Are You Trying To Be Funny?

Literature is Easy; Comedy is Hard

In his sporadically amusing 1987 book Cvltvre Made Stupid, quondam humorist Tom Weller provides a Consumer Reports-style “Leading Novels Rated” chart, in which the smart buyer is warned that many books tested were “poorly constructed, excessively slow, or hard to start.” Check-marks told the potential consumer of great literature which classics featured exciting parts, dirty parts, and the all-important movie versions (for the student in a hurry), while a negatively-rated “Too Long” column warned away from the perilously prolix — Remembrance of Things Past got an industry-low three points off for length. It’s a pretty funny little throwaway gag, but there’s one thing that always haunted me about it: the column with the fewest check-marks — only two novels from a list of 29 classics of western literature score in this category — is “Funny Stuff.” If you feel like taking ironclad rules about art away from throwaway paperback humor books, the one you’ll find here is: great literature isn’t funny.

Or is it funny literature isn’t allowed to be great? Tom Weller doesn’t have the answers; apparently, he got the same advice I did a few months back when, in the space of a month, a literary agent, an editor at an independent publishing house, and a best-selling author all told me, in so many words, that humor doesn’t sell. Cvltvre Made Stupid was his last book, and if Google doesn’t mislead me, he went on to the glamorous world of small-time web design, of the “TOP 95% OF THE WEB AWARD!” sort that went out of fashion around 1995. Of course, he wasn’t pretending to great literature; he was just trying to give a few people a few chuckles. He gave them to me, and, judging from the fact that all three of what he calls “remnants of my former life in the world of books” are long out of print, maybe six or seven other people in the entire world. The odds are pretty good that you’ve never heard of Tom Weller.

Which, in itself, isn’t indicative of any kind of problem. More problematic is the fact that you’ve probably also never heard of Flann O’Brien. The man whose dad named him Brian Ó Nuallain wrote a handful of the greatest Irish novels of the century, and often gets mentioned alongside people like Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, but hasn’t even remotely approached their level of popularity. If you can call it that; the number of people who have actually read Joyce and Beckett is miniscule, and the number who have read O’Brien is smaller still. The only tic his hype-meter ever sustained was when his amazing novel The Third Policeman was briefly seen on a recent episode of Lost; beyond that, O’Brien — a brilliant author, a fascinating figure, and a multi-talented writer who provided insightful journalism and riotous humor in the pages of the Irish Times — is nearly unknown. It’s not from lack of effort on the part of his peers; Beckett was a fan; Anthony Burgess, John Updike and William Saroyan praised him to the rafters; and Graham Greene mentioned his masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds (a book which inspired Dylan Thomas to utter the greatest cover blurb I’ve ever read: “This is just the book to give your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl”), in the same breath as Tristram Shandy and Ulysses. Even the author of the latter, who had a curious relationship with O’Brien (who, though hugely influenced by him, felt that the literary cult that grew around him had overshadowed the entire of Irish literature, going so far as to say “I declare to God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob”), called him “a real writer” and had nothing but good things to say about his books.

But Flann O’Brien, you see, had a problem. He was funny. And in the minds of many of the most influential critics of the western canon, funny had best not darken the door of literature if it wants to be called great. A novelist can be forgiven lots of things — pretension, bad behavior, unchecked ego, questionable politics, or becoming a living self-parody — but what a novelist can never do is rouse in the minds of a critic or theorist the suspicion that he’s telling jokes. They don’t like it; they think something’s being put over on them. They begin to imagine that the teller of jokes is having them on, encouraging a chuckle at the expense of an art form at which they, the critics, have spent a lifetime making serious faces. Art may be a reflection of life, and life may be filled with many moments of laughter, but laughter is the one thing most critics seem to think should not be reflected in the pages of great writing. S.J. Perelman, who saw comic genius every time he looked in the mirror, sealed O’Brien’s critical fate the minute he said the Irishman was “the best comic writer I can think of”; from that point forward, critics shoved him in the cage marked FUNNYMAN, from which greatness is never allowed to emerge. From then on, he had trouble finding publishers for anything he wrote, with the stunning The Third Policeman — a hugely funny book as well as a legitimate literary achievement, an unsettling and strange precursor to postmodernism — being so widely rejected that O’Brien shame-facedly claimed that his only copy had been destroyed, to avoid admitting that no one would buy it.

If you don’t believe that trying to make people laugh dooms your reputation as a serious novelist as certainly as would writing your books in crayon, don’t take my word for it, or Flann O’Brien’s, for that matter. There are dozens of counter-examples. Take Terry Southern, the tall Texan who, if he is remembered fondly, is remembered as the screenwriter of Easy Rider and Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Despite a recent mini-revival prompted by his recent death and a subsequent reissue of his major novels by Grove Press, most people know his books from the unsuccessful film adaptations. The movie versions of Candy and The Magic Christian (Southern contributed to the screenplay of the latter, but wasn’t involved with the former) were, respectively, horrible and wildly uneven, but the novels are far better; The Magic Christian, indeed, is one of the best books of its generation, and as a satire of American consumerism, greed and money-lust, is nearly unequalled — though see below. As usual, while critics sniff and pedagogues ignore (O’Brien and Southern, as well as many other writers discussed in this essay, are entirely absent from university literature surveys and nearly so from critics’ top-whatever lists), fellow artists stand up: Southern’s prose was fawned over by heavy hitters like Nelson Algren and Stanley Kubrick, who considered him the finest writer in America. Norman Mailer, though politically the polar opposite of Terry Southern, called him “the rightful heir of Nathanael West.” And William S. Burroughs (who had something of the same problem of critics finding his books insufficiently free of any taint of unseriousness) wrote an introduction to Southern’s astoundingly good Flash and Filigree in which he almost begged people to notice how great the writing was. But this time around it was Gore Vidal who, thinking he was doing Southern a favor, drove the last nail into his coffin, calling him “the most profoundly witty writer of our generation.” Thanks a lot, Gore. Reviewers, as they will, focused on the “witty” part and not on the “profound” part, and it wasn’t until he was dead that anyone bothered to notice that there was more to Terry Southern than the funny parts and the dirty parts.

Long is the list of people who got relegated to the trash-heap of the merely funny once some reviewer noticed that his advance copy had a joke in it. Stanley Elkin started out writing amazing, bold books like the ambitious George Mills, the hilarious Boswell: A Modern Comedy, and the absolutely incredible A Bad Man; following the pattern, other writers noticed the brilliant prose and the deep meaning interspersed with all the humor (among his fans were Saul Bellow, Paul Auster, and, unsurprisingly, Terry Southern), but critics found the mixture confusing and hard to pin down. Although he won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award twice and finally got critical recognition late in life when he was dying of multiple sclerosis, it was after he’d already been beaten down by the failure of his funniest books. He gained his audience with maudlin, middlebrow stuff like Mrs. Ted Bliss and critic-pleasing “serious” work like The Franchiser, which reflected “real life” — a state of being entirely devoid of jokes. Douglas Adams (and Stefano Benni, the Douglas Adams of Italy) doubly damns himself by maintaining dual residence in the Comedy and Genre Ghettos; Will Self is accused of being a cynic, and also of populating his books with talking gorillas; and Shalom Auslander gets marketed as a funnyman — which he is — instead of the most interesting Jewish writer since Philip Roth — which he also is.

A strange converse to the rule that funny writers are never allowed by critics to become great is that great writers often have the funny parts of their novels ignored by critics. There are a number of novelists whose work is simply too heavy with brilliance for solemn critics to ignore; so the next best thing is to minimize the humor, as if what is essential to the work’s success can be easily dismissed if it doesn’t fit the recipe of what makes a book great. Many of the writers mentioned above — William S. Burroughs, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Gore Vidal — have penned books which contain very, very funny passages, and none of them are accidental. Burroughs’ reputation as an iconoclastic ur-rebel allows po-faced undergrads to overlook the fact that his books contain talking assholes (no, not literary critics, but rather actual talking assholes) and Wild West gangs called “The Wild Fruits.” Joyce’s Ulysses is so overwhelmingly brilliant and multi-layered that the protectors of seriousness in literature successfully bet that they can leave out of their analyses how truly funny it is. Vidal’s reputation as an essayist and political gadfly have outstripped his reputation as a novelist, so nobody has to pretend anymore that Myra Breckinridge was a work of straight-faced profundity. And Beckett — well, Beckett is a special case. Everyone knows the guy was a very rarefied comedian; even the stodgiest defenders of the canon now have to admit that Waiting for Godot is straight-up played for laughs at least half of its run-time. But luckily, Beckett was an existentialist, a doom-struck laughing skeleton, and a recipient of the same kind of overpowering cult fervor that so rankled Flann O’Brien, so his reputation is secure despite the presence of so many laughs in his books.

Thomas Pynchon is an especially instructive case. I’ve written elsewhere and at length about how he has a surprisingly muddled reputation for a writer of (to me, at least) such obvious greatness, and that the negative critical reaction to him seems like it’s written in code at times. “Clever” is one of the words most often aimed his way, as if it were a negative; “sophomoric” is another, which seems to carry the implication that only people young enough to still have an active sense of play can appreciate him. He doesn’t help his case by seeming to take the whole idea of being a famous novelist as a lark; stoic critics will forgive the humor in Kafka because Franz was, in his personal life, a miserable, depressed botch-job of a human being, but they’re less willing to forgive a guy who does voice-overs on The Simpsons and sends comedians to pick up his awards when he should be at writer’s workshops pontificating. William Gaddis is a similar case; although the critical community that prefers their novels dour and gag-free can’t overlook the humor in his books (especially The Recognitions and JR, which ranks with The Magic Christian as one of the preeminent satires of modern capitalism ever created), they prefer self-flattering terms like “difficult” to lowbrow descriptives like “funny.” Even the hilarious Donald Barthelme is more praised for his formal invention than his fantastic sense of humor — which is as it should be; he’s famous for being inventive, not for being funny, but he could have just as easily applied a “serious” framework to his invention, and the presence of humor is far from accidental.

I’ve committed a lot of cardinal sins in this essay. I’ve overgeneralized; certainly, the majority of the writers I’ve cited enjoy a good critical reputation, no matter how late in the day it might have come. I’ve attributed consensus where none exist; the value of humor in Joyce may be underexplored, but it’s far from unexplored. I’ve allowed personal bias to color my premise; after all, I’m a humor writer (though you’d be forgiven for not knowing it from this piece), and critical underappreciation of the funny always gets my hackles up. I’ve used pretty prominent writers as my examples rather than more obscure ones who might make my case better. And worst of all, I’ve left myself with a lot of what and not a lot of why; beyond armchair psychology and idle speculation, I’m not sure why so many critics give short shrift to good novelists who bring lots of humor to their writing. So formless is my argument I can barely give it a name: in the end I’m left with piles and piles of reviews that make subtle little sniffs when a writer lets his sense of play get too active, with careers that climb only so high on the ladder of esteem, with Stanley Elkin retreating to the safety of the novel of manners, Flann O’Brien spinning lies about a fire, Terry Southern giving up on literature for the movie business.

Then again, it’s no secret in the world of film that if you want your movie to be a lasting critical success, you won’t make it a comedy. Just as with literature, critics are extremely reluctant to give the badge of greatness to something that makes people laugh. (Terry Southern was one of the few people to get both edges of the blade in this regard; his novels were sniffed at by contemporary critics who associated him with Dr. Strangelove, while Dr. Strangelove, even today, doesn’t enjoy as much critical regard as some of Kubrick’s more “serious” films.) One of the oddest debates in Oscar history recurs from time to time: should there be a special category called “Best Comedy”? It comes up because so few comedies have ever been nominated for Best Picture and fewer still have won; the tacit understanding is that it’s simply impossible for a comedic film to achieve the level of greatness possible in a “serious” one. The same problem haunts literature: reading the reviews of even those who loved a book, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, for example, with Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, it’s not that it’s not a great book, or that it lacks some quality of greatness that is found in a serious novel — it’s that, since it is more essentially a comedy than a drama, there is something lesser about it, something that prevents it from occupying the top floor of the Great Novels Arms. It is this I read in the oddly conflicted, uncertain criticism of many of the writers here mooned over, and this I look at in sorrow not in anger (or, as O’Brien put it, in Seurat, not in Ingres).

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was a postmodernist novel before there was postmodernism (before there was modernism, for that matter), and it was also one of the funniest novels ever written to that point. (It still is.) But it confused the hell out of the critics. Reviewers back then — who were, by and large, other writers, clearly dumbfounded by the disorientingly weird book — didn’t know what to make of this crazed tour de force, and they still don’t. The canon was no more at ease with a book whose main character (conceived when his mother memorably interruptused some coitus by reminding his father to set the clocks) takes close to 150 pages just to get born, any more than they are now with a book that sends a Catholic priest into the sewers of New York to convert the rats to Christianity. But it was a different world back then; Tristram Shandy was a huge popular success, largely due to its wild sense of humor. Since that time ... well, since I borrowed Tom Weller to start this pointless essay, I’ll borrow him again to close it out:

In later centuries, the novel was recognized as the crown of literary endeavor, and became a part of every school curriculum. As a result the typical serious novel is now read by five hundred people at the outside, all of whom write for the New York Review of Books.