic establishment. As a result, much of their art was intentionally amusing.

A famous example is Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1917), an inverted urinal signed "R. Mutt". This became one of the most famous and influential pieces of art in history, and one of the earlies examples of the found art movement. It is also a joke, relying on the inversion of the item's function as expressed by its title as well as its incongruous presence in an art exhibition.[citation needed]

Etymology and development

The word "surreal" first began to be used to describe a type of aesthetic of the early 1920s.

In addition to the avant-garde art movements, early surrealist comedy is found in the satirical and comedic elements of works of modern authors, who, like Lear and Carroll, wrote stories which dispensed with the normal rules of logic. Examples of this include the dark comedy of Franz Kafka, the stream of consciousness writings of James Joyce, Jack Kerouac,[citation needed] William S. Burroughs,[citation needed] and Hunter S. Thompson, or the whimsical poetry of Dylan Thomas and E. E. Cummings. Surreal humour is also found frequently in avant-garde theatre such as the droll Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. In the United States, S. J. Perelman (1904-1979) has been the first surrealist humour writer.[2] Artists like Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino, John Hodgman and many others have relied on this technique in their work.

Surrealist humour has played an important role in popular culture, especially since The Goon Show and The Firesign Theater. In the 1960s, surreal humour was combined with counter-culture in movements such as the Youth International Party and the Merry Pranksters, as well as in the work of psychedelic musicians such as The Beatles, Syd Barrett, Frank Zappa, The Residents, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Captain Beefheart, and the television series The Monkees.

Another significant influence on popular culture was Monty Python, most notably in their Goon Show-influenced TV series, Monty Python's Flying Circus, which featured an intricate structure and many absurdities and non sequiturs.

Surrealist humour is used effectively in Cinema where the suspension of disbelief can be stretched to absurd lengths by logically following the consequences of unlikely, reversed or exaggerated premises. Luis Buñuel is a principal exponent of this, especially in The Exterminating Angel. Other examples include The Falls by Peter Greenaway, "Free Time" by The Bogus Group and Brazil by Terry Gilliam.[3][4] As with Satire, the humour is intended as an attack on particular norms and preconceptions rather than as pure entertainment.


Drs. Mary K. Rodgers and Diana Pien analysed the subject in an essay entitled "Elephants and Marshmallows" (subtitled "A Theoretical Synthesis of Incongruity-Resolution and Arousal Theories of Humour"), and wrote that "jokes are nonsensical when they fail to completely resolve incongruities," and cited one of the many permutations of the elephant joke: "Why did the elephant sit on the marshmallow?" "Because he didn't want to fall into the cup of hot chocolate."[5]

"The joke is incompletely resolved in their opinion," noted Dr. Elliot Oring, "because the situation is incompatible with the world as we know it. Certainly, elephants do not sit in cups of hot chocolate."[6] Oring defined humour as not the resolution of incongruity, but "the perception of appropriate incongruity,"[7] that all jokes contain a certain amount of incongruity, and that absurd jokes require the additional component of an "absurd image," with an incongruity of the mental image.[8]


  1. ^ From Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets, included in the Project Gutenberg, ebook Nonsense Books, by Edward Lear
  2. ^ Donald Barthelme (1982) interview in Partisan Review, Volume 49, p.185 quotation:

    People like SJ Perelman and EB White — people who could do certain amazing things in prose. Perelman was the first true American surrealist — ranking with the best in the world surrealist movement.

  3. ^ Vogel, Amos. Film as a Subversive Art New York: Random House (2005) ISBN 0-394-49078-9
  4. ^ Williams, Linda. Figures of Desire: An Analysis of Surrealist Film University of California Press (1992) ISBN 0-520-07896-9
  5. ^ Chapman, Antony J. and Hugh C. Foot, editors. It's A Funny Thing, Humour, Pergamon Press, 1977, pp. 37-40
  6. ^ Oring, Elliott. Engaging Humor, University of Illinois Press, 2003. pp. 20-21
  7. ^ Oring, Elliott. Engaging Humor, University of Illinois Press, 2003. pp. 14
  8. ^ Oring, Elliott. Jokes and Their Relations, University Press of Kentucky, 1992, pp. 21-22

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