TT: Crossing the Humor Barrier

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and help me figure out where to go for quality on-line reviews.  Then come and join me and Alan as we conclude our look at what’s funny and what’s not…

Tiptoeing Cthulu and Friends

Tiptoeing Cthulu and Friends

JANE: Last time we were talking about Kuttner’s Galloway Gallagher stories.  I said that the stories were better in small doses and I still think that.

However, now that I’ve had time to think, I also wonder if they might have been funnier if I belonged to a generation where extreme alcoholism (which is when a person has blackouts) was considered an acceptable source of humor. Even now, I wince at the idea of alcoholic blackouts as funny.  They just aren’t to me – too close to that “pain humor” we discussed a few weeks ago.

Now, I’m not saying Americans are immune to humor based on the lowered inhibitions accompanying drunkenness.  Take a look at any number of films intended to amuse young men and you’ll find this form of humor is alive and well.  But I’m not certain it has the same broad appeal.

In past discussions, you’ve said you as a Brit find American reactions to drunkenness puzzling, so perhaps you made the transition more easily.

ALAN: Alcoholic blackouts are not funny in themselves; I think we both agree on that. If the stories took the idea seriously then they would be tragedies rather than comedies. But we’ve already shown that tragedy and comedy are actually two aspects of exactly the same thing. It’s all a matter of emphasis. I think the cultural differences that you mention arise from the fact that Americans seem to think that some things are too serious to joke about, whereas the Brits have no such inhibitions.

A perfect example would be the British comedian Ricky Gervais who hosted the 2011 Golden Globe awards. He made an atheism joke which would not have raised a single eyebrow in England but which caused a huge controversy in America. There seems to be a streak of puritanism in American society that the Brits simply don’t share.

JANE: What other humor doesn’t cross the culture (or time period) barrier as easily?

ALAN: There was a British SF television series called Red Dwarf which was so successful that NBC decided to remake it for American audiences. Only one pilot episode was made and it was so dire that it sank without trace. For example, in the British version the character Lister is a black, short, ugly, foul-mouthed slob. In the American version Lister is white, tall, handsome, clean and wholesome. Suddenly the jokes stop working…

The American pilot show is included as an extra on one of the DVDs of Red Dwarf so I have actually seen it. It is deeply unfunny.

I’m not really sure why NBC decided to remake the show. The original was actually very popular with American audiences though I imagine the networks had to careful about broadcasting times. Many of the episodes had far too many toilet jokes for American sensibilities. Perhaps they felt a need to clean it up a bit…

JANE: Maybe they hoped it would work, even after they mutilated it to make it politically correct.  I know that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has worked very well in the U.S. in its various incarnations, despite some aspects of the humor being very British.  Monty Python also seems to have translated well.

ALAN: Humour not translating works the other way round as well. Craig Shaw Gardner is an American writer of humorous fantasy whose works seem to sell reasonably well in America, but which made very little impact here.

JANE: I fear I’m not in a position to comment.  I’m not familiar with his works.  I wonder why his humor doesn’t translate?  Perhaps too many of the joke references are culture specific.

ALAN: I think he’s a good example of the “let’s twist the story to fit the joke” school of writing that we mentioned before. And he is overly fond of puns. Both of these tend to make the stories feel more than a little shallow.

JANE: I was reading a Darynda Jones novel the other day – she writes “Buffy Fic” with a large dose of humor – and found myself wondering how many of her jokes, especially those playing off specific television programs or other pop culture items, would make sense ten years from now.  For example, one joke played off a confusion between ESP and ESPN…

Does the ESPN reference translate?

ALAN: It does now! Once upon a time it wouldn’t have meant a thing to me, but the rise in popularity of satellite TV services has brought a lot of world-wide content to our screens and now ESPN seems to be everywhere. Darynda Jones’ joke sounds as though it has possibilities…

JANE: Connie Willis is an author who has done a very fine job of writing good humor that is funny even if you don’t know the original reference point.  I really liked her book To Say Nothing of the Dog.  I believe I would have even if I hadn’t already read – and laughed myself silly – over Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) off which she was riffing.

Willis’ humorous novel Bellwether is much more “American” in its roots. Have you read it?  Did it work for you?

ALAN: Oh indeed – Bellwether is the one Connie Willis novel that I can honestly say works brilliantly for me from beginning to end. To Say Nothing Of The Dog is very good and I enjoyed it a lot, but it still suffers from Connie Willis’ basic assumption that people running around like headless chickens and refusing to share important information with each other is funny in and of itself. Sorry, Connie, but it isn’t.

However Bellwether, with its brilliantly satirical parody of commercial management styles and its fascinating speculations about the origins of fads is an absolute tour de force and I love it. Interestingly, I met Connie at a convention in Australia a few years ago.  (She’s a lovely person.)  I asked her to autograph two books for me. Guess which two they were? Yes – you got it right! Bellwether and To Say Nothing Of The Dog.

JANE: Yes.  Those two would be my choices as well.   In fact, if she comes to Bubonicon this year (as she often does) I should consider following your lead!

Although there are many other books and authors we could bring up, I think we’ve actually come to a close not only of this Tangent, but also of our long and winding tour through the many genres and sub-genres of SF and F.

But I wanted to ask you about…  Wait, I’ll save it for next time!

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7 Responses to “TT: Crossing the Humor Barrier”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    There _is_ an amazing – and amazingly selective, actually – Puritan streak in Americans. One of Charly II’s few real accomplishments was to persuade so many of the surviving Puritans to catch the next boat for Plymouth Rock. It’s made the Yanks darned near impossible to live with [they have rules for just about everything!], but went a long way towards saving Civilisation in the UK.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I wouldn’t say that the desire for rules is Puritan. I think that comes from the United States being a nation that, from the start, has had conflicting cultural influences — and invited more by being amazingly tolerant of immigration compared to most other countries. Rules are a way of providing neutral compromise as to behavior.

      You see rules used as moderating factors in other cultures as well. The Japanese, whose traditional houses had paper walls, made walls out of rules and customs.

      And since here in the U.S. one culture might find a certain sort of humor offensive and another entertaining, the desire for rules of behavior in nation where many cultures live side by side is important.

      Even word meanings shift. You use “Yank” to refer to the U.S. as a whole. Within the U.S., that would apply only to a very small portion, mostly in the northeast. Where i live in the southwest, you would get a very blank look indeed.

      I LOVE how words morph!

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Actually, I was, for once, using it fairly specifically in it’s US sense, since that was the primary area of Puritan settlement in the beginning. That’s where the influence spread from, after all..

        As for rules, the real problem is that you never seem to cancel any of them, so anyone who actually wants to _follow_ them ends up tied in knots by the contradictions. Just look at the roaring business the Grammar Nazis do.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Oddly, I’m not sure I’ve heard “yank” as a reference to New Englanders. Yankee to be sure, and DamnYankee (one word) in certain places. But Yank? That seems more anglophilic. Is that my ignorance showing?

      I strongly agree that customs are like good fences. They make for good neighbors. In my multi-ethnic, multi-religious extended circle, I’m a lot more cautious about what jokes I make and with whom. One example is that two Asians can joke with each other about someone “driving while Asian” (i.e. badly, either like they just learned to drive and are terrified to be on the freeway, or learned to drive in a place that places a much lower value on obeying traffic laws), but someone who is not Asian can only say it to an Asian as an off-color remark.

      In such an environment, humor is somewhat limited. On the other hand, limitation does breed creativity, and American humorists aren’t as bad as one might expect, given the strictures they work under. One suspects that, were the British aristocracy to produce some decent comedians, they might be similarly constrained.

      • janelindskold Says:

        Good point about who can make what jokes.

        My best friend in high school was black. One day when we were out together, she made a comment about some badly behaved “niggers.” When I looked shocked, she said calmly. “Well, they are, but I can say it, you can’t!”

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        yes, I’ve generated the same sort of appalled looks using the word about myself. Luckily, the appallee was two ranks my junior, so she had to be careful expressing herself 🙂

  2. CBI Says:

    I think today’s Political Correctness rampant in the U.S., especially in the academy, is a modern manifestation of Puritanism combined with an Established Church. I received my PhD only ten years ago, and already there was a significant reduction in the diversity of allowed ideas at the university — and a strong emphasis on conformity. My kids (youngest almost done with her undergraduate studies) have found it similar, to varying degrees.

    BTW, I’ve seen most episodes of Red Dwarf, and found most of them (not all) hysterical. Fun, fun, fun in the sun, sun, sun.

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