I’m in a small debate (with myself) whether this is the ultimate or the penultimate installment of “Funny Week” on the JMD blog. I have been focusing on my comedic influences from various media, with today’s subject relating to authors. It occurs to me that I’m leaving out a major segment, if somewhat challenging in its medium classification: comedians. Since I’ve run out of time on my self-imposed weekly deadline, I’m choosing to tackle that group at some later date.
I’ve often written about my avid and early passion for reading, both of which were stoked by my Grandma. Beyond the incredibly helpful and colorful World Book encyclopedia, Grandma’s house was filled with a variety of books, providing me hours of entertainment (sometimes I would bring one out on the dock with me as I waited patiently for a fish to bite).
One book that engaged me thoroughly was by James Thurber. It was an extraordinary book, filled with stories of wit and humor and peppered with superb cartoons. If a book were created to exactly the specific elements needed to mesmerize that young boy, that tome was it. It was only years later that I realized it had the same impact on me as the first gymnast in an Olympics competition reaching all 10’s…it set a difficult standard for succeeding books I read by other authors.
Of course, with a bent towards fantasy and science fiction, humor wasn’t a heavily used writing style. Humor is something that can fit into any story, from horror to tragedy. Some might say it’s imperative, in order to have some counterpoint. As the main theme of the writer, though, it’s not generally a frequent occurrence.
There were a couple authors who were effective and whom I enjoyed. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker stories and Terry Pratchett’s work often made me laugh, though sometimes the tales were a bit uneven. In more mainstream form, Dave Barry, both from his columns in the local newspaper and his books gave me plenty of chuckles. Within the comics community, several writers would come up with consistently funny articles poking fun at the medium, but those don’t really qualify as books.
I found my “master” years after the covers of Thurber had begun to separate from the binding. Crisscrossing through various genres of science fiction, I came upon Jack Vance. Decades later, I still find his writing the funniest I have ever come across. Which requires some explanation, since his books were never “humor” books.
Simply put, Vance’s characters were just the smartest in any book I have ever read. His dialog was brilliant. His set-ups were flawless. The wit, the ingenuity and the nuance of his characters’ repartee was unmatched to my “ear”. To be sure, his grand ideas, storylines, descriptive eye, these were all fantastic, but he could write a scene and turn a phrase that I could not prevent myself from actually laughing aloud while reading.
There are books where he has written almost entirely with a humorous intent and those he has written with socio-political themes and those which are simply great adventures, but all of them are made magic by his gift at crafting simply brilliant conversation. As you have read throughout this series of posts, that is always the most compelling source of humor for me.
I have imagined many things in daydreams over my life; being a professional baseball player, being up in space, finding a woman who could put up with me. Never have I imagined I could write as cleverly as Jack Vance.
Which is just fine with me, for in the vast gulf between his talent and mine, I am grateful for the inspiration and motivation he has provided. Though I never cross that distance, I’m glad I have his writing to make me laugh as I undertake the journey.