Bob Mankoff, who has been editing New Yorker 'toons since God knows when, while publishing his own there, in a recent essay with 'toons explored the connection between malice and wit.
Spectacularly. Here's the opener, slightly pruned:
Shakespeare was wrong when he wrote that “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Perhaps “hostility” is a better candidate.
Mankoff turned then to cite some examples of this comedic reality, and the same week published a topical 'toon that nicely frames the humor of hostility:
The so-called “misattribution theory of disparagement humor” formalizes Freud’s idea [of jokework] by stating that, “we can allow ourselves to laugh and display amusement at the debasement or embarrassment of someone who we don’t like if there are incongruous or peculiar aspects of the situation to which we can (mis)attribute our amusement.” Laughing at the embarrassment or humiliation of even someone whom we dislike is a no-no. Pure dislike is not funny. To say yes to this kind of laughter we need an excuse, something unusual or unexpected in the situation to pin it on. We let that peculiarity take the blame to avoid the shame of our naked emotion. Our annoying neighbor backs out of his driveway right into his mailbox which wobbles a bit from side to side and eventually goes kerplunk right on the sidewalk and spews out mail, which then gets picked up by the wind and is blown right into the neighbor’s face as he gets out of the car. And that’s what we attribute, or as the theory would have it, misattribute our laughter to.
This works with just words too, but requires extra cleverness. A favorite example comes from the inimitable Emo Philips, one of the best-known and wittiest of stand-up comics alive today, according to his peers.
I don't really like being divorced. I'd rather be a widower.
Which fits both Shakespeare and Mankoff's formulation. More simply, as Dorothy Parker said (speaking of being funny) "It's easier to write about those you hate."
Parker actually wrote a whole book of "Hate Verses," and it's pretty funny; husbands, wives, bores, drama, slackers, bohemians, movies, plays, the office -- all eloquently, intricately, despised.
They are always pulling manuscripts out of their pockets,
and asking you to tell them, honestly -- is it too daring?
They would sit down
And write the Great American Novel
If they only could find a publisher Big Enough.
Oh, well --
Genius is an infinite capacity for giving pains.
From a worthy collection of her verse published recently: Not Much Fun.