But Seriously, Folks

The following is my column for the October 2010 edition of the monthly newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Defining and analyzing humor is a pastime of humorless people.”
— Robert Benchley

To avoid betraying my idol, Mr. Benchley, I’ll rationalize. This is not analysis but a lesson on creating humor. Books I’ve been reading have given me a clue on crafting humor in columns. If I kill the joke by explaining it, I will have wasted my own work not yours.

Most of my books get read while driving. Not an iPad or Kindle — too hard to “turn” the pages and steer — but books recorded on CD. Recently, they’ve been novels that nytimes.com reviews as comic. Know what? Most of them aren’t. Some make me so mad I don’t finish them — I don’t believe the characters, or the background drags. Others are decent, but the LOLs (that’s “laugh out loud” for texters) disappear part-way through. In mid-summer, I figured it out, then continued reading and reconsidering past works to test the hypothesis.

Disclaimer: My insight might be stolen, unintentionally. It seems original, but more than ever nothing’s unique in the Web-wide World (cq). Worse: My concept could be wrong. Worse and criminal: My precious baby hypothesis could be both wrong and derivative.

Successful humor (and satire) has to choose between funny people or a funny situation. Humor needs the other one to hold steady. In fiction or anecdotal column, the author either makes fun of the characters or the world they inhabit — NOT BOTH.

Here are recent major-league books billed as comic novels but fall short because they have a funny foot in both: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, The Frozen Rabbi By Steve Stern, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke, Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames.

Here are new comic novels that succeed, because their authors chose one not both fields to plunder: Solar by Ian McEwan (clowns), Inherent Vice (situation) by Thomas Pynchon, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (situation) by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Star Island (clowns) by Carl Hiaasen. Writers who consistently succeed this way this include Charles Portis, Michael Chabon, Hiaasen and even Stephen King.

Graham Greene revealed this to me, at least the chap who read to me in the car the classic Our Man in Havana. The Brit who detailed espionage and doomed love also could be funny. The omniscient narrator (the background) in Our Man in Havana struck satirical points over the fall of Cuba’s Batista and rise of Castro, but his main target was the Cold War. The main characters are realistic. They’re odd and often dumb but not buffoons. It’s more obvious in the book than the movie, but you can see what I mean in the film (starring Obi-Wan Kenobi in early middle age).

There’s a chance that few of you have read all these particular books. Fortunately, the same principal applies to shows.

Two examples of comic characters in a serious world? The movie Dr. Strangelove. No laughs in nuclear holocaust, but I still howl at seeing photos online of Gen. Buck Turgidson, President Merkin Muffley and the title character. Both the movie and TV versions of M*A*S*H. The characters range from clowns — Radar O’Reilly and Major Frank Burns — to self-ironic heroes (they’re in on the joke) Hawkeye and Klinger, among others.

Three examples of serious characterizations in a world shown as twisted? Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (modernization), Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction (free will) and Adam Sandler in Funny People (cancer).

Their forte of course are silly characters: Carrey’s Ace Ventura, Sandler’s The Wedding Singer and Ferrell’s Anchorman. That absurdity is built into pro sports, party management and local TV means screenwriters don’t need to add much.

When movie comedies go wrong it’s because their creators want to mock both sides, and these three stooges have made plenty of those.

Clear enough? With this, you can tackle that column idea that won’t settle into prose.

As a home-owning do-it-yourselfer, I rarely know my limits. Even when I do, little goes right. Last week we replaced three storm doors. After skimming the manual in the store, I hired a professional who’d worked for neighbors for years. He estimated an hour per door. I had him look closely at the tricky one in the carport of this 59-year-old house, but he was confident — three, maybe four hours.

It took him just over two days, including both of us leaving one door half-hung in the carport and driving the two other doors still in boxes back to the store for a consultation, where the department manager himself called the 1-800 support number.

My first inclination was to write up everything. For a carpenter, everything is a nail; a humorist hates leaving any screws loose. There’s Home Depot, the handyman, me, the “they don’t build them this good anymore” older house.

Today’s lesson is to choose person or situation. A) Satirize the recession — decent price on the doors, a good fellow available right now at far cheaper than the in-store installation service. Or B)Tell the story as self-deprecation, householder Ben as well-intentioned doofus.

The fact the latter’s close to the truth should make writing this a snap.

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