Thursday, May 24, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: A Masterclass in Comedy (And One Pet Peeve)

“A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is one of the funniest books ever written and any writer can learn a lot from it, whether you aim to be a comedic writer or simply sprinkle some comedy into any kind of book. In many ways, the humor is particularly British, but that’s no reason that anybody can’t emulate it. Let’s look at some of Douglas Adams’s tricks:

  • It’s always funny to try to be precise about imprecise things: “four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye” (Of course, “42” is the ultimate example of this.)
  • A list of mundane things with something bizarre in the middle that the hero fails to register: “At eight o’clock on Thursday morning Arthur didn’t feel very good. He woke up blearily, got up, wandered blearily round his room, opened a window, saw a bulldozer, found his slippers, and stomped off to the bathroom to wash.”
  • Connected to that, obliviousness to danger is always funny. In that case it was unconscious, but it can also be willful: Ford finds Arthur blocking bulldozers and says, “look, are you busy?”
  • It’s always good to use inherently funny words: “squelching”, “cajoleries”
  • Alliteration is always good for creating comedic verbal rhythms: “Thereafter, staggering semiparalytic down the night streets, he would often ask passing policemen if they knew the way to Betelgeuse”

And there’s a lot more to learn here. But there’s also one example of a pet peeve of mine. Adams mostly gets away with it, but I’ve been really tripped up on examples of this in comedic script and novels I’ve given notes on. This is the final dialogue of the opening chapter:

  • “Myself I’d trust him to the end of the Earth,” said Ford.
  • “Oh yes,” said Arthur, “and how far’s that?”
  • “About twelve minutes away,” said Ford, “come on, I need a drink.”

The problem, of course, is that Arthur would never ask that question. He’s only asking it to set up the punchline. This is hoary sitcom stuff (I suppose that before that they would have called it hoary vaudeville stuff.) Can you get away with it? A few times, maybe, but the effort shows, whereas most of Adams’s stuff seem effortlessly witty. Avoid heavy lifting.

1 comment:

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Compare the first pages of Hitchhiker's to Beloved. One thing that leaps out to me is the use of parts of speech. Morrison relied on nouns and verbs; Adams's prose is more reliant upon adjectives and adverbs. Morrison's writing is driven, Adams's tends to take its time and is even a little apologetic. Which is perfect for the core tool of the book: incongruity.

Hitchhiker's begins with the end of the human race and the planet Earth yet relates the story with the emotional intensity of one's losing of a favorite comb. The planet is destroyed and humanity extinguished...because of construction of a space highway. The horrible aliens torture our heroes...with bad poetry. They encounter the President of the Galaxy, who has no duties, and a super-intelligent robot, whose depression extends well beyond the bounds of Eeyore and sixteen-year-old Cure fans. They find the Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything...and yeah, we all know how that goes.

None of this would have worked well if the prose had been "driven" or "muscular" or whatever you want to call it. Adams delivered it all in a matter-of-fact, slightly diffident tone. And, as they say, hilarity ensued.

Getting absurdity to feel witty rather than obnoxious, twee, or grating requires tremendous skill and a pitch-perfect ear. Much like Hemingway or Wodehouse, one can ape Adams's style without much effort, but man, is it hard to get right. (My own decade-long struggle to mimic P.G. Wodehouse left behind pages of off-key drivel.)

It works because it's the perfect tone for what he was doing. Apply that same tone to another comic novel and the result would likely be painful. Use the right tool for the job, folks.