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The Best Medicine

July 25, 2014 | by

Gerrit_van_Honthorst_-_De_vrolijke_speelman

Gerard van Honthorst, The Merry Fiddler, 1623

“He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.” —Catch-22

Can a reader and a character be simultaneously amused? I’m sure plenty of really smart people have written about this—and maybe even answered it authoritatively—but I can’t find any such answer myself. I suppose the question also holds true for movies and TV—although arguably the blooper reel changes the entire conversation—but I’m chiefly interested in the question as it pertains to writing. I really want to know!

So far as I can tell, accounts of people being amused are never amusing. (In my opinion, this also holds true for most stories involving drug-induced antics—a scourge of modern storytelling—but I’m willing to admit this might be one of my “things.”) When a character “laughs,” “jokes,” “kids around,” “cracks up,” et cetera, it is not funny, even in an otherwise funny piece of writing. (Although, I think you’ll find in the funniest, characters don’t go around guffawing much.)

I’m not saying a character can’t laugh within something funny, but, rather, that their amusement is wholly divorced from the reader’s. It’s not just that human beings are sadists who, famously, enjoy watching the misfortunes of others; we all like to see beloved protagonists find love, get redeemed, generally achieve happy endings. Emotion is communicable. Laughter, maybe, isn’t. Or at any rate, the necessary distance imposed by narration makes the communication tricky.

Nothing is deadlier than writing about the workings of humor, so I’ll keep this short. If you can think of an exception to this, won’t you let me know? Am I just reading the wrong books? Has some author cracked this code? Or is this, maybe, just one of my “things?” Inquiring minds want to know.

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  1. Kulk | July 25, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    It’s one part real, one part “your thing” … from part of something I wrote today:

    On August 5 they’ll celebrate 4 years of marriage though they’ve been together 10 years, since Eric asked Logan on a date. He was 18. She was 15.

    “Luckily,” Tats said, “both of our parents were cool.”

    “We hit it off right off the bat,” Eric said.

    10 years is a long time and they’re still young so Kulk asked “Does it ever get boring?”

    “So far, no,” Tats said with a laugh.

    Thing is, SS, Tats said that and laughed. Not a knee-slapping laugh, mind you, closer to a chuckle, but definitely somewhere between. I never say someone laughed or chuckled or guffawed unless they did. Conveying someone talking and laughing can be difficult, indeed

  2. Rich | July 25, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    The inferred amusement of Philip Marlowe often amuses me. Chandler had sense enough not to explicitly assert it: “He had large ears and friendly eyes and his jaws munched slowly and he looked as dangerous as a squirrel and much less nervous. I liked everything about him.”

  3. Kulk | July 25, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    “And I think,” he says with a hearty laugh, “I’m the only one who knows the answer.”

    Meet Steve Karsay, answer to this year’s coolest baseball trivia question:

    http://espn.go.com/new-york/mlb/story/_/id/11254076/mlb-steve-karsay-played-all-six-2014-hall-fame-inductees?ex_cid=espnapi_public

  4. Hale | July 26, 2014 at 12:58 am

    There is a scene in 300, where one of the characters starts laughing as the men are being bombarded with arrows. When the character starts chuckling, and says, “We’ll fight in the shade” I genuinely laughed, as the character was laughing at his own remark.

    In that instance, one phrase brought humor to both me and the character. Is this along the lines of what we’re looking for?

  5. Mary Delmege | July 26, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    There is a scene in “That Old Ace In The Hole”, by Annie Proulx, where the protagonist hears a joke about Brown Paper Pete. It’s flawless and has always stayed with me. It’s at very end of Chapter 26.

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