“Slowly I Turned”: Comedy is Serious Work

Writing a comedic novel is more complicated than I had expected. This is the first time I’ve tried, mind you, so I didn’t know what to expect when I began. I’ve read and enjoyed some very comical writers—P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett being two of my favorite—but they do make it seem very easy. And none of my university writing instructors had anything to say about comedy. They were too infatuated with the modern penchant for the traumatic and dramatic. If it didn’t pop up on Oprah’s reading list, or else amongst the Pulitzer nominees, they didn’t think it worth their trouble.


That left it mainly up to me to figure out how it works, this comic writing shtick. So I asked myself, What makes people laugh? I can’t trust in the things that make me laugh. My sense of humor sometimes ranges into some odd and abstruse places. Not to forget, I have this terrible weakness for puns.


I watch comedies with an eye toward what makes them funny. There are a few things that seem to be widely accepted as funny. Other people’s minor misfortunes, for one, as well as bodily functions and clumsiness, all fall under the “physical comedy” heading. Not one of my favorite forms, although it can be used well if handled with a sufficiently deft touch.


I’m often a little bemused by the amount of humor some people derive from the personification of an inanimate object. Perhaps that’s because I do it all the time myself, so to me it just seems normal. For instance, at work, all the copy machines for which I am responsible have names: Larry, Moe, Curly, Shemp, Big Mama, and Buttercup. It helps facilitate communication, as when somebody says, “The copier is broken,” and I say, “Which one?” and they say, “I don’t know—the one by the wall,” and I say, “They’re all by a wall; can you be more specific?” So I named them, and some of the staff have caught on that they’re supposed to use those names. But they always find it oddly hilarious.


Maybe that’s why I’ve started practicing comic writing on my coworkers. Little memos that could have been dull or possibly offensive now end up as, for instance, dialogs or nursery rhymes or faux nature documentaries. In the process, I’ve become fascinated by the tricks of comedy. Physical comedy is easy enough. Personification is perfectly natural to me. But how do you keep it up for a whole novel? I’ve read that P.G. Wodehouse would pin the pages of his manuscripts up on lines around the room, and no page got passed as final unless it had a certain number of jokes per paragraph. One of his most successful forms is contrast—Wooster with his idiotic vernacular, juxtaposed against Jeeves’ encyclopedic formal vocabulary. Terry Pratchett excels at tongue-in-cheek narrator wordplay, which he slips into most of his descriptive passages. Then you have Douglas Adams, in his Hitchhiker’s Guide universe, juggling absurdity with dexterity. In the nonfiction world, there’s David Sedaris, poster-child of sardonic commentary.


I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed a pattern here. These are all writers I find funny—and they’re all intellectual humor, wordplay, and satire. I’m not built for broad, low humor. I suppose, if I were tired and punchy, I could laugh at the typical fart joke as merrily as the next person. Possibly. I’d have to be really, really tired, though.


Stick with your strengths. As a friend of mine once said of himself, “Sarcasm is my heart-language.” (No wonder why we got along so well.) Also, I expect I’m just having my usual seventh-inning novel fatigue. I’m nearing the end of the first draft. In situations like this, the thing to do is just finish assembling the basic bones of the story. Then I can put the book away to mature, come back in a few weeks, and look it over for the finer details. Maybe I’ll pin the pages on a clothes line around the room and count jokes.


“Slowly I Turned”: Nomad’s Land

Peregrination seems to be written into my genetic code. My family moved a lot when I was little, and in the past thirteen years I have moved six times. I suppose this is only to be expected. One doesn’t become a writer for the sake of money (normally there isn’t any) but for the love of writing. I work full-time to support my writing compulsion. Since the only other option isn’t an option—i.e. marrying rich—I accept this necessity. It has had an inconvenient side effect, namely, that I am often compelled to find new quarters for myself because I can no longer afford the ones in which I live. This might be because of rent increases, or because a roommate gets married; or even, in one peculiar case, because my landlord was getting a divorce and the house was to be sold. That instance was a more apparent blessing than the others. If I see another cockapoo in this lifetime, it will be too soon.

But I digress again. I am currently in the middle of my seventh move. I must vacate my current apartment in about six weeks, give or take, and I have yet to acquire a replacement apartment. In the meanwhile, I have spent each of the past two Saturdays driving a carload of my less-frequently-used possessions to a storage locker belonging to a relative. I apologize, by the way, for my silence of the last two weeks. Moving plays merry hell with my writing schedule. I had set April 30th as the deadline for the first draft of my current project. (Unlikely now.) I had planned then to use May for revising and expanding my sole nonfiction project. (Even more unlikely now.) That would have freed June up so that I could participate in Camp NaNoWriMo’s first session, using that time to work on another novel that I had to leave incomplete last year because of structural issues. (So unlikely now that astronomical odds would be too gentle a description of the situation.)

As my last roommate once said to me, I do need to keep a watchful eye on my priorities. The writing compulsion may be strong, but so is the need for shelter. A few days ago, I did have an abnormal moment that felt like clarity. I felt the impulse to just walk away from everything I owned. I wanted to pack up one spare set of clothes and leave the rest. I spent a quarter of an hour wondering what that would be like, but no sooner did the impulse hit than pragmatism hit back twice as hard. It isn’t practical to leave everything one owns. Even Abraham, the ultimate faith-nomad, packed up his household and took it with him when he followed God’s radical command to walk into the unknown. Et cetera, et cetera. I’ve often had a strong desire for a monastic existence, but I know full well that this is just my usual stress-induced fugue state talking. “Run away! Run away!”

There is a practical compromise. Balance is what’s wanted here. Material possessions only matter insofar as they are of service to me. Beyond that, they entangle. So I’m weeding out my book collection and getting rid of any clothes I no longer wear. They cannot take any hold on me that I refuse to let them have. For the rest, I suppose I’ll have to scrape together the money to hire movers. I don’t suppose anyone can recommend any who are reliable and economical?