Knowing when to say uncle »« The humor of P. G. Wodehouse

“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard”

Those words were supposedly spoken by the actor Sir Donald Wolfit on his deathbed.

When it comes to acting, comedy is far harder to pull off well than tragedy. With tragedy, earnestness will take you a long way. Not so with humor. The elements of comedy are so ephemeral that it is hard to script. We all have had the experience of having laughed uproariously at something and then tried to tell the story to someone else and been confronted with bafflement or a polite smile and been reduced to weakly explaining “You had to be there.” We all know people who can tell a marginally funny story in such a way that it evokes great laughs while others manage to make unfunny even the best comedic material.

This is true with writers too. Anyone who has tried to write anything humorous will immediately sympathize with Wolfit’s sentiment. I suspect that most people who see themselves as writers eventually succumb to the temptation to try their hand at humor, usually with disastrous results. The worst culprits are those newspaper columnists who write on serious topics and once in a while try to write inject some humor. What they usually resort to is satire or parody because, being derivative, such forms require the least originality.

A favorite device of political columnists is to describe some fictional conversation between well-known figures on the topic of the day. The result, unfortunately, is usually cringe-inducing because it is usually so heavy-handed. Even satire and parody require a deft and light touch to pull off but most writers tend towards hamhandedness and overkill. The central humorous conceit that triggered the idea of writing a funny piece usually can be told in just a few lines but it takes a lot of skill to stretch it out over a whole essay, let along a book, and very few writers can do that. Because I love reading humorous writing, I too have succumbed to the temptation to try my hand at it and the results have appeared occasionally on this blog (though some readers might have not have realized the humorous intent!)

It is tempting to want to write humor because the experts make it look so deceptively easy. But the words that seem to have been just tossed off casually hide a lot of hard work. In the case of Wodehouse, he would rewrite repeatedly, trying to get just the right word or phrase, carefully setting up and rearranging scenes, and worrying about the pacing of the plot. If he was dissatisfied with the way a novel was developing, he would sometimes ruthlessly throw everything out and start over. That requires real toughness because it is easy to get attached to one’s words and be loath to throw away weeks or months of hard work.

Good writing of any kind requires repeated rewriting and this is what makes humor so hard. When you are writing a serious piece, it is easy to go back and polish and re-polish, trying to make the point clearer and more effectively, trying to find the correct words and images to convey the central idea.

The reason it is so hard to do this with humor is that an important element of humor is surprise, the sudden appearance of the unexpected. Once the basic joke has been written, it is hard for the writer to go back to revise it and still think of it as funny. And the more one rewrites, the unfunnier it seems to get. This leads to the temptation to overwrite, to adorn the writing with flourishes that makes the humor seem forced.

Just as it takes hard work by a chef with great skill to get the lightness and airiness of a soufflé, the difficulty with comedy is keep it light. I suspect that good humorists have the ability to keep their focus on the central joke and to still see it as funny even after they have rewritten it many times. They are able to keep it light while sharpening it and making it more pointed, while those less skilled tend to weigh it down.

I cannot think of any contemporary novelists who I find to be in the same league of funniness as a Wodehouse. One of the funniest non-novelist writers currently is Dave Barry. His weekly columns in the Miami Herald are consistently good and his many books are a laugh riot. His humor is broader (and coarser) than that of a Wodehouse, funny is a very different way. His quick romp through American history in Dave Barry Slept Here and his travel book on Japan Dave Barry Does Japan are well worth reading. (For a brief excerpt of the latter, see here.)

POST SCRIPT: McCain=Bush in more ways than one

George Bush was notorious for being so insecure that his team would keep out of the audience anyone who looked like they might be even mildly critical of him, even if it was simply on a t-shirt. It looks like McCain is very much like Bush in this regard. At a recent public event, a librarian was threatened with arrest for having a sign that said simply ‘McCain=Bush’.

It is interesting that being identified with the sitting president of your own party is seen as such a threat by the candidate.

Comments

  1. Chris says

    There was an article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal this morning that I thought was a pretty good use of humor in reporting, although it did get to be a little too much by the end. The article was about an internal feud among the Amalgamated Order of Real-Bearded Santas. It seems they have a polarizing leader.

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