Lesson 16: Personification
In the last few lessons we've been exploring transpositions. Let's end this exploration on personification. Also known as anthropomorphism, this is where something from the human world is transposed into the non-human. Here is a personification gag from Steven Wright that reverses a familiar situation:
“The other day when I was walking through the woods, I saw a rabbit standing in front of a candle making shadows of people on a tree.”
Meanwhile, Noel Fielding had a talking moon projected onto a circular screen in his Voodoo Hedgehog stand-up show, which later came into the Boosh TV series. These are examples of personification—giving a human voice, character and attitudes to something not human. Noel Fielding also had a routine in his stand-up about having a bluebottle in the house that refuses to fly out of the open window. Described like this, it may not sound hugely promising as a subject for observational comedy, but Fielding brings the routine brilliantly to life by taking the perspective of the bluebottle. He buzzes around the stage giving us a running commentary on how he is deliberately winding up the human.
Anthropomorphic comedy can be about anything non-human, not just animals. In another piece, Fielding imagines all the letters of the alphabet living together, again in a wood, and each letter has its own personality. You may have noticed that all of the aforementioned stand-ups are at the more absurdist or surreal end of the spectrum, so does this mean that this device is the sole preserve of those kinds of comics?
While it’s certainly true that they do it more, comics of all kinds and styles might use the technique now and again. For example, the very un-surreal Jack Dee, in the aforementioned routine about rowing with his wife, makes the observation that the family cat always senses exactly when an argument is about to kick off and rapidly exits through the cat-flap. He then imagines what the cat is thinking:
“I’m too old and too wise to hang around for one of these. I’m off out to kill some wildlife.”
Similarly, Jerry Seinfeld imagines what horses must be thinking when raced around a circular track. Following the “big hurry” they find out to their bemusement that they’re back where they started from. And despite being very grounded in gritty reality, Richard Pryor uses personification hugely in his act. For example, his sophisticated and picky pet dogs, when given their dinner, asking: “Can we have some wine with that?”.
The blue bottle, cat and horse examples above are examples of getting inside animals’ experience and asking, “what must they be thinking?. ”Looking at it from their point of view but imagining their motivations and reactions to be human-like. (This can also be applied to others we interact with but who can't communicate with us – e.g. toasters, sofas, babies, aliens, vending machines. And of course taking another's perspective is a good strategy generally.) In all of these examples, the animals are behaving as they normally do but a human perspective has been transposed onto them. In the opening Steven Wright example the rabbit is doing something human that rabbits could never do. The same is true of Noel Fielding's moon and alphabet.
So there are two different approaches here:
- The animal (or thing) acts is we recognise it normally does but you apply human thought processes or motivations to it.
- Or you have the animal (or thing) behave in a human like way that it simply never would do.
Whether you are surreal or more down to earth, it’s worth keeping this device in mind. Whenever you are talking about an animal or an object, consider what it must be thinking or what would it say? You don’t even have to justify it suddenly talking, since people are happy to suspend their disbelief and their minds are also well trained from childhood films and stories.
Yes, you can also personify things. Think of tools you use: phone, hammer, cutlery, toothbrush etc. Choose one that is either inferior to you, or is snootily superior. With the inferior option, this would be some tool that is hopeless and frustrating. For example, in one of my workshops a guy did a bit around an old hammer where the head kept coming off. He gave the hammer the voice of an old workman who means well and is trying hard, but is hopeless. The attitude of the hammer was part of why it was funny as well as how infuriated the guy was becoming with it. Plus, in the mix was his own absurdity in not replacing this hammer.
With the superior option, it could, for example, be your smartphone—which could also be the inferior angle if it's not working properly. A less obvious take on 'superiority' came from a stand-up student anthropomorphising a very expensive French frying pan that his girlfriend had bought him. It arrogantly judged his cooking as he used it.
It also featured misdirection at the start in that when he first introduced the arrogant French character we assumed that it was a man. Then he revealed it was a frying pan, with another aspect of the funniness being the fact that his girlfriend loved the frying pan and he hated it.