Humor Analysis of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I hesitate to write this.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the funniest book I’ve ever read. I remember my classmates glaring as I laughed aloud during silent reading period in middle school.

My concern is that reverse engineering Adams’s humor will ruin it. As explained by E. B. White, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

Nonetheless, having just read HGG a fourth time, I’ve identified the categories of humor Adams employs. These techniques can all be found in the first three chapters, but I draw quotes from other areas as well.

Grab your towel.

The Alien Perspective

Adams writes numerous alien characters, and their interpretations of humanity hold up a hilarious mirror to the reader’s own life. The author constantly scans for human traits or institutions that might appear illogical from the outside and spares no opportunity to poke fun at them.

It’s safe to assume that the narrator is also alien because (1) the only humans left alive are Arthur and Trillian, and (2) the text is filled with detached observations like this:

Brutal Bureaucracy

Adams preys on the bureaucratic annoyances of the reader’s everyday life. Issues with local government, taxes, approval procedures… He reduces these to absurdity by making the processes increasingly bizarre and tedious:

Time & Scale

HHG’s theme of space’s unfathomable enormity yields alarming gaps in how different characters respond to events. For instance, Ford has traveled the Universe and has knowledge of Vogons. This allows him to react calmly to the Earth’s imminent destruction in twelve minutes.

Ford’s indifference humorously conflicts with the reader’s opinion, which may hold those twelve minutes to be precious. The reader’s perspective is channeled by Arthur’s disbelief, and the effect is accentuated by the subversion of the phrase “trust him to the end of the Earth.”

Adams also likes to play with having simple events take millions of years and complicated events take milliseconds. For example, within moments of being turned on, a brilliant computer goes from “I think therefore I am” to deriving “the existence of rice pudding and income tax.”

Lastly, the author does not leave out juxtapositions of physical scale:

Inflated Manners

Utterly absurd things happen in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In the face of madness, a few characters not only keep their manners but use increasingly highfalutin verbiage while most people would be rendered speechless.

The following passage isn’t necessarily an example of good manners, but it humorously contrasts with the fountain of curse words most of us would spout if our houses were knocked down. We can almost feel Arthur’s English propriety holding him back from articulating anything worse than antiquated punishments:

End the Clause/Sentence in a Twist

This may be the book’s most famous one-sentence quote. The idea is to start a normal simile, and say the opposite. For example, instead of “hung in the sky like a cloud,” Adams opts for, “like a brick doesn’t.” Even knowing the technique, it’s difficult to find snappy words like “brick” to implement it with.

We get a standard list of items from each of the characters, and each ends with a twist. Especially potent is Prosser’s subversion of the “I also experienced that” talk, which tends to come up when someone is trying to be empathetic.

The formula is A, A, B. When the reader is expecting a third “A,” give them “B.” For instance, Arthur may have demanded to speak to his lawyer, his mother, and his cousin. Instead, the last item is a “good book.”

The official name for this rhetorical device is “paraprosdokian.”

Anti-Climatic Foreshadowing

Contrasts constantly appear in Adams’s humor. In this case, a large build up in the foreshadowing paragraph is immediately subverted by something less impressive.

However, be careful not to take it too far. Ruining suspense can be funny when it’s done on purpose, but you’re still ruining suspense and giving the reader less reason to go on. Adams counters this a bit by creating a new mystery surrounding a whale and petunias:

Paradox

Adams’s loves sprinkling fiendish paradoxes into his writing. The reader stops, thinks for a moment, and suddenly struggles not to chuckle.

I cheated. That last paradox is not from Adams’s first book. It’s from the sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I couldn’t resist adding it.

Word Play

Thanks to Allan Milne Lees for pointing out Adams’s word play in the comments:

Dramatic Irony

The author often tells us things about his characters that the characters themselves do not know. In this case, we learn that Prosser is a descendant of the horseback warlord, Genghis Khan. This sets up dozens of small jokes like:

In another example, we’re informed that Arthur’s friend, Ford, is an alien. The reader now understands why Ford is making fun of astrophysicists, but protagonist does not:

To put things in formal terms, most of Adams’s satire comes down to juxtaposition, irony, and subverting tropes.

While analyzing humor makes it less funny in the moment, it does facilitate new implementations. Why don’t you bring some of Adams’s style to historical fiction, romance, or zombie-survival?

I do not suggest trying to become the Adams of academic dissertations, but if you do, please post in the comments.

-Douglas Fitz

Thanks for all the fish.

Interested in too many things.

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