Friday, August 05, 2011

Thoughts about humor

Humor is difficult to write. It's one of the most idiosyncratic, elusive human emotions. A humorous (or allegedly humorous) passage is more likely than any other to induce the sort of dialogue that goes: "I didn't think that was funny at all…" "Well, I thought it was hilarious…"

Situations are rarely, if ever, funny in themselves. The humor in situations comes from how the characters react to them. A good case in point is the third Shrek movie (not the fourth one, which I quite liked): "Hey! Let's put the donkey and the cat in each other's bodies for a while! That'll be funny!"

Well... if you saw the movie, you know it wasn't, even slightly. What it was, was a brilliant and thoroughly wasted opportunity to make funny things happen. The slapstick possibilities of a donkey trying to do donkey things with a cat body, and vice versa-- how could they not have written a single gag around that? Criminal. That movie was riddled with similar cases.

Lately a couple of books have come across our table that seemed to make the same mistake: set up a situation with comic potential, and think that they've written something funny. (I'm not going to name names.) I hope it's not a trend.

Conversely, some writers have a positive gift for extracting humor from, on the face of it, the most unpromising situations. Consider the climactic scene of Christopher Moore's The Stupidest Angel. The town Christmas party is trapped in a church by a party of brain-hungry zombies raised from the local graveyard (thanks to the eponymous character. He really is not very bright). The zombies aren't having much luck breaking in; they decide to distract the folks inside by shouting out some of the deep dark secrets held by the living. I won't reveal more… get the book and read it yourself. Pay attention especially to the dialogue that ensues.

Read my description again. Is it funny? It's not: because all I've given you is the situation. What makes the actual scene funny, fall-out-of-your-chair funny, is how the characters handle it.

Chris Moore's novels also have a weird cumulative effect: I think it has to do with his rhythm. Typically I read through about the first three-quarters of the book going "yeah, yeah, that was funny, that was pretty good…" and then I hit a point where I completely lose it, often over a joke that wasn't necessarily any funnier than any of the previous ones.

Here's a somewhat different approach. Todd's been reading the Iron Druid series; I haven't read any of them yet, but yesterday he read me a passage from the second book, Hammered. The viewpoint character is apparently out for a jog. His mind wanders. He's trying to decide how to handle an upcoming tactical situation. This turns into an inspired riff on Star Trek, with Spock and Kirk as angels sitting on his left and right shoulders, Spock advising caution and restraint while Kirk wants to charge in and kill 'em all… Mind you, as far as I can tell all this has nothing to do with the story, but it's hilarious nonetheless.

But notice that the situation isn't one you'd pick as a potential rib-splitter. I mean, a guy goes for a run? It's his thinking that's funny.

About the only writer I can think of who actually makes situations funny is Connie Willis. (Mind you, this is the same woman who wrote Doomsday Book, "Last of the Winnebagoes," and Blackout. Sometimes I suspect she's a split personality.) "Blued Moon" is a great story, you can find it in her collection Fire Watch. The remarkable thing about "Blued Moon," and Willis humor in general (there's good stuff in Bellwether and To Say Nothing of the Dog as well) is that there often isn't much character reaction.

For example, near the end of the story, the scheming philanderer gets confronted by (if memory serves me) both his current girlfriends and the mother of the girl he plans to seduce-- all of them, through a series of events too improbable to relate here, in possession of written copies of said plan. Just as they knock on his door, Willis changes the scene and leaves us to imagine the well-deserved drubbing that ensues.

Maybe that's what makes it work. Scott McCloud, in his wonderful book Understanding Comics, has a chapter called "Blood in the Gutter." The "gutter" is the white strip that separates panels in a traditional comic page layout: many modern comics have dispensed with it for an "artsier" look. McCloud's point was that comics frequently call on the reader to infer what happens between panels, hence if blood is shed in the "gutter," it's the reader's doing, not the writer's. This process of inference is called closure.

Closure is also what's in action at the end of a story, as in Avram Davidson's very fine "Don't Forget the One Red Rose" (anthologized in The Avram Davidson Treasury among other places). It's sometimes in action between scenes of a longer story or novel: Gene Wolfe especially likes to leave gaps in the narrative that the reader has to backfill. It's closure that supplies the details Willis leaves out of "Blued Moon."

I've written about inference, or closure, quite a bit in the context of poetry, arguing that a poem can be more powerful if it forces the reader to exert this ability, to engage the poem actively rather than just taking it in. Obviously the same is true of prose. Tolkien wrote about the literary effect of "unexplored vistas" lingering beyond the edge of the written work: these fields invite closure to occur. If there are no unexplored areas, either left as gaps within the created realm, or suggested as areas outside it, no closure occurs.

Closure can also be denied to a reader by overly obscure or too-gappy writing. I found Wolfe's New Sun books difficult to read because of the severe discontinuities between chapters, though the story kept my interest in spite of the frustration. (I half think Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand was intended as a New Sun spoof, in that every chapter began with the viewpoint character in some cliffhanger situation; however, he provided flashbacks to explain how the guy got there from the end of the previous chapter. Wolfe never did that.)

This is wandering a bit far from the subject of humor, but it may be relevant in that closure strengthens a reader's engagement with a story/poem/comic. As such, it may be the thing that tips a reader from okay-that's-funny over into rolling on the floor and gasping for breath.
Collection available! Knocking from Inside

No comments: