Tue
Jan 25 2011 10:01am

The Unreal, and Why We Love It, Part 4: Laughter

The Unreal part 4 by David WhitleyI’m going to start this blog with a particularly risky first line, so I want you all to bear with me, and not over react, okay? 

Okay... deep breath...

Let’s be honest here—fantasy, sci-fi stories... they’re all a bit silly, aren’t they?

No, NO—wait! Come back! I didn’t mean that in a bad way....

Anyone here knows that there will always be people who can never take fantastic fiction seriously. No matter how well constructed or beautifully written, to them it will always be androgynous elves and ray guns and robots that can’t climb stairs.

And that really is a shame. To reap rewards from unreal worlds, you have to accept those worlds on their own terms. No matter how strange.

No wonder, then, that humorous fantasy is so very, very subjective.

There is joke that mathematicians crack—“Let epsilon be less than zero.” This is apparently hilarious to anyone in the field, and simply baffling to those of us who don’t understand. That doesn’t make it unfunny (and I must admit, I did laugh at another mathematicians’ joke, seen on a T shirt: “There are 10 kinds of people in the world. Those who understand binary, and those who don’t.”) but a basic understanding is required.

I’ll have to say at the outset, analysing comedy is pretty much a doomed endeavour, but if I were to try I would say that at its heart, comedy most often relies on a snappy mix of observation and subversion. Writer hits the space bar, nothing unusual there; Buzz Lightyear hits the Space Bar and years of hidden alcoholism are suddenly implied... a tiny twist, something unexpected, and we laugh. (Well okay not in this instance, but you get my drift).

In fantasy fiction, however, our setting is already unexpected—fantasy and sci-fi rely on us accepting a world where ancient words can tear holes in reality, where dragons or spaceships fill the sky, and where no computer has ever returned with the message “Error 404.” So how do you start from a world of talking trees, and make sure that the audience is laughing at the right things?

Of course, the most reliable way is for the writer to litter the script with nods to the fans—an obscure reference, a moment played surprisingly straight; something to show that they are “one of us.” Futurama has been particularly brilliant about this—mixing expected pop culture references with surprisingly subtle plotting and worldbuilding. Even the pilot episode has a significant character hiding in the shadows, long before his plot appears, which, considering that it looked like a simple gag-show at the time, is rather impressive.

Alternatively, a show like 50s sitcom Bewitched subverted the obvious by not making magic the centre of the plot. Samantha was a witch, but the humour lay in the fact that she was also a suburban housewife. There was usually only one spell per episode which served to set up the farcical situation. The comedy came from her hapless husband’s increasingly frantic reaction to the ensuing mayhem. It worked because the characters were fun, the whole thing had genuine warmth and wit, and the fantastic elements really weren’t that important.

Because so much humorous fantasy isn’t that at all. It’s ordinary comedy with a fantastic veneer, or comedy about fantasy tropes, not the worlds themselves. Can we really engage with a fantasy world, believe in it enough to care, and laugh at the same time?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyYes, and for one of the best examples, you need only look at the Infinite Improbability Drive.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Infinite Improbability Drive which powers the spaceship Heart of Gold is the excuse for a lot of surreal comedy. (Its reality warping field causes, amongst other things, a missile to become a philosophical whale, an infinite number of monkeys to turn up with a script for Hamlet, the entire ship to materialise inside a mile long statue of a plastic cup, and so on....) If the Infinite Improbability Drive were just a plot device to introduce some surreal jokes, that would be funny enough. But no, Douglas Adams goes into some detail about how it was constructed, explaining that the original probability generators were mostly used “to break the ice at parties, by making all of the molecules in the hostess’s undergarments spontaneously jump two feet to the left.” Yes, the most advanced piece of technology in the universe was regularly used for a juvenile prank.

And that is what makes it so brilliant–the soothing tone of The Guide lulls us into accepting this world in all its weirdness, and makes a joke which the inhabitants of the world would themselves laugh at. It’s a joke which only works because you have completely accepted the reality of the other world, and that normal, drunken people would react to its wonders with the same... um... priorities as real life. And if a story can do that, then you know that this unreal world has truly come to life.

This is a site devoted to all things unreal, and to treating them with the respect they deserve, as works that can open our minds and make our spirits soar. Laughter shows that we haven’t just accepted a world on an intellectual level, but in our heart and our gut. To laugh at something, it has to feel real. Ironically, to find something funny, you have to take it seriously. And being both real and consciously fantastic at the same time... that’s something quite amazing.

Just remember not to get too close. Because there is always the danger of becoming too involved. Then, we might start to wonder how the hostess felt, having her undergarments ripped away by cruel pranksters, or the strain that constant magical hijinks might have on a marriage. We can start to see the cracks behind the smile, and wonder if these fantastic worlds might be much more sorrowful places than they appear...

But that’s a story for next time.

Read the rest of the Unreal series here.


David Whitley is British, which naturally makes him a sinister villain, ready to spread tea-and-crumpet themed darkness across an unsuspecting world. In the meantime, he is the author of The Midnight Charter and its sequel, The Children of the Lost, out now in the U.S.

8 comments
Jeff Parent
1. Roundabout
What? WHAT? Not a word about Terry Pratchett's invaluable, intelligent and undeniably humourous contributions to fantasy and literature at large?

For SHAME.
M Linden
2. mlinden
I had much the same thought, but David's point applies equally well to Pratchett; the Discworld books work because, as inherently silly as the world is, Pratchett makes it a real place, inhabited by real-ish people. The first few Discworld books were straight-up fantasy spoofs, and were funny, but once they started becoming more thoughtful and thematically rich they became REALLY funny.
David Whitley
3. DavidWhitley
@Roundabout - Oh, don't worry, Terry Pratchett is brilliant, and gets practically an entire article to himself later in this series! I considered using him here as well, but I didn't want him to dominate, which considering I've read all of his Discworld books at least twice, was a real danger. So patience... wait for Part 6...

@ mlinden - Thank you for that thought! You're absolutely right, the Douglas Adams bit applies just as well to Pratchett, even moreso really, since he has had so long to develop his world...
Jeff Parent
4. Roundabout
Hi David,

Thanks for the reply.

I feel as if my FOR SHAME was a bit harsh so I should also clarify that there doesn't appear to be a smiley for 'mock scolding' and I may have given the wrong impression. My apologies. :)

I shall wait for part 6 with bated breath.
Leah Hansen
5. Leah Hansen
Hi, David! I am highly enjoying your series on the unreal and why we love it; thank you very much for your excellent posts. Your observations on humor in fantasy are sharp and---dare I say it---even made me chuckle a bit. ;-)

Humor in fantasy is something I've been contemplating myself, lately, particularly in regards to my own writings and how humor fits there. I don't write comedy---my characters are more the epic-adventuring type---but neither I nor they can survive their dramatic undertakings without a generous sprinkling of humorous remarks or events throughout. I've concluded, therefore, that I approach humor on a very character-based level. And preferably not premeditated; I like to let humorous situations or observations rise naturally from whatever's happening, whenever possible.

I haven't read your books yet, though they are on my TBR pile (and I'm looking forward to them!). If you don't mind, I am curious---how do you approach humor in your own works? (I suppose you could always RAFO that, if you wish... heh.)
David Whitley
6. DavidWhitley
@ Roundabout - No offence taken at any point, I assure you! Originally, in my little bio at the bottom of the article, I actually had a line apoligising pre-emptively for the lack of Pratchett, for now...

@ Leah Hansen - Thank you so much! Really glad that you're enjoying the series, and I hope you enjoy my books just as much when you reach them in the pile!

I think I approach humour much the same way you do - the world of the Agora trilogy is a dark place, but my characters often find that a bit of banter is the best way to deal with the troubles in their lives. Well, that, and some situations are so naturally ridiculous that comedy is all but inevitable. (Thirteen-year-old protagonist finds, thanks to the odd laws of the city, that he has become engaged to a sixteen-year-old girl with a mental age of about seven, who seems to think that dolls are more alive than people. Some horrific cross between comedy and blind terror ensues).

I've rarely gone into a scene thinking "this has got to be funny", but it's such a natural part of life - for bringing people together, for releasing tension, and yes, occasionally when people are in a really silly mood, that it would seem ridiculous without it!

Oh, and I did once write an (unpublished) book where in one scene all of the characters were wearing jellyfish on their heads. But that was entirely justified, plot-wise... ahem.

(By the way, what does RAFO mean?)
Leah Hansen
7. Leah Hansen
David - Oh, sorry---RAFO means "read and find out". Maybe it's an Americanism? Not sure. I just recently learned the term myself when I read a post Brandon Sanderson did answering questions about the Wheel of Time and his Mistborn series---he RAFO'ed a ton of questions. With good reason, given that neither of the series are finished yet. I thought I was the last person in the world to crack the RAFO code... glad to know I'm not quite alone. ;-)

Thank you for your response! The jellyfish scene sounds like great fun! Also, your books just jumped several steps up in my pile. They sound like just the kind of thing I'd enjoy. (If that makes me sound weird, well... so be it. I shall be weird!)
Matthew Brown
8. morven
I think RAFO is probably specifically American fanspeak, and from a part of the universe I don't inhabit.

I can think of two authors who write fairly dark fantasy but who break the gloomy monotony with humor.

One's Glen Cook. His "Black Company" series breaks up the pretty bleak existence of a cutthroat mercenary company with frequent humor. This is pretty typical of non-fantastic war fiction in general, and I believe is pretty typical of real-life soldiers as well -- it's human nature to relieve stress with humor and try and find entertainment in tragedy, after all.

The second is P.C. Hodgell and her Kencyr series, which is also pretty damn bleak. Hodgell's a very visual writer — recent LiveJournal posts about her comic book obsession when she was younger make so much sense — and it's thus fitting that she choose very visual forms of comedy, which is largely slapstick. There's a lot of physical comedy in these books — pratfalls, near catastrophies, miraculous survivals, and physical ridiculousness in general. Of course, it helps if you have a physically tough heroine who has superhuman healing abilities.

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