Tag Archives: humor

Don’t panic

Language has a way of enticing even the smartest of speakers to succumb to sloppiness, prompting misuses to spin out of control. Inspired by one too many examples, I offer today’s friendly reminder.

A rule of thumb:

Hilarious – good.
Hysterical – bad.

Perhaps that’s oversimplifying things a bit, but it serves as a helpful reminder that each word has its own distinctive meaning.

With common misuse, the distinction has grown more subtle.

“Hysterical” and “hilarious” are not interchangeable. Yes, online dictionaries have added one as a synonym of the other in recent times, but I’m not buying it.

As a matter of instruction, “hysterical” means to be in emotional shock. Some of its most common synonyms include: irrational, panic-stricken, jumpy, nervous and anxious.

People often describe movies or books or television shows or comedians as hysterical; therein lies the danger.

I suppose it could be accurate to describe a movie as hysterical. That is, if hysteria is a predominant theme. Theoretically, Titanic could be called hysterical, but it certainly is not hilarious.

One might call a comedian hysterical. He might be funny, hilarious, in fact, but is he shrieking uncontrollably? Ben Stein, for example, can be hilarious, but he is never hysterical.

When something is extremely funny, it is hilarious. Full of hilarity. When a person is extremely funny, she is hilarious. If she is having a hissy fit, she is hysterical. Remember, hissy derives from hysteria.

I could say that I found something so hilarious that I became hysterical. But it is I who was hysterical, not the thing that I found hilarious.

There’s the lesson for today. Your homework: Keep an ear out for one week and report back on how often you hear hysterical misused. Extra credit: Correct the offenders and hope they take it in good spirit and don’t become hysterical.


Filed under All Things Wordish

Card shark

What’s your shopping obsession?

After shoes and accessories, I’d have to say my greatest shopping pleasure is picking out greeting cards. I’ve spent upwards of $60 at a whack at places where they offer good cards. I buy hundreds every year.

What are good cards? I lean toward humor, so I go for the cards that have me laughing out loud right there at the rack. I’ve been a spectacle at the airport news stand, where they often carry my favorite line of cards, Avanti.

I think the reason so many people no longer send greeting cards is that they’re under the impression it takes a separate trip to the card store for each acknowledgement.

In fact, like the airport gift shops, the best cards can be found at places where we already are. I often buy cards at FedEx Kinko’s, where I browse the racks while waiting for a print job. If you like cards and live near where I do, Bertram’s Inkwell at White Flint Mall and Knowles Apothecary in Kensington will hook you up.

When I’m traveling and have a little time, I seek out the local card shops. I found Boulder, Colorado, to be a greeting card Mecca, and Gidget’s Gadgets in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, can’t be beat.

I wish I could be like my friend Sheree, who makes her own cards, or my friend Jeuli, who had her own line in stores some years ago, or my friend Carla, who wrote for Hallmark’s humor lines. I just don’t have that kind of talent.

I am good, though, at buying and sending. And I have a kind of a system for managing my habit.

I buy all year long because, after all, I enjoy the hunt. Most cards remind me of friends and family members, so I select cards with specific people in mind, rather than just stocking up. Even if you’ve just had a birthday or anniversary, chances are I’ve already bought your next year’s card, affixed a Post-it with your name on it, made a note on my calendar a week before your occasion that there’s a card for you in my pile and then put it in the pile.

I do stock up on things like graduation cards, so that I’m ready when those announcements starting rolling in, and I keep other cards on hand just in case.

Recently, my pile became so unruly that I extended the system. I now have a box with purchased, assigned cards sorted by occasion, sitting by my stock of notecards and personalized stationery. If you stepped into my office, you might mistake it for the Hallmark store.

When people see my various “systems,” they often tell me I have too much time on my hands. Perhaps that’s because I’m so organized.


Filed under Beauty and Fashion, Family and Friends, Holidays, Travel

Save the subplot

Among the season’s sitcoms debuting recently is one I will keep my eye on with high hope.

You already know how I feel about sitcoms—that good ones are a dying breed, and the best ones can provide enough laughter therapy to last through the week.

I can’t say just yet that Mad Love will fulfill my therapeutic requirement, but I do know there’s a gleam of potential. The premise isn’t anything special. However, in addition to a strong lead cast and some mildly decent writing, the creators have also written in a character who is prone to mutilating common words and expressions. What’s especially funny is that her gaffes are corrected boldly by the one character who seems least likely to know enough to do so.

Dim-witted characters aren’t uncommon sitcom material. However, I can’t readily recall any having this particular trait. There are so many ways the writers could go with Erin. They could shape her into a modern day Mrs. Malaprop, which would be hilarious. Haven’t we all worked with one person who just couldn’t seem to get straight a simple figure of speech? I’m tempted to send in a few real-life ideas.

The problem is, it looks as though Erin’s character could be short-lived, as she was dumped by her boyfriend, one of the main characters, in the first episode. I can only hope they at least remain colleagues at the law firm in which the story takes place.

It seems that Chicago Sun-Times TV critic Paige Wiser agrees with me. In fact, her review took the words right out of my mouth: “The other bright spot is Ben’s ex-girlfriend Erin, played by Alexandra Breckenridge. She’s given to mangled expressions like “taken for granite” and “an escape goat,” and I hope to God that Ben’s new relationship doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of her. Come back, Erin. Please.”

Erin’s calling a fabric swatch a “snatch” was just a tease.

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Filed under All Things Wordish, Movies, Television and Radio

Best in class

It might be irreverent to say it in this movie awards season, and I might just be a minority of one, but I wish they’d bring back the American Comedy Awards.

Everything that can be said about Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards has been said, by those far more in the know than I. To prove how out of touch I am, my favorite movies (drama and comedy) of the last two years didn’t receive significant mention; this is shaping up to be the third. Gran Torino in 2008 and Pirate Radio in 2009 went un-hyped. This year, one of my faves, Get Low, which featured one of Robert Duvall’s best acting performances to date, hasn’t really even been mentioned. Maybe Oscar will take notice.

What really baffles me about the Golden Globes is the make-up of their “Musical or Comedy” category and, specifically, why The Kids Are All Right was deemed a comedy. I watched it yesterday and didn’t laugh once, and wondered if there was simply a shortage of comedies and musicals and it just got stuffed in there for balance. I liked the movie well enough, and agreed that both Annette Bening and Julianne Moore deserved nominations for their acting, but can’t for the life of me understand the comedy designation.

Comedies don’t typically get serious nods during award season anyway. They’re often too raunchy for serious consideration. It seems that good comedies are rarer each year. Perhaps, rather than lump them in awkwardly with movies like The Kids Are Alright, comedies should have awards all their own. The question is: are there enough good ones?

I’d think that anyone with a bit of smarts and a working funny bone would enjoy two hours in a theater laughing until the tears flow—without toilet jokes,  off-color ethnic jabs or in-your-face genital humor.

In 2001, the year in which the American Comedy Awards were last held, Best in Show, perhaps the best of director Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, took Funniest Motion Picture, Funniest Supporting Actor (Fred Willard) and Funniest Supporting Actress (Catherine O’Hara). It’s hard to find better comedy than that.

Word has it that MTV and Comedy Central are starting new comedy awards to air this April. I hear many comedic greats are involved, including Phil Rosenthal of Everybody Loves Raymond. This gives me hope that a void will be filled.

Otherwise, with no serious award to strive for, what’s the incentive to make a good comedy any more, except to entertain a country and a world in desperate need of intelligent humor?


Filed under Movies, Television and Radio

Ironic, my dear Watson

Perhaps you have read the news that in February, for the first time ever, a computer will compete on Jeopardy!

You might remember when an IBM computer beat chess world champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match in 1997. IBM’s latest challenge was to build upon that feat by taking technology to an even more difficult and complex level—building a computer that processes natural language, complete with humor, irony and sarcasm, as well as nuances, regionalisms and slang.

Having apparently met that challenge, Watson will compete against Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter February 14 through the 16, 2011.

The computer, named Watson after IBM’s founder, was developed by technologists and researchers from around the world.

While its debut on Jeopardy! will make a big splash, the goal of the technology is ultimately to forge more advanced communication between humans and computers. This goal undoubtedly will harvest scientific and societal benefits in fields ranging from healthcare to customer service.

However, I cannot help wondering what practical applications Watson might offer if ever the technology became available at the consumer level.

How long before the next software release coming out of Redmond, Washington, will include Microsoft Irony, an application to detect, interpret, even insert rhetorical nuances in interpersonal and corporate communications?

Could Watson displace humor columnists and language bloggers? Will we turn on our televisions and see Watson sitting behind Andy Rooney’s desk on 60 Minutes?

If you were a member of IBM’s global research team, what real-world application would you be itching to create for Watson? Or, as a consumer, what application would you want available for purchase?

Personally, I am hoping Watson will be smart–and courageous–enough to tell Jeopardy! clue-writers to put the periods and commas inside the quotation marks, where they belong.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Movies, Television and Radio, Technology and Social Media

Gitchy gitchy goo

I have never heard of the University of Glamorgan, but apparently the Welsh researchers who work there have just completed a study on grumpiness.

Is this a joke?

It must be real because I saw it on my local television news over the weekend. These Welsh researchers found that people, at least Welsh people, become grumpy at the average age of 52. They laugh less, they gripe more and it only gets worse as they age, according to the so-called Lifetime of Laughter Scale.

This study, which I cannot locate anywhere, says that people in their fifties laugh half as much as teenagers. The study further contrasts the 300-some times a day an infant laughs out loud with the pitiful three times a day of the average quinquagenarian.

Could this be because the fifty-somethings are the parents of these teenagers? Could it be because infants have their bellies tickled all day long by grown-ups making funny faces and animal noises at them?

Assuming this isn’t a phenomenon uniquely affecting the Welsh, and even if it is, something must be done. This trend must be reversed.

As someone who, at times, can be quite the grump, I also laugh out loud plenty throughout the day. My minimum daily allowance of comedy is just a foundation on which I pile giggling at my cats, chuckling at my own foibles, even laughing to keep from crying when circumstances dictate. I often laugh out loud at the movies when no one else does. We already know that I laugh inappropriately on planes.

If grumpiness peaks at 52, I’ve got 14 months to beat back the trend. Even though statistically that puts me smack dab in mid-menopause, I’m up for the challenge.

Starting today, I am striving for 300. Who’s with me?


Filed under Foibles and Faux Pas, Health, News

It’s time

This week I have been spending a fair amount of time in the air. 

I don’t travel as often as George Clooney in Up in the Air but, like George’s character, I am robotic in my process.  I go through security like a zombie—that’s the best way to do it, actually—and seldom get rattled.  I often rent cars on the other end and that too has become rhythmic.

I don’t even travel as often as many of my colleagues.  I have one client who flies out of Philly so often she’s been offered the airport employees’ discount at Auntie Anne’s.

Erma Bombeck wrote a popular book entitled, When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home.

While, sadly, I haven’t used my passport in quite some time, Erma’s book title swooshes through my head during some of my busiest domestic travel weeks.  In fact, during time spent recently in a boarding area (no, not that time), I drew up a list of it’s-time-to-go-home triggers.

It’s time to go home when:

  • you check the Departures monitor for your gate and have to look at your boarding pass to remember where you are going
  • you and the US Airways flight attendants recognize each other–and smile fondly
  • you use your travel toiletries more than the ones at home
  • you sit down in a restaurant and look for the seat belt
  • you achieve frequent shopper status at Taxco Sterling and HMS Newsstand (and Auntie Anne’s).  The woman at the Taxco counter at National Airport knows which pieces I already have.
  • you spot the same set of identically dressed adult twins twice (not yet, but it’s bound to happen!)

How about you?  When is it time for you to go home?

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Filed under Foibles and Faux Pas, Food, Movies, Television and Radio, Travel

Monica and Erma

In the book-turned-movie Julie and Julia, the character played by Amy Adams blogged about her pursuits to model the work of her idol, Julia Child. She shared her joys and frustrations as she plunged fearlessly into the metaphoric bouillabaisse of gourmet French cooking.  In her daily blog entries, she assessed her own success or failure to meet each challenge.

My idols are good writers.  They range from Pulitzer Prize winning authors (John Kennedy Toole) and news journalists (Helen Thomas) to skilled story tellers (Craig Dees) and clever bloggers (Carla Curtsinger of The Sticky Egg).

I especially love humor writers.  Erma Bombeck is my Julia Child.  If I were to embark on a project à la Julie and Julia, it would be terribly humbling.  I dare not even try to model Erma’s artistry.  Even so, as I look back on my 50 years, it would be tempting to wonder whether I suffered as many pitfalls and pratfalls as I did just so I could amuse my friends with stories of my own foibles.

Even though I am the child of two very funny people, one a professional humorist, my true talent lies not in producing humor but rather in passionately appreciating it.  And while this blog may be a platform for evangelizing about delicious prose, I hope you’ll also allow me to also tell an occasional personal story in homage to this dear icon.

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Filed under All Things Wordish, Family and Friends, Foibles and Faux Pas, Reading