By December 10, 2010 1 Comments Read More →

The Comedy Conundrum

comedy-tragedyIf you lead a book group I’m sure you’ve heard something like this: “Why is everything we read so dark?”, or, “I don’t want to be depressed, why don’t we read something fun?” Just as people complain about sadness in Oprah’s selections, readers have probably voiced similar thoughts in your group. While I think we can agree that such complaints are often overstated, it’s still a good question. Why don’t we read more comic books?

It’s almost a cliche to say that different people have different senses of humor. What we label “funny” is even more relative to the particular reader than other judgments. We all agree that death, illness, addiction, violence, and abuse are sad occurrences, but “happy” or “laugh-out-loud”? Those are harder to pin down. Still, why not pick books that are supposed to be funny and debate their success in group? We deal with other relative concepts in book groups, what’s it going to hurt if some humor falls flat? Well, not so fast… 

In working on a couple of projects–a proposal for a readers’ advisory book about humor and a revision of a list of comedy films–I’ve discovered a phenomenon that explains why humor is such a tough nut to crack. Not only is humor relative, but if a book or film tries to be funny and fails for a particular reader or viewer,  that reader or viewer is likely to be more than indifferent to the failure: They’re probably going to react with outright hostility.

This is borne out by looking at the average ratings of comedy books or films on websites like GoodReads or IMDB. They’re almost always a notch lower than scores for more serious works, and an analysis of the individual scores by different raters reveals that the scores tend to fall at one end of the spectrum or the other. In short, either humor succeeds, or in failing, it offends.

Humor works on the edges, where the result can fall either way. It’s a short trip from a comic banana-peel slip-and-fall to a horrible accident that kills or maims the victim. Emotionally, humor often registers in areas of our lives where if we didn’t laugh, we would probably cry. One person’s funny grossout joke is another’s obscenity and what is sly cultural commentary to one interpreter is a bigoted smear to the next. The absurd humor that one reader loves will be confusing gibberish to the next. It really is a tough crowd out there, and what doesn’t get laughs may risk more than a chorus of groans.

What does this mean for book groups? Should we avoid humor because it’s controversial? Emphatically, NO, I’m not suggesting that at all. We need to laugh, and all the more so when life gets difficult. Just be aware that when you suggest a book that you find humorous, some members of your group will probably look at you like you’re the one who’s a little “funny,” and not in the good way that you hoped for. That is the comedy conundrum.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "The Comedy Conundrum"

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  1. Neil:

    You bring up some excellent points. One of my book groups was excited about reading Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris as their December book, and although the book started out great with the hysterical Macy’s holiday elf essay, “Santaland Diaries”, by the time we got to the “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family”—with the narrative involving a dead baby in the dryer—most of the group’s mirth had turned to disgust.

    I’ve found that books with a great primary story and discussable themes—but with an undertone of comedy work best for book clubs. A few of my favorites include Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, featuring Helen Simonson’s droll British humor; A Dog’s Purpose, by W. Bruce Cameron, which has you diving for the tissues one moment and laughing out loud the next; and Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, which deals with some heavy themes of stock market crashes and the tragic events of 9/11, and yet the author appears to be writing half the book with her tongue firmly lodged in her cheek. I think this type of subtle humor works well for book groups, because it gives them tons of issues to discuss, while toning down some of the drama and disaster with good old-fashioned humor. And as you pointed out, we all can use a few more laughs.

    The Book Club Cheerleader

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