True comedic novels are a rare and wonderful thing. However, in my mind, there are two distinct types. One is the comedic narrative and the other is the novelization of comedy. This may sound like word parsing or splitting hairs, but there is a distinct difference and I find one to be vastly preferable to the other.
What I call the ‘novelization of comedy’ is when someone tries to translate the humor from something else into a book. This includes works like George Carlin’s “Napalm and Silly Putty” or “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?”. These works are directly informed by Carlin’s life and experience as a comedian and actor. They attempt to take the tone of his world-class standup comedy routines and reproduce it onto the printed page… and they are somewhat successful. They are his musings on life and the American experience, and they provide some further insight into the mind that developed the, now legendary, “7 Words You Can’t Say on TV”. They delve into his thoughts on various topics, they bemuse the ritual of everyday life, and they tell anecdotes that are steeped in his signature voice. However, what they don’t do is tell a story. What genre would you classify them if ‘comedy’ was not an option? Philosophy, possibly? Where is the story arc or any character past the narrator of Carlin himself?
Don’t misunderstand me, I have read and enjoyed both of these books. I also don’t mean to pick on George Carlin, a legend in comedy. The same holds true for other comedians. Dennis Miller’s books “Rants” and “Ranting Again” fall into this category and I enjoyed them as well. As time goes on, it seems that more and more successful standup comedians put out a book as a side project at some point. These works are great for what they are, however, they lack a certain magic that is present in their standup routines. This is apparent when you read a hard copy and then listen to the audiobooks as they are being read by their authors. The nuanced delivery and the timing are in the reading and not in the writing.
My ‘comedic narrative’ is a very different, and much less densely populated, category. This is where you find works like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams, and “Greenwich Killing Time” by Kinky Friedman. These are works with classical story arcs, character development, and a realistic genres past just a ‘comedy’ label. They are a science fiction (Hitchhiker’s Guide) or murder mystery (Greenwich Killing Time) that is finely crafted to be hysterical. These are works that are not intended to be anything but what they are. The authors write them knowing that they will have to be able to tell their story and convey their humor at the same time with nothing more than the written word. These, to me, are somewhat magical. They are able to multitask within their craft in a way that is undetectable on the surface. In a world where we all lean on emoji to express intent to even our closest friends, these authors write in a way where their intent is immediately recognizable to millions of people.
In my mind these are also different from a satirical work like “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut. While “Cat’s Cradle” is infused with Vonnegut’s humor, it lacks a certain lightheartedness. Its satire overshadows its humor by hitting its subject a little too close to home. While there is some bleed-over with this type of work, the satirical novel has a bit more bite to its humor. It is humor at someone’s expense.
There are very few things as much fun to read as a finely tuned comedic narrative. Like many of the best things, they can be allusive in the wild. However, when you find one – a really good one – they can engage the reader with the unique joy that is their gift.