An Auteur Theory Of Funny

Filed Under Print

Humorist and Author of the Harry Potter parody “Barry Trotter” Mike Gerber makes an interesting case for the singular voice of a humorist without interference from an editor. One statement I particularly like:

Any novel that’s the least bit pointed or ironic is christened “a satirical romp” or “a comic tour-de-force,” but when you put them up against The Daily Show, which makes you laugh more? And that’s the test of a humorous piece of writing—does it make you laugh?

The rarity of laugh-out-loud prose compared to the number of blurbs that suggest it is enough to make a reader suspect that literary critcs have a congenital funny bone deficiency. No wonder the Daily Show book “America” is number one… the literate are starved for laughs.

In some ways the question of how much latitude a creator needs to have in their work is important. I think one of the most important factors in creating something funny is having something to resist against… the more restrictions on a piece the funnier it gets. This goes for no-holds-barred humor that stretches society like National Lampoon, but also from humor that doesn’t aspire to be as caustic. A good editor of humor will help hold a writer to the comic boundaries setup at the begining of the piece. If the writer wavers, goes too far… a smart editor will recognize that and rein them in. I don’t think the editor should ever drill down so deep as to the mechanics of joke-telling (and if they did, why would they need the writer in the first place?). But they can help a writer keep honest with their premise.

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Comments

Posted by Michael Gerber on 10/18  at  05:47 AM

Todd, it’s not as much an auteur theory as my being utterly unable to find an editor that edits humorous prose in a way that fundamentally improves it—that is, makes it more what the writer wants it to be. I’ve been published in a jillion magazines, and I’ve never once thought an editor improved a piece of mine, not even at The New Yorker. (Hell, especially not at The New Yorker.) What they’ve always done is made the material less unique, less personal, and less surprising. Sometimes they do this just a little, sometimes to the point of mutilation. No amount of money is worth watching your stuff turn unfunny, and that’s why I’ve given up short humor in favor of books.

You’re absolutely right that a good editor approaches a piece of humor primarily through the premise, and the comic logic established to forward the premise. But that’s not what professional editors do, in my experience. Some portion of humorous prose is about domination, and editors will not allow the writer’s choices to dominate unless they deign to agree. That’s a stretch perhaps, but it’s the only reason I’ve ever come up with to make a piece less funny on purpose, when the whole point of buying it is to make your readers laugh.

Nowdays, what editors do to a humor piece is make it conform to their magazine’s tone (or the preconceived notions they have about what their demographic of choice understands/thinks is funny). That’s the best you can hope for, and it inevitably blands out the prose—that’s why there’s Sedaris and everybody else. He got famous, THEN started appearing in print. Editors don’t bland out his voice, because that voice is what they’re buying. 

Editors treat humor like house copy, because they don’t want people to develop loyalty for Todd the Humorist, but for Magazine X. That’s why every Shouts and Murmurs piece sounds like it was written by a piece of software (“We created the algorithm by feeding in every casual written between, oh, ‘83 and ‘93…Then, we send it through a timeliness filter…”). Nobody in publishing gives much of a fuck about humor, except hoping it doesn’t get them fired; therefore it always falls to the person who does really care about a piece—that is, the writer—to handle the final sharpening and refining steps.

This isn’t as auteurist (or arrogant) as it sounds; if you’re doing it right, the “editing” you do relies a great deal on the feedback you get from a group of trusted readers. That’s a hell of a lot more careful and accurate than whatever attention some harried front-of-book editor’s able to give your piece. And I’m satisfied with that, frankly—it’s my name on it, not theirs. For a humorist of a certain level of seriousness, nobody else SHOULD be editing your stuff, because nobody else really knows what precise species of snipe you’re hunting. It’s hard enough working under the unavoidable reality that cedes the final authority to each individual reader—that is, if they don’t laugh, the piece has failed—without overcoming ham-handed editing, too. Sorry for the long-windedness, but I’ve thought about this a lot.

Posted by Gumphood on 10/18  at  08:33 PM

There is also the facts that laughs cannot sustain typically for great time periods.  A joke is a joke is a joke.  But a joke cannot last an entire chapter of a book.  Jokes engage but don’t develop charecters.  I wish I had a better point, but I am just a clinical hack. haha..ha.

Oh god.

Posted by Michael Gerber on 10/19  at  05:10 PM

Quite right, Gumphood. I’ve found that jokes and plot are somewhat adversarial; as you say, jokes engage but do not develop what makes people keep reading. There’s also a law of diminishing returns, where the more jokes you make, the less “buzz” they deliver. That’s why the form has coalesced into 500-750 word sprints.

Posted by Gumphood on 10/19  at  06:42 PM

Now, I have absolutly no idea about professionally analizing humor, let alone how to spell, but there are reasons jokes have punch lines.  Typically the absurd is hard to formulate into a last book that resounds with its reader.  Seinlanguge I remember reading when I was younger, and surprised at the level it was able to keep up, but it was just a collection of routeins.  Aqua Teen Hunger Force is absurd, and could not really be pitched as a novel, as much as I would love for someone to write about the exploits of a shake, fry, and a wad of meat. 

Anyway, I am losing my mind.  I mean it.  I have gotten about 17 quality minutes of life over the past 48 hours and that was spent in the bathroom.

Before I burdeon you with my personal and bathroom issues however, I will throw the cape over this horrible comment and hit post, leaving you wanting more, or for the more intellegent, wanting none.

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