Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Funny you should ask

I'm curious why comedy is not a genre for novels. I realize there are comedy books, but these are generally joke books, novelties, autobiographies/essay collections by comedians, etc. Why aren't funny novels just considered comedies? I suspect the answer has something to do with genres bleeding into each other and a funny book is never just a comedy and nothing else. But that's true in movies as well yet we still have comedy films. "Blazing Saddles" is a comedy. But if "Blazing Saddles" was a book it would be filed under western. Right? Why? Any thoughts on this?

Would Blazing Saddles be funny if it was a book? I haven't seen it for a while, but my recollection is that it depends heavily on visual (and audible) cues for the humor.

(One great thing about this job: I can now go watch Blazing Saddles and chalk it up as time spent on research. Please someone ask a complex question about Michael Gilbert so I can re-read his novels with a clear conscience!)

But on to your question.

While there was not a gathering of Arbiters of the Bookshelf who deemed comedy Not A Genre, it's also true that comedy is largely not considered a genre.

My best guess on the subject is that because humor is so subjective, there's no way to say "this belongs in comedy before it belongs in crime" if you're talking about the very funny novels of Gary Corby.

Or "this belongs in comedy before it belongs in science fiction or literary fiction" if you're talking about The Man in the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell.

Humor is not only subjective by person, it varies within each person as they grow up.

Think about what you found funny when you were ten. Or twenty. Or now. While some of us still think Captain Underpants is hysterical (me! me!) others have a more …ahem…reserved view of that kind of humor. Have you ever seen a movie or read a book that you loved loved loved as a kid, only to find it did not "age well?" Some of that is cause what's funny when you're 12 isn't funny when you're not.

Romance, westerns, mysteries and science fiction all have universal tropes that cross age lines. You'd recognize a romance in a book for teens, you'd recognize it in a sophisticated book of manners.

Comedy doesn't have tropes. You either think it's funny or you don't.

Comedy is too general to be a useful sorting tool. And too personal to be a useful designation.

Funny how that works, isn't it?


french sojourn said...

It's sounds like trying to split infinity. Hitchhikers Guide to the galaxy, while somewhat funny, clearly falls into Sci-fi. The Cuban Affair by Nelson Demille, also has funny bits but is clearly fiction / thriller / suspense.

I think comedy is part of the recipe used by a lot of authors to build their dialogue. I'm working on one that has a fair amount of humourous inappropriate observations, ( go figure) but it's clearly used to create balance to the darker parts of the recipe.

Good question, and answer, as usual.

Is it me just ageing rapidly, or is today's font micro times new roman?

Cheers Hank

kathy joyce said...

Saw Blazing Saddles recently. Didn't age well. (The comedy, not me. Well, maybe me, but that's not the point.)

MA Hudson said...

A genre that includes Pride & Prejudice and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? That's comedy gold right there.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I’m trying to think of something really funny to write.
It ain’t workin’.
I want to make a humorous point to show how brilliant I am (especially today) because Janet’s post is about humor. But for the life of me I can’t think of one humorous thing to write.
Trust me, I can be funny. I can be humble. (Now that’s funny) I can be good looking too, in a well-aged kind of way. But today...I can’t be funny and I can’t be thin.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

All of Lawrence Block's Burglar books are hysterical. I belly laugh cover to cover, but I get why they are not shelved under "humor" with the books of toilet paper jokes and 101 uses for dead cats. It's not where Bernie Rhodenbarr belongs. So I kind of get this.

Now about The Reef's collaborative works on life in Carkoon. From mystery to Dino-porn and Ill-fated vegan romance, these stories are hysterical...

Unless you've been exiled to Carkoon. Then they are horror. So yep, comedy is subjective.

Colin Smith said...
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Colin Smith said...

For a moment I thought Barbara Poelle had taken over the blog... ;)

Janet has this right, I think. "Comedy" may be a movie or TV show genre, but not for books. A novel can be humorous, and you convey that in a query through the query's voice. You don't say, as my kids used to, "This is funny...!" as if to alert the reader that a smile at the very least is expected. The back-cover blurb of a book may describe the book as "comedic" or "humorous"--but that's where it's appropriate.

Hank: HITCHHIKERS somewhat funny? It's ridden with humor. And Douglas Adams's humor is not only in the dialog, but in the concepts (Vogon poetry), and the satire (destroying the Earth to build an interstellar bypass, the plans for which have been available on a distant planet for some time, so the people of Earth can hardly complain about not being informed!). OK, I know humor is subjective--I'll let you off on that. But while I think the humor is the big draw for Adams's work, I would agree it's better classified simply as sci-fi. Just as Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" series is fantasy, though the books are both humorous and satirical, in the same vein as Adams.

Also, while Gary Corby's books do have a strong humor element to them, there's a death scene in SINGER FROM MEMPHIS that is absolutely heart-wrenching.

There's my initial 2 cents...

mythical one-eyed peace officer said...

A Confederacy of Dunces?

Lennon Faris said...

Humor even depends on my mood. If I am slightly uncomfortable, nothing is funny. If I'm with people I adore, almost everything is. Even (especially?) the wildly dumb/ morbid/ inappropriate stuff.

2Ns, you could write about your bone between your shoulder and elbow. That's pretty humerus.

french sojourn said...

Colin: Agreed, but again humor is subjective. I think The search for the holy grail, is riotous, but Life of Brian was a five minute skit stretched to a film length yawn. I think it's also regional. I grew up with Bert and I. Maine ( see mainiac) humor. I think they were the downeast version of your The two Ronnies. (brilliant, especially "Fork Handles"...or is it "Four Candles"?)

Cheers Hank.

Mister Furkles said...

“Brevity is the soul of wit.” Hence, timing is very important to humor. One old Vaudeville hand said Jack Benny’s timing was so perfect that he could walk on stage, say one word, and the audience would crack up laughing.


So, in a novel, you don’t control timing, the reader does. This makes humor hard to write. There could be a class of comedy novels if only there were more authors who could write it while appealing to a general audience.

Bryan Fagan said...

Unintentional comedy is an excellent form of comedy. The characters have no idea their actions are causing a laugh. In their minds it is the only way life should be. One of my favorite movies, 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' is a great example. On one hand it is a comedy with characters acting out their lives unaware they are hilarious. On the other hand it is romantic and sad. Comedy isn't just one thing it is used as a form to build characters and relationships with the view and/or reader.

Julie Weathers said...
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BJ Muntain said...

It comes down to what the audience is looking for. Readers are looking for a world in which to be immersed for some hours. Movie-goers are looking for a mood.

Books are internal. Readers use their imaginations to see what they're reading, so what they're seeing includes more of themselves. They filter it through their experiences, their wants and needs, their knowledge and emotions.

Movies are external. Someone else's vision is being shown to you. Move-goers' immersion goes as far as mood - happy, hopeful, sad, thoughtful, scared, excited.

Thus you have the different types of genres. Movie genres are moods: comedy, drama, action/adventure, and so on. Book genres are worlds/situations: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, contemporary, and so on.

Megan V said...

Today's post made me think of A Comedy of Terrors, which was featured on QueryShark once upon a time. Hilarious. But then, I suppose, primarily fantasy.

Something I've never considered before.

Melanie Savransky said...
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Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Why aren't funny novels just considered comedies?

There are dozens and dozens of authors who are considered humorists. Their fans and followers expect a comedic tale with each new release. There are lists on amazon/goodreads and so on where they are categorized as such.

I'm wondering if pigeonholing the author as a humorist sort of creates a genre?

Lennon HA!

Karen McCoy said...

Anything Mel Brooks in writing would make me smile. And I need it today. I lived in California's Wine Country from ages 2 to 25, and it is an area I will always consider home, no matter where I live. My family and friends so far seem to be safe, which I am thankful for, though they are surviving with no power. Now, we pray for containment.

Sorry, OT, but I just wanted to reiterate how important comedy is, for everyone.

John Davis Frain said...

Comedy is all about timing.

So putting this post in the wake of Trigger Warnings was some nice comic relief, Janet. Makes me wonder what we'll get punched with tomorrow.

That's the problem with a good set up--following up with a better delivery. We all know that score.

kathy joyce said...

Confederacy of Dunces! Thanks, peace officer, I haven't thought about it in years. Funny book, sad life of the author.

Sam Mills said...

Where to shelve a book is just a marketing decision, right? Whether or not the jokes land for people is up to reviewers, but if it was intended to be funny it doesn't seem too hard to tag a book as humor. Bookstores don't have a 'drama' section either though, so I don't think they'll get on board with comedy, even though we want it.

I sort my movies by genre (in case I'm in a particular mood!) and when there is a genre/comedy cross we have to decide which is the primary element: is it scifi with jokes, or a comedy with a scifi setting? Mostly it works, but will I ever make up my mind where to put Galaxy Quest??

David Wolf said...

Donald Westlake's Dortmunder series was hilarious. Crime capers by clowns. Yet those clowns acted rationally, even intelligently at times. Most times. It was the situation that got the best of them. In Bank Shot, Westlake builds up the suspense of a possible siege and shootout all because the chief of police mused about needing a cup of coffee while his mike was live. A bunch of cops, wanting to do the chief a favor, go to fetch him some. None of the cops knew that Dortmunder's gang of clowns was holed up in the RV that's parked where there used to be a coffee shop. So the cops converge, and they accept Dortmunder's mom's explanation that the "restaurant" hasn't got their gas hooked up yet. So no guns are fired.

Colin Smith said...

The most likely place to find "drama" and "comedy" sections in a book store is with plays.

I'm considering writing a drama/comedy. I'll call it a dromedary. Not sure if that idea will hold water, though...


kathy joyce said...

OMG, this conversation made me think of the funniest scene I ever read. I can't remember the book or author, only the scene. I'm laughing now, probably 20 years later. A small Texas town is celebrating with a parade. People want a cranky old citizen to participate, but he can't stay on a horse. So, they rope his feet together under the horse's belly. The horse parades, and the man keeps slipping, until he's sideways. The scene is funny in the description, but the real humor is in how people react and decide what to do. I have to go find this book now! :)

Joseph Snoe said...

Two men walked into a bar.
The third man ducked.

I'm sorry. I heard that joke three months ago and it still pops up in my mind from time to time.

Joseph Snoe said...

A prime example of books that start out funny and halfway through twist into tragedy is "Catch-22." It was hilarious until a character was killed on an airstrip, then it wasn't not funny anymore.

The Sleepy One said...

Joseph Snoe, I've always been partial to:

Two men walk into a bar. You can understand the first, but the second one should have known.

Or (because I'm going to ruin my jokes by not knowing when to stop):

Two men walk into a bar. One man orders H2O. The other says, “I’ll have H2O too.”
The second man dies.

Craig F said...

I always think of comedy as sight gags. I do know that classic difference between a drama and a comedy is only in who dies but I was raised on those old black and white TV comedies.

In books it takes too much to make a sight gag work. Since it involves a fall guy it runs the risk of becoming distasteful.

An example of distasteful humor, in my opinion, is Tim Dorsey and his serial killer MC, Serge Storms.

I do love science jokes.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

LENNON hahaha !
Bone-afied funny-bone.

Lynne Main said...

When Kathy mentioned Blazing Saddles not aging well, I thought of a film that has stood the test of time: It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Talk about freakin' hilarious. My kids love this movie, and considering it came out in 1963 (long before they were thought of), that says something about the film's humor. As far as I'm concerned, Ethel Merman steals the movie.

Also, if I were to categorize Blazing Saddles, I'd call it a "spoof of westerns", 'cause that's the forte of Mel Brooks. What hasn't that man hilariously spoofed in his films? My favorite of his movies is a tie between Young Frankenstein and Spaceballs.

I'm not sure one could write "just" a comedy book, because for all the comedy there is, it is balanced with something else: tragedy. Erma Bombeck once said: "There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt."

Oh, and The Sleepy One, of course the second guy died...he drank hydrogen peroxide, for Pete's sake! ;) Love that joke.

Panda in Chief said...

It just goes to show you how subjective humor is, as I read the comments. I still find Blazing Saddles, The Blues Brothers, and The Big Liebowski hysterically funny, even given all the dated references that in real life I don't think are funny at all. Also, the first time I Listened to Hitchhikers Guide, I had to be careful not to spew coffee all over my painting.

Humor is definitely a tricky thing. Finding the humor in the horrific, and not having it come off as cruel and insensitive is a line humorists are having to walk more than we'd like these days.

Unknown said...

There are so few books that can legitimately be called comedy and comedy alone.

Terry Pratchett was one of the funniest writers around but his novels were fantasies. Other writers have a humorous side to them but their novels are also easily classified as mysteries or sci-fi or romances.

But comedy alone? I can think of Carl Hiaasen and Tom Sharpe (British writer who wrote some scathingly funny books even if they are somewhat dated today).

If you had a section of the bookstore that was "Comedy" and comedy alone with no other tie-ins, you'd be looking at just a handful of books. Not enough for an entire shelf, even.

So it's easier to put the handful of comedy novels with the other categories.

Fact is, it's very hard to write humor. Very, very hard. Much harder than possibly anything else.

AJ Blythe said...

Late and no time to read the comments, so apologies if this has been said. At this year's conference the consistent theme from editors and agents was romantic comedy was back in and was universally sought across the board.

Dave Clark said...

You illuminated a facet of comedy that many people miss, and that is: Are you presenting the right material to the right audience? As a long-time comedy writer, I developed a dry-yet-bulletproof theory of comedy: Comedy is an uplifting surprise in a social context. From my long experience, not connecting with the audience is the clear #1 reason why comedy may fail its mission, which is getting laughs.