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.
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