Category Archives: humour

Ebert’s Glossary of Movie Terms

If there’s one person I can think of who is qualified to produce a movie glossary, it has to be Roger Ebert. And you know what? He did, it was published, and I had no idea until just now.

Inspiring frequent light giggles and the occasional guffaw, Ebert’s glossary appears to have originated as an article/chapter in Roger Ebert’s Video Companion (that link leads to a probably-not-kosher mirror of the full section). An expanded version was later published as the standalone volume Ebert’s ‘Bigger’ Little Movie Glossary, with the wondrously descriptive subtitle of “a greatly expanded and much improved compendium of movie clichés, stereotypes, obligatory scenes, hackneyed formulas, shopworn conventions, and outdated archetypes” (and that link goes to the fairly extensive Google Books preview… for those of you who don’t want to buy it for the Kindle).

Five random terms that made me chuckle:

  • Dirt Equals Virtue: In technology movies, a small, dingy, cluttered little lab and eccentric personnel equal high principles; large, well-lighted facilities mask sinister motives.
  • First Law of Funny Names: No names are funny unless used by W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx. Funny names, in general, are a sign of desperation at the screenplay level. See “Dr. Hfuhruhurr” in The Man with Two Brains.
  • Obligatory M & M Shot: Every movie that features a scene in an Arab or Islamic country will begin the scene with a shot of a mosque tower (minaret), or the sound of the muezzin, or both.
  • Principle of Selective Lethality: The lethality of a weapon varies, depending on the situation. A single arrow will drop a stampeding bison in its tracks, but it takes five or six to kill an important character. A single bullet will always kill an extra on the spot, but it takes dozens to bring down the hero.
  • Unmotivated Close-up: A character is given a close-up in a scene where there seems to be no reason for it. This is an infallible tip-off that this character is more significant than at first appears, and is most likely the killer. See the lingering close-up of the undercover KGB agent near the beginning of The Hunt for Red October.

Labelling Homeopathic Products

Earlier this year the UK’s MHRA opened a consultation to help them decide how homeopathic products should be labelled when sold to the public. As expected, Ben Goldacre — devoted critic of homeopathy, pseudoscience and general quackery — suggested a label of his own and asked his readers for further suggestions.

Some of the suggestions were truly fantastic (and proved that I couldn’t come up with an original joke, no matter how hard I tried), and so Goldacre published some of the best suggestions for homeopathic labelling in his column for The Guardian:

On instructions, we have “take as many as you like”, since there are no ingredients. The proposed belladonna homeopathy pill ingredients label simply reads “no belladonna”, which is a convention the MHRA could adapt for all its different homeopathy labels. Other suggestions include “none”, “belief”, “false hopes”, “shattered dreams”, and “the tears of unicorns”.

For warnings, we have: “not to be taken seriously”, “in case of overdose, consult a lifeguard”, and “contains chemicals, including dihydrogen monoxide“. This, of course, is a scary name for water, which became an internet meme after Nathan Zohner’s school science project: he successfully gathered a petition to ban this chemical on the grounds that it is fatal when inhaled, contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape, may cause electrical failures, and has been found in the excised tumours of terminal cancer patients.

The comments on both articles are real gems for those in need of a laugh today.

via @IrregularShed

Congruent Conflations in a Thumbnail

I’ve been going ape-wild for congruent conflations lately and for good reason: they’re the most fun I’ve had with wordplay for a long time and I find they ring off the tongue nicely. Hopefully you’ll cut me a bone if I indulge a little more, as with just a couple more examples you will no-doubt be able to put the dots together.

Oh, OK, I won’t skirt around the bush any longer; it’s time to let the bean out of the bag with the help of’s introduction to congruent and incongruent conflations (and the accompanying lists thereof):

Simply put, a conflation is an amalgamation of two different expressions. In most cases, the combination results in a new expression that makes little sense literally, but clearly expresses an idea because it references well-known idioms. All conflations fit into one of two major categories: Congruent Conflations & Incongruent Conflations. Congruent Conflations are the more ideal (and more sought-after) examples of the concept. These occur when the two root expressions basically reflect the same thought. For example, “Look who’s calling the kettle black” can be formed using the root expressions “Look who’s talking” & “The pot is calling the kettle black.” These root expressions really mean the same thing—they are both a friendly way to point out hypocritical behaviour. Of course, without reference to a pot (which is just as black as a kettle), “Look who’s calling the kettle black” does not directly imply anything. Yet the implication is almost automatically understood because the conflation clearly refers to two known idioms.

Incongruent Conflation occurs when the root expressions do not mean the same thing, but share a common word or theme.

Congruent example: “Know-it-pants” from the root expressions “Know-it-all” and “Smarty-pants“.

Incongruent example: “A wild herring” from the root expressions “A wild goose chase” and “A red herring“.

via @siibo

Comedic Writing Tips… Again

The use of inherently funny topics and words, at least one person, a little exaggeration and a touch of curiosity and danger: these are just some of the essential ingredients for successful humourous writing, says Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert.

In an essay very similar to a post he wrote almost four years ago (previously), Adams tells us an amusing story about sex and French fries before dissecting it and explaining how to “write like a cartoonist” (i.e. with humour):

The topic is the thing. Eighty percent of successful humor writing is picking a topic that is funny by its very nature. My story above is true, up until the exaggeration about the French fry in the sinus cavity. You probably assumed it was true, and that knowledge made it funnier.

Humor likes danger. If you are cautious by nature, writing humor probably isn’t for you. Humor works best when you sense that the writer is putting himself in jeopardy. I picked the French-fry story specifically because it is too risqué for The Wall Street Journal. You can’t read it without wondering if I had an awkward conversation with my editor. […]

Humor is about people. It’s impossible to write humor about a concept or an object. All humor involves how people think and act. Sometimes you can finesse that limitation by having your characters think and act in selfish, stupid or potentially harmful ways around the concept or object that you want your reader to focus on.

Exaggerate wisely. If you anchor your story in the familiar, your readers will follow you on a humorous exaggeration, especially if you build up to it. […]

Let the reader do some work. Humor works best when the reader has to connect some dots. […] The smarter your audience, the wider you can spread the dots. […]

Animals are funny. It’s a cheap trick, but animal analogies are generally funny. It was funnier that I said, “my cheeks went all chipmunk-like” than if I had said my cheeks puffed out.

Use funny words. I referred to my two schoolmates and myself as a troika because the word itself is funny. With humor, you never say “pull” when you can say “yank.” Some words are simply funnier than others, and you know the funny ones when you see them. (Pop Quiz: Which word is funnier, observe or stalk?)

Curiosity. Good writing makes you curious without being too heavy-handed about it. My first sentence in this piece, about the French fry lodged in my sinus cavity, is designed to make you curious. It also sets the tone right away.

Endings. A simple and classic way to end humorous writing is with a call-back. That means making a clever association to something especially humorous and notable from the body of your work. I would give you an example of that now, but I’m still having concentration issues from the French fry.

via @brainpicker

Random Promotions Beat the Peter Principle

The Peter Principle states that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence” (discussed previously). This principle is typically observed when promotions are rewarded based on an employee’s ability in their current position and provided there is sufficient difference between the two positions.

In such circumstances, is there a simple way to ‘beat’ the Peter Principle? According to the research that won the 2010 Ig Nobel Prize for Management, yes: promote at random to prevent the principle from coming true (pdf, also: arXiv, doi).

We obtained the counterintuitive result that the best strategies for improving, or at least for not diminishing,the efficiency of an organization […] are those of promoting an agent at random or of randomly alternating the promotion of the best and the worst members.

The authors of the study have created a simulation so that you can see the random promotion strategy in action, and it’s worth remembering that this counterintuitive and (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek approach is just one of the possible solutions to the problem described by the Peter Principle.

Reading up on this, I also came across the rather elegant Generalised Peter Principle, originating from observations regarding hardware at nuclear power plants:

Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails. […] There is much temptation to use what has worked before, even when it may exceed its effective scope.