A Dry Sense of Humor?
September 28, 2007 7:02 AM   Subscribe

What makes "dry humor" dry?
posted by notyou to Writing & Language (47 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
With dry humor, the person is generally not "begging" for a laugh, instead offering a simple observation or other statement that proves to be funny. Dry humor eschews an easy punchline, instead going for something that generally requires a moment's thought or knowledge beyond "Getting hit in the nuts hurts real bad."
posted by beaucoupkevin at 7:05 AM on September 28, 2007


There's no "mugging for the camera." The intent to make the other person laugh is well hidden. Its the difference between telling a funny joke in an animated way and telling it without facial expressions and in a monotone voice.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:07 AM on September 28, 2007


It's primarily a point about delivery, not far in its meaning from 'deadpan'. A large part of why good dry humor is amusing is a sort of self-congratulation because you, the hearer, have picked up on the intended joke without all the usual cues. It's therefore more effective among "in-groups" whose members share nuances of speech. Maybe that's why it's identified so closely with my beloved British class system.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:09 AM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Jimmy Carr
posted by ReiToei at 7:13 AM on September 28, 2007


(Jimmy Carr)
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:17 AM on September 28, 2007


Jimmy Carr's jokes aren't dry they are utterly desperate for you to laugh.
posted by public at 7:41 AM on September 28, 2007


Although apparently "dry" is synonymous with "deadpan" according to Wikipedia. Which I don't entirely buy, so maybe he is a good example of a comedian who uses dry humor.

*shrug*
posted by public at 7:43 AM on September 28, 2007


I think that Steven Wright is the archetypal example of dry humor.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:51 AM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


I took the OP's question to be about origin of the term 'dry' -- that is, what is it about this type of humor that makes it not-wet. I don't have an answer, but perhaps some clarification is in order.
posted by Killick at 8:09 AM on September 28, 2007


You just wave the vermouth over the punchline.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 8:09 AM on September 28, 2007 [26 favorites]


Summing up so far: Dry humor is deadpan delivery plus some 'ironic knowing'.
posted by notyou at 8:10 AM on September 28, 2007


'deadpan' humor is delivered like a straight line. No tonal cue as to the humorous intent. I think of dry humor as a sub-type of deadpan humor. Again, the joke is delivered without tonal cue of humorous intent, but now the hope is to conceal the joke with an innocuous alternate meaning. As mentioned, the British have elevated dry humor to an art.
posted by TeatimeGrommit at 8:13 AM on September 28, 2007 [4 favorites]


Killick: I think you're right; the question could have been more clear. Now there are two questions. "What is dry humor?" and "Why is it called 'dry'?".

Answer whichever you like!
posted by notyou at 8:16 AM on September 28, 2007


People have always described my humor as dry. It's definitely deadpan, said matter-of-factly, without any "nudge nudge, wink wink, know-what-I-mean?"
posted by pmbuko at 8:17 AM on September 28, 2007


There is an aspect of sophistication in dry humor where Steven Wright puts absurdity, causing me to think of him as having dry delivery more than dry humor. The quality of "wetness" in humor has to do with the joke's obviousness. With dry humor the recipient is not told what is supposed to be funny. The wetter the humor, the more broad the joke. The broader the joke, the wider the audience.
posted by rhizome at 8:21 AM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Agreeing with all that's been said so far and I'll add that dry humour seems to have an element of almsot condescending mockery to it, most times.
posted by Phire at 8:23 AM on September 28, 2007


Seconding Phire - I think of dry humor as a little bit mean.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 9:00 AM on September 28, 2007


Haw haw! But seriously. Isn't dry humor understated--like as op to pratfalls and fart jokes? I don't think it has to be condescending to be dry. I think more quiet and clever.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:07 AM on September 28, 2007


Expanding on Don Pepino, this is from a longer article about immigrants, genetics and 'wanderlust'. You'll have to read the [relatively long] article to get the full context.

From my reading of it, Hot/Wet Humor is laugh-out-loud cheerful. Cold/Dry Humor is essentially tied to melancholy as its opposite. Which seems to relate to dry humor and comedians being melancholy in their delivery by not using big smiles, wild gestures or expressive deliveries for the humor.
Hence the clever choice of "humor" as a descriptive term for proposed modules of temperament-with the oldest and most venerable of gloriously wrong theories in the history of medicine. For more than a thousand years, from Galen to the dawn of modern medicine, prevailing concepts regarded the human personality as a balance among four humors-blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy. Humor, from the Latin word for liquid (preserved in our designation of the fluids of the human eye as the aqueous and vitreous humors), referred to the four liquids that supposedly formed the chyle, or digested food in the intestine just before it entered the body for nourishment. Since the chyle arose, on one hand, from a range of choices in the food we eat and, on the other hand, from constitutional differences in how various bodies digest this food, the totality recorded both innate and external factors-an exact equivalent to the modern claim that both genes and environment influence our behavior.

The four humors of the chyle correspond to the four possible categories of a double dichotomy-that is, two axes of distinction based on warm-cold and wetdry. The warm and wet humor is blood; cold and wet generates phlegm; warm and dry makes choler; while cold and dry forms melancholy. I regard such a logically abstract scheme as a heuristic organizing device, much like Cloninger's quadripartite theory of personality. But we make a major error if we elevate such a scheme to claims for real and distinct physical entities inside the body.

In the medical theory of humors, good health results from a proper balance among the four, while distinctive personalities emerge from different proportions within the normal range. But too much of any one humor may lead to oddness or pathology. As a fascinating linguistic remnant, we still use the names of all four humors as adjectives for types of personality: sanguine-dominance of the hot-wet blood humor-for cheerful people; phlegmatic, for stolid folks dominated by the cold-wet humor of phlegm; choleric, for angry individuals saddled with too much hot-dry choler; and melancholic, for sad people overdosed with black bile, the cold-dry humor of melancholia.
The internal brand of the scarlet W
Stephen Jay Gould
03/01/1998
Natural History, Vol. 107, #. 2
posted by sociolibrarian at 9:07 AM on September 28, 2007 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't use Steven Wright as an example. It's fairly deadpan delivery, but that's only incidental to the absurd logic, which is his main thing. How about Bob Newhart? Still, that's mostly deadpan. It'd be drier if the subject matter involved, like, misfortune and catastrophes.

Dry joke punchlines:

"If that 4th engine goes out, it'll take us all day to get to Boston"

"This ruins my whole day"

"It's not so bad, until the devil comes along in his speedboat"
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 9:14 AM on September 28, 2007


I don't see meanness or condescension, in any amount, as a necessary component of dryness. Though of course, it can be.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 9:22 AM on September 28, 2007


It's the lack of humility.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:41 AM on September 28, 2007


I think of dry humor as the kind of joke where someone who's not very sharp might not realize that a joke had transpired right in front of them.

Also, British people. Just in general.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:48 AM on September 28, 2007


Seconding Phire - I think of dry humor as a little bit mean.

I disagree. Dry humor doesn't have to be mean. It's sort of the difference between being "facetious" and "sarcastic."
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 10:20 AM on September 28, 2007


Dry humor is often intended to fly under the radar of 60% of people. This is why it's commonly associated with elitism or haughtiness. This doesn't have to be the case, however. Some people, myself included, just really enjoy humor that grazes the funny bone, rather than hammers it.
posted by squirrel at 10:35 AM on September 28, 2007


The closest neighbor I can see is "dry" as in wine as in "not sweet," which sort of works. Dry humor doesn't immediately present itself as friendly; it is not crowd-pleasing or inviting in the way other comedy is.
posted by wemayfreeze at 10:48 AM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


humor that grazes the funny bone, rather than hammers it

Many jokes user overstatement to get a laugh, while dry humour (in addition to being all the things listed above) typically uses understatement.

This is pretty closely related to sarcasm and I am having trouble concocting an example of understatement that isn't sarcastic at the same time. Sarcasm and irony are both "dry".

I don't see meanness or condescension, in any amount, as a necessary component of dryness.

Sarcasm is typically taken as being mean, but it isn't necessarily so. Though again, I can't really give an example of nice sarcasm.
posted by GuyZero at 10:49 AM on September 28, 2007


Dry or deadpan delivery is not the same as dry humor, though they are related. Dry humor is understated. It doesn't advertise the fact that it's supposed to be funny.
posted by fidelity at 11:06 AM on September 28, 2007


Anecdotally, I think I have a pretty dry sense of humor, but that's just because I think a lot of what I say is funny but nobody ever laughs.
posted by rhizome at 11:19 AM on September 28, 2007


I think a lot of what I say is funny but nobody ever laughs.

(crickets)
posted by GuyZero at 11:30 AM on September 28, 2007


Sarcasm is typically taken as being mean, but it isn't necessarily so. Though again, I can't really give an example of nice sarcasm.

Nice sarcasm doesn't exist. The only difference between irony and sarcasm is that the latter is intended to be mean.
posted by squirrel at 11:51 AM on September 28, 2007


Sarcasm is saying one thing, but communicating through intonation that you mean the opposite.

"You look beautiful." can be a stinging insult if delivered with sarcasm. There is such thing as "nice" sarcasm, though it's mostly from a bygone era. "Darling you look dreadful." said with a sincere twinkle can be a warmly received compliment, especially between close friends of the older generation.

"Dry" humor is based on understatement. I agree with wemayfreeze that "dry" is probably a metaphor from wine, meaning "not sweet."

There's nothing inherently mean or cruel about dry humor. It may be elite only insofar as some people may not pay close enough attention to see the wit.

"One nuclear explosion can ruin your whole day" is a dry one-liner.
posted by ScarletPumpernickel at 12:25 PM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]



Sarcasm is saying one thing, but communicating through intonation [or context] that you mean the opposite [or merely something different].


That's not sarcasm; it's irony.

"Darling you look dreadful." said with a sincere twinkle can be a warmly received compliment.

True. But it isn't sarcasm.
posted by squirrel at 12:37 PM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Can't back this up, but could dry humor be so dry because it's lacking the social lubrication of physical cues that a joke is being had? Implying humor through intonation or body language makes it flow more easily, while a dry humorist works against the friction of a crowd that's not expecting for a laugh?
posted by jbrjake at 1:28 PM on September 28, 2007


could dry humor be so dry because it's lacking the social lubrication of physical cues that a joke is being had?

In "regular" humour, the cues are exaggerated - facial expressions, tone of voice, entire body movements. Think the Three Stooges. The least dry humour in existence.

As with the content of the joke, in dry humour the cues are reversed - extremely understated. Flat voice, no physical motion, deadpan expression.
posted by GuyZero at 1:38 PM on September 28, 2007


Oh yes I just love that dry British wit. </derail>
posted by jeb at 2:22 PM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


I agree with everyone who says that dry humor is delivered without cues. Think of it as a joke that no observer would realize was a joke, unless they understood the context of it.

Let's say some guy, Joe Blow, kills his wife and cooks her. You ask your friend if he's ever heard of Joe Blow. Your friend responds, completely straight face and no noticeable change of intonation, "You mean the chef?" That's dry humor.
posted by jayder at 3:15 PM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Aristocrats!
posted by geekyguy at 5:12 PM on September 28, 2007


I didn't realise just how dry Brit humour was till I started spending long periods of time in rural America. I'd crack a standard UK joke, and people would just look at me, or politely ask things like "you used it all night? realllly".

When I started saying virtually the same things, but with (what seemed to be real OTT) yuk-yuk boom-boom haha here comes the hahahahaha JOKE, it worked. So delivery has a lot to do with it.

But the content is definitely different. It doesn't have punchlines, or set ups, and it almost never stands alone -- you can't email-forward something dry someone said; dry humour is dropped into the conversation as if it was any other sentence ... but then it makes you laugh. It's wit not yuks. Comedy for your brain, not your balls.
posted by bonaldi at 5:42 PM on September 28, 2007


I was trying to think of good British dry wit to link, but kept landing on Jack Dee. Then I remembered Derek and Clive.
posted by bonaldi at 5:57 PM on September 28, 2007


My personal answer: Non-dry humor involves things that break the rules of our society/environment in absurd ways. Dry humor, on the other hand, presumes the existence of an absurd society/environment and plays by its rules.

It's somewhat harder to understand because you've got to kind of figure out how it's funny before you can laugh at it--if you can't figure out the context, it just seems kind of weird.

To put it another way: Instead of laughing at a particular situation because it's silly, the lens of dry humor will assume that situation will naturally progress to a ridiculous point, and act as though that point were normal.
posted by nicething at 6:24 PM on September 28, 2007 [2 favorites]


I would say that dry humour relies more on wit, with the aim of producing general amusement but not necessarily gales of laughter.
posted by tomble at 7:02 PM on September 28, 2007


It's dry because the 'this is funny' cues are seen as a sloppy liquid in which other humor is needlessly drenched. Or it's dry because without 'this is funny' cues it's lifeless and unpleasant. I belong to the first school, but take your pick.
posted by eritain at 8:41 PM on September 28, 2007


I'm wondering if it also might be a matter of how extreme the contrast is between what's being said and how it's being said. I don't think just any little quip made in an understated manner would qualify as dry. More like something that would provoke the thought of "Did he just say that, with a straight face?"

Now I'm wondering... what would be the definition of wry humor, and how that compares to dry humor?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:16 AM on September 29, 2007


Fawlty Towers. John Cleese can often be very dry. Mouth-puckeringly so. It's delicious.

Also, Niles from Frasier.
posted by oxford blue at 8:04 AM on September 29, 2007


previously
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:54 PM on September 29, 2007


I always think of dry humour as something delivered in a way that could be serious.
posted by TrashyRambo at 7:50 PM on October 3, 2007


« Older I am looking for a free hostin...   |  trying to locate a Korean song... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.