Humor in SAT Reading Passages

Identifying humor in the SAT can be difficult. What is funny to you today may be very different from what was funny in the past. Additionally, English humor often relies on dual meanings of words, homophones and other word play. Also, humor resides in context and common experience. If you have ever heard a joke directly translated from one language to another, you might understand what I mean. It just isn’t funny in a different language.

So, if English is not your first language, or if you haven’t spent a lot of time reading older writing, the humor might fly right past you. In regular life, we can have someone help us understand why we should have laughed. But, on the SAT, we can’t rely on someone else to help.

Clues to identifying Humor

Exaggeration/Hyperbole–when I say that I have a ton of homework, I don’t mean I literally need a pick-up truck to haul ti all home. I am using hyperbole to give you an idea how burdened I feel. Watch out for exaggeration in SAT passages as these are often meant for humorous effect.

Repetition–if an action or idea is repeated throughout a passage, chances are it is a set up for a joke.

Misunderstanding–frequently, humor in SAT tests comes in the form of 2 people interacting and 1 misunderstanding the situation.

Absurdity in Daily life–if I tell you that I know a person (let’s call him Jeff) who starts on Beale street and then turns right drives 2 blocks, turns left, drives a mile, turns left again goes back 2 blocks and then turns right again back onto Beale street to reach the Bakery, would you question the apparent insanity of leaving a street to reach a destination that is on that same street? When questioned, Jeff replies that those were the directions he had to reach the Bakery when he lived on a different street and so he just got into the habit and now he goes that way. This is classic absurdity.

People are functions of their minds and sometimes those minds are far more in control that we consciously believe. This leads us to do illogical things sometimes simply because we haven’t thought about doing anything differently. Many comedians make a good living merely observing people and pointing out the weird things people do unconsciously. What follows is a literary example of this in action.

From Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock

The boat was due to leave at seven. There was no doubt about the hour,–not only seven, but seven sharp. The notice in the Newspacket said: “The boat will leave sharp at seven;” and the advertising posters on the telegraph poles on Missinaba Street that began “Ho, for Indian’s Island!” ended with the words: “Boat leaves at seven sharp.” There was a big notice on the wharf that said: “Boat leaves sharp on time'”

So at seven, right on the hour, the whistle blew loud and long, and then at seven fifteen three short peremptory blasts, and a seven thirty one quick angry call,–just one,–and very soon after that they cast off the last ropes and the Mariposa Belle sailed off…

What is funny about that?

Yes, I know. You didn’t think that was funny (If you did find it funny, then we can be friends). Sometimes, I will be going over a passage with students and tell them it was funny only to be met with looks of incredulity. Then I have to explain why its funny…and a joke explained is never funny to the explainee.

Okay, back to the boat. There is more set up for this joke earlier in the passage where the narration starts at 6:30 warning everyone that they don’t have time to get sandwiches or snacks because the boat is leaving at 7. 7 sharp. definitely, absolutely, leaving, at 7. Then in this part the point is emphasized on all the ads for the boat trip that the boat leaves at 7.

Does it leave at 7?

Nope. The pilot blasts the whistle at 7:15 and again at 7:30 and doesn’t leave at 7:30, but soon after. Why? because people are always late and the boat waits for people. Why are people late? Because they know the boat doesn’t really leave at 7. It leaves shortly after 7:30, after everyone has arrived.

It is funny because it points to the ridiculous nature of people. You can insist that the boat is leaving at 7, but they know that it really won’t leave until 7:30, then some people are not going to bother to arrive until 7:29. This is quintessential small town behavior. You can say the boat is leaving at 7, but until it actually leaves at 7 and some people miss the boat (so to speak), it isn’t ever going to change.

Cover for SAT Practice Passage | The Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias. A colorized photo of a steamship on a lake.

Humor in SAT tests

College Board test #3‘s Literature Passage is a classic case of humor on the SAT that flies over the heads of many students. There are going to be SPOILERS, so if you haven’t done the passage, you might want to skip this part.

In this passage we have Lady Carlotta who has gotten off her train to stretch her legs and the train leaves without her. We have a bit of a digression as she thinks about being criticized for being overly-involved with other’s business, and consequently she left her critic stuck in a tree with an angry wild pig below him while she painted his picture, because really his predicament was none of her business. Imagine a guy stuck in a tree with an angry pig (with dangerous tusks) pacing below, while a woman sits on the side of a fence calmly painting. All because his complained that she interfered too much.

Then we have a case of mistaken identity when Lady Carlotta is assumed to be a new governess and is ordered around by a harried mother. This is classic mistaken identity and misunderstanding. Lady Carlotta is a member of the aristocracy and thus used to giving orders and not receiving them. The passage sets up the rest of the encounter where Lady Carlotta is going to make the mother regret her long list of demands by being very literal in following them.

If you struggle with this

Don’t worry too much if you struggle with this. Humor is extremely difficult to capture in other cultures. However, if you want to practice more and become familiar with English humor, here is a list of books and authors to try.

  • The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Woodhouse
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  • Naked by David Sedaris
  • Lamb by Christopher Moore
  • The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
  • Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • Three Men in a Boat by Jerome k. Jerome
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  • The Importance of being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Emmaline Pankhurst in the middle of a crowd.
Stack of books on left hand side on a purple background with title Guide to SAT Reading: Global Conversation Passages

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