I recently listened to a panel on comedic writing. Not the stand up comedy or screenplay type, but the type intended to be read. Now, I am not an expert on this, or any subject for that matter, nor am I particularly funny (on purpose), but something was left out of the discussion that has kind of been on my mind, so I thought I would mention it here.
Comedy is one of those things that people can’t really put their finger on to define, so they try to lay down ‘rules’ to help understand it. The rule I have most often heard is ‘timing is everything’. I agree, it is. It’s just not funny to come back to work the next day and say ‘at least my wife has a dog!’. Or maybe it is. I don’t know, I missed the beginning so the timing is off for me.
Something I don’t recall ever hearing someone talk about is timelessness. Timing, yes. Timeliness, of course, where would late-night talk show hosts be without that? But not timelessness.
Books relying on timeliness seem to have a pretty short shelf life. You will be hard pressed to find a copy of The Pop-Up Book of Celebrity Meltdowns or George W. Bushisms : The Slate Book of The Accidental Wit and Wisdom of our 43rd President on the shelf of your local bookstore. Not because they aren’t funny, but because they are no longer timely.
Books like All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten, and If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits?, may eventually fade, as they rely on you and I relating to what the author is saying, i.e., we have ‘been there, done that’ so we laugh too. When society changes enough that we no longer relate, these books will no longer be funny to us. Meanwhile, they are based on common shared human experiences and remain ‘timely’.
But think about books that may actually be ‘timeless’. Books like The Grapes of Wrath, Little House on the Prairie, and Alice in Wonderland, just to give you an idea of what I mean. Obviously these aren’t timeless in the way of something like Beowulf or The Iliad, but they all have serious staying power. Why? Because they create their own world around themselves so well that you don’t have to already have that ‘shared experience’ to understand it. The book will teach it to you, it will give you that experience, and it will allow you to feel like you are a part of it.
Now, for the humor part. Timeless humor. A book that you want to be funny for someone a hundred years from now. Many people would put Mark Twain’s writing in this area, and I would be hard pressed to argue, however I would like to point out many of his cultural references are starting to fade from our common vernacular, making a bit of his writing hard to follow. Some people would put William Shakespeare here as well, and I am again inclined to agree, with the same caveat, but perhaps more so.
So where do you go from there? How do you create truly timeless humor? Can it be done? I don’t know. But I suspect it can. A great example that immediately pops into my mind is from Little House in the Big Woods when Laura and her mother go out to the barn in the dark and think a bear is the cow and her mother shoos it and slaps it on the nose, meanwhile, Laura’s father is late because he was trying to avoid a bear that turns out to be a dead tree stump. Not laugh out loud funny, I admit, but humorous. And timeless. The world they live in is so thoroughly explained to the reader that when the events occur and the irony sets in, they make sense even though most of us have never lived in a log cabin in the woods or come face to face with a bear.
More modern examples would perhaps be Robert Asprin’s Myth series, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and Harry Harrison’s Stanless Steel Rat series. All of these have been around for a little while and continue to show up on bookshelves because the authors have created worlds for their characters, they bring the reader into that world, and then they use humor based upon that world.
Creating the common ground for the reader to find humor in is how the shelf-life of these books has been so dramatically extended, I think, and is possibly the secret to ‘timeless humor’. That and poop jokes.