Tuesday, 28 June 2011

How to Outdrink the ENGLISH

England is where I made my bones (or stomach) as a drinker. And I'm glad I learnt the business here, because it's a challenging gazebo indeed.

The English are, as a rule, very competent drinkers, and they always make for tenacious rivals. Members of other populations will frequently give clues as to their own level of drinking ability via their appearance or manner of speech. The English are more subtle. If you find yourself in their country, it is normally very hard to tell whether the person standing in front of you will be unable to recruit himself past the sixth shot of gin, or whether he will take you willy-nilly to where darkness stammers against the edges of the light.

The English are proud of their tradition in beer production and consumption, and they have a right to be. While I hold the Germans in higher esteem, there's something to be said for the obstreperous British spirit of conservation, which has led them to preserve ancient flavours of beer intact as they were hundreds of years ago. Some of their ciders taste so rustic that, after drinking them, one feels like rolling in the mud with pigs. Also, the English can boast the best fruit-beer in the world - a beverage that puritans may scoff at, but fruit-flavouring is in effect a respectable art in itself.

Situated at the crossways between some of the greatest drinking countries in the world, England has developed a rich, diversified tradition of drinkers. Unlike the Germans, they cannot be defeated simply by the use of spirits. They are resilient with pretty much all types of solutions, and they're too wary to be lured into self-defeating combinations (presumably because they always lose at football, so they've developed a habit when it comes to drowning sorrows in drink...). Unlike the Americans, they won't just drink anything they find (unless they're already really really drunk, in which case, hell, I've seen people drinking absinthe out of jam jars...). Rather, they will pour their drinks carefully and in the right order, and no questions asked. They are smart drinkers and they normally have plenty of experience, so outwitting them strategically is always very difficult.

Ah, how we used to roll...

It seems very unlikely you'll outdrink the English purely based on stamina or strategy, and aspiring competitors are advised against challenging them until very confident. Thankfully there is hope, for a route towards efficient victory does exist against the English too.

It took me a while to figure this out, but the English are suckers for drinking games. The Penny, a practice which involves the surreptitious introduction of a penny into a comrade's pint strictly while the latter is holding it in his hands, allowed me to gain numerous victories back when I was still quite the lagger to the natives. Drinking variations of board games, like Cider-Whisky Scrabble, Vodka Risk and Absinthe Trivia (I DARE you!) are very time-consuming, but ultimately rewarding, and they open the door to new dimensions of strategy in terms of how to outdrink the rivals. Circulation drinking, a practice no less common in Germany, is a bit more advanced, but manageable (that being the types of games where you drink in turns, whether from the same pint or different ones). There's also the phantasmagoria of variants of 'Never Have I Ever.' The most popular one among us literary academics was Humiliation, where you mention a book you haven't read, and all those who've read it have to drink. Unlike the idiotic games they have in America, most of this stuff has serious historical roots and demands intelligence, culture and/or quick thinking for one to prevail. It's not just about bouncing a ping pong ball into a pint.

Team-play is helpful, if you intend to challenge the English. Take your mates and train without alcohol in several board games or social games, or even just in penny-ing each other with glasses of water. Once you've mastered the craft - and do make sure you've mastered it, before riding into battle - you'll just need a few weeks of outings to acquaint yourself with the English etiquette. You'll find that they take their games quite seriously and they have a true sense of honour, but they're also cautious, and they won't be drawn into playing if they feel they're being hunted. It will take some time to understand their code, but then you can use it very much to your advantage. I'm not saying it will be easy, but it will definitely give you a fighting chance, the more in proportion to how well you know your game.

An addendum in closing: oddly, English girls make for very poor drinkers. Barring the inevitable exception, mostly involving rather androgynous representatives of the gentle sex, girls in England start vomiting every time more than three glasses of wine are served. Growing up there made for an erratic experience, as half the times we went to the disco with a group, it ended with some girl being carried home like a lion-skin. I'm not sure how to account for this weakness; given the cultural milieu, one would expect them to be miles beyond girls from France or Spain, and on a par with those from America. Instead, they make for no more than tremulous fawns. Go figure.

How to Outdrink the INDIANS

Editor's note: Again, click on the photo to see it in proper size.

There's not much of a boozer culture in India, which is normal, considering the country is so poor. Those who do make it into the drinking arena are worth a word or two, because there's quite a few of them in England nowadays. I became acquainted with my first Indian friends before I actually went to their country, and the cultural connection between them and the English already made itself evident. They're more used to getting stoned than drunk, but when they do drink, they adopt the same boisterous attitude as the Brits.

And yet, while the English have had thousands of years to develop a refined drinking culture, the Indians have only stumbled into the Westernised drinking ways as of very late. Consequently, they have little or no idea of how to handle things. Indians are very easy to outdrink not because they are bad drinkers, per se. It's just that they're such suckers. I once challenged an Indian to a vodka competition and proceeded to substitute the contents of my own bottle with water, then downing triple and quadruple shots while he struggled to follow. He went down like the walls of Constantinople.

I'm not saying you necessarily have to cheat, to beat an Indian. I only did that because I'd legitimately beaten the daylights out of that same guy on a previous drinking competition, one which ended with me and three other people carrying the fatso to his room over four flights of stairs, and instead of acknowledging defeat, he insisted that he'd *won* it. Like the purpose of the game was to be the first to wipe the floor with your lips. So he was calling for punishment, that guy.

But in general, Indians usually destroy themselves with their own hands by choosing the worst possible conditions to drink. They drink in the wrong order, they can't pace themselves, they never know what they're drinking, and they can't recognise a trap or a feint from a mile away. Hell, I remember on one occasion I got drunk in India, I went around the bar telling people I was a medium who'd come to Mumbai in search of a ghost, and I started 'reading minds' and shit. People actually believed that. I predicted the future of a married couple and they were taking me so seriously that I had to stop. Indians are great fun to drink with, and they're among the most hospitable people in the world, you should only be aware that they're highly polemical. If you beat one (and I don't see how the fuck you could fail to do that), you'll probably hear no end of it for weeks. They'll rave ad infinitum on how they were drinking more than you were, how that night they were having a stomach-ache, how they could kick your ass from here to Neptune and back on a Rikshaw, and so on. The solution to this is not that hard, thankfully. Just challenge them and beat them again. Eventually they'll learn to shut the fuck up.

Besides, showing a little wisdom really is in your best interest, because you could hurt yourself if you just play by their rules. I remember on another occasion in Goa we almost fucking killed ourselves by diluting a bottle of whisky into plastic glasses of water, then getting stoned and finally going to sleep in a room with the air-conditioning on. I almost went into hybernation when the temperature outside was 42 degrees Celsius in the shade, if I hadn't woken up twice for an impelling need to vomit, I probably wouldn't be here writing these lines now.

There is no strategy required to beating an Indian. Just start drinking, and watch them stumble on their own idiocies. In a few hundred years they may be proper challengers.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

How to Outdrink the AMERICANS

There can be no doubt that Americans are among the greatest drinkers in the world. Europeans like to act snobbish since these people don't have 'true' drinking cultures as you have in France, Italy, England or Germany, but anyone who has come in touch with the yanks will be able to report acts of savagery almost unparalleled in our countries. Americans don't give any sign of feeling pain, when they drink. Actually, they seem to think it's a good thing. From what I've seen, they tend to go out (or stay in) drinking under the assumption that the acts of vomiting, crawling on the floor and passing out are part of the fun, rather than the price you pay for it. No-one can question their courage. And they're genuinely democratic, too, in that all of this holds true for adolescents and adults, boys and girls, blacks and whites and Asians. Talk about the American dream.

The defining characteristic of the American drinking culture is its unsurpassed vulgarity. Americans will drink beer, rum and coke, vodka, Baileys, amaretto, punch, wine, all in one night. Hell, they'll drink it all from ONE GLASS. They have no discernment and no patience, and most of them are unable to distinguish not so much a barolo from a bordeaux, but a lager from an ale. They're also responsible for the invention of such frankly daft drinking games as beer pong. (Alessandro Baricco has a wonderful article on the American culture of wine. It's so good that it's worth running it through google translator just to get an inkling of what he says, but I already know that no-one is going to do that).

Partly all of this is the source of the American strength. From youth, these people are used to drinking anything. And perhaps it's natural courage. Who's to know.

How do you outdrink Americans? It must be kept in mind, when challenging them, that these people are the kings of mixing. There's normally no surer way of being sick than drinking wine, then beer, then sambuca, then wine again. The Americans can do that seamlessly. They can throw weed into the equation, too. However, I've found they don't hold so well under trials of discipline. Take them to a social occasion where only one type of drink is available, and they usually fold earlier than their norm. Wine in particular seems to hurt them considerably, when taken on its own. (Liquors, on the other hand, they can stand even on their own, so shots are best avoided when facing an American). I suspect that one of these yahoos wouldn't fare too well at the Oktoberfest, since this is one of the purest, most pristine drinking revivals you can find. There's beer, in a million varieties, and only beer - a true ceremony for puritans (and so typical of the Germans).

So the best way to handle an American is to demand that the contest be held under controlled conditions (exactly the opposite of how to beat the Germans or Russians, you may remark). Americans usually don't know their drinks well enough to understand what type of difference this will make, so you can play to your strengths and to the weaknesses of your fellow drinker. Make sure that only beer, or only wine, be served for the duration of the night. Then take a deep breath, and keep your head under control. Try not to move about too much, as Americans are quite used to partying and dancing while drinking, so this would work in their favour. A session of drinking Scrabble, or a drinking game involving watching a TV show and taking a shot every time a certain word is said, will do just fine. Otherwise, there's the tested method of finding a topic your particular American is passionate about (the health-care system, TS Eliot, fundamentalist Christians, whatever) and tease them a little about it. They'll start yapping and they're guaranteed to stick to their chair for a good two hours.

Make no mistake about it, this is still going to be a serious challenge. The most practiced Americans have tremendous drinking stamina and they will be hard to best no matter what drink is being poured. Still, as long as you're fighting, you might as well set up the ideal conditions for yourself, and razing the drinking differences is the best way to do that.

Monday, 20 June 2011

How to Outdrink the BRAZILIANS

Metabolically speaking, Brazilians are not very tough drinkers. They can take more alcohol than the Italians or the French in most cases, but they're still quite far from the podium. This may be either the product or the cause, or both, behind the fact that their drinks are quite bad. The most popular Brazilian beer is Skoll, which is frankly crap. They do make some excellent Caipirinha, and their summer cocktails in general are awesome, but the more 'masculine' drinks are somewhat lacking in finesse. And so they're not among the greater drinkers, at least not physically.

What fucks you up about the Brazilians is that they're such unbridled party animals. The Oktoberfest is a pretty massive party in Europe, I think the biggest one we have if only because it goes on for a month with no interruptions, but the Carnival of Rio DWARVES the Oktoberfest easily. Brazilians will dance and shout and jump around so much that it's hard to keep up even if you're sober. In the hours of the night approaching morning, you're usually dead, even if you've had no more than a pint an hour. And I'm just talking about what happens in regular parties, not in Rio. I imagine Rio must kill you before midnight.

The technique adopted by the Brazilians is to wear you out with their samba and aerobics, so that your body can't keep up with what is usually a normal - even slow-going - drinking rate. The answer to this is to control yourself and not get taken into the general revelry, or at least hit some brakes when you feel your breath coming short. Even better, face them on your own grounds. Have the party at your place or at your own pubs. If they insist on playing you at some gig or festival, and the smarter ones will, ask to meet up a few hours before, just to get started, and spend those two hours drinking at a strong rate. This will hit the Brazilian much harder and give you a head-start.

Brazilian can surprise you when they're playing at home, but most of their risk factor can be neutralised at the outset if you know how to take them. They're a bit like the Tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park: they're pretty harmless if only you can stay still. So stay still.

How to Outdrink the RUSSIANS

Editorial note: click on the pics to view in full, they appear not to fit in the column!

Visiting St Petersburg before drinking vodka...

Russians have a tremendous reputation, to the point that most people don't even include them when discussing comparative merits related to drinking. It's like they're on a podium of their own, disconnected from us modest Europeans in the same way that their language is abstruse and maybe even hostile to our own.

After having spent some time in the city of St Petersburg, and even having learnt a little of their idiom, I can say that their reputation is only partly deserved. The full picture needs some elucidation. I can testify that the Russians drink spirits with a fervour and a stamina no-one in Europe, or anywhere else I know, have a hope in hell of matching. The prime lubricant is, of course, vodka. The way they down it is insane, and that's the end of it. Shot after shot after shot after shot after shot. And while they do assume a certain euphoria, little if anything else in their demeanour would reveal them to be drunk. They don't stagger, they don't slur, they don't fall down, they don't lose the thread of their conversations, they don't stop doing whatever it is they're doing. They do earn a killer breath, true, and they dance like idiots, but the latter is only because they don't know how to dance - their technique is poor of its own accord, with no need for the inebriation to explicate it.

They're very strong on other liquors as well. Cognac, brandy, rum, you name it. The heavier, the better, usually that's the rule. Sweeter spirits, of the type yours truly most enjoys, are considered to be toothpaste, if that.

What really surprised me about the Russians, and what makes them not just accessible but even relatively easy to outdrink, is that they can't take beer. Other drinks of lighter kind, like cheap champagne, are also a barrier for them. I know this sounds absurd, but I've seen it happen with my own eyes, and with multiple individuals. Hell, I even drank a few of them under the table myself. On one occasion on the Nievska, we went out three of us for a pub crawl and within the third beer they were already whoozing. I couldn't understand what the fuck was going on with them as the day before I'd seen them down a bottle of whisky between the two of them and they were waltzing down the Prospect. (This is another common practice which, when going out drinking with Russians, you must at all costs AVOID: they usually buy a bottle of heavy spirits at a supermarket on the way to wherever they're going, and they down it as they walk, so that by the time they get there, it's all finished. Try drinking with them at that point, and you'll be so drunk by the time you get to your destination that you probably won't be allowed inside, never mind start a duel).

It was only later in the night that I figured that what had messed them up had been the beer. They were so unaccustomed to it, that even a couple of litres had sent them flying. Russians are the diametric opposite of the Germans: while the latter can take obscene amounts of beer, but they faint if someone opens a bottle of limoncello in the vicinities and they perceive its scent, the Russians can imbibe enough vodka (et similia) to kill an adult mule, but they flake when having to handle beer. More than that, they don't even have the culture, the understanding or the conception of what beer is. There's one video where I'm downing a litre-pint (a rather common exercise at the Oktoberfest), and it happened to be shot in Petersburg. You've got to believe that the people around me were literally gaping, even though my pace was much of an adagio. They reacted just like I did when I first saw them downing vodka, as it were.

...and strolling through St Petersburg AFTER vodka. Yeah, that's snow

When drinking with a Russian, take care not to begin with the spirits until as late as possible. Demand that no drinking should start until it is 'officially' sanctioned, that is to say, at the pub. Then buy the first and maybe the second rounds of drinks yourself, and use the auctoritas awarded to you by your generosity to make these beer or cider. Try organising a drinking game involving several glasses of beer and the downing of them (this will increase the likelihood that everyone will stick to this beverage later on, too).

Keep to these rules, and you'll see that the egregious reputation of the Russians doesn't make for such an invincible dragon after all.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

How to Outdrink the GERMANS

Everybody knows that the Germans rule the world in terms of beer. They have the best types of it in the world BY FAR, golden nectars that have not so much a taste as a song, and a real respect for it to boot. A home-made brew will rifle itself down your throat with an ease second only to that of mineral water. Much of the Germans' success as beer producers lies in their ability to innovate (a talent less marked, I feel, in their most obvious competitors, the British) as well as a willingness to integrate new cultures and ideas into their production methods. Pilsner, for instance, was originally brewed by the Czechs. It was only in the twentieth century that the Germans reabsorbed their methods and industry, and presented them to the world, resulting in their most popular beer, and in my opinion their best. Their 'athletes' are, understandably, very well prepared.

When I first went to live in that jolly Canaan of the malt consumer, back in fall 2008, I thought that I would never reach up to their level. Germans can drink beer in a way that nobody else in the globe can, amen. Even the Americans, who are notoriously strong with this beverage, are nowhere near their raw talent. I have seen Germans drink so many beers together as to baffle a restaurant sink, and show no sign after it other than a mild reddening of the cheeks. If you're thinking of undoing a German over this beverage, you can throw the sponge now.

A little practice in the field, however, proved to me that the act of outdrinking a German is not at all as impossible as it may seem. In fact, their strength also happens to be their major weakness - and one, I may add happily, that is quite easy to exploit. Germans are mechanical locomotives when it comes to drinking beer, but they seem to collapse very quickly if you throw a couple of tequilas or vodkas inbetween the pints. So all you have to do, really, is mix their drinks a little. Shuffle your cards. Mess up the clogs in their stomachs. On the whole, once you know their secret, it's actually quite easy.

Notice who's in the lead

One sentence that I've found to be broadly true for the German people is, 'They don't do X, but when they do X, oh man...'. For instance, they don't party much by comparison with, say, the Latin countries. But when they DO party, they throw some shit to remember. No doubt the best example of this is the Oktoberfest, the world's greatest beer-festival and one of the craziest, most fucking awesome things you can find or do in Europe. And the probate sentence is true of drinking as well. The Germans, contrary to expectations, don't have much in the way of a drinking (sub)culture, but when they *do* drink, they drink like hell. And they do this by drinking beer. They specialise. Beer is their chosen discipline. Their weakness is their failure to reach outside that discipline. Despite being second to none with malt-based beverages, they have little range or resilience outside of them.

If a German challenges you, accept the challenge. Drink two or three beers with him, then throw a few shots of your preferred liquor into it. Keep bringing them at regular intervals inbetween the pints, increasing the gradation if necessary, and the sausage-eater should be down over the medium term. Prost!

Saturday, 18 June 2011

How to Outdrink the FRENCH

New series starting on my blog from today. I was pondering on what I had learnt by travelling around the world and how I could help others by that knowledge, and I thought this brief tactical manual on how to outdrink the different people of the world could come in aid of many people I know. Nay, even most of them (you know who you are).

So follow this brief guide over its panorama of the globe, and, barring the inevitable blunder, you'll soon be able to outdrink the planet!

One entry every two turnings of the sun, my good dandies. Today we're starting with my immediate neighbours, the French.


I'm going to start with the French if only because everybody seems to have an axe to grind with these guys. The English dislike them because these two people spent a hundred years killing each other (and eventually the Brits lost to an army led by an adolescent girl), the Italians dislike them due to antagonisms related to modern football, the Americans dislike them because George Bush convinced his country that the French have some kind of moral duty to send their eighteen-year-olds to get torn limb from limb in Iraq, the Russians dislike them because they still haven't got over Napoleon, and so on. Apparently even the French dislike the French, seen how a solid half of their modern art and literature, from Baudelaire and Rimbaud onwards, concerns hating their own society and the people surrounding them (the most recent I've heard is singer Damien Saez, whom I actually really enjoy, and the first chorus from the first song in his first album goes 'Another night and the French youth / goes out they'll have fun / because nothing here makes sense / and so we go dance / we act like we're happy / so we can close our eyes in peace / but nothing will be better tomorrow').

I'm starting with the French for another reason too, namely, that they're one of the lower 'difficulty levels.' As with other Mediterranean cultures, like Italy and Spain, and with no offence to anyone, these people are pussies when it comes to drinking. Drinking is more of an art than a sport to them. They know their wines backwards, like the Italians, and they really *understand* a drink when they bring it to their lips. In this sense, I mean it almost as a compliment when I say that French (and Italians) aren't good drinkers: they're just excessively sophisticated. They have too much respect for their glass to just down it.

Most French people can be steamrolled by a moderately competent or resilient drinker. In fact, if anyone aspires to learn how to drink and is willing to undergo a pilgrimage, I think the best place to start from is France. They're soft and they're friendlier than most people believe. A perfect training grounds.

Truth be told, they wouldn't even make it into this list if it weren't that to go drinking in France also involves some booby traps which have to be avoided, and which the newcomer has to be warned of. For, while the majority of the French couldn't outdrink a lizard of the desert, there *are* a few occasional individuals you'll meet in France who actually have the devil's stomach inside them, and these I shall refer to as the Elites.

A classical Elite, on the left.

Normally a population's drinking ability is distributed over a Gaussian curve, with lows at both ends and a peak at the average value (say, six pints on an empty stomach for the limit). France is tricky because these parameters do not apply. Instead, the individuals at the further extreme do not decrease exponentially in number as the pints go up. Your risk of finding one of the 'exceptions,' if your stay protracts itself, is considerable. The trick to outdrinking the French, then, is to identify your adversary before leaping head-first into battle. If the opponent displays indicators like a well-trimmed beard, stylish clothes, and a tendency to use words like 'aesthetical' in earnest, then finish him off. It will not take much of an effort. If other signs suggest to you that he may be an Elite, plan your approach with greater caution.

How do you recognise an Elite? Fortunately they are quite easy to spot. An Elite is a fat French man almost always above the age of 25, walking with bleary eyes and a constant big smile which he will flash whenever he sees you. His first gesture to greet you is a brutal pat in the back. He usually has an ill-shaved beard and reddened eyes, his room is a mess beyond reckoning, he picks his nose when alone AND in public, and his shoes look like something forgotten in a river two-hundred years ago and recovered after a war. My own first Elite went by the name of Stevo, a recluse who worked as a carpenter and lived by one of my best mates back when I was in the French Caribbean. We used to meet up for Pro Evolution Soccer sessions with beer and joints (lots and lots of joints) and on our first real session I made the mistake of underestimating him. I can't remember exactly what happened but judging by the photo in which I'm passed out on the carpet with fake moustache drawn onto my face, it seems things didn't turn out in my favour.

How do you deal with an Elite? It's not as hard as it may sound. Despite being drinkers of great stamina, Elites are normally incredibly stupid. As a consequence, they tend to break whatever rules you set up in the drinking challenge, but *to their own disadvantage*. Any smart drinker can just proceed at his/her own pace and let the Elite undo himself with his own hands. Don't hurry, let him slide into his fuck-ups without protesting, and you should make it just fine. And they won't even protest on the next day (unlike the Indians).

In conclusion, then, France is a great training ground and the French in general are an easy target to take down, but unseasoned visitors should beware of being lulled into complacency, at the risk of running into nasty surprises. Most commonly, these are represented by the Elites, but expect other contingencies to provide danger as well.

Also, have a modicum of care with French girls. They're much more able drinkers than their partners may suggest.

Sunday, 5 June 2011


I said that I was going to make this particular entry simple and I'm going to keep my word. I can write no more than a few words on this.

Classical comedy is the finest and most sophisticated type of humour. The Greeks invented it, as far as I can tell, and this for obvious reasons. Classical comedy shares an intimate link with tragedy. Much like lyric and epic poetry are the mirror of each other, so comedy and tragedy share the same structure, inverting only the order of the signifiers. You can't discover one without stumbling onto the other.

What is Classical comedy? It is an elaborate form of representation based on complex situations involving quid pro quos of various circumstance. It is also necessarily based on dialogue. A typical, simple example of a comedic situation is the 'boyfriend hero' sketch: a guy takes a girl out and sets up a fake aggression in agreement with a friend, so he can pretend to beat up the make-believe aggressor and look like a hero to the girl. But on the night when they do go out, a prison convict escapes and stumbles upon them in the street. The boyfriend, thinking this is his friend, starts acting all tough and even looks like he will kick the shit out of the convict.

The sketch can go in both directions from here - either the boyfriend beats up the convict, or the other way round. Differently from regular jokes, though, there is no punch-line here. There is not a moment of 'oh, ah,' when you actually laugh, or when you suddenly get it. It's the entire situation which is funny.

Like irony, this is a type of humour easy to recognise, but hard to pin down. I'm not going to write a full article on it now, not because it's simple, but on the contrary, because it's way too big a topic. As a concept, it is not clear enough in my mind. And if I started on this, I'd have to write about tragedy, too, and I can't do that. Besides, I intend to work on this in the future, so there's no loss if I don't lay my thoughts down yet. It's just postponed. (Incidentally, when the moment does come that I decide to write about comedy and tragedy in the same way that I wrote about the lyric and the epic, all these notes I've thrown down on why we laugh are going to prove considerably useful. This thought, needless to add, was one of the main drives I had when I was writing them in the first place).

For now, though, I'm going to leave the question of Classical comedy here. Only for now.


I've attempted to sketch out the core mechanisms of laughter as I understand them. No doubt my results are partial and rough, but I hope I haven't missed out on anything major, at least within the framework that I've projected. Suggestions on questions I've left open, or jokes which cannot be explained according to the principles I described, are all very welcome.

But one thing we must always remember, when thinking about comedy, is that humour is almost always compound humour. It is extremely rare to get a pure Absurd joke, for instance. And while you can get a pure Fail in the Fail compilations on Youtube, and some pure Taboo quips in the type of sex jokes which go around in primary school, even these things are rare. Fail and Taboo are themselves usually integrated into broader sketches which make use of other principles as well. Here's an example:

Your mama's so fat that when I was fucking her, I fell off the bed, rolled three times, and I was still on top of her.

This is a very simple joke. It belongs to the genre of 'You're so X' insults, which is itself elementary in its construction ('You're so ugly that when you throw a boomerang, it won't even come back to you,' 'You're so white that when you pass through a prism, more prisms come out', etc.). But notice how many levels this one joke works on. Let's list them.

a.) It's Fail humour, because it's an insult. An insult excludes an individual from our group, while reinforcing our own bonding (and of course, the joke isn't funny if it's being addressed to you or to someone you care for).

b.) It's Absurd, because how could someone be so fat as to cover bed and floor? Note that what distinguishes this from mere hyperbole is that the language *breaks our expectations*. Saying 'your mama's so fat that she's as big as the whole world' isn't funny, because it's a predictable use of language. Anyone can make an hyperbole of this type. The prior joke, instead, projects a grammar scenario which leads to an outcome we did not expect. It is broken expectations that define the Absurd, even in language.

c.) It's taboo. I mean, obviously. There's fucking involved.

Just about the only type of humour this 'simple' joke doesn't activate is irony. But this is only because irony is already a compound, since it needs a Fail and an Absurd to be activated. For the rest, we've got it all.

And on that anti-climactic note, I'm closing my thoughts on the funnies. Whew! I need a drink!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011


A recollection, to begin with. A couple of years ago I was working in Disneyland Paris and on one particular work-day - I forget the circumstance - I asked myself what exactly was irony. I usually reach a definition quickly when I pose myself these questions, but this time I found the word to be recalcitrant, and the more I thought about it, the less clearly could I see the concept taking shape. The funny thing was that for all my difficulties of definition, I felt like I 'knew' what irony was. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but some part of my brain understood it perfectly, without assigning any words to it.

Taking it as an opportunity to start some conversations (something useful when you're practically surrounded by top-models), I asked around my British colleagues. It was amusing to witness that everyone seemed to be in my same situation: they seemed to 'know' what irony was quite well, in the sense that they could recognize an ironic event with ne'er the batting of an eyelid, but they had no idea how to give a concise definition of it. If you think it's easy, try for yourself. Close this article for the moment, think up a definition of irony, and post it in the comments section below. I'm genuinely very interested in reading what anyone comes up with.

As for the dictionary, its authors seem to think that irony is another word for sarcasm: the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning: the irony of her reply, “How nice!” when I said I had to work all weekend. Yyyeeaahhh, except that there's nothing *ironic* about the someone telling you 'How nice', there's only something *sarcastic*. The same dictionary then goes on to add that irony differs from sarcasm in greater subtlety and wit. This is simply not true. Irony is not a milder version of sarcasm. It's when you're sweltering in your garden because you don't have a tree for shade, and you don't have shade because you cut down your tree in the winter to be warm. Sarcasm, in paragon, is simply a case when you're sweltering in your garden under the sun and you say 'How chilly.' (For those who want the full dictionary definition, you can find it here. It's worth reading the whole thing).

At all events, the fact that everyone seemed to know 'instinctively' what irony was, meant that examples came aplenty. Perhaps the most synthetic and useful case-study was this:

Irony: having one-hundred forks, and needing a spoon.

Given my inability to come up with a rapid explanation, I decided to work on the example instead, breaking it down and trying to find how it produced this mysterious effect we call irony, recognizably distinct from other forms of humour, yet so much more difficult to pin down.

Two years later, at the moment of retrieving and expounding my conclusions, I remain surprised at just how complicated and sophisticated a concept this is. So complicated, in fact, that there's no way of just cutting straight into the matter of things. It will require some back-tracking.

Let's start with a very common type of linguistic humour, the confusion of two different (even opposed) meanings for the same word under a given circumstance. You say something, and it means something else (like the time I read of my university's 'mandarin society' having a reunion and I went there thinking I'd find fruit... never mind). The most simple example is given by a certain type of puns. Puns are jokes based on employing two different words (or groups of words) which are pronounced in the same way, like deer/dear, whine/wine, or 'no pun in ten did' / 'no pun intended.' You can't really write down a pun, because the spelling gives away the intended meaning and therefore the joke - the humour, after all, lies in the confusion of the two meanings. Here's a quick case-study:

A man walks into a bar with a giraffe, and they both get drunk. The giraffe falls to the floor, unconscious, and the man heads for the exit. The barman says, 'What, are you just going to leave that lying there?' And the man replies, 'it's not a lion, it's a giraffe.'

When spoken out loud, the humour lies in the failure of communication inherent in the words lying/lion – it was supposed to mean one thing, but it ended up meaning another. Though this specific example contains an Absurd element in the idea of a man walking into a bar with a giraffe, the mechanism is essentially Fail humour. We laugh at the failure of communication, especially when the joke includes characters who embody that failure. The laughter is gregarious, because it depends on our shared understanding of the real meaning of the words. 'He,' the character in the joke, doesn't understand it, and 'we' do. Even if there is no 'he,' and there's only the linguistic confusion, the principle still holds: the effect of understanding the joke, of 'getting it,' of being 'in on it,' results in our approbation as part of a group - a fact which we signal with laughter. (An example of a character-less joke would be the immortal classic: 'What do you call a deer with no eyes? No idea / No-eye deer'. Still funny, and still for the same principle).

Now suppose that I were to label the meanings of the two words by means of letters. The meaning of 'lying' is A, and the meaning of 'lion' is B. The mechanism of the pun, then, is that of producing a sentence (or a whole situation) which builds towards meaning A, and then closing it with a word that carries the meaning B. This results in an incongruence, which we can express as A ≠ B.

This formula is Fail algebra reduced to the bone. A does NOT equal B, i.e., it *fails* to equal B. The guy *should* understand 'lying,' but he understands 'lion.'

Here it is... a giraffe.

Let's turn to irony now. It is a type of compound humour, which is why I've kept it for last, and it always includes both a Fail and an Absurd element. The Absurd aspect is rather subtle and we shall come to it later, while the Fail can be analysed readily. In our example of the 'hundred forks and a spoon,' the 'failure,' the problem, the 'bad' thing, is needing a spoon and not having it. This in itself is a Fail, and therefore potentially funny, as long as it's happening to someone else. Having the one-hundred forks only highlights the incapacity of the subject to fulfill his desire and thus makes it funnier. This is given by the identity that subsists between forks and spoons: both are metal tools for eating, but they differ in the specific types of food. Without this identity, there is no irony. It would not be ironic if I said, for instance, that a guy has a hundred cars and he needs a spoon, though we're still talking about the same exact Fail.

Now if we express this by letters, as we did with puns, we notice a similar but more complex process at work. An object carries implications A and B, and another carries B and C (the 'implications' that I am talking about are usually semantic in nature, but I don't think this has to be a rule, and I really don't want to haggle over such details). Both objects share implication B, but they differ in that one carries A and the other C. Graphically, I shall refer to this as FIGURE ONE:

FORKS:.....A --....-- B --...........
SPOONS:............-- B --....-- C --

If we assume the meaning of B as 'tool for eating,' we see the commonality between forks and spoons which allows for irony: they both share that meaning. If we express A as 'eating steak' and C as 'eating soup,' we find the points of divergence. The presence of A elucidates the meaning of C - it is easier to perceive what the Fail of 'needing a spoon' is, when you have the dialectical opposite of the spoon's function in the same sentence. Greater clarity and emphasis then falls on the Fail. It's as though the first letter is the power of the last.

Now, the fail in itself can be represented like this:

B ≠ C

We see that the 'needing a spoon' situation makes for a self-sufficient fail. As stated, the forks are connected to the spoon by sharing the meaning B, and by bringing A into the equation, they further show / enlarge the chasm between B and C. I say this because B, as we can see in Figure One, is perceived as a sort of halfway line, a 'bridge,' between A and C. It follows that the greater the distance between A and C, the greater the perceived distance between B and C, because B is simply the midway point between the two.

So the more A and C are disconnected, the more the distance between A, B and C appears great. And since the measure of the Fail depends on the degree of disconnection between B and C (having a 'tool for eating', and then failing to 'eat soup'), it follows that the more imaginative and unexpected the relation between A and C, the greater the Fail - and therefore, *the greater the irony.* This is, by the way, where the Absurd element comes into the irony compound. The distance between A and C is established by breaking our expectations, bringing together two things we did not expect to have an obvious connection, and anything that breaks our expectations to produce comedy necessarily belongs to the Absurd category we discussed in earlier posts.

Irony is able to take a very simple Fail and make it much more powerful. The Fail multiplies its effects by itself in proportion to how distant and creative the meaning A will be in relation to C. At the formulaic level, irony can then be expressed like this:

(B ≠ C)A

[And a big fuck you to blogspot for not retaining superscript text from Word... the A is meant to be small and high-up, like a power]. Not that any of this is actual mathematics, obviously - there isn't a quantitative relation between A and C! It's just my favourite way of representing it.

Irony 'activates' humour in the same way that puns do. Puns present a sentence where a word is supposed to mean one thing, but it signifies another. In the ironic case of forks and spoons, both carry implication B of 'eating,' but they differ in the specific function (A and C, 'eating steaks' and 'eating soup'). So starting to speak of forks is meant to signify 'eating' (B), but in reality this signification is made impossible when you mention that you need spoons. The failure of communication between forks and spoons, connected by the concept B just like 'lying' and 'lion' are connected by having identical sound, results in the powering of the inherent Fail and therefore the humour. Irony is a mode of comedy structurally similar to simple linguistic jokes, except that the signs it employs are not words, but real objects and events. Forks and spoons are not two different meanings of the same phoneme, they are two different objects orbiting around one same idea. As a result, it can do more than just producing a Fail of communication; it takes a real-world Fail and brings it to the nth power by couching it in the mechanisms of a communication Fail. It multiplies a real Fail by a communication Fail, if you see what I mean.

To test it, try switching the signifiers: a great warrior who asks one-hundred swords to be forged so he can defend himself from the enemy and then dies of starvation because there's no more iron for the forging of a spoon dies an ironic death (this is known as poetic irony, to be precise, because of the moral lessons inherent in its little parable).* And so it is similarly ironic, in this context, if one has one-hundred battle-swords and needs a spoon. 'Sword' and 'spoon' both share meaning B of 'iron tools,' but they are distinct in their purposes A and C, 'warmongering' and 'eating.' Admittedly the commonality in B is weaker, which means that the irony of the whole thing is not as immediate as that in the forks/spoons example. Notwithstanding that, the same formula / principle holds with different objects, as long as they retain a commonality of meaning at the level of B, and an incongruence at the levels A and C.

Fuck me. This was one difficult article to write. Next for the final entry - a brief consideration on the ultimate comedic principle, and some closing thoughts. Believe it or not, it's going to be something very simple.

* The irony is not lost on me that I am discussing the word 'irony' in the context of a story about iron. The irony, of course, lies not in the pun iron/irony, as much as in the fact that it occurred precisely while I was trying to discuss irony. This resulted simultaneously in an identity and an incongruence between the language employed and the object being discussed. The crossover, if it really needs spelling out, occurs as follows. The fact that I'm trying to 'master' irony (by explaining it) and instead end up unwittingly its victim makes for Fail 1. The linguistic Fail of 'irony' being supposed to mean 'a form of humour' and instead standing for 'belonging to iron' is Fail 2, and it is what takes Fail 1 and multiplies it by itself. This double combo of Fails is what makes me *perform* irony, rather than just talking about it. The two Fails contain each other, and they multiply each other's respective values.