2.25.2004

The Problem of Humor

Last night I attended a poetry reading by local graduate school students. The first girl poet was rather good, using humor to crack the ice of her audience in the cramped space between bookshelves and shifting bodies that did not arrive early enough for a seat.

The veteran poetry intellectuals came armed with guffaws and used them readily from the first glimmer of humor. But she was really funny--even if not always laugh-out-loud funny (one on dating Warren Buffet, another on a sexual escapade while embalming someone and listening to Gordon Lightfoot). After each poem, the audience clapped. I was still warming my hands from outside, so I made the sound of one-hand clapping--against the bookshelf of the travel section.

The next poet shuffled to the stage in her shy, sweet smile and mid-length blonde hair falling over her cheekbones to hide her face. She invoked the labor of youth, our ire against early treatment of Native Americans. No one laughed, and no one clapped after each poem. One could see the toll that no-one-clapping took by the straining of her smile. It was not that her poems were bad--if occasionally over- or underplaying what the drama should be--but the audience was growing tired and had forgotten they'd clapped after each poem of the first poet.

I wanted to comfort her and tell her, "It's okay. The other poet will never win an award. People who use humor never do."

I no sooner thought it than Robert Sheckley came to mind.

"Never" is a strong term, of course. Certainly R.A. Lafferty won a Hugo for "Eurema's Dam" and Connie Willis has won a few awards herself (but then humor is not necessarily her main mode of storytelling).

Sheckley did win a Jupiter, a short-lived award given by the "Instructors of Science Fiction in Higher Education," back in '74 (no mean feat if you consider that the other stories are considered major classics today). His Author Emeritus award is certainly nothing to look down on, but it is interesting that, aside from sharing the title with authors who have all retired, William Tenn is the only other who worked primarily with humor and irony. The Grand Master list has none who worked primarily with humor and irony as Sheckley and Tenn did.

When a writer asked me why I thought Bob Urell's petition to make Robert Sheckley a Grand Master was so sparsely signed in comparison to his realm of influence, I speculated on possibilities: 1) unfathomable politics, 2) no one's read him these days, 3) he's gotten an award already.

But this new reflection on humor strikes me as the strongest possibility. Humor sneaks past our guard, disarms and charms us more quickly than a normal narrative. Of course, that is all some humor manages to do, eliciting a chuckle or even a guffaw. Lawrence Block once wrote an essay where he sat in on a movie based on his work where the audience laughed heartily, but when he asked their final assessment, he found them negatively disposed. You can make them laugh, but you can't make them love.

Likewise, not every Sheckley story is equally important simply due to the presence of irony or humor. But my suspicion is that because this irony or humor immediately charms and disarms us, we automatically dismiss it from deeper significance. Or, even if we admit a deeper significance, we assume the significance is cheaply or artificially won. I've demonstrated on a couple of Sheckley stories already that his humor and irony is not cheap but far more profound than one would assume due to our (largely American?) prejudice against any insights delivered through humor.

(But if we dismiss Sheckley, we forget his reprints in well over three dozen major anthologies--retrospectives of year, genre, or magazine--as well as his acknowledged or unacknoledged influence on major writers like Douglas Adams, David Brin, Alan Dean Foster, Matt Groening, Stephen King, Ursula K. LeGuin, Spider Robinson, Rudy Rucker, and perhaps even Joseph Heller (whose Catch-22, which he'd begun working on around the publication of Sheckley's "If a Red Slayer"--some uncanny resemblances arise from comparison). As I've said, there's a transformative power in reading Sheckley en masse that one simply does not find even from such Grand Masters as Robert Heinlein, who clearly deserves the award for easily delineated contributions to the genre. And maybe that's Sheckley's problem. His contributions are much more insidious--in the best sense of the term.

Look at all the awards Kurt Vonnegut has won. More tellingly, look at the major literary awards. Off the top of my head, I can think of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, but could his recent death at the time have influenced that choice? It seems the field of SFF may have less prejudice toward humor than elsewhere.

If we dig deeper, we may find the problem of humor is merely a tributary vein of a larger bias: entertainment. It's like the old phrase we've all used: "Anything that tastes that good can't be good for you." If some are reluctant to accept SFF as holding any profundities, perhaps our misunderstanding of humor can in part answer why.

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