Humor and the Hippopotamus

          I saw the ’potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas. 

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

— T.S. Eliot

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It is well known by the wise that the hippopotamus is the funniest animal alive. He is the Falstaff, the John Candy, and the Richard Griffiths of the animal kingdom. But of course, as with all moments of inspired wisdom, we must not allow the insight to pass our contemplation unexamined. We must ask ourselves the all-important question: why is the hippopotamus funny?

The answer?

Because he is fat.

Yes, the hippopotamus is fat. And while malnourishment is a misfortune, obesity is an amusing accident. If one day you were to wake up, and discover yourself to have inadvertently become a fat man balanced delicately atop a house of cards, you would have discovered the living essence of humor. Let us, for the moment, call it “The Hippopotamus Postulate,” and return to it at our leisure.

In these trying latter days, there is a degradation of our humor. I do not say that there is none of it to be found—merely that the majority of it is unworthy of the name. Today, stand-up “comedians” are paid exorbitant sums in exchange for the arduous task of employing an expensive hairstylist alongside their innate capacity for horrid rudeness. Television skits—once the province of great masters of wit, whimsy, and the truly ridiculous—have now passed into the frantic crudeness of nihilism. This is, needless to say, an ultimately inappropriate approach to laughter, and therefore an inappropriate approach to life.

Humor is man’s attempt to reconcile the chaotic and absurd in the universe. Experience teaches us that whatever is incongruous must either pain us or amuse us. After all, when we see that we inhabit a world where a man may just as easily be fated to build a skyscraper as jump from one, this demands an immediate emotional response. The ancient Greeks responded to this imbalance with the two theatrical genres of Tragedy and Comedy, which ballasted their ship of state a damn sight longer than Netflix and BuzzFeed will balance ours. Both tragedy and comedy hinge upon disorder, but where humor trivializes this disorder and renders it palatable to our fragile thoughts, tragedy magnifies it and connects it—by eliciting fear and pity—to the collective misery of the human race. Humor, by contrast, relates the material of what might be a great tragedy to the merest pratfall, precipitated by a discarded banana peel. When Oedipus is exiled, we are invited to weep with him. When Tartuffe is hurled out on his ear, or Pistol flagellated by a leek, we can only laugh at him.

Most humor of the garden variety does not depend upon full-blown chaos for its material, but upon the merely unhinged, or the faintly grotesque. Absurdism, bordering on the violent and tasteless, worked its way into popular comedy during the recently deceased twentieth century (though it was nascent in the nineteenth), and I would not be surprised if there were not some entropic zeitgeist shared by the young T.S. Eliot’s Bolovian doggerel and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Yet this is not quite humor, for while the skits of Monty Python are often humorous in the extreme, they are not, taken as a whole, a good example of Humor. Their naughtiness, or their shocking absurdity, is humorous to some extent.  But it is not what we might call real humor.

Humor is a comfortable, more sensible mean between the riot of Fawlty Towers and the mild impotent bumbling of any Don Knotts film you care to mention. Humor has a good-naturedness about it which is lacking in the mordant wit of the satirist, yet it is grotesque enough to mock that which it takes as its object. It also possesses a sense of what Chesterton called “the contrast between man’s spiritual immensity within and his littleness and restriction without.” I am reminded of the story of Bobby Leach, a Barnum and Bailey Circus stuntman, who, having survived a jaunt over Niagara Falls in a metal barrel, was led by a concatenation of circumstances to slip upon an orange peel in New Zealand, and was thus brought by gravity to his eternal reward.

Upon a little thought, we realize that part of the essence of humor is irony. Were the Iliad to be given a handful of tweaks, I have no doubt that it could be classified as a comedy, for the same irony present in Henry IV is present in Patroklos’s hamartia, as well as Achilles’s brooding sulkiness. In fact, this is precisely what happened in the Batrachomyomachia, another ancient Greek epic (generally believed to have been authored by Homer) in which the author recasts the Trojan War as a battle between an army of mice on the one hand and an army of frogs on the other. Amphibians and rodents both have chariots and lances, gut wounds, duels, and deaths. To quote an example from the Chapman translation:

Amongst the mice fought an egregious
Young spring-all and close-encount’ring mouse.
Pure Artepibulus’s dear descent;
A prince that Mars himself show’d where he went.
(Call’d Meridarpax) of so huge a might
That only he still domineer’d in fight
Of all the Mouse-host. He advancing close
Up to the lake, past all the rest arose
In glorious object, and made vaunt that he
Came to depopulate all the progeny
Of frogs affected with the lance of war.

Of course, “Artepibulus” (Ἀρτοφάγος) and  “Meridarpax” (Μεριδάρπαξ) translate as “bread-eater” and  “bit-stealer”—or, as Chapman would have it, “bread betrayer” and “scrap-meat eater.” The whole affair is one long shaggy-dog story, written in a culture where honor and violence went hand in hand with the rule of demigod chieftains and their numerous progeny. But the story is more than an amusing reversal of epic heroism. It pokes fun at a poem where warriors have the strength of ten men, and where the Olympian gods take interest in the petty squabbles of doomed mortals. In a tale which portrays the Greeks and Trojans as verminous rodents and reptiles, the tone is far from the inane childishness of Disney or Peppa Pig. It satirizes the hubris of Greek culture, and at the same time it manages to preserve the reader’s sympathy for the combatants.

But let us return to the Hippopotamus Postulate. If nothing else, all this goes to show that humor, as Chesterton said, concerns “the virtue of proportion.” In typical paradoxical fashion, however, the sense of what ought to be the proportional relation of two things is achieved by the presentation of the disproportionate in its place (as in a hippopotamus playing a harp). Perhaps humor exists because we are rational souls who are occasionally shocked by the manifest irrationality of our material and surroundings. It exists because we have fallen from a state of grace. Laughter in itself seems to be an admission of the two-facedness of life—of being at once “little lower than the angels” and, as Socrates satirically put it, “a featherless biped.” Perhaps this is why John Chrysostom taught that Christ never laughed.

But, even as I write, I begin to get a sinking feeling. How is it that I can speak of humor without speaking of its uncontested master? A single quotation suffices to identify him:

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself: ‘do trousers matter?’ ”

“The mood will pass, sir.”

I speak, of course, of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a.k.a., P.G. Wodehouse. Here, we see the Hippopotamus Postulate in full swing. I have done the relevant research, and the results are nothing if not conclusive. Incidentally, Wodehouse was also fond of writing verse, the best of which, in my opinion, is “Printer’s Error”:

… I tracked the bounder to his den
Through private information:
I said, ‘Good afternoon’, and then
Explained the situation:
‘I’m not a fussy man,’ I said.
‘I smile when you put “rid” for “red”
And “bad” for “bed” and “hoad” for “head”
And “bolge” instead of “bough.”
When “wone” appears in lieu of “wine”
Or if you alter “Cohn” to “Schine,”
I never make a row.
I know how easy errors are.
But this time you have gone too far
By printing “not” when you knew what
I really wrote was “now.”
Prepare,’ I said, ‘to meet your God
Or, as you’d say, your Goo or Bod,
Or possibly your Gow.’

Here is humor, tinged pleasantly with the absurd, but not utterly oppressed by it. The situation itself is funny, but even funnier is the mispronunciation involved. To speak on humor is usually to render something un-funny, and so it is best if we leave the quotation alone. But let us note that the presence of an immense occasion is immediately deflated by a reminder of human error, and, simultaneously, something trivial, silly, and nonsensical has become the occasion for murder. As Bertie Wooster moodily hints at the vanity of trousers, we realize that the very question itself is ridiculously disproportionate to life itself. This is the manifest essence of the Hippopotamus Postulate. If I avoid a precise definition, it is because others have provided better ones. But I encourage the reader to perform his own experiments. Appropriate materials for observation include the clerihews of Chesterton and Auden, the novels of Wodehouse and Jerome, and the mustache of Nietzsche.


  • Michael Yost

    Michael Yost has a wide variety of interests, most of which may be pursued either in the garden or in his library. He’s a recent convert from Anglicanism and a member of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter. When hounded, he goes to earth in the depths of rural New Hampshire, where he and his wife are raising their infant son.

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