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Nguyen 1 Cecelia Nguyen Dr.

Erin Dietel-McLaughlin Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric 1 March 2013 Epic Rap Battles of History: Evoking Forgotten References in Viewers‟ Minds The culture of hip-hop can be seen everywhere: in today‟s television shows, on the news, and in today‟s music. It is a form of entertainment and enjoyment for it is intriguing to listen to because of all the intricate word play and allusions. However, it is not expected to be applied to famous classical writers, musical artists, or famous historical figures, especially not in a comedic way. This is exactly what the YouTube video series “Epic Rap Battles of History” does. Created and usually performed by Peter Shukoff and Lloyd Ahlquist, the videos take epic characters from pop culture, history, books, etc. and have the characters rap battle to compare their lives, work, accomplishments, and/or failures. They then let the YouTube viewers decide who won the battle and who is ultimately better than the other character. Famous examples include Darth Vader vs. Hitler, which is currently at more than 70 million views, Santa Claus vs. Moses, and Justin Bieber vs. Beethoven (Shukoff and Ahlquist). Multiples theories of humor can try to explain why having different characters rap battle each other is funny, such as the Superiority Theory or the Benign Violation Theory, however these theories do not suit this type of humor the best, for viewers do not laugh because they feel superior to the Easter Bunny rap battling Genghis Khan, and they also do not laugh because it is a harmless violation of history. However, this essay can show how Monro‟s Incongruity theory explains why more than 60 million people bother to watch these humorous videos by focusing on one in particular: Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare, and

Nguyen 2 the “unexpected connections” that arise from the characters‟ raps and the references they make in the viewers‟ minds. David Hector Monro, a philosophy professor at Monash University, offers several different theories for humor to help explain why we laugh at things in his “Theories of Humor” passage. He offers the Superiority Theory, which says we laugh because we feel that the subjects of our laughter are somehow inferior to us (Monro 350), the Relief Theory; which says we laugh because we are somehow releasing some tension because of some underlying fear of the topic (Monro 353), and the Incongruity Theory, which says that we laugh because we see a connection of two completely unrelated ideas (Monro 352). This last theory seems to be the most complete because one does not laugh in response to the Epic Rap Battles of History because he feels superior to the characters on the screen, who are quite accomplished and are not doing ridiculously stupid things onscreen that would allow the viewer to laugh. One also does not laugh because of the Relief Theory because it would be strange to have some underlying fear of being in the video rapping, and having that fear relieved because a replacement is found. However, the Incongruity Theory offered by Monro seems to fit this video series the best, and for the purpose of this lens essay, it is best to focus on one particular video, “Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare”, rather than the whole string of them, which actually follows the same pattern. This particular epic rap battle of humor was funny because of the unexpectedness of the connections that formed as the rappers were rapping. Monro described this as “humor depends on the pleasure of finding unexpected connections between ideas” (352). One has the reference in one‟s mind, however only if one is familiar with said references are the references funny. The rapper brings the reference up onscreen, the connection catches, and then one laughs because of the unexpected, pleasant connection between the preconceived ideas in one‟s head and the artifact in

Nguyen 3 question. Thus, the Incongruity Theory is more complete because one is laughing at the complete disconnect of the two characters but the connection that they had just brought up. In the Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare video, there was humor in the connections between the two characters. Allusions to Dr. Seuss‟ and Shakespeare‟s works in order to make fun of each other are highly humorous. Both are incredibly accomplished authors, however, they both have funny attributes that made them contending contestants. One line that Dr. Seuss said was, “I would not, could not, in a boat, read any of the boring ass plays you wrote”, which was very humorous because of the allusion to the Dr. Seuss‟ Green Eggs and Ham book and its insult at the dryness of Shakespeare, which the Incongruity Theory does not really account for, but however, does account for the unexpected connection the rappers bring out between the rapper‟s lines and the viewers‟ prior knowledge of Dr. Seuss (Shukoff and Ahlquist). However if one has no idea about either of their works, then the humor is simply taken away because there is no connection. If one does not have a connection, according to the incongruity theory, then one does not find it funny. For example, if one did not know who or what Cindy Loo or Horton was, one would not understand The Cat in the Hat‟s insults at Shakespeare when he say the lines, “Even Horton doesn‟t even want to hear you, and Cindy Lou Who is afraid to go near you”(Shukoff and Ahlquist). The name Horton refers to one of Dr. Seuss‟ books, Horton Hears a Who and Cindy Lou Who, a character in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Monro refers back to Immanuel Kant, a famous philosopher on whom Monro bases his explanation of the Incongruity theory, who said, “The suggestion is humor consists in the violent dissolution of an emotional attitude. This is done by the abrupt intrusion into the attitude of something that is felt not to belong there, of some element that has strayed, as it were, from another compartment of our minds” (qtd. in Monro 351 and 352). Kant suggests, in terms of the

Nguyen 4 Epic Rap Battles of History, that the rhymes the characters say on screen connect with the references already in the minds of the viewers, bring those references into perspective, and thus viewers find it comedic. The passage by Monro also talks about connections on a different level, the verbal level. Puns are considered by Monro to be "„the weakest form of wit,‟ because here the connection between the two elements is purely verbal”(352). A connection is established between two words, however that connection is simply a play on words. However weak the “wit” seems to be, it is still a connection and still a joke, one that the Epic Rap Battles of History enjoy applying. One such example is at the end of the rap battle when Thing One and Thing Two from The Cat and the Hat rap the line, “You gettin‟ upstaged Bill. Yo, you just got played” (Shukoff and Ahlquist). The pun and double meaning are witty, clever, and establish the connection between William Shakespeare‟s plays and the Cat in the Hat beating Shakespeare in the rap battle. Because of the creativity of the pun, Monro‟s interpretation of puns is flawed. How is it possible that a form of wit that finds a word that can hint and work in one context but also hints at another be a weak form of wit? Albeit the verbal aspect could be considered a weak connection, however, that connection cannot be found just anywhere and work anyplace. In fact, the very presence of the pun there, adds to the intensity of the insult. The Cat in the Hat seemed to doubly insult William Shakespeare by throwing insults that also reference what is one of William Shakespeare‟s strong points: the theatre. The Cat in the Hat used the word “upstaged”, which has a connection with the theatre but also says that the Cat in the Hat stole the show from Shakespeare. He also says “You just got played”, which draws a connection between the medium Shakespeare is most famous with and the contemporary meaning of “played”, which means to be made a fool of. Finding words that can draw a connection between the characters and their strengths while

Nguyen 5 simultaneously insulting them is a difficult task, and one that cannot be successfully executed easily. Therefore, with this example, Monro‟s opinion of wit being a weak form of humor is complicated by these puns the Epic Rap Battles used. The Incongruity Theory would also be able to explain the humor in the rhyming aspect. If this rap battle were a not a song with rhyming, rhythmic lyrics, people would not find the videos as funny. The rhyming and rhythm are just minor elements to consider when asking why something is funny, however, as a whole it is very important to the video. If the rappers did not rhyme in such a meticulously crafted, catchy way, the raps would not be raps, the videos themselves would be mediocre, and the songs would be a failed attempt at humor. For example, the Cat in the Hat says, “I entertain a child of any age. You have to translate what you said on the opposite page” (Shukoff and Ahlquist). If he were to say something different and not rhyming, then the rap battle would be a flop because the Cat in the Hat does not know how to rap correctly, and Shakespeare would win by default. The video would then be pointless because the battle was not really a battle. The rhyming also adds to the humor because of the similarities it has with the actual characters. Both of the characters in real life rhymed in their respective works of literature. The fact that the rappers are Shakespeare and the Cat in the Hat makes the incongruity factor valid, however, the similarities between the two and in real life are what make the incongruity factors humorous. The similarities and incongruities also extend to the appearance of the characters. The characters look like how they would look in real life. The Cat in the Hat looks straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, and William Shakespeare looks like how he does in paintings: old and gray. There is a factor of incongruity because there is something off about these visually historically characters rapping, however the similarity of the accuracy of the visual portrayal of these characters makes the rap battle funny as well.

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It is possible to consider other theories to explain this particular artifact of humor, for the Incongruity Theory might not have been able to fully explain or explain the best why this video is funny. In fact, the Benign Violation theory of humor, which can be attributed to Peter McGraw with whom Caleb Warren paired up with to come up with this theory, might be suggested to provide a better explanation for why this video is funny. According to McGraw, something is funny if it is both a violation and benign. He says, “A violation is anything that threatens how you believe the world ought to be.” However, that is only one half of the equation, for something must also be benign. Something can be made benign can be made by distancing oneself from situation, being not strongly committed to the cause, or alternative interpretation of situation to find it acceptable in someway (McGraw and Warren). The videos, and specifically on the “Shakespeare vs. Dr. Seuss” video, can be argued by the humor being best described by the Benign Violation Theory. Both of the characters rapping are an example of a benign violation because two, old, famous writers rapping is a violation of what they would normally do. Even though the Benign Violation Theory can explain the humor in the video, it cannot account for the sudden reality shift that viewers experience while watching these videos. This said shift puts what the characters say into perspective and makes the viewers think about the rapper‟s references. Then the viewers see the connection and that is why they laugh, not because the instance was an innocent violation. If anything, some of the instances in the Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare video were anything but benign. Shakespeare makes an outright threat at Dr. Seuss when he says, “I‟ll put a slug between your shoulder blades, then ask what light through yonder poser breaks” (Shukoff and Ahlquist). This quote can be considered a benign violation because it is a threat (violation). However, it is benign because it is not happening to the viewer, distancing

Nguyen 7 them from the situation. Nevertheless, the Incongruity theory would contend that that particular instance is funny because of the connection it establishes between the references to Romeo and Juliet and to medieval medicine from Shakespeare‟s time period. Based off of the incongruity theory and its claim on what people laugh at, like “unexpected connections”, it tells quite a lot about the medium in which viewers receive humor. They laugh at the unexpected, the breakage of stereotypes, the preconceived notions of what viewers think they know. These videos were effective and are successful attempts at humor because of the medium in which they were delivered. The fact that humorous insults made through this medium were successful shows what today‟s culture has grown accustomed to in terms of its music which shows how much hip hop music and rap have become a normal medium through which to express ideas. Not only that, it also shows how connected society is to the hip hop culture is today and that it can evoke references in the viewers‟ minds and bring them enjoyment.

Nguyen 8 Works Cited McGraw, Peter, and Caleb Warren. “The Benign Violation Theory of Humor.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 26 Aug. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2013. Monro, David Hector. "Theories of Humor." Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum 3rd ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen, eds. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1988. 349-55. Web. Shukoff , Peter, and Lloyd Ahlquist. “Dr Seuss VS Shakespeare. Epic Rap Battles of History.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 17 Aug. 2011. Web. 22 Feb. 2013.