Iffen I don’ laugh…
I spent a little of today trapped under a small house, which is good for introspection, good for inspection of the caved in floor from underneath (which I’d slithered in with great difficulty to try and fix- and my fixing had altered the size of the slither-hole), good for getting your ideas of your own vincibility (I was definitely vincible. Poor old Vince.) straightened out, and bad for claustrophobia. And spiders (both from the spiders and my point of view.)
By the fact that I am writing this without an ouija keyboard you may gather I got out, and the measures I had taken to see I stayed alive were in fact adequate. I should just have take slightly bigger measures to ensure I could leave without digging. I blame it on my steatopygia, which I assure is a characteristic of Khoisan ancestry and not the product of eating too much and sitting on my tail writing instead of shifting sixteen tons of number nine coal (you still get the same result, ‘Another day older and deeper in debt’).
While I was digging – which was a slow process on account of being flat on my back with no space to move much (you should never move your much without sufficient space) and rather hard ground, I got to thinking of humor, and the nature thereof, and not just because there was something funny about my ridiculous situation, but because of what Sanford Begley said the other day about the writings of Sir Terry Pratchett. Some folk were asking where they ought to start with his books.
My answer of course was ‘as soon possible and while sitting down’ and at the beginning of the book, for the best results. But Sanford didn’t particularly like a character -Rincewind, that Pratchett used often. Shrug. Sometimes a character rubs us up the wrong way. Rincewind of course is a racist. Well, he thought of himself that way, before he knew what it meant (and according to some people he is. He’s white and male after all) in that he was always running. The important part of running, for Rincewind, was that it was always away. Now, as he’s obviously intended as a spoof, a mockery of the normal fantasy hero, as well as a mockery of the British character (the Brits laugh at themselves well. They can afford to, as they have a lot laugh at, and, um, they don’t have a reputation for running, even when it would be sensible. Nations who have reputation for fitting their tanks with one forward gear and sixteen reverse ones are understandably not amused by being teased about it.) I’d noticed that Brits tend to find his existence funny, let alone his attempts to get away from heroism.
One man’s joke is another man’s deadly insult, or worse, puzzled look. And while individuals vary in their sense of humor within nationalities, there are definite national trends (The colonized bits, and the old British Empire all tell sheep jokes of course, it’s just in Scotland they tell them about the English, and England about the Welsh, and Wales about the Aussies, and Australia, about the Kiwis, and NZ about the Scots. They’re only funny if you get the nationality right, in the right place. Otherwise they can be really bad for your health, and offensive to the sheep.) It makes writing the stuff really fraught, and funny sf/fantasy either vastly successful… or total flop. New York editors, who are not known for their grasp of the cultural nuances of the strange and far off peoples (ie. anyone who isn’t a NY editor or part of the NY literary scene) do most of the guessing of what the great unwashed want to read badly, but humor, it seems, worse. It’s been so bad that most of them back away from it as it it might bite, which is possible.
Now, humor is a weakness of mine, both in the reading and writing of it. Some of it just plainly doesn’t work with anyone but me. Parts of it work very well with small furry green aliens from Sirius 4, except they think it is pathos. Now by-in-large my audience is American. My background isn’t, and it was only when Eric and I started working together, that I realized there was a difference – both in background and in what is ‘acceptable’ humor. Fortunately – or I would starve, buns are the lowest form of wheat in most English speaking places and I was bred into that sort of wry humor. It wears thin though. I don’t mind never seeing another Xanth book… But, for example, I find my role models in Terry Pratchett, and Tom Sharpe (RATS, BATS AND VATS is pretty much Tom Sharpe inspired, but with more of Pratchett’s kindness to the butt of his jokes. I hope, anyway. And Pratchett’s double (and treble) entendre, and puns. What I modeled on from the American side was the idea of pacing a story with it (Harry Harrison’s STAINLESS STEEL RAT, and TECHNICOLOR TIME MACHINE, Stasheff’s WARLOCK IN SPITE OF HIMSELF.) I sent Eric a copy of a Tom Sharpe novel expecting him to kill himself laughing (a kind of way of disposing of co-authors that we monkeys are prone to). And he didn’t find it funny… I understood at last, why my American friends have such a problem with political jokes. You’re supposed to laugh at them, not elect them to high office (of course, here in Oz, we do both. We’re talented like that.).
It was then that I realized that I was on dangerous ground. South African humor is a mix between British (which tends to be dry, subtle and often scatological in ways that Americans find offensive) and Afrikaans (which is like Dutch i.e. like Polish humor, only more serious, but with pratfalls, and practical jokes, usually involving pain, humiliation, cowpats and other good things for building character. Yes, I know. My ancestry shows.) with a trace of particularly of Zulu which is quite similar to Afrikaans, except the truly grizzly (‘and the lion ate him, but not his shoes!’ (audience rolls on floor the laughing.)) is considered even funnier than his mother resting her bosom on the ironing board and accidentally ending up with knife-edge creases in her nipples. Australian, of course, is different again (although close enough that I seldom have to repeat the same joke more than three times) and tends to be rough, scatological to point that would make most Americans run for cover, or at least hand-sanitizer, and be very self-depreciating. They like Rincewind.
Which loops me back to writing and trying to understand my audience, and of course the late great Sir Terry. He wrote more than 70 books, and I definitely have my favorites and favorite characters. And sometimes I like a character in one setting and get irritated by them in others. I like Rincewind in ‘THE LAST CONTINENT’ and ‘ERIC’. I don’t in some others. I like Greebo and Nanny Ogg more than Granny Weatherwax. Tiffany Aching is not a big favorite. Moist von Lipwig is. Vimes… I liked the first one very much. And then less so. Of course a less than favorite Pratchett is still way better – for me – than the best of almost anything else, if I want humor.
So which humor books and characters do you love -and why, if you don’t mind my asking? (and if you do, suck it up, cupcake.) What American sf/fantasy humor can you recommend? (The ‘If you were a dinosaur’ one was absolute scream, and the one where the one where the lead character got confused about their sex was funny too, for the first three times…)