At least since the days of Aristotle, and probably long before, lovers of literature have identified tragedy as the pinnacle of literary art. What is Shakespeare’s greatest work? Hamlet, of course. The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant of Venice? Very good of their type, but the type itself is not the highest. In this, as in many other things, I stand in the minority; I find it odd that the judgement should favor tragedy.
In my long and not terribly successful career as a writer, I’ve found that tragedy is much easier to write than comedy. Certain situations are a cinch to jerk a tear. Poe mentioned the death of a beautiful maiden as one. Another is the situation in Hamlet itself, or Oedipus Tyrannos for that matter: a man sets out to accomplish a purpose, but just at the moment of achieving victory by accomplishing it, he receives defeat – in Hamlet’s case, the ultimate defeat of death. Nobody I know of, not even Aristotle, has ticked off the number of sure-fire tragic situations, but I suspect that if you have two fully functional hands your fingers are adequate to enumerate them.
On the other hand, I confess that I have not tried very often to write tragedy. It never appealed to me. My most significant venture was the science-fiction story “Hail to the Chief,” which has appeared in four anthologies. “There Are Smiles,” a story in my collection Snapshots of Thailand, is sad, but it’s not really a tragedy. The writers in English who have appealed to me most are Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry Fielding, and Mark Twain; I see life pretty much as they did. Of writers in other languages, my favorite is Miguel de Cervantes. So I am predisposed to the comic.
What makes comic writing so difficult? The answer was given by the late Eddie Cantor, who said, “One man’s gag, gags another man.” I can testify that that is true, for when I have read from my books to audiences, sometimes they have laughed at what I thought were the funny parts, and sometimes they have not. Chacun à son goût, as the old lady said when she kissed the cow. Or as Prince Orlofsky said in Die Fledermaus.
Anyone who has told a joke to another person will affirm that the joke may be met with either a laugh (or at least a chuckle, giggle, or titter) or a groan. Having been a folklorist in a previous avatar, I am cognizant of a fair number of jokes (i.e., short oral narratives told with intent to amuse), and it lies ready to my hand to use in my novels characters who tell jokes: Hiram Baldwin in Sweet Betsy from Pike and Mr. Bascomb in the forthcoming Huckleberry Finn Grows Up. (If I use my own writing for examples, I will at least not violate anyone else’s copyright.) Being a realist as well as a humorist of sorts, I am careful to make clear in both instances that the jokes are not met by the hearers with universal hilarity.
I’m confident that if I insert here an example of one of Mr. Bascomb’s jokes, it will not make people more eager for the novel’s appearance: “It puts me in mind of the young man that went to his first dance. His mother told him to dance with every girl at the party and to thank each of them and say something nice to her when he was through dancing with her. One of the girls was very fat and very homely, and all the time he was dancing with her, he was trying to think of what he could say to her that would be nice. Well, finally the music stopped, and all he could think of to say was ‘Thank you for dancing with me. You don’t sweat much for a fat girl.’”
Huck in the novel does not expend much effort in laughing at that.
The theory of humor has never attracted my attention very strongly – I am more concerned with its practice – but I am sufficiently aware of the theory to know that some writers claim the essence of comedy lies in the unexpected. If that is true, dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima must have been excruciatingly hilarious. But certainly Mr. Bascomb’s lame joke relies on the unexpected for any risibility it may provoke.
An example of the unexpected arousing laughter that comes to mind is a line from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which I quote from memory. A young man is very eager to marry a Catholic girl, and for their union to be sanctioned by the church he must be converted to the Roman faith. A priest undertakes to instruct him, expecting some resistance to accepting difficult concepts. The priest, however, has underestimated the young man’s eagerness. When the priest asks, “How many persons are there in the Trinity?” the reply is, “As many as you say, Father.”
On the other hand, the expected can also be a source of amusement. When you watch a Laurel and Hardy movie, for instance, you expect certain types of behavior: Hardy is domineering, easily frustrated, and less intelligent than he thinks he is, and Laurel is the one who comes up with new (and bad) ideas and is prone to cry when his feelings are hurt. And when these two funny men play their characters true to type, the audience, its expectations met, rocks with laughter.
I used these characteristics when I cast Hardy and Laurel as Hitler’s Goering and Goebbels in Adolf Hitler in Oz. Another example of comedy arising from the expected is that you expect Lou Costello to be easily confused and to lose his temper readily, as in the classic “Who’s on First?” routine. Hitler is no Costello, but I borrowed the structure of “Who’s on First?” for a colloquy in the same novel, when Hitler asks Ollie where explosives might be found:
Finally the Reichsmarschall said, “I’ll bet they have some at My Mines.”
“You have some mines?” Hitler asked.
“No, My Mines aren’t mine; they belong to Himm.”
“Make sense! What do you mean your mines aren’t yours?”
“Not mý mines. I don’t have any mines. My Mines belong to Himm.”
Hitler felt the fury rising within him, but he breathed deeply and gained control of himself. “They’re not your mines, they belong to him.”
“Whom do they belong to?”
Hitler phrased the question a different way: “They belong to whom?”
“Not to Whom, to Himm.”
“Dummkopf!” Hitler exploded. “Whose mines are they?”
“They’re Himm’s mines.”
“Stop talking babytalk.”
“I’m not talking babytalk! They’re Himm’s mines. They belong to Himm.”
Hitler’s face was turning red, and he had passed the point where he could speak coherently.
“Let me explain,” Ollie said. “When I say ‘My Mines,’ I don’t mean my mines; I mean My Mines. That’s the name of the mines. They don’t belong to me, they belong to Himm. The mines belong to Himm, so they’re Himm’s mines.”
Hitler was beginning to tremble.
“Please, Mr. Hitler, don’t get mad. I’ll take you there, and you can ask Himm yourself.”
From Hitler’s tight throat came a squeaking growl: “Ask whom?”
“Ask Himm. No, don’t hit me! Just follow me. Put your riding crop down, please!”
Ollie stepped out in a more lively fashion than Hitler had seen him use before. He was marching toward one of the purple hills that surround Oogaboo, and Hitler began to follow him. Watching the fat Reichsmarschall scramble up the hillside ahead of him finally struck Hitler as funny, and his anger evaporated as he began to chuckle. Ollie looked back with a worried expression, then saw that Hitler was beginning to laugh, and smiled encouragingly.
“That’s right,” Ollie called out ambiguously. “It won’t be long now.”
Then Ollie began toiling up the hillside again, with Hitler in pursuit, and before long he was at the crest. He stopped long enough to call back, “We’re almost there!” and then disappeared down the other side.
When Hitler reached the top, he looked down into the ravine – it was hardly a valley – between that hill and the next. He saw a number of holes dug into the side of the next hill, perhaps a quarter of the way up from the bottom; the dirt removed from the holes formed inverted cones along the hillside below them. In the trough at the bottom was a rude hut, made of purple mahogany. On the side of the hill, above the holes, was a large wooden sign:
And suddenly it all became clear. The name of the mines was My Mines. The name of the miner was Himm. So the mines weren’t Ollie’s mines; they were Himm’s mines.
“Dummkopf!” Hitler muttered to himself. “Why didn’t he just explain that?”
You can hardly have escaped noticing that whatever humor exists in that passage is based on misunderstanding, and, like Bud Abbott, I have always found misunderstanding a good fertilizer for comedy. One situation that has always brought a laugh at my readings from Sweet Betsy from Pike involves Ike’s misunderstanding of Betsy’s situation. Betsy is eighteen and pregnant; her minister father is aware of only the first of those conditions. The father will not allow her to marry Ike, who is one year older and has no prospects. Ike suggests that they wait two years, until he is of the age when it was lawful in 1849 for children to marry without parental consent. Betsy says she can’t wait for two years. Ike misunderstands this to mean that she loves him so much that she is impatient to be married to him. But Betsy lets him know the real reason: “Oh, Ike, honey, I’m gone a have a baby, and I don’t think I can hol it in that long.”
The Robin Hood Chronicles is at least not intended to be comic, but I could not resist one episode of comedy based on misunderstanding. Robin is a soldier in Edward III’s first invasion of France; the English army has landed at Antwerp, where it will organize for its assault. Robin and Will Scarlock meet two Flemish girls at an inn.
They sat and ate and drank till Will and Griet made a compact to go off together to a place Griet knew of, leaving Robin and t’other girl in the inn to try to speak each to the other, neither knowing the other’s language.
“How art thou yclept?” Robin asked.
The girl looked at him with puzzlement on her face.
Robin slapped his chest and said, “Robin.”
The girl slapped hers and said, “Borst,” the which being Flemish for “breast.”
And there you have what is tragic about writing comedy. You may have laughed (or at least chuckled or giggled or tittered or at the very least smiled) at that. Or you may not.
(c) Sam Sackett, 2012
Sam Sackett is a reformed English professor old enough to remember radio. He left teaching for journalism, then advertising, then public relations; then, having become an expert on career change, he spent 15 years in career management. He’s back in the US after having spent six years retired in Thailand, which he spent writing novels and short stories.