Thursday, August 9, 2007
Comedy Row comprises the second row of the far left bookshelf of my apartment. I never really intended to create a "row of comedy," it just sort of started happening as I filled up my new bookshelves last spring. I discovered that I had unwittingly collected 6 or 7 P.G. Wodehouse books in the time that I had been in New York, not counting the 5-10 books I still have back in Michigan. Some people collect James Brown bootlegs, I apparently collect Wodehouse.
Even stranger, I realized that in under two years, I had picked up some more books James Thurber (my first comedic love), some Evelyn Waugh (whom I still don't really get), Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Steve Martin, Benjamin Franklin and Nicholson Baker (who don't get the credit they deserve for being laugh-out-loud funny), 3 (!) copies of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, and more.
This was it for me. I realized I had a chance to create my ideal row of books! If I could only bring one book with me to a desert island, it wouldn't be the Bible or Remembrances of Things Past, it would be Fierce Pajamas, the New Yorker humor anthology. While I could possibly stumble through a half hour conversation about Modernism, I could easily spend an entire night trying to articulate how Mark Twain stays so funny after a century and a half or why there's really nothing quite as uniquely hilarious as one of James Thurber's dog drawings. Comedy, especially written comedy, seems like a mystic art to me, equally as hard as any dramatic work. And, for whatever reason, I've always been more intrigued by comedic questions than dramatic ones.
I guess there's an element of attainability there that I find very attractive; while I find James Joyce's genius inscrutable, I feel as though I could maybe, if I tried hard enough, figure out what makes a piece of writing laugh-out-loud funny. Granted, I don't know that you really can; anybody who's tried to read any sort of academic writing on comedy knows how dry and ultimately unilluminating that proves to be. I don't know that I think "funny" can be taught or learned and there's absolutely nothing worse than meeting someone that tries to tell "jokes." Mark Twain captures this dilemma well...
Still, trying to crack the mystery has always been a big part of the fun of reading comedic writing for me. It hasn't really worked out, but, much like solving crossword puzzles, I just can't resist the challenge.