LING 490/590 Presentation Hand-out

to explain the data in the last post:

Ruth E. Cisneros | LING 590 | Formulaic Language

Formulaic Language & Humor:

An overview of idiomatic language usage in comedy

I. Introduction

The initial focus of this paper was to explore the intersection between formulaic language and humor by exposing the former in the latter. However, with both humor and formulaic language having broad definitions, the overlap is large and open to a lot of discussion.


  • Lack of availability in transcriptions.

Another avenue of analysis became obvious. It didn’t take long to find examples of formulaic language being exploited to humorous ends in three different skits on Saturday Night Live. Following is an analysis of these three contexts. I hope to pick out some of the nuances of formulaic language as we’ve learned about it this semester via this look at the data.

II. Interesting side note

When thinking about formulaic language & discussing it with others, three or four very prototypical phrases were suggested as formulaic language to look for:

  1. “Is this thing on?”: 332,000 Google hits, most titles to blogs or podcasts
  2. “Don’t forget to tip your waitress”: 942 hits
  3. “I’ll be here all week”: 64,900 hits
  4. “Try the veal”: 50,100 hits

These were overall infrequent collocations and constructions on Google, appearing only as self-aware usage to indicate the specificity of the comedy genre. Overall, however, they do not occur within the genre all that often. None of them appeared in the stand up comedy routines I listened to for this project.

I noticed the same thing with many of the examples used in class. While “kick the bucket” may not be in heavy rotation in spoken language, it is a particularly expressive construction, making it a good example; a representative for the myriad other expressions that fall under the term constructions.

III. Data

Collected from two different episodes of Saturday Night Live, these skits employ and exploit formulaic language in different ways. Their value lay in different aspects of constructions, how they’re used, and the level of awareness we have of them. It is this understanding that allows us to “get it” as a joke.

  1. Travel Writer Judy Grimes: uses “just kidding” between different jokes, original content between each use.

1. Just kidding:

a. speech act indicating the transition between a joke and normative discourse.

b. fulfills pragmatic role – announces change of register

c. fulfills grammatical role – complex construction used as one unit in utterance.

2. Google raw count for “just kidding:” 11,500,000

3. Intuitively & anecdotally labeled formulaic language.

a. allows for the change in topic

b. used as a self-aware mechanism to keep the joke going.

  1. Political Humorist Nick Fehn: uses many different constructions, collocations, and idioms without original content between them. Following are some of the chunks he uses.

1. it’s the reason: 63,400 Google hits

2. I wake up: 1,010,000 hits

3. most Americans: 5,710,000 hits

4. the very idea: 2,050,000 hits

5. any publication: 612,000 hits

  1. Death by Chocolate: acted out literally, casts the chocolate bar in a different light. The lack of language is as powerful a medium when using a structure as familiar as “death by chocolate.” Its metaphorical underpinnings are explored by juxtaposing our understanding of the saying against the literal meaning being played out.

1. Raw Google hits: 295,000 hits

IV. Discussion

The value of this data lies in its commonplace nature. The constructions used as the premise of the jokes are easily recognizable. In all three cases the premise is humorous based on the fact that the dialog is completely overtaken by the prefab pieces, all of which are used daily by speakers in non-humorous contexts.

  • In the first skit, Judy Grimes perpetuates a long, self-deprecating joke by repeatedly attaching the construction “just kidding” to everything she says. The relationship between idiomatic language and creative content (original utterances) is obvious in the way she relates occurrences to “just kidding.”
  • In the second skit, Nick Fehn uses a variety of prefab chunks commonly used as introductions or sentence-starters. The joke lies in he not moving past the introduction and instead putting forth another generic chunk.
  • The third skit was a performance of a collocation being interpreted literally, which creates incongruity in understanding. In this case, the construction is metaphorical in nature, and well-known enough to stand in contrast to a life-size chocolate bar committing murder.

Overall, the role of formulaic language is highly useful, widely used, and a category of language with enough recognizable characteristics that we know how to manipulate them in both normative discourse as well as for humorous purposes.

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This entry was written by transmitter , posted on Wednesday April 30 2008at 12:04 pm , filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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