“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.