TT: The Humor Boom

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and learn what “butt-heads” had to do with my lasting fondness for a certain popular TV SF show.  Then join me and Alan as we take a look at a couple of writers who contributed hugely to the boom in humorous SF/F that made the 1980’s such a funny time to live.

Some Very Funny Books

Some Very Funny Books

JANE: Although humorous Science Fiction and Fantasy was certainly around long before, there seemed to be a boom in the 1980’s.  Oddly enough, there was also a boom in Horror around the same time.  Probably something in the psychological landscape of the time.

ALAN: Ah yes. All those hilarious novels by Stephen King. I remember them well.

JANE: Smart aleck!

Anyhow, when I think back, two authors immediately spring to mind: Piers Anthony and Robert Lynn Asprin.  The first works in their most popular series –Anthony’s “Xanth”  and Asprin’s “Myth Adventures” –  appeared in the late 1970’s, but by the 1980’s both series were going strong.

ALAN: I quite enjoyed the early Xanth novels but I felt the series deteriorated in quality as it progressed. Anthony also wrote a very funny fix-up novel called Prostho Plus which was all about the adventures of an intergalactic dentist. As someone with a dentist phobia, I found it both amusing and squirmy!

JANE: I agree with you about Xanth.  I thought A Spell for Chameleon was a very thoughtful look at the different and contradictory roles a woman is expected to play in the course of her life.  I very much enjoyed The Source of Magic and Castle Roogna.  However, by Centaur Isle, I felt the puns were coming to dominate the story – the forcing the story to serve the joke, an element you mentioned last week as bothering you as a weakening trait in so much humorous fiction.

I did find that the Xanth stories that focused on non-human characters held my attention longer.  I recall liking Ogre, Ogre and I thought Night Mare was very interesting.

ALAN: I also enjoyed Asprin’s early “Myth Adventure” novels, but I felt that he blotted his copy book with Little Myth Marker which was simply a re-telling of Damon Runyon’s Little Miss Marker. I stopped reading Asprin’s books after that.

JANE:  I loved the early “Myth Adventure” books.  One element that kept me reading was that beneath the puns was a very solid coming of age story that continued into a story about coming to terms with changing relationships and changing roles in life.  However, I agree that eventually Asprin lost his sense of where the heart of the stories rested.

Did I ever tell you I interviewed Bob Asprin back in 1992?

ALAN: No – I didn’t know that. Tell me more!

JANE: I’d met Bob at Magnum Opus Con in South Carolina.  (That’s where I met David Weber, too. That convention has a lot to answer for.  That meeting directly led to Roger asking Bob to be one of the contributors to Forever After, a humorous novel in four parts, to which I also contributed a section.)

The first time we met, we ended up going to the airport at the same time.  Bob came into my concourse with me and, while he signed books for my sister –  (I never got him to sign one for me, something I regret), – I asked him some questions about writing.  His answers were so interesting that I queried one of the academic SF publications to see if they wanted an article.  They said “yes,” and the next year I taped an interview.  (The article came out in Extrapolation, November 1993.)

ALAN: Is it available on-line anywhere? I wouldn’t mind reading that.

JANE: I don’t know…  Maybe one of our readers would.

Anyhow, Bob talked a lot about how the interplay of business and writing had influenced his approach to what he did.  He started as an editor of the seminal “Thieves World” anthology series – the one that pretty much gave birth to the entire “shared world” anthology concept.  On the strength of that, he was able to sell his  original fiction.  He saw himself as an entertainer first and writing as only one of the ways he entertained.

Bob also indicated that  there was a lot of insecurity behind his “funny” – not an uncommon trait in comedians.

ALAN: Indeed. Witness Stephen Fry’s battles with depression that have brought him more than once to the brink of suicide. And yet Stephen Fry is one of the funniest men on television…

JANE: I had no idea about Stephen Fry, but I agree with you about his talent.  I am especially fond of his portrayal of Jeeves.

Anyhow, I remember Bob Asprin telling Roger how he’d just gotten a huge advance for a novel.  I forget the amount, but it was pretty impressive.  He said, “But I don’t know how to write a $X00,000 novel.”  Roger responded with typical gentle wisdom.  “They don’t want you to do something other than what you’re already doing.  They simply have realized what your work is worth in the market.”

But I have wondered if success is what ultimately undid him.

ALAN: It must have been very stressful for him, so I imagine there’s more than a grain of truth in your speculation.

JANE: I listened to those tapes again when I saw what direction we were going in our chat.  I’d just read your comment about “hilarious novels by Stephen King” so you can imagine my shock when Bob suddenly started talking about how close horror and humor really were, paraphrasing Stephen King saying that handled wrong horror could become humorous and humor a source of horror.

ALAN: Oh indeed. They are often two sides of the same coin. The Frankenstein story can be quite shuddersome when taken seriously and yet Mel Brooks managed to turn it into one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen when he made Young Frankenstein. It’s really only a matter of emphasis.

JANE: Yes…  I’ve always thought Hamlet has great room for humor.  I’ve even written a story…

Going back to Piers Anthony, again I wonder if success weakened Xanth.  When I read the entry on him in Supernatural Fiction Writers: Contemporary Fantasy and Horror, the article mentioned that Anthony actively solicited reader feedback for the series, up to and including plot ideas and puns, then incorporated the material into the series.  The writer of the article seemed to think this gave the series a certain “freshness,” but I think it could lead to twisting of the plot to make a joke work.

ALAN: Absolutely! I found no freshness in these books. I did attempt to read some of the later Xanth novels and Piers Anthony would often have an introduction or afterword commenting about the reader input. But somehow the stories always seemed stale and forced to me. It was almost as if he was going through a semi-mechanical process to generate the book, with only half his mind on what he was doing. Too many silly jokes and not nearly enough story.

JANE: This brings me back to what I said last week at the end of our discussion of Terry Pratchett.  To me, Pratchett never seems to write from anything but the heart – even when that means his book isn’t going to be as “funny” as his readers might expect.  Some of my favorites – Small Gods, Nightwatch and Hogfather – are often not funny at all…  But they are very wise and the wisdom blossoms forth from the humor.

ALAN: That’s why he’s so successful at what he does. And, of course, now that we’ve exposed his secret to the world, anyone can just follow the formula and be as successful as Pterry! Oh, if only it really was that easy…

JANE: Easy… Yeah.  Right.  The man is an amazing writer.

Now, mostly thanks to me, this has gotten a bit long.  Perhaps next time we could spin through some other aspects of SF/F humor.


6 Responses to “TT: The Humor Boom”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Should I point out that Pratchett has had his ups and downs? Not that I wouldn’t love to write some of his crappier books, but seriously, his earlier books (Colour of Magic, for example) are far more self-consciously parodic than, say, Night Watch or his Tiffany Aching series. I remember reading books like Mort and Night Watch with sighs of relief, because it turned out that, when he stopped goofing around, he could actually turn out a great novel, too, with things like characters and a plot.

    Thanks for reminding me of Bob Asprin and Piers Anthony. I loved those books as a teen, and I have to agree about Ogre Ogre and Night Mare. Of course, Spell for Chameleon was basically a straightforward fantasy.

    As for humor and horror, they are two classic ways of dealing with taboo subjects, so it’s not surprising that they’re so close. Lovecraft mocked himself in some of his letters, and Stephen King wrote about a killer clown in one book (and Pratchett parodied both with his dungeon dimensions). I’d suggest that it’s not a new phenomenon, either. Look at all the sacred clowns dotting the Native American landscape, for example, or Europe’s jesters and wild men.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Can you really call earlier vs later “ups and downs”? That’s hardly a fair comparison for any writer — although, for many, that first book is the best and the rest are treading water. Pratchett is one of those who matured into finer writing.

      I also feel he uses different characters (even within Discworld) to explore different types of stories and different types of humor. A “Rincewind” book is much more likely to be lighter and slapstick; a Vimes book darker and dealing more with social demons.

      • Heteromeles Says:

        To clarify, I would say there was a middle section (Eric perhaps Reaper Man, Jingo) that weren’t among his best, and I’m not a big fan of his most current books. Otherwise, I agree that his books matured quite a bit as he wrote them, and that’s one of the joys of the series.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Off-topic, but Alan, if you read this, I hope you’re okay. I’d suggest cutting out whatever you’re doing to tease Rūaumoko. He’s taking it the wrong way.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Thank you for the thoughts. Robin and I are fine, and so are the cats. Just when we thought it had all settled down, it started up again. The latest quake was 6.6 and very shallow. It says a lot for the building construction laws in New Zealand that the damage was minimal and there were no injuries. Though having said that, the small village of Seddon, which was right on top of the earthquake, has suffered enormous damage. Many houses are now uninhabitable, and there was an interview on the radio with one lady who watched her house collapse around her. She sounded remarkably cheerful, all things considered. I think she was just glad to be alive.


      • janelindskold Says:

        I was VERY relieved when you e-mailed that you and Robin (and the cats ) were okay, but I did feel for those people in Seddon. Scary!

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