From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Surreal humour is a form of humour, stylistically related to the artistic ambitions of the surrealists, based on bizarre juxtapositions, absurd situations, and nonsense logic. A common element of surreal humour is the non-sequitur, in which one statement is followed by another with no logical progression.
History of surreal humour
Humour which we might now consider surreal has been around at least since the nineteenth century. Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass both use illogic and absurdity for humorous effect. Many of Edward Lear's nonsense stories and poems are also basically surreal in approach. Thus, Lear's The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World is filled with contradictory statements and odd images intended to provoke amusement, such as the following:
- "After a time they saw some land at a distance; and when they came to it, they found it was an island made of water quite surrounded by earth. Besides that, it was bordered by evanescent isthmuses with a great Gulf-stream running about all over it, so that it was perfectly beautiful, and contained only a single tree, 503 feet high."
Despite such precursors, the name "surreal" first began to be used to describe a type of aesthetic in the early 20th century. At that time, several avant-garde movements calling themselves, variously, Dadaists, surrealists, and futurists began to argue for an art that was random, jarring, and illogical. The goals of these movements were in some sense serious, yet they were also committed to undermining the solemnity and self-satisfaction of the artistic establishment of their day. As a result, much of their art was -- intentionally -- quite funny. For example, in 1917 Marcel Duchamp placed an upside-down, signed urinal in an art exhibit. Duchamp's urinal is now one of the most famous and influential pieces of art in history — it is also, however, a joke, relying on an unexpected juxtaposition. Interestingly, the influence of this piece of "found" art led to noisy demonstrations in Paris during 2006 where protestors milled around an outdoor pissoir to express their disgust about "works of art" being used to collect urine.
In addition to the avant-garde art movements, early surrealist comedy is found in the satirical and comedic elements of works of modern authors, who like Lear and Carroll, wrote stories which dispensed with the normal rules of logic, be it the dark comedy of Kafka, the stream of consciousness-style writings of James Joyce (and later stream-of-consciousness authors like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson), or the whimsical poetry of Dylan Thomas and e. e. cummings. Surrealist humour is also found frequently in avant-garde theatre such as the droll Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Humour in the avant-garde arts continues to this day. Artists like Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino and many others have relied on this technique in their work.
Surrealist humour has played an important role in popular culture, especially since the radio show, The Goon Show. In the 1960s, surrealist humour was combined with counter-culture in movements such as the Youth International Party, Situationism, and Discordianism, as well as in the work of psychedelic musicians such as The Beatles, Frank Zappa, The Residents, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Pink Floyd, and Captain Beefheart.
Another significant influence of surrealist humour on popular culture is Monty Python, most notably in their Goon Show-influenced TV series, Monty Python's Flying Circus, which featured a more lucid and intricate style of show structure and many more absurdities and non-sequiturs than the later show, Saturday Night Live. Since the influence of Monty Python, shows including humour of a primarily surrealistic nature include The Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show, The Ren & Stimpy Show, the comedy programming of Adult Swim (especially Williams Street shows such as Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Harvey Birdman and 12 oz. Mouse), Spaced, Late Night, Green Wing, and the comedies of Reeves and Mortimer. In anime, FLCL is another example. Other good examples of more recent surrealist humour can be found in the radio and book series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Terry Pratchett's Discworld book series, numerous graphic novels such as Flaming Carrot, and films by such directors as Alejandro Jodorowsky, Fernando Arrabal, Federico Fellini, David Lynch, and Peter Greenaway. Numerous websites also involve surreal humor, including Something Awful, White Ninja, Buttercup Festival, Men In Hats, Homestar Runner and LickMyJesus.com . The hit television shows South Park, Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, Family Guy, Futurama, and The Mighty Boosh all use surrealism as a major part of their appeal.