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

I’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 Galaxy

Yes, and for one of the best examples, you need only look at the Infinite Improbability Drive. The font of all knowledge

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.


Back to the top of the page


This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.