Funny bones, or the anatomy of comedy
Funny books can be a very serious matter. But we don’t all find the same things funny. One reader’s idea of hilarious comedy can seem silly, tiring rubbish to another. For instance, I love Douglas Adams’ comedic science fiction series, the one that begins with the novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and so do legions of fans the world over, but a whole lot of my friends think it’s very weak stuff, consisting of obvious and not very original jokes spread thin on a ridiculous plot.
I think the ridiculous plot actually has a certain sense to it, and the jokes only seem familiar because so many others have tried to imitate Douglas Adams since then.
Personally, I find very few books by the comic fantasy writer Tom Holt truly amusing but he also has thousands of fans who would disagree vehemently with me.
One writer who nearly everyone agrees is very funny is P G Wodehouse. His novels usually deal with upper-class British folks in some unspecified time that is probably the 1920s. Wealthy, and usually blessed with an abundance of leisure and a paucity of intelligence, his aristocratic protagonists get themselves into absurd jams while pursuing various love interests or avoiding stern aunts.
There isn’t anything very serious at the heart of these books, but they are very, very well written. Much of the humour comes from Wodehouse’s allusions to well known quotations from classic literature that seem completely overdone in the very mundane contexts he chooses for them. His descriptions are also filled with comic overstatements and twists — I could quote samples, but you really must get hold of one of his books and see for yourself!
But not all humour is as carefree as Wodehouse’s.
Satire is an important sub-genre, or possible sister-genre to comedy. Satire seeks to make us laugh by showing us the absurdity of people, practices or beliefs. The aim of satire is ultimately to change the way we think about someone or something, but it achieves this goal by making us laugh at it, and therefore think of it with less respect or seriousness. A lot of satire is politically motivated, but not all.
A great example of satirical literature can be found in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Not only do they poke gentle fun at the standard elements of the fantasy genre, they also poke fun at modern culture, science and politics.
This is another set of books that you owe it to yourself to read.
As you read these books, you’ll again find that there is a lot of skill involved in writing effective humour. One of the skills needed is observation. Erma Bombeck, who wrote comic novels that dealt with the lives of suburban American housewives, had a keen observation, finding unexpected comedy in the most boring details of everyday routine.
In fact, successful comedic literature may be one of the hardest forms to write in. You need to have a lot of control over the language — the right wording can make or break a joke — you need to have good timing and most of all you need insight. Humour ultimately stems from being able to look at the things around you, and going beyond the often serious and pompous surface to see the humour lurking within.
Another point to note is that humour is not always light. The comedy of the absurd takes us into places where logic breaks down and communication fails, showing us the limitations and dark sides of our lives. A great example is Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting For Godot which, using the conversation and random encounters of two men waiting to meet someone who never shows up, shows us the utter chaos lurking just beneath the surface of our lives.
Indeed, there is something a little anarchic about all humour, in its ability to break the rules and get a laugh out of the things we are taught are so important and serious. And that may be the best thing of all about humour — the way it teaches us not to take life too seriously, which may be the surest way to ensure that life doesn’t get the better of us!