Luke Ryan on the worthiness of comic writing
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I grew up in a gilded age for printed comedy. Guided by the book-buying whims of my older brother, mine was a pre-adolescence of Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side comics, the venerated output of Bill Watterson and Gary Larson respectively. Watterson and Larson were two artists who succeeded not only in wholly defining their chosen mediums, but who also took an arcing philosophical perspective on the practice and purpose of comedy: Watterson’s insistence on treating the comic as art; Larson’s ability to produce entire stories with a single image. Well-thumbed copies littered our bathroom, the victims of often half-hour sessions spent sitting on the toilet.
This isn’t really an essay about comics, but these were the two voices that most shaped how I thought about what it meant to make someone laugh on the page – and made me realise how rarely I witnessed this skill anywhere else. Yet comedy has always had trouble being taken seriously by the literary establishment, subject to a sort of Victorian-era bromide that whatever is enjoyable cannot possibly be worthy. For instance, it has not escaped my attention that, their unarguable mastery of craft notwithstanding, the natural home for the Watterson and Larson books was the family toilet.
In most novels, comedy, where it happens, exists as an adjunct to the proper purpose of writing, a broad aesthetic rather than direct punchline. The word comic most often pertains to authors in the vein of George Saunders, Martin Amis or Kurt Vonnegut, admirable writers whose work might never dare to draw an actual laugh from a reader. How gauche jokes are. (This is perhaps unfair to Amis, who did make me laugh once in Money, when he wrote, ‘The French, they say, live to eat. The English, on the other hand, eat to die.’)
Yet how can you not breathe a sigh of admiration for a sentence that possesses the easy grace of Terry Pratchett’s description of a noblewoman, ‘She was more highly bred than a hilltop bakery’? Pratchett is a supreme satirist and frequently funny writer who has always eluded literary respect due to a combination of prolificness, popularity and the fact that his novels take place on a flat circle world being carried through space on the back of a giant turtle. More successful have been the memoirists, of whom comedy is almost demanded as the price of admission for writing so unashamedly about one’s life: David and Amy Sedaris, Paul Feig, Sloane Crosley, Benjamin Law, Marieke Hardy.
While the age of the literary humorists – Wilde, Twain, Mencken, et al. – may have ebbed, the punch and thrust of comic writing remains as strong as ever, bolstered, I dare say, by a new breed of writers who grew up on non-authors like Watterson, Larson, Groening and Seinfeld. American writers such as Mike Sacks, Simon Rich and Jack Handey remain exponents of a pure comic form, where narrative exists purely as a vehicle for comedy. Many hold Jack Handey to be the English-speaking world’s greatest living exponent of the written one-liner. A former Saturday Night Live contributor, Handey achieved notoriety in the early 90s with his gloriously inane Deep Thoughts, a sequence of surreal short-form non-sequiturs that nonetheless operated with their own impeccable logic. For example:
If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.
Premise, subversion, punchline: Handey’s gags are perfect koans of irresistible function. The placement of commas is sublime. The choice of words: cavalier, all the time, good. The subtle invocation of hokey aphorism as an exaggerator of the base observation. Another:
It’s easy to sit there and say you’d like to have more money. And I guess that’s what I like about it. It’s easy. Just sitting there, rocking back and forth, wanting that money.
The best comic writing is as precise as good poetry: the careful economy of words with which conceit and rule must be established; the deployment of punctuation to inflect the pattern of a sentence. Yet Handey is also illustrative of the difficulty in expanding this form out beyond the frame of a single line, or a list, or a 500-word digression, and thus its difficulty in achieving mainstream recognition. Last year, Handey released his first novel, The Stench of Honolulu. It’s a slim tome and even so contains two chapters that are just thinly veiled additions to the Deep Thoughts canon. But it is relentlessly hilarious, in a way that few other books have ever attempted or achieved.
The chief dragged me back inside. He began pounding my head against the radiator. I know what you’re thinking: a radiator in Honolulu? Look, don’t worry about that right now. The main thing is, I was getting killed.
At a guess, the book is around 25,000 words, but gag writing this pure and refined is fiendishly hard work – both for writer and reader. Any longer and the rigorous minimalism of the prose would bring the fragile edifice of the book tumbling down. There’s not enough for the reader to hold onto, no sharply rendered world to offer escape. It’s methodical, almost mechanical in its pursuit of hilarity.
Perhaps the best recent piece of long form comic writing was Simon Rich’s Sell Out, a four-part serialisation for the New Yorker. (You can read the first part here.) Written in a style reminiscent of Handey, Rich – a disgustingly talented 30-year-old – manages to weave together satire, gag-writing and pathos in a gloriously self-reflexive story of generational difference, New York hipsterism, personal ambition, capitalist greed and homemade pickles. Yet for all its richness and humanity, it still clocks in at around 20,000 words. Unmoored from traditional narrative structures, there appears to be a distinct upper limit to comedy writing.
This brevity might be why pure comedy so rarely gets the respect or attention afforded other genres. Yet there is a profound art at play here. The precision and craft of these stories, or fragments, demands our admiration and laughter, and reminds us that there is no sin in taking purposeless pleasure from the written word. I revel in the flow and cadence of it, my brain flaring alive with the possibilities of language as if I was ten once more, locked in the toilet, basking in the glow of a transcendent silliness.