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Humour on the Page:

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Charles Demers

on 9 November 2015

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Transcript of Humour on the Page:

Humour on the page: comic prose & verse
"Because if I tell a story, I control the version...
...Because if I tell a story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.”
How did each of the readings for this week use humour to confront or explore something scary? Did it work?
What are the advantages and disadvantages to using humour to confront or explore fear?
Some types of text-based comedy:
Comic essays & non-fiction
e.g. the columns of Tabatha Southey or Alan Fotheringham; the comic personal essays of Davids Rakoff & Sedaris; the historical writing of Sarah Vowell
Comic fiction: novels & short stories
e.g. Laurence Sterne; Franz Kafka; Mordecai Richler (also non-fiction); Evelyn Waugh; Philip Roth; Percival Everett; Zsuzsi Gartner; Thomas King (also non-fiction) 'Shouts and Murmurs' section of The New Yorker
Comic verse
e.g. Alexander Pope, Calvin Trillin, Bill Richardson (also prose)
Humour on the page: the pure, uncut stuff
the author is empowered in the senses of pacing,joke- and image-crafting...
but the writing has to speak for itself, with no help from staging or performance.
"Sure, if you read it like
Comic prose and verse are often marked by irony -- not only in the content itself, but in distancing from narration, character and form.

There is daylight between what we're being told & what we believe the author actually thinks about it.
When the discrepancy between form and content is the whole point.
ridicule in the service of change
Satires can be parodic, and parodies can be satirical, but the concepts are not synonymous
Consistent comic voice and atmosphere support the jokes.
Jokes may be woven more subtly into the body of the text, disbursed and diffused; or, they may be very "jokey"
Tone may be, for example, sardonic, absurdist, apoplectic, wry, fake-stupid, falsely-reverential. If you are parodying a form, your tonal verisimilitude with be crucial -- e.g. The Onion is funny because it has exactly the same tone as a newspaper, & completely different content & intention.
Joke density may vary, but should be consistent within the rhythm of a particular piece
What advantages to writing politics in a funny way? (Swift, King)
In-class Writing Prompt
Write about an unfunny experience from your own life, in a style, and adding whatever necessary fictional details, to make it funny.
Since the ancient Greek comedies, humour has been more inclined than tragedy to acknowledge and subvert form.

Like comic theatre, textual comic composition tends to have a subversive sensibility about the box that it comes in. The sense of play is in the text and OF the text.
"My own [...] conviction is that the life of Franz Kafka reads like a truly great comedy. I mean this (of course) in large part because of the tragedies in and around his life, and I mean it in the tradition of comedies like the final episode of Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder, which, after episode upon episode of darlings and foilings and cross-dressings, ends in 1917 with our not exactly heroes climbing out of their trench and running towards the enemy lines.


It has been said of Kafka’s work many times that the thing to remember is that it is funny. Kafka was known to laugh uncontrollably when reading his work aloud to friends, and though that sounds more like anxiety than hilarity to me, the funny point endures. But what kind of funny is he? Borges described Hawthorne’s story ‘Wakefield’ as a prefiguration of Kafka, noting ‘the protagonist’s profound triviality, which contrasts with the magnitude of his perdition’. Part of the point here is an incongruity of scale – a natural structure of the comic, a way of relating to the cosmic. We might think here of Metamorphosis but also of the petitioner in The Trial who spends his whole life waiting at the Door of the Law, a door that is just for him, but through which he is never allowed entry. Or we might think of Kafka’s dog (or his ape, or mouse, or burrowing animal), who takes his life as seriously, and thinks it over as analytically, as a human.
- Rivka Galchen, "What Kind of Funny Is He?," in the London Review of Books
Comic essayist & screenwriter (
When Harry Met Sally
) Nora Ehpron on why she wrote:
Though literary humour in Canada is often given less critical and/or commercial consideration than its straight, or "serious" counterparts, a number of our most celebrated authors have regularly written either explicitly humourous literature or else included humourous elements in their writing. A (very, very) partial list includes: Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, George Bowering, & Lynn Coady.

The annual prize for literary humour in Canada is the Leacock Medal for Humour, named for Stephen Leacock (1869-1944).

Leacock was a British-born Canadian academic who wrote comic short fiction, essays, & reportage, and in the years between WWI and the Great Depression was read by an international audience of English-language readers.

In some ways he was working in a similar tradition to Mark Twain in the United States -- though from a different political perspective.
In Laurence's Sterne's 'The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman' (1759-1767), we are supposedly getting the life story of Tristram Shandy -- who isn't even born until Volume III.

In Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' (1712), the poetic forms of the epic to minimize & mock high society (specifically a family feud owing to a young man's having cut a piece of hair from a woman he admired without permission) by placing a ridiculous story within the elevated language and form of a poetic genre.

Jonathan Swift's 'A Modest Proposal' (1729) uses the seriousness & solemnity of the rhetorical essay to make a satirical point about the British brutalization & colonization of the Irish & Ireland (by suggesting that Irish babies be eaten, & gloves made from their soft skin.).

Narration in comic fiction:
- quite often, comic fiction will employ First Person narration. This gives the prose a monological quality that allows the author to build character both the the content and style/quality of the narration.

- First person narration also permits comic transgression (moral, ethical) in part by building empathy

- comic narrators are often unreliable narrators. For example, in 'Barney's Version' -- we know that when we are learning about any character besides the protagonist (who is the narrator), we are getting biased, editorialized versions of the truth. This is even true when we are learning about the narrator himself.
Character-building in comic fiction:
In comic fiction, the humour can come from the characters as well as from the the story-creating obstacles which they encounter. Often, it is the incongruity between the two that makes us laugh (in Emile Habibi's 'Said the Pessoptimist,' a Candide-like Palestinian naïf faces unending, Kafkaesque nightmares, always with an upbeat attitude).

Characters are often made funny because of:
- the way they express themselves (language)
- their unsuitability to the situations that face them
- their flaws, absurdities, & eccentricities

In short fiction, you can afford to make your (main) characters more eccentric & crazy than in the novel, which is harder to sustain.

Your protagonist may also be a "straight man," thrown into a crazy world -- e.g. Arthurt Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Rhyme, rhythm & form in comic verse
In comic poetry, the jokes are also contained within poetic structures (such as rhyme & metre), and part of the comic experiment is playing with & against the expectations that naturally come with that.

Part of what we love in limericks, for instance, is that occasionally even when we know where the rhyme is taking us in terms of the punchline ("There once was a man from Nantucket" is now a stand-alone joke), we also want to know how it is we're going to arrive there in the space that we know we have, given the strictures of the form.
In comedy on the page, you can get away with both a higher & lower level of joke density. Higher because the reader determines the pace, & needn't worry about missing anything; lower because since there is no collective audience, there don't have to be constant laughs.

Text-based humour is a rare form of comedy that doesn't need to make people laugh out loud to be successful, it just needs to be enjoyable.
Warning: extremely joke-dense prose can be super cornball. There are exceptions, but it's tough. The work of setting up punchlines should be as invisible as possible, or else very pleasantly stylized if we can see.

When writing comic prose, your main job is to create & sustain a playful, funny atmosphere that lets the reader's guard down, & then punctuating that atmosphere with occasional, explicit comic eruptions.
Comic non-fiction
- can rely just as heavily on the narrator's character as comic fiction, except that the obstacles faced by the narrator are rooted in fact.

(Digression -- the Sedaris Exception(?). What are the ethics about comic exaggeration in telling "true" stories? This is an open question.)

- In most cases, the same genre rules apply: a piece of comic rhetoric is still bound to advance logical (or comically illogical) arguments; comic reportage still has to tell us what happened somewhere. Political humour columnists are still observing upon hypocrisy, corruption, human frailty, etc. -- they just have to be funny on top of all of that.
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