Monday, July 23, 2007

Footnote humor

Despite what a crazed man at the party I went to last Saturday would have you believe, Terry Pratchett is a hilarious writer. For those uninformed, benighted among you who are unfamiliar with him, Pratchett writes comedic fantasy novels set in a world of his own invention: Discworld. I know that the phrase "comedic fantasy novels" has already lost half of my readership, which is a little sad because those departing are letting their literary snobbiness get in the way of enjoying some genuinely funny books, but more importantly because I'm only using Mr. Pratchett as a lead in to my broader discussion point.

Which is, footnotes are awesome. In particular, footnotes have an almost mystical ability to bestow humor upon whatever work they inhabit. Mr. Pratchett's oeuvre was my first introduction to this technique, which is fortuitous, since he is quite the master at it. There's something about taking a sudden, tangential departure from a text to focus on a minor digression that brings a smile to my face every time. Even bigger, "more literary" books use this technique: the most dramatic example I can think of is Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. Said book has an entire section (20+ pages) written as a footnote, and features a lengthy comedic digression about the Mean Value Theorem (although he entirely botches the theorem).

I'm heartened to see that footnotes appear to have made the technological transition to the Internet. And so cleverly, too! I refer, of course, to Alt Text, which you may more readily refer to as "those little yellow boxes that pop up when I hover my mouse over the picture." And if you were to refer to them that way, I would not begrudge you, for I am no hyper-critical, pedantic overseer of tech terms.

But I digress. Point being, several web comics I read (Dinosaur Comics and XKCD being the most notable) use said alt-text in fulfillment of a similar role as footnotes; that being, tangential thoughts that contribute -- but don't directly relate -- to the humor of the piece in question. Viz, the alt text in this XKCD strip, which is hilarious if you happen to be a programmer and know what a goto statement is, and have read Cryptonomicon, and know who Goto Dengo is (which ties in to my second theory of humor, which is that every joke has the same humor value, which is distributed more-or-less evenly between all people who get the joke -- therefore, the less people who get a joke, the funnier it is to them).

And that's all I have to say about that. Trivial? Sure. Earth-shatteringly novel? Not a chance. All mine? Hell yes.


  1. Whenever I think of footnotes, I always think of this book that I had to read in my high school history class called Why Lenin? Why Stalin?* The author's fetish for footnotes extended into the absurd- a good bottom third** of most pages were covered in footnotes, some of them stretching into multi-paragraph digressions that whose points were only dubiously connected to the topic at hand.
    And yes, Prachett is brilliant. I haven't read any of his books recently***. Stephenson**** is also quite footnote happy, though I'm not sure if he does it for humorous effect. I think that with him it's more of just a flaunting of general geek-oddness- he's such a strange guy, he can't help it.
    I did find that particular XKCD funny***** particularly because I've met people who actually do have the surname "Goto"****** and have automatically thought of a certain Cryptonomicon******* character.
    I fully agree with you, sir- footnotes do rock********. If you like mouse-over stuff, you should also check out Wondermark. It's occasionally amusing.

    *The answers: 1)Because the Provisional Government refused to pull troops out of Austria, allowing the Bolsheviks to win popular support and 2)Lenin was too dumb to appoint Trotsky as his successor when he knew he was dying.
    **And sometimes even a good half a page.
    ***Though I have been meaning to pick up Mort for quite some time.
    ****That reminds me, I really need to finish the Baroque Cycle.
    *****Even though I'm not a programmer I do know what "goto" means.
    ******No Dengos, though.
    *******I think that "-nomicon" should just become a standard book-related suffix. A dictionary? Wordonomicon. A phone book? Phonenumbernomicon. A Hungarian phrasebook? EasyHungarianomicon. The ledgers from the Accounts Receivable Department? Moneypeoplegaveusnnomicon.
    ********and roll.

  2. I remember Why Lenin? Why Stalin?. Also, that other one by what's his name... Hobsbawm? I, myself, have never given much thought to the footnote, other than to be irritated with the ones that go on forever, forcing you to turn page after page to read bottom thirds in 8 pt font. But I hadn't thought of alt text as the footnotes of the internet; I like it! They're also annoying when they're too long and you're using a crappy browser that won't make a paragraph but insists on one long line of text.

  3. Yeah, I'm iffy about footnotes outside of humor value. Sometimes they're useful, mostly they're full of irrelevant stuff that should either be in the main text or elided entirely. Especially when they make you flip ahead a page or two before the main text makes you do so (requiring two or three fingers stuffed in various parts of the book just to keep track of your position, like some sort of weird, depraved sex act).

    At this point, I've given up on reading end notes entirely. There's nothing more infuriating that endnotes that are mostly there for citations, but occasionally have informative value. It's just not worth the effort of flipping to the end of the book three times a page for a vaguely interesting nugget of knowledge.

  4. I've always thought that endnotes ought to be for citation, footnotes for information. I honestly think that academic world will be better off when they accept my wisdom.

  5. I remember the second time I read through the Divine Comedy. I promised I was going to read all the footnotes and such so I could better understand everything. I think I gave up by Canto X. It turns out that the ones I didn't know were just some people from Florence burning in Hell for some reason. Whatever.