Tuesday, 12 April 2011

J is for Just Joking

Writing a funny short story or sketch is fairly straight forward, but writing a funny novel is very hard. Even the books that have pull-quotes on the front saying things like "I laughed on every page" and "hysterically funny" are usually anything but. So here is a small selection of books that are genuinely laugh out loud funny and also what they have taught me about writing in general. Because there is often more truth in a carefully constructed joke than in an entire volume of philosophy (twice as much if it includes poetry).



Ignatius J. Reilly is a grotesque, insufferable, buffoon of a man. He has no redeeming features, no admirable qualities. He is the "hero" of the story but he is not in the least bit sympathetic. Yet this hilarious Pulitzer Prize winning novel is beloved by many. It is also hated by many. But what it does show you is that not all protagonists need to be likeable. Given the choice between lovable and dull or interesting and despicable I know which I would choose. Not that having a sympathetic main character is a bad thing, it's just worth remembering that it is not the only thing.



McMurphy is certainly a likeable character. He's larger-than-life and not a respecter of authority. His antics are, in the parlance of our times, winning. But his battle is ultimately a futile one and even though the reader is desperate for him to prevail, it is not to be. One of the reasons for this is that his enemy is more powerful than him, both institutionally and in the person of the Big Nurse. Yet there is always a feeling that he could maybe come out on top. Keeping the reader uncertain of how things will play out and even giving them an ending they don't want can be powerful and rewarding. The urge to pander to the widest possible audience is something that has become almost obligatory in the last few years, in all forms of entertainment. Dumbing down is lucrative, but the Internet has created a large enough potential consumer base that even a niche product can turn a profit. That's what I tell myself anyway.



Satire is hard. Often people don't see the humour because it just tells you how things are. And explaining the joke never made anybody giggle. This book is funny. Horribly funny. While I can't guarantee it's all true I can certainly confirm that it's all believable. This book clearly demonstrates that nothing is too ridiculous to be believable. The key part of any story is not it's accuracy or its basis in fact, it's that you make it seem real. Whether that's in a suburb outside of Chicago, or on a planet where dragons fill the skies. It may take accuracy and facts to make it believable in some case, but what it always requires are characters that behave in a recognisable manner whatever their situation might be. They might not do what we would do, but we have to understand why they would do it. 


This trilogy of five books taught me my most important lesson. It is full of amazing ideas and hilarious concepts, and dozens of bizarre characters, but it also does this other very unusual thing. It poses ridiculously impossible questions and then it answers them with perfectly plausible answers. It's something most writers avoid, after all if they really knew the answers to all the big questions they wouldn't waste their time writing about middle-aged men and their disappointing penises (I'm looking at you, Great American Novelists). Douglas Adams set his characters to find the answer to life, the universe and everything, and they did. They went in search of God's last message to creation, and they found it. No golden light from a magic box, no ambiguous, open-ended enigma for the reader to interpret as they wish. He stated clearly what he thought and left it to the reader to judge him on his insight. And he succeeded. 

It's very easy to rely on the fact that none of us really knows anything about why we’re here or what it is we’re supposed to do. Writers too quickly settle for the easy option of the half-truth. The serial killer was abused as a child, the lovers adored each other at first sight, the aliens invaded because that's what aliens do. None of it really makes sense or explains anything it's just a way to avoid having to come up with anything truly meaningful. But it doesn't matter if you're wrong, or if it isn't the received wisdom, I say take a risk and come up with something original. I'm tired of hearing the same old explanations and I think most people are too.

Any books make you laugh till it hurts?


24 comments:

Josh Hoyt said...

Great post!! I agree we need to really understand what is going on. It is much to easy to give half explanation as to what is going on. I talk a great deal on my blog about truly understanding what makes a character tick. Your example of the serial killer is perfect. Just because someone is abused it doesn't make them a serial killer. tragically (not sure of the right word because it is so incredibly despicable and sad) thousands of kids are abused daily. They are not all becoming serial killers. Anyway I ramble. Great post and good things to learn from humor :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Not a chance I coould write something funny - at all!

McKenzie McCann said...

I like writing under the "write like no one has ever written anything before" philosophy. I don't see anything wrong with a cliche plot, as long as the reader gets something new from it. Then again, that's the trick, isn't it?

Andrea Mack said...

I rarely read books that are "laugh out loud funny". I think I tend not to choose books billed as "funny" because they rarely live up to their promise.

MISH said...

Hey Mooderino ~~ I don't really read books that are categorised as humour/satire . I think that in order to appreciate that genre , you have to possess a certain sense of humour ... and I don't think I do ...

~MICHELLE~
writer-in-transit.co.za

Charmaine Clancy said...

Love funny :) I like Terry Pratchett for humour as well, and I laughed a lot reading 'Thereby Hangs a Tail' by Spencer Quinn, a detective story told by the POV of the detective's dog.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Eric said...

Awesome choices here. I will have to pick up the first one though. It sounds great, but I haven't had the opportunity to peruse it yet. I can't decide which is better, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest or The Hitchhikers's Guide. Both are really great.

You make a great point about quotes inside the jacket cover. It's rare that I've ever truly laughed through an entire book, but it does happen. These selections are fine examples of that level of writing.

Twisted said...

I say this often, and loudly, but Joseph Heller's son Ted is a great comedy writer. I'm not sure what he's doing at the moment, but Funnymen is a great piece of literary comedy, if that's possible. He has a great sense of voice, and does brilliant irony.

I think some of Jane Austen's stuff is pretty funny as well, once you tune in to it.

And I'd probably include Roald Dahl in the list as well.

Anne K. Albert said...

Thought provoking post, especially about humor being so truthful. That's what strikes me most. Thank you. :)

the writing pad said...

I enjoy humourous books, but so often it turns out the promotional excerpts are the only funny bits in the entire novel! Loved your choices of genuinely funny books and enjoyed the reviews.
Thanks
All best
Karla

lesleylsmith said...

The only books that make me laugh out loud (as opposed to smile or think that's funny) are Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, One for the Money, etc.
Humor depends on expectations and hence one's culture. I enjoy Douglas Adams very much, for example, but he doesn't make me laugh out loud, he makes me think he's really amusing and soooo British. :)
I'll be blogging about books that make me laugh, too, this month...

Clarissa Draper said...

And not everyone likes the same kind of funny! I like funny undertones not jokes so much.

Talei said...

Lordy, alot of books make laugh. I enjoyed Jennifer Weiner's Best Friends Forever, I thought that was funny. And also, part of Sarah Addison Allen 'Garden Spells'. I reviewed both on my blog awhile ago. Also Girl Gone Swimming - by Josilyn Jackson - now, that was very funny (for me).

Myself, trying to write funny scenes, the really good ones are when the writing just flows. Usually based on some real life experiences.

Matthew Vanacore said...

You are so very right about what constitutes funny vs. not funny. It is such a subjective reaction. Surprisingly, I actually agree with your choices. I found myself laughing at these classics quite often. Nice post!

Austin James said...

I haven't read One Flew Over the CucKoos Nest or Catch 22 yet. Someday I will. I'm going to give Douglas Adams another try... I have the whole series on my bookshelf so I have nothing to lose.

L'Aussie said...

A genuinely funny book is hard to find and you've picked out some of the best, even though some of these are more tragic than funny at times.

Denise<3

L'Aussies Travel A-Z Challenge - J is for Japan

Girl Friday said...

I would love to find more funny books, there aren't enough around, or at least I haven't heard of them. Oddly enough I read Confederacy and Catch 22 a long time ago but never got past half way in both. The former just didn't quite do it for me, and the latter I enjoyed a great deal and thought it was funny, but it just didn't have enough plot to grip me. Perhaps I should try again though.

Some funny books I love: Three Men In A Boat, anything by Damon Runyon, some of Stephen Fry's novels, the early Stephanie Plums and The Mortdecai Trilogy. Diary of a Provincial Lady too. I'm going to read more PG Wodehouse soon, there's something about between-the-wars humour that I love, it's so deliciously witty.

Shannon Lawrence said...

It's been awhile since I read "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," but I don't recall thinking of it as funny. Now I feel like I need to read it again. I always thought it had some great quotable descriptions, though, and it was a great book. The Hitchhiker did make me laugh, as well, and raised some really deep questions about life here. Personally, Janet Evanovich makes me laugh. I actually considered writing about her for "J," but ended up writing too much and left it off.

Twisted said...

@Girl Friday - how could I forget Wodehouse? Jeeves is a superb creation, although I love the Psmith books for the cricket. Psmith isn't quite as much of a genius character, possibly because Mike is much more sensible than Wooster.

Moody, I hope your R entry focuses on relationships as they are can really drive character.

alberta ross said...

I have to say I never found Cukoos Nest funny - a great book yes and on my list of life changing reads as is Catch 22 which did make me laugh in places - Hitch hiker well yes I certainly laughed - I find I often laugh at conceits so that Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen will make me laugh - Terry Prachet yes -Three Men in a Boat even after decades of reading still leaves me in stitches (a conceit again)oh the list could go on

Christa said...

I loved Confederacy of Dunces. I also find myself frequently laughing out loud to David Sedaris and Bill Bryson.

Craig Edwards said...

Immediately I will say In God We Trust...all Others Pay Cash by Jean Sheppard. I have not read everything in your post - but I loved Hitchhiker's Guide and I did enjoy Catch 22. I also enjoyed this post, thank you!

Anonymous said...

i have read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe is that the book you are talking about

Brianna said...

I laugh out loud when reading Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. I'm only up to book #7 though.

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