By Mark Alpert
My son is home from college for the summer, and my daughter is finishing up her senior year of high school, so it’s a special time for the Alpert household. We were all watching the Raptors-Warriors game tonight, along with three of my daughter’s friends, and in between the amazing displays of basketball virtuosity, we started telling jokes. And that got me thinking about how difficult it is to write a funny novel.
You know what they say: “Death is easy, comedy is hard.” That’s especially true for novels. Think how difficult it must be to keep a humorous voice or situation going for hundreds of pages. It’s like doing a standup routine that lasts for 16 hours. (If you read at a rate of twenty-five pages per hour, then a 400-page novel is equivalent to a 16-hour routine.)
Here’s a rough indicator of the difficulty: When was the last time you laughed out loud while reading a novel? It’s happened to me only a few dozen times over a whole LIFETIME of reading. But those occasions were memorable. I’ll try to recall them as best as I can. (I can’t check the exact wording of the funny books right now because most of our novels are in the living room, and several teenagers are sleeping in there.)
The funniest novel ever written (in my opinion): A Confederacy of Dunces. The book’s hero, Ignatius Reilly, is so absurdly grotesque and brilliant. One moment he’s yelling at his mother to leave his bedroom so he can masturbate, the next moment he’s musing about the Mississippi River and railing at his nemesis, “that dreary fraud, Mark Twain.” He gets a job selling footlong hot dogs from a cart in the French Quarter (while dressed in a pirate’s costume) but he eats the hot dogs instead of selling them, and when his employer docks his pay he tries to negotiate a better price for the wieners he’s eaten (“I am, after all, your best customer.”) I know plenty of people who hate this book because Ignatius is so cheerfully repulsive. But I love it.
Second funniest novel: Portnoy’s Complaint. This book has plenty of masturbation jokes too (and why are they so amusing? Has anyone ever studied this?) but in my opinion the best bits are the descriptions of the narrator’s father, the hard-working beaten-down insurance salesman who suffers from chronic constipation. He’s jealous of his teenage son because he’s spending so much time in the bathroom (the father wrongly assumes that the boy is moving his bowels). “If only I could do my business like that!” the old man cries. “I’d do it in Macy’s windows!” To which his wife responds, “Macy’s doesn’t need your business.”
On the opposite end of the humor spectrum, I also have a great fondness for P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels. And Kurt Vonnegut, especially Cat’s Cradle. (“Ah, God, what an ugly city Ilium is! ‘Ah, God,’ says Bokonon, ‘what an ugly city every city is!'”)
What about you? Have you ever dared to write a novel that’s laugh-out-loud funny?