Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome

If James Brown is the Godfather of Soul, this book is the James Brown of humor writing. Amazingly, it was originally written as an earnest travelogue of a boat trip up the Thames, and looking for it, you can see the places where Jerome (we're on a first name basis--or are we?) gives helpful tips about which towns to see and which to avoid. But it success has always been a result of the comic scenes and the humorous writing style.

As I read this book, I was struck with how, much like history, comedy has an arrow. Old comedy usually doesn't work well, because what still works has been appropriated by everyone and is now commonplace. The topics identified by Wikipedia as "hack" comedy (I've had some very boring jobs in my life, and as a result I have probably read 75-80% of Wikipedia) were once fresh and new. The first guy to end a joke about a promiscuous woman by saying, "And I said to her, 'Mom,...'" was probably slaying them in the aisles. Do it now, though, and they tell you to go back to the Poconos. (Do any serious comics still play the Poconos, or is it too much of an embarrassment now?) Well, the same holds true for comic writing. This book is over 120 years old now, so all the bits that work have been stolen, and now that I read this book, the funny jokes aren't so funny because I've heard them all before. But it helps to remember that, in this book, they were original. There's no way to go back in time and read this book when it was first published, but I can appreciate that, as funny as it was for me, it would have been much funny back then.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

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