Looking for the Role of Comic Novels in the Comedy World

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What do we talk about when we talk about ‘smart humor’? Jon Stewart and Tina Fey? Steve Coogan and Jon Benjamin? One thing is for sure, we’re not talking about things on pages or electronic paper made of terminator blood. In this comedy world of ours, books are like that annoying guy who yells out obscure and witty things at improv shows from the audience and never gets his suggestions into the show. Get on stage buddy, we think.

Lately I’ve been giving that guy the spotlight and reading a lot of ‘comic novels’ (quotes to be explained). Any fiction where there are extended passages describing shrubs or flowers, or where the backdrop is a world’s fair, or where there are several generations of geishas involved — these are getting passed on. I’m in it for the jokes currently. But it’s amazing how many great recently published books and stories that leaves you with. I’ve been spitting out furtive, literary chuckles all over the place on the subway lately. People look at me funny, whereas the guy screaming a litany about jello while wearing eight animal-fat smeared hoodies in the middle of the summer gets nary a sidelong glance. Sorry, that came off as hobophobic. I actually love hobos.

Probably the best thing I’ve read recently is the The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte. It’s great as a piece of fiction in general, but the humor is why I pick it first on my kick ball team — a kick ball team made up entirely of recent comedic literary fictions. A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, Personal Days by Ed Park, novellas by George Saunders, assorted stories by Wells Tower and Rivka Galchen; these make up the rest of said team. We have problems in long relief, but we make up for it with self-lacerating send-ups of overeducated white people.

So I got a little Hipster Runoff on you with the quotes around ‘comic novel’ because some people don’t think fiction can be funny, or at least funny in the same way as people and voices. I think this is a new thing, unimaginable when a new Samuel Clemens mixtape was a seismic cultural event. I don’t laugh at just words, people now say. Maybe those New Yorker “Shouts and Murmurs” pieces are laugh-out-loud funny if you’re, like, an archivist of lithographs or something, but otherwise they’re just clever sentences to smile at.

I sort of agree with this camp. It’s not like I walk around reading books and cackling out loud. If I cackle, it’s while sitting, or vanquishing foes. Reading is something you do mostly in your head; it’s not like watching a movie, which might cause you to yell at the screen or shoot it with a gun. Unless you’re in Newark. I feel like people there shoot books when they really like them, but I don’t know for sure.

But I mostly disagree. I think that not only can literary novels illicit mouth-laughs, but they are also funny in a way that movies and TV and your uncle Gary who does that impression of a lecherous porpoise can never be. Imagine if a character in a wide-release comedy film made a joke, like Lorrie Moore does in A Gate at the Stairs, about how he or she thinks Sleater-Kinney is “that cancer hospital in New York.” Preview screening audiences would run for the hills, hills where Jonah Hill is yelling about pubic hair. But it’s not just about obscure references. Even jokes that don’t require knowledge of all-female post-punk bands and tri-state hospitals, like the elaborate cooking show idea that runs through the The Ask (in short, death row inmates have their last meals cooked by gourmet chefs) would have no breathing room in a tight three-act structure or in uncle Gary’s gambling addiction support group.

There was a time when literary humor was a powerful cultural force, partially just because literary books in general were more important when people didn’t have immersive 3D pornography and avian slingshot games. Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were literary novelists who were household names and made their livings writing short stories and books. Can you image what it would be like to make a living writing short stories like a young Vonnegut did? That would be like someone today making a living as an abacus repairman.

Most, if not all, of the members of my kick ball team are unknown to Average Joe in Iowa (unless he’s at the Writer’s Workshop) and have teaching or journalism jobs. Their abacus repair skill set simply has less of a market than it did when Vonnegut and Heller were at work. But also, those dead literary humorists were more clearly ‘culturally important’ because they couldn’t help but make fun of Big Clear Obvious Bad Things; the absurdity of war being the biggest and baddest. Whereas when Ed Park roundly eviscerates the conventions of email in his novel Personal Days — something that tells us much more about the ridiculousness of the modern workplace than The Office — we do a brain-laugh, but we’re not quite on the way to the gallows, where collective chuckles are all we can cling to. Billy Pilgrim and Yossarian were stand-ins for Average Joe in Iowa who had to go to strange lands and kill people. The characters in The Ask have to go to Greenpoint to have awkward group sex. This new band of literary humorists doesn’t have the same big stupid clumsy monster to point and laugh at; their monster is like a million quasi-invisible monsters that disappear when you look at them. This monster metaphor really got away from me, but the point is that I think part of what’s at the core of my kick ball team’s writing, and what makes them funnier to me and more culturally obscure, is a consciousness of their own inability, and the inability of our culture at large to know what to attack. This powerlessness is as much the object of their satirical engines as anything, and it can only be successfully made fun by the lightest of touches and the most thoughtful of humorists.

You may be thinking that my kick ball team is simply much less assessable than Vonnegut and Heller, and that the postwar, darkly comic novel has just run its course and allowed Jonathan Franzen to reign over a literary scene that currently values books that take on big issues, such as bird watching, in more earnest, realist ways. This is probably true, and my team probably doesn’t particularly care that fanatics don’t steal their glasses at book parties because they’re marginally famous and once dared fronting to Oprah; but still, to me these are the writers that are in tune with the strange and elusive societal forces that truly scare me, even if these forces are as much my own bourgeois fear of inefficacy as anything. That shit is still scary as fuck. Last night I drank four Sixpoint tallboys and read single purpose tumblrs for like five hours because I couldn’t decide what was ruining the world. This is why I need my kick ball team. And I think people who don’t know what Sixpoint or Tumblr is also need them. Although that sounds elitist, I would argue that my kickball team is less elitist than the purveyors of common denominator feed like Chuck Lorre, Daniel Tosh, and Chelsea Handler. These are the real cynics.

What this collection of words was supposed to be concerned with is the unfortunate state of affairs where comic fiction has no sway over mass culture. The Ask should be in the same conversation as Louie and The Colbert Report — things that are smart and meaningful and popular and scathingly hilarious; things that rail against the shitty and invisible and monolithic things inside of us and outside of us that can only be laughed at in carefully considered ways because they’re so shitty and strange. Maybe this is all moot and books were just killed by TV the minute it came on the scene. But I’m an optimist. I think one day there will be a statue of Sam Lipsyte in Prospect Park like the one of Red Auerbach on the bench in Boston, except Sam will be eating a turkey wrap and looking sort of constipated.

Jake Tuck writes screenplays and other things. He is known to be a man for all seasons.