I love reading funny writing. I love trying to figure out how something that’s funny is funny. We at carte blanche don’t get many submissions of funny fiction and I (very, very reluctantly) have rejected most of what we have received. The sad fact is that good funny is much more difficult to pull off than good drama. Humour in fiction is a bit like magic. There’s a top hat (the story itself) and then there’s the reluctant bunny being maneuvered down a coat sleeve so that it spontaneously appears in the top hat (the humour). Why is this so hard to manage? I hope to have a better idea once I’m done reading Jim Holt’s “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes.” If I don’t know by then, I’ll try reading Henri Bergson’s “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic.” Something tells me this one may be over my head, but I’ve got me a quest.
I do know this much: There are a couple of characteristics of funny fiction. Rules of behavior are often being broken (the merely embarrassing and rude as well as the lewd and scandalous). Things that aren’t usually talked about comfortably (or taboos) are tricky because we all have different taboos. More specifically, we have different limits to which we can be pushed and made to feel uncomfortable. I suppose this can account for what is often called “taste.” Stories don’t need to shock to be entertaining, but laughs are often born from discomfort as a kind of release.
The Onion has some of the funniest contemporary satire online.
As for short fiction, try “Influenza” by Daniel Menaker if you can find it (first published in the New Yorker, January 1995). Or, consider David Schickler’s “Jamaica”, in which the narrator is talking about his daughter, Theresa (first published in the New Yorker, January 2002, full story found here).
I should explain about Theresa. She’s a decent person—she works at a home, helping old people die well—but she hates Christmas, and she hates me at Christmastime. It’s my fault. Thirteen years ago, when Theresa was six and Jillian was pregnant with Thomas, we found out that Thomas would be born blind. The doctor showed Jillian and me a sonogram, showed us the lumps where Thomas’s eyes should have been growing, and it killed me. I wanted to explain it to Theresa, to teach her before Thomas’s birth that ours is a broken world, to brace her for forklift accidents and divorces and blindness and all the other awful news I stare at daily. So I wrote Theresa a story called “Tink on the Blink” and read it to her on Christmas Eve. “Tink on the Blink” was a story in which Tinkerbell is having fun in Never Never Land with the Lost Boys when suddenly she develops pancreatic cancer. She ends up in the hospital on life support. The Lost Boys gather round loyally and hold Tink’s little hand and clap and sing about how fervently they believe in fairies, but despite the warm love of friends Tinkerbell flatlines, her wings fall off, and she dies. In retrospect, this story may have been a mite harsh for a six-year-old. Theresa freaked out and had nightmares, and we took her to a child psychologist and Jillian would barely speak to me for a month, until Thomas was born and he built some peace between us.
“It’s funny because it’s true” is, I think, another universal principle of comedy. Real Truth is being described. I don’t mean true as in this happened, but that the truth about something has been revealed. Something’s essence has been communicated. Nonfiction from David Sedaris or David Rakoff has oodles of examples of this.
The ultimate challenge, of course, is that words on a page have no physical humour. They don’t talk funny or walk funny and inflection can’t always be correctly inferred. The writer must draw the sleeve, direct the bunny, and divert the audience using sleight of hand. All of this takes time to set up. Funny fiction is a tall order.
Perhaps it’s his affinity to the stage, but Allan Bennett delivers triumphantly at this comedic task in his collection of dramatic monologues called Talking Heads. A dry wit informs even the bleakest of his character sketches. Indeed, his humour is made more potent given his characters’ dour lives and the contrasting dramatic tone. Here’s an excerpt from “Bed Among the Lentils,” in which a vicar’s wife talks about her husband’s sermon. For more, get his book or if you want to cheat, watch the acted pieces here and here.
The sermon was about sex. I didn’t actually nod off, though I have heard it before. Marriage gives the OK to sex is the gist of it, but while it is far from being the be all and end all (you can say that again) sex is nevertheless the supreme joy of the married state and a symbol of the relationship between us and God. So, Geoffrey concludes, when we put our money in the plate it is a symbol of everything in our lives we are offering to God and that includes our sex. I could only find 10p.