Send in the Contemporary American Comic Fiction Writers

Cody Walker
June 28, 2014
Comments 3

In the June issue of The Atlantic, Julie Beck offers a quick roundup of some recent studies on laughter. My favorite, by far: “Women undergoing in vitro fertilization were 16 percent more likely to get pregnant when entertained by a clown dressed as a chef.” What do we make of this finding? The clown’s getup, perhaps, signals the start of the kōmos, the Greek revel that provides (probably) the root of comedy. And comedy, in classic terms, promises a happy ending: feasting and marriage and children.

But now I’m doing what some of my students dislike: analyzing, rather than enjoying, the joke. Too bad. I’m teaching a class on Contemporary American Comic Fiction this fall, and various aspects of the comic—its theories, its practices—have been on my mind.

(Plus, it’s not a joke! It’s science! It was published in the journal Fertility and Sterility! And Shlomi Algussi is a “professional medical clown”!)

I’ve taught the fiction class several times over the past few years, and I’m interested in shaking it up. So this essay is really a cry for help, an attempt at crowdsourcing. Who are your favorite American comic fiction writers of the past fifty or so years? And why do you love them? My class, as currently constructed, starts with Kurt Vonnegut (who called his books “mosaics of jokes”) and then moves to Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Lorrie Moore, Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, David Foster Wallace, Lynda Barry, and George Saunders. We also consider Richard Pryor and a few others whose work straddles the line between the funny and the frightening. (Giordano Bruno—neither American, nor contemporary—provides a neat summary: “In tristitia hilaris, in hilaritate tristis.”) We end with Michael Chabon’s “The God of Dark Laughter,” a fright-wig-raising clown story that’s unlikely to help anyone get pregnant.

Writers I’m considering for the next round include Flannery O’Connor, Joseph Heller, John Kennedy Toole, Patricia Marx, Larry Wilmore, and Miranda July. Who am I missing?

And what about studies of laughter? Any favorites? My syllabus contains some classic essays on laughter (by Charles Baudelaire, Henri Bergson, and Northrop Frye), but I’m interested in adding newer work. Several relevant books have come out in the past few months: Scott Weems’s Ha: The Science of When We Laugh and Why; Peter McGraw and Joel Warner’s The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny; and Mike Sacks’s Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers. (Sacks’s previous collection, And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft, was one of my favorite books of 2009. His interview with George Saunders, excerpted from the new collection, appeared earlier this week on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog.) Who, if anyone, has your ear?

Here’s Saunders, who’s always worth listening to, on welcoming the comic into his own work: “It was sort of powerful: I just realized that I’d been keeping all the good parts of myself out of the fight—all the humor and irreverence and my extensive body of pop-culture knowledge and fart jokes, and the rest of it. But I’d also been afraid to embrace, for example, a certain high-speed manic quality I have in person and in my thought patterns. So it was like throwing a switch when I finally got desperate enough.”

(Saunders also has a lively and instructive “credo” in the current print issue of The Kenyon Review.)

So: a few things to think about, on the birthday of Mel Brooks and Gilda Radner. Thanks for any thoughts that may follow.

clown chef

3 thoughts on “Send in the Contemporary American Comic Fiction Writers

  1. Pynchon, Delillo, and DFW? C’mon, man. I get that they’re titans — perennial Nobel contenders and all that — but none of those guys is *funny*. And that’s fine, they don’t have to be, their strengths lie elsewhere.

    Charles Portis is 100x the comic writer of those three dudes. You’re probably the movie version of “True Grit” but have you read the novel? What about “Norwood,” “The Dog of the South,” or “Masters of Atlantis”? Here’s Oxford American on “Norwood”: http://www.oxfordamerican.org/articles/2012/sep/17/book-review-charles-portis/

    Key quote: “But what makes Norwood most impressive is how remarkable and tough to come by good comic writing is and always has been. For whatever reason, critics and scholars have too often ignored (or missed) the simple fact that comedy (in print, at least) is far more difficult to execute than tragedy. It really does take a very talented writer, somebody like Flannery O’Connor or Mark Twain or, I think, Charles Portis, to make a stranger (perhaps generations removed) laugh—all while limiting oneself to the usage of only twenty-six letters, ten numerals, and some odd punctuation marks. It’s high time we take books like Norwood much more seriously.”

    As for studies of comedy, this is the best I’ve come across: http://www.amazon.com/What-Are-You-Laughing-Comprehensive/dp/1441162933/

    Written by an accomplished comedy writer (dude wrote for “Cheers,” a show Vonnegut was a huge fan of) and the book itself is actually funny, unlike anything Bergson ever wrote.

  2. Thanks, Dan — those are great suggestions. I love pretty much everything by Baker; I wrote about each of the two Chowder books for this blog. (“Wrote about” may be a stretch. I just quoted from them a bunch.)

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