Monday, August 08, 2016

Book 59: How many humor writers does it take to wreck a joke about light bulbs?

Humor has a shelf life. Back about 20 years ago, I was a big fan of Dave Barry's, as were many of the people I know, including Sweetie.  Barry was a newspaper columnist whose weekly humor columns traded in the same sort of broad strokes that megapopular sitcoms do -- as would be expected, for someone who has to appeal to a broad spectrum.  You can't be too 'edgy' if you want 30 million people to read you.

I hadn't though about Dave Barry for years, but last week when I finished up my audiobook, none of the ones I really wanted were available. I briefly listened to a couple hours of Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker, whose book The Fermata had been creative and interesting and whose Vox had at least been creative. But Traveling Sprinkler grew old pretty fast: it's more or less an internal monologue from a poet who is turning 55, and after a few hours it hadn't developed anything resembling momentum; while the voice was interesting enough and had a way with words, eventually it grew tiresome and I looked for a new audiobook from the library. After about 20 minutes of searching I came across Barry's book and thought it might be worth a try.  It wasn't, really.

Barry's humor is best in small doses of weekly columns, and best twenty years ago, too.  Like Stephen Colbert's book, repeated lengthy exposures to Barry's particular persona grow boring and overwhelming.  In Barry's case, the persona is a bumbling dad caught up in various forms of maleness: there are jokes about beer, and jokes about colonoscopies, and jokes about hooking up electronics. In Barry's world, women obsess about kids' birthday parties and own 60 pairs of shoes.

That some of these things are sometimes true doesn't make them particularly funny, or at least not funny enough to merit an entire book. I laughed a few times, but mostly each joke was exactly what was expected, which overall was disappointing.  There were two excruciating parodies, one of the tv show 24 (this book is probably almost a decade old by now) and one of Twilight. They were every bit as funny and original as you would guess parodies of 24 or Twilight would be, which is to say: not at

On that note: there is a brand of humor I call Tumblr Humor, after the kinds of jokes you see on Tumblr and Twitter and the like. The platonic ideal of Tumblr Humor was the blog Eli Manning Looking At Things, a series of pictures that were posted after a picture of Eli Manning looking at some hurricane damage went viral. People photoshopping Eli Manning into various things, with Eli looking at them. Tumblr Humor is a joke that the moment you say it, it is no longer funny: it is a joke whose every iteration is embodied in the joke itself, so that posting 100 pictures of Eli Manning looking at the flag raising on Iwo Jima, or the Marianas trench, or whatever, is not necessary.  Parodies of 24 and Twilight are a branch of Tumblr Humor. Those things are so readily aped that there is no effort in the parody, and because the jokes are obvious, and immediate, the humor never arises.  Tumblr Humor is in the same vein as meeting someone with the same name as a famous person: if it occurs to you, immediately, to say something humorous about that person's name, you can assume it has occurred to everyone else that quickly too, and so everyone has heard it.  When you read 50 Shades Of Gray and think of how funny it would be to write a parody, the faster you think of your parody the more likely it is that it's not funny because everyone already thought of it.

Humor's a funny thing that way: I think the things that are funniest are a combination of a recognition of ourselves, combined with surprise. The best humorists and comedians manage to somehow look at us in a new way, causing us to think wow I never thought of that. At least that's what it is to me. Absent that surprise, that unexpected, I fail to see the funny part of an observation. Jerry Seinfeld wasn't funny because he talked about airline peanuts; he was funny because he talked about them in a way that we hadn't thought of, but which, as soon as he said it, we thought yeah that's right.

Dave Barry has lost the ability to surprise me, and I don't really see anybody mirrored in his humor. Yes, soccer parents are annoying and yell a lot at their kids, but observing that is nothing new or original. And are there guys who still insist on not asking for directions, or not reading the manual for an electronic device they have to assemble? I suppose there might be, but guys like that are already parodies of themselves, and making fun of them requires no more wit than it takes to make fun of Twilight.

There's not really an original moment in this book; if I told you the topics, you could probably write the jokes yourself, and even if you didn't put much effort into it -- as it appears Barry did not -- you'd probably come pretty close to his exact stories. I wouldn't waste your time with this book.


Liz A. said...

Which is why when I met a kid named Spencer Tracy I said nothing about his name. And I don't say anything about any of the weird names or strange appearances of people. Because I know they've heard every joke hundreds of times before.

Briane Pagel said...

It took me a while to learn that but yeah, that's exactly why.

Andrew Leon said...

All of which is why we "grow" out of things and then wonder why younger people find it funny. But they haven't grown out of it yet.
It's actually why something like Looney Tunes or Animaniacs is great, because they have layers of humor that you grow into as you grow out of others.