Saturday, September 22, 2012

How to judge a comedy book by its cover

I just finished John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. After hearing about this must read comic novel for years, I finally broke down and read it. It was okay. There are some laughs in the last 50 pages, which is a little light for a 400-page comic novel. So contrary to what I had heard and read, it was not the funniest thing of all time (I wonder if the dramatic story of its publication helped inflate its reputation).

But I can be forgiven for thinking it is the greatest comic novel ever. Just listen to some of the critical accolades printed on the cover:
Washington Post: “A corker, an epic comedy, a rumbling, roaring avalanche of a book.”
New York Times: “nothing less than a grand comic fugue.”
New York: “An astonishingly original and assured comic spree.”
Here’s how you know the book is not that funny; when every single glowing review is written in the least funny way possible. People who know funny never say things like “grand comic fugue” or “assured comic spree.”
Imagine you heard someone talk like this in real life:
“Hey, you know who you should invite to the party? Dave. Yeah, Dave. Why? Because he is a grand comic fugue.”
“Look, I know the divorce was tough, but you gotta get back out there. I’ll introduce you to my neighbor Alice. She’s an assured comic spree.”
Any guy in his right mind would hitch a ride on the space shuttle to avoid a date with a woman sold him to him as an assured comic spree. And no one who knows funny would ever say “grand comic fugue.” Or corker. You know when you say corker? When you’re making fun of someone who doesn’t know how to describe comedy.
Now contrast those pretentious accolades with the original New York Times review of This Is Spinal Tap; the greatest comedy of all time:
Not a single moronic line about it being a corker, an important film that elevates our national wit, or a cherry-topped comic dessert for those with a comedic sweet tooth. Probably because Spinal Tap is actually funny.
Not only are lines like "assured comic spree" obnoxious; they don’t actually describe anything. AT ALL. An assured comic spree gives no useful indication of the book’s tone or approach. It’s like calling a metal album loud. Yeah thanks, Professor. I’ll be sure to read your book on post-colonial tinnitus to help me figure out that Black Sabbath isn’t whispery.
Critics are frequently useless, and are nearly always useless when it comes to writing about funny. And unfortunately, comedians and comedy writers are always the least listened to when it comes to the topic of comedy. For some reason Katie Couric is allowed to tell Jerry Seinfeld what comedy means in the aftermath of 9/11. After all, what does Seinfeld know about anything? He’s just a comedian.

1 comment:

JorgXMcKie said...

A Confederacy of Dunces is every bit as funny as the average Joyce Carol Oates novel.