Sometimes dissecting things that are funny takes the fun out of them. I wanted to talk about timing and how timing is not just something musicians or dancers or actors have. Timing is something writers have as well.
Here are a few examples of some very dry humor. We’re not going to talk about them, because that will take the fun out of everything. But, if you can, after you read each excerpt, think about the author’s timing.
Here’s what you need to know about Jack Vance for the purposes of this article: He used to write about the far, far future, in which mankind populated galaxies, and each planet was a social framework with its own characteristics and its own subcultures, each also with its own unique social framework.
The first excerpt is from the novella Freitzke’s Return, which I found reprinted in the book called Galactic Effectuator. ‘Effectuator’ is to the denizens of the galaxy what ‘private investigator’ is to us. Here, our hero is hired to investigate a case in which, a-hem, well, it’s like this: The bad guy is a jealous man who can’t accept the smallest failure. When the client ends up marrying the woman the bad guy was interested in, the bad guy kidnaps the client, knocks him out, and operates on him. The client slowly begins to suspect that his sperm-making ‘apparatus’ has been replaced by the bad guy’s sperm-making ‘apparatus’. Thus, if the wife gets pregnant, she gets pregnant by the bad guy. The client hires our hero to find the bad guy and have his original ‘equipment’ re-placed.
That is neither here nor there, because the quote from the novella is Vance’s explanation, in a footnote, how the Arsh race, which is now slightly different from the human race, came into existence:
The legendary starmenter Yane Cargus contracted with the all-male fugitives. He agreed to deliver one hundred young females for a fee of five hundred red sarcenels, the sarcenel being a jewellike object taken from a Flamboyard’s sensorium. Cargus raided the Convent of the Divine Prisom at Blenny, on Lutus, capturing two hundred and thirty novitiates. Upon delivering his cargo, he required a thousand sarcenels or nothing, emphasizing the volume discount. The fugitives in their turn pointed out that sarcenels were rare, that the Flamboyards ferociously resisted attack, that, for eighty-six men, two hundred and thirty females were redundant by more than a factor of two, and, more importantly, that the females were members of that ill-favored and swarthy race known as Gettucks: not at all what the fugitives had in mind. In the ensuing fight, Yane Cargus took thirty-four wounds from the sneezewood lances, but miraculously survived. The fugitives acquired two hundred and thirty females free of charge, and the Arsh race came into existence.
Notice that part of what makes it funny is the fact that Vance borrows a set of phrases from one world and uses it in the context of another that has nothing to do with the first (“emphasizing the volume discount”, for example, has nothing to do with slavery or rape).
He does it again in the following two examples, from Night Lamp. Here a schoolboy and a schoolgirl are talking.
It was Tatninka, rather than Skirlet, who bore the news to Jaro. “Did you hear what Hanafer called you?”
“He said you were a moop!”
“Oh? What’s that? Nothing good, I suspect.”
Tatninka giggled. “I forgot; you’re really off in the clouds, aren’t you? Well, then!” She recited a definition she had heard Hanafer use only the week before: “If you come upon a very timid nimp who wets the bed and wouldn’t say ‘peep’ to a pussycat—you have found a moop.”
Jaro sighed. “Very well; now I know.”
“Hmf. You’re not even angry,” said Taninka in disgust.
Jaro reflected. “Hanafer can be carried off by a big bird, for all I care. Otherwise, there is no return message.”
Later, his mother sees Jaro moping and gets to the bottom of things.
“That is not acceptable conduct, and I shall have a word with his mother.”
“No!” cried Jaro in panic. “I don’t care what Hanafer thinks! If you complain to his mother, everyone will laugh at me!”
Althea knew that he was right. “Then you’ll just have to take Hanafer aside and explain in a nice way that you mean him no harm and that he has no reason to call you names.”
Jaro nodded. “I may do just that—after punching his head to attract attention.”
Of course, on different matters, the mother and the father, have their own disagreements.
From the first Hilyer had felt deeply suspicious of Maihac. When Althea scoffed, Hilyer claimed darkly that his instincts were never wrong. He felt that Maihac, if not a blackguard had much to hide, to which Althea said: “Oh piffle. Everyone has something to hide.”
Hilyer started to declare, “Not I!” in a decisive voice, then thought of one or two shrouded episodes in his past and merely gave a noncommittal grunt.
In a collection of her book reviews which I found in The Penguin Dorothy Parker, she reviews a book by one Margot Asquith. It’s called Re-enter Margot Asquith – A Masterpiece from the French, dated October 22, 1927.
I think it must be pleasanter to be Margot Asquith than to be any other living human being; and this is no matter of snap judgment on my part, for I have given long and envious thought to the desirability of being Charles A. Levine. But the lady seems to have even more self-assurance than has the argumentative birdman. Her perfect confidence in herself is a thing to which monuments should be erected; hers is a poise that ought to be on display in the British Museum. The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature.
In another review, The Professor Goes In for Sweetness and Light, dated November 5, 1927, she reviews a book by Professor Phelps in which he gives us his wisdom on the key to happiness. She is now in the middle of quoting from the beginning of the book regarding the definition of happiness.
We might just as well get on along to the next statement, which goes like this: “One of the best” (we are still on definitions of happiness) “was given in my Senior year at college by Professor Timothy Dwight: ‘The happiest person is the person who thinks the most interesting thoughts.’” Promptly one starts recalling such Happiness Boys as Nietzsche, Socrates, de Maupassant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Blake, and Poe. One wonders, with hungry curiosity, what were some of the other definitions that Professor Phelps chucked aside in order to give preference to this one.
The point? The point is that writers have timing. That includes authors of prose, whose work is not meant to be read aloud, not meant to be heard, and when read in one’s head is not read to a rhythm. There are still authors with perfect timing.
If you disagree, please read the excerpts again.
I reserve the right to bring more examples, and I hope you may feel like adding a few excerpts yourself in the comment, if you feel like sharing.
For more posts on humor, check out the one analyzing David E. Kelley's humor as well as the one that takes on racism. Then we've got some nice funny excerpts from Rescue Me and from the Gilmore Girls.