Monday, April 23, 2007

One Man's Meat Is Another Man's Poisson

Always with the puns in the titles, right? Sort of a giveaway that you might not be coming at the subject with full-on seriousness.

Okay, this just in from Digby Wolfe, doing a Summer School gig in Canberra, Australia.

I have one very promising young novelist who has found an excellent comic voice--stemming from much sadness and suppressed anger. I want to recommend some seriously funny examples in the long and short form. Your wisdom, as always, would be much appreciated.
What this comes down to is the man who originated and was the head writer for all 140 episodes of Laugh-In, not to mention other comedic specials, is asking me, in a friendly-but-serious way, what's so funny?

The first scene that came to my mind was in the wonderful film in which Orson Welles and Graham Greene more or less collaborated, in which, during a tense moment in what was shaping up to be a suspenseful tale of corruption, Orson Welles gives his famous cuckoo-clock speech:
You know what the fellow said: In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love--they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The (long pause) cuckoo clock.

There is also the memorable scene from the film, Five Easy Pieces, where the character portrayed by Jack Nicholson is trying against insurmountable odds to get some toast with his breakfast:

"I'd like a plain omelet, no potatoes, tomatoes instead. A cup of coffee and toast."

Waitress, pointing to menu. "No substitutions."

Nicholson tries to get around the no-substitution policy and get a side order of whole wheat toast.

Increasingly annoyed, the waitress says, "I don't make the rules."

"O.K. I'll make it as easy for you as I can. I'd like an omelet, plain. And a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee."

"A number two, chicken sal sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce, and the mayonnaise. And a cup of coffee. Anything else?"

"Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules."

"You want me to hold the chicken, huh?"

"I want you to hold it between your knees."

There is a collection of short stories by Lorrie Moore, Birds of America, in which a woman becomes involved in a live-in relationship with a man, but when it becomes apparent to her that the boy friend is less than enthusiastic about her two cats, she makes a choice, and you don't have to guess who gets shown the door.

There is a short story by Annie Proulx, appearing in her collection Open Range, told from the point of view of a tractor. Funny enough, but Ms. Proulx is not considered great for no reason, she pushes the point of view to combustion by having the tractor complain that it is not used to having its innards worked on by a woman mechanic.

Michael Chabon's uproarious Wonder Boys has among other elements a protagonist who drives about with his rear trunk bearing the corpse of a boa constrictor whom he unintentionally ran over. The same protagonist is the only Caucasian present at a Passover seder who does not read or speak Hebrew, noting with some irony that all those present of a Korean background can and do speak and read Hebrew.

"The Miller's Tale" from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales relates a marvelous moment when a cranky, elderly husband, unknowingly being cuckolded while he sleeps, is awakened suddenly in the belief that the countryside is being flooded.

Family dinners often make lovely venues for humor, as witness these two, one from Philip Roth in Goodbye, Columbus, in which Neil, the protagonist, recognizes the social boundaries between himself and the family of his girlfriend, Brenda. Herman Wouk, not often thought of in connection with humor, demonstrates his keen eye when the eponymous protagonist of Marjorie Morningstar, brings to the family dinner her remarkable catch, Noel Airman, a trendy director. Marjorie is a wannabe actor, her stage name anglicized to Morningstar from its Germanic Morgenstern. Under careful family prodding, the amazing and remarkable Noel Airman is soon found to be the aka for Neil Ehrman.

Peter Ho Davies deeply poignant novel, The Welsh Girl, is set amid the uncertainty and moral uproar of World War II. The ending is beyond belief funny, involving a German Jew, who'd been assigned to interrogate the run-away Nazi, Rudolph Hess, is ordered out of a pub in a small village in Wales because "we don't want your kind in here." Instead of taking umbrage, the character begins to laugh, only serving to enrage those in the pub to a greater degree. He happens to be wearing the uniform of the British Army; his laughter comes from the awareness that there would be no objection to his presence were he merely a German or merely a Jew, or even the combination of the two, which might, in fact, be cause for him being offered a drink on the house. The "your kind" that is not wanted is anyone in a British uniform.

These examples I've thought to email to Canberra by no means exhaust the potential varieties known as humor or simply funny. Wolfe, himself a Brit, was insistent on two occasions that a character in different ventures we were collaborating on be an Australian, trying to pass as an English snob, a twofer in the way it skewers both the pretensions of the Aussie and the self-importance of the Brit character.

It is not that I have difficulty recalling things that are funny to me, more that anyone, particularly a person such as Digby, who has made some sort of a life from humor, would want examples of it, would need examples of it, would not have his mind overflowing with the ingredients that so readily bring it down to paper. Now that's funny.

Life reaches its funniest for me when someone shakes a warning finger at me, admonishing me, "That's not funny." This observation invariably causes me to laugh even louder, get a clearer view of a target I might not have ordinarily noticed.

Life as a concept becomes funny in direct proportion to make sense of it in a meaningful, serious way. Thus our own purpose leads us down the garden path. Life is, among other things, a delightful series of targets of opportunity. Life is the bird that does a Jackson Pollock on our newly washed car, the baby who reprises dinner on our coat sleeve, the dog who views the living room rug as a splendid latrine, the cat who uses one of our closeted shoes as a place to deposit fresh rodent corpses. Life is the natural order of defiance in the face of our intent to neaten things up.

It is, of course, the one challenge we cannot avoid, and somehow, humorously, the motivation for our approach to all the other challenges that await us.

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