Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Sharon Wildwind

I love comedy. If I could, I’d write great comedy like Neil Simon or Larry Gelbart, the creator of M*A*S*H. My heroine is the Canadian writer and actor, Susan Coyne, who wrote and stared in Slings and Arrows.

I’m not ga-ga over all comedy. Jokes based on putting other people down leave me cold. So does physical comedy like The Three Stooges and the Keystone Cops, though I have to admit that Buster Keaton, Jackie Gleason, and Art Carney had such marvelous timing that their physical comedy was a pleasure to watch. Most TV sit-coms produce more yawns than giggles.

What I don’t like in books or plays is a steady stream of one-liners. There was an author I loved several years ago, when I first read her. Her first two books were hilarious. A couple of more were tiresome. Then I stopped reading. She hadn’t changed her writing; I’d changed my reading. I got tired of waiting for the characters to stop slinging zingers and start developing as people. I figured it was never going to happen.

My favorite fictional comedy character is an unlikely choice. He was born with severe birth defects into a society that tolerated no physical imperfections. Only his family’s social status and a troop of armed housemen kept him from being smothered in his crib. His childhood caretaker died saving his life.

The first woman he became involved with dumped him. The second was disfigured because he made a serious error in judgement. The third had her own genetic problems that guaranteed her a short life. The fourth was married, and he was tried for killing her husband.

He started his career by risking being executed, and ended it by lying to one of the few people who had stood by him when there was a price on his head. He spent a lot of time between those two ignominious points either under medical care or drunk out of his skull.

A relative was tortured to the point of madness because of him.

Are you laughing yet?

Comedy is so elusive, and so personal, it would seem that a writer has no hope of making large numbers of people laugh. And yet, writers do it. Recently I came across a quote from Clem Martini, the Head of the Drama Department at the University of Calgary. He said this about comedy.

“What makes a play comedic instead of tragic: light tone, the improbable treated as entirely probable, an ability to withstand punishment without suffering, an intense unyielding desire approaching an obsession, highly complicated plots, and speed. Humor rises out of the unexpected turn of events.”
~Clem Martini, The Blunt Playwright

Some of you have recognized my favorite comedy character: Lord Miles Vorkosigan in the series written by Lois McMaster Bujold. She’s managed not only to include everything in Martini’s list, but to build on each one. A light tone with a dark twist. The improbable is so entirely probable that you stop noticing any improbability. It’s not that miles withstands punishment without suffering. To borrow a phrase from last year’s Olympic Games, Miles owns the podium when it comes to suffering. But he does withstand punishment without bitterness, and he learns from the suffering. Whatever terrible ordeal he’s just come through, once he’s watered, rested, and properly medicated, he’s obsessed to right the wrong that caused the suffering in the first place. Highly complicated plots? He’s got several planets and a space mercenary fleet to play with. Can’t get much more complicated than that.

Or funnier.

Quote for the week
“Your forward momentum is going to lead all of your followers over a cliff someday.” He paused, beginning to grin. “On the way down, you’ll convince ‘em all they can fly.” He stuck his fists in his armpits, and waggled his elbows. “Lead on, my lord. I’m flapping as hard as I can.”
~Lois McMaster Bujold, The Warrior’s Apprentice


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Miles was not tried for killing her husband! He was suspected--quite a different thing. :) You've left out three additional important factors: great intelligence--both character's and author's--so that the wit is genuinely witty--ethics, and great compassion.

Speaking of ethics and compassion, I recently read a posthumous Dick Francis book, written by his son, that I thought failed (not in the marketplace, but in winning my sympathies) because the protagonist lacked the genuine decency that Francis Sr always brought to his characters. Subtle but crucial.

Do you like Donald Westlake's Dortmunder? Those books make me laugh out loud. There are hilarious lines (voice rather than zingers, maybe), Dortmunder doesn't develop greatly as a character, and his ethics are chaotic neutral at best, but he too has a core of decency that wins the reader's heart and makes what happens to him funny.

Jeff Cohen said...

Comedy, for me anyway, also has to include wit. Comedians who traffic in celebrating stupid characters don't hold much sway with me. And I think the thing about wit is that it pays attention. In dialogue, especially--and you can try this in real conversation--most people don't listen; they respond to universal cues. The ones who are paying attention have the ability to respond with humor. But that's just my opinion.

Sandra Parshall said...

Humor is so subjective. I find very few "humorous" mysteries truly funny, so I'm either cranky and humorless or very discriminating. :-) I guess black humor is what appeals to me in crime fiction, since the subject matter is so serious. I love the humor in the Monkeewrench novels, for example. I've never been able to get into the zaniness of Hiaassen's novels, but obviously plenty of other readers have.

Anonymous said...

Good points, Liz. My husband reads more Dortmunder than I do, but he does read me tasty bits from time to time.

Jeff, your books are some of my favorite comedy.

Sandra, yes Monkeewrench! And they certainly aren't dealing with light, fluffy subject matter.

Elizabeth said...

What's funny to me is I had just started a Jeffrey Cohen mystery and had to set it aside as an ILL request of Sharon's SOLDIER ON THE PORCH came in. They only gave me 1 week to read. No problem. Have enjoyed the series.

Yes, I don't like the stupid comedy or the one-liners with the little gap where I am expected to laugh on
command. I do love "droll wit"...I have heard that term, as found mostly in British writers, though also in Charlotte MacLeod's Peter Shandy series, Joan Hess' Claire Malloy series for example. Have not tried Westlake. SMB,SLT

Kaye George said...

What a wonderful post, Sharon! I love good comedy and study it endlessly. On the stage, it's all timing IMO. I wish I were brave enough to try standup. In print, I think your quote captures it. In fact, I printed it out. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, I'm honored that your would put aside another book to read SOP. Okay, Jeff, it was your book she put aside, and I apologize for that.

Kaye, by all means give stand-up comedy a try. I'll bet you would be terrific at it.

Kaye George said...

Oh no, I'm pretty sure I'd be horrible! I'd have to take so many downers I probably couldn't walk onto the stage. :)