They say that if you want to learn to drive a car it is best to learn in a car with manual transmission. The reasoning says that manual is more difficult than automatic and once you’ve learned how to manage a gearshift anything else is plain sailing. Well, I learned to write what passes for humor in one of the toughest places I could think of. I used to have a regular weekly column in a Sunday newspaper. It was in the sports section and the main topic was angling. The remit was: it has to be about angling issues and it has to be entertaining. You might think this is easy, but there are only about three angling issues and making something “entertaining” is the “Holy Grail” of every writers. So I had my work cut out. I was also writing to a deadline and I can think of no more effective wet blanket than the phrase: be funny; you’ve got ten minutes. Nevertheless, they published me for 7+ years before other work commitments took over or did they get fed up with me? Can’t remember.
Anyway, I was thinking about how humor is created now, compared to how it was done in the past. Charles Dickens managed to convey humor through a number of different means. First he gave his characters funny names: Pumblechook, Heap, Philip Pirrip, Bumble, Malaprop etc. Secondly, he wrote “in a funny way”. What I mean by that was that the author’s asides to the reader were one of the main devices he used to spice up a scene. And lastly he used the inherently humorous situations. Most of these methods would be considered heavy handed today, since they tend to telegraph the laughs before you ever reach them. And when you write a whole book using these little tricks it could drive a modern reader to the madhouse – which is why I have never managed to reach the end of the Pickwick Papers even though I’ve tried several times.
Here’s an example from Little Dorritt: “Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT.” (book I, ch 10) Okay, it’s taken out of context etc. etc. I know. But the point is that you have to be in a Dickens mood to find it funny. He has already told you it’s going to be funny with the name “Circumlocution Office” so the switcheroo at the end is slightly mitigated. Here’s a modern example from Dave Barry talking about Florida: “Just get on any major highway, and eventually it will dead-end in a Disney parking area large enough to have its own climate, populated by large groups of nomadic families who have been trying to find their cars since the Carter administration.” Okay that was from a non-fiction book but you get the point. He’s using tricks but he doesn’t telegraph them
Reading any novel that was published before the beginning of the 20th century is like learning a different language. Most of them just aren’t snappy enough for modern tastes. But trying to analyze what makes something funny, or even worse, how to write humorously is doomed to failure. So I won’t. Instead, here are a few quotes from the master of them all, P.G. Wodehouse:
“He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”
“To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement his book would have been finished in half the time.”
“The Right Hon. Was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say when”