Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Ol' Lols

I had a conversation this week about which writers could still make you laugh out loud from a distance of over a hundred years. A huge number of funny authors pre-1910, of course, but how many can actually make you physically laugh -even just a chuckle- as you read? (For fairness, I think it has to be from the page, not when read out or in performance.) We immediately came up with very early Wodehouse; Jerome K Jerome; Mark Twain and the Grossmith brothers (the authors of The Diary of a Nobody, which I've always thought would make an excellent musical). Since then, I've remembered Saki and Stephen Leacock. One of us nominated Dickens, which may be true for him, but, though I like Dickens and find him funny, I'm not sure I've ever actually laughed out loud whilst reading him. Nor at Shakespeare, nor Swift. At Wilde, outside performance? Not sure, but I think maybe not. Thurber, Parker, Waugh and Lardner are all too young. Who else? There must be more. Who've I forgotten?

P.S. Since I started writing this post, I accidentally came across another one - a writer whom, had someone else proposed them, I'm afraid I'd have put in the huge 'funny-but-not-laugh-out-loud-funny' bracket: Lewis Carroll.  I was reading a book of his letters, and this, written to a child in 1871, definitely made me (appropriately) chortle.

'You know I have three dinner-bells - the first (which is the largest) is rung when dinner is nearly ready; the second (which is rather larger) is rung when it is quite ready; and the third (which is as large as the other two put together) is rung all the time I am at dinner.'


Robert Hudson said...

Woody Allen?

Persephone said...

How about Lucy Maud Montgomery? Anne of Green Gables (1908) and Anne of Avonlea(1909) have bits that make me giggle uncontrollably. I think that's one of the keys to their longevity.

simon kane said...

Conrad makes me laugh. Bitterly. I've laughed at some of Browning and John Donne and H.G. Wells but maybe it's easier if you hit something funny when you're not expecting it. I've definitely laughed reading Sherlock Holmes, and I think I've laughed at Sterne. But then I laugh at food if I like it enough.

And I've definitely laughed at Carroll. That's a brilliant line about the bells. Here's something the excellent movie blogger David Cairns wrote a while back:

"Many of the jokes, situations and characters are very familiar and it’s easy to take them for granted or else mess with them without a clear idea of why they are the way they are. But here’s a less familiar bit –

‘Crawling at your feet,’ said the Gnat (Alice drew her feet back in some alarm), ‘you may observe a Bread-and-Butterfly. Its wings are thin slices of Bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.’

‘And what does it live on?’

‘Weak tea with cream in it.’

A new difficulty came into Alice’s head. ‘Supposing it couldn’t find any?’ she suggested.

‘Then it would die, of course.’

‘But that must happen very often,’ Alice remarked thoughtfully.

‘It always happens,’ said the gnat."

(I also think Diary of a Nobody would make a good musical by the way.)

Anonymous said...

What about Edward Lear?

Auntie Em said...

I have to second Simon's comment - there are bits of the Sherlock Holmes stories that have made me laugh out loud, on the tube. About the only other thing that does that is Cabin Pressure - just so you know...

riffle said...

I've had quite a few out-loud laughs due to Gogol, though admittedly translation complicates this exercise a bit.

Expanding beyond fiction, I've laughed at Ambrose Bierce (not his fiction) and Mencken. The dates on Mencken may not work out, but he was 30 in 1910 and probably wrote something I laughed at by that time.

Piques said...

Benjamin Franklin has made me laugh out loud. Brilliantly funny man.


This is an essay written to suggest that the great and the good of the Enlightenment period would do better to find a solution for flatulence than their pursuit of knowledge useless to common man in is common day.

Alice Winter said...

Jane Austen! The frankness of her characters makes me laugh so much!! Elizabeth Bennett, whatsherface from Sense and Sensability, all fabulously laugh-out-loud funny :D

Anonymous said...

It's fascinating to see these lists. Some of us are laugh out loud fans of people who only make me grin, and I'm certain it's vice versa.

I have gasped to catch my breath at performances of Moliere, Shakespeare (esp. Twelfth Night), and Wilde.

I'll risk making you blush and emphatically say I'm not being a kiss-up when I say Cabin Pressure has done it as well on several occasions, though Arthur's "Is it bigger than the box?" stands out even among those. Also, a particular Now Show moment of "No pun intended...or achieved" stands out as well.

LOLling from print is far less common. I know it's happened because I remember getting quizzical looks in a quiet room. I'll have to think to remember what it was.

Debbie Cowens said...

Samuel Johnson has definitely made me chuckle a number of times. I think I may have let out an embarrassing snort or two in a library due to Swift and Wilde.

I find some of Chaucer's humour funny, but not in a laugh out loud way. Some one-liners in Norse sagas are strangely amusing because of their nonchalance about death and violence - "I see you've buried a very fashionable axe in my skull".

Apparently that sort of thing had Vikings rolling on the ground and clutching their sides, and I have to admit to chortling at some of those jokes on occasion. That may say more about me than the ability of humour to translate across the centuries.

Anonymous said...

I would appreciate any pointers people have to scholarly or anecdotal works on the nature of comedy.

There's a particular episode of the Rum Doings podcast our Mister Finnemore did that is spectacular in that way. There is also an interview of John Cleese on the nature of comedy out there somewhere.

One line of study I've been following is the absence or presence of a punch line. A stark distinction between American and British comedy seems to be the expectation of a punch line. This distinction is disappearing, but there are instances where it still stands out.

Video Interviewing said...

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James Lark said...

Not laughed out loud at Dickens? Go back and read 'The Pickwick Papers' again. Or even just the first chapter of 'Dombey and Son'.

I would also nominate James Joyce, though the belly laughs in 'Finnegan's Wake' (and there are some) only come in the context of page after page of really hard work, so I'm willing to be in a (slightly elitist and pretentious) minority.

John Finnemore said...

You guys are great.

Robbie - I don't often make jokes.

Persephone - Never read it, through shameful prejudice that it was a girlie book for girls, and if I so much as opened it, I would instantly turn into a girl. I ought to. Read it, I mean.

Simon - Laughing at Browning and Donne? Cor. That seems hard to imagine, though if you also laugh at food, that sheds some light on it. Liked your Carroll extract, and have also now remembered the Hunting of the Snark, which is definitely laugh-provoking. I wronged him.

Auntie Em (and Simon) - Sherlock Holmes, eh? Interesting. I dearly love it, and have recently been reading it, but am pretty sure it hasn't made me laugh. But maybe I should go and re-read the Red-Headed League, which I remember as being the funniest. And the Blue Carbuncle. All the colour stories, basically.

Riffle - Gogol? Blimey. Join Simon at the top of the class. I will seek out some Mencken.

Piques - I'm afraid the farting essay didn't do it for me. But maybe it's an unfair experiment reading something expressly in order to see if it makes you laugh. In fact, it definitely is. As Simon says, you need the element of surprise.

Alice Winter - Big Austen fan, but pretty sure she hasn't made me laugh. Smile, definitely.

Ross - Yes, as you say, in performance is a completely different kettle of fish. And thank you!

Debbie - Johnson. Yes! Pretty sure I've laughed at him, probably when quoted by Boswell rather than directly, but that still counts, and also makes him (for me) the earliest title-holder so far. Thank you!

Video Interviewing - A good point well made.

James - Ok, I will. In fact, shamefully I don't think I've read Dombey and Son, so I'll give it a try.

What's my reading list, then? Anne of Green Gables; Mencken; Adv. of the Red-Headed League; Dombey and Son, and, on reflection, I may not have been fair to Austen so let's say Sense and Sensibility. And maybe even, if I feel brave, Gogol.

Ok. I shall report back!

SamWow said...

John Finnemore, hello. I just stopped by to say this: if you are not married and are inclined to pudgy, American women who laugh at all your jokes, I'm available. I think you would be hilarious to live with. As long as you don't correct me when I end sentences with prepositions.

If not, I'll just anxiously await more Cabin Pressure next year. Sometime.


some kate said...

The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N by Leo Rosten makes me actually tear up with laughter, and also that bit in Three Men in a Boat when George steps in the butter. Mine is a simple world.

John Hudgens said...

Douglas Adams and Robert Asprin have made me laugh out loud - not so much now that I've read everything of theirs, and know what's coming... :)

Just an American fan anxiously awaiting the Christmas special and series 3 of Cabin Pressure...

Anonymous said...

I laughed out loud at Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole, though some years ago now. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. Some Frank O'Connor's short stories, and James Thurbur to mention just a few...

Kaitebon said...

I've definitely laughed out loud at Fielding (especially after an overdose of Richardson), parts of Tristram Shandy have had me in stitches, and after reading Twain's "On the Literary offences of James Fenimore Cooper" (which actually made me cry with laughter) Cooper becomes laughably funny. I just don't give Cooper any of the credit...

Of course, I was laughing out loud at Beroul's Tristan the other day, so I may be far too easily amused...

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Anonymous said...

Douglas Adams! most definetly. dunno what year he's from though o.o

Anonymous said...

There are some very clever lines in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and a few that are quite amusing. Off the top of my head I recall Lestrade dredging a fountain(?) in "The Noble Bachelor" because they found the missing persons clothes there, and Holmes saying that by the same dint of logic every man is to be found in the vicinity of his wardrobe. (Yes, it's much better when Holmes tells 'em.)

There's another great bit in "The Three Students" (I think) where Holmes talks about the landlady of their temporary digs "babbling of green peas". He then jokes that they are sure to be given the sack from said lodgings because of all Watson's bad behaviours, which are obviously his own. (Eh, you had to be there.)

I very much enjoy the writings of Lennie Lower, an Australian newspaper columnist from the 1920s. There is a very pre-Goon Show Goonish streak to them. For example, one column about an expedition in the jungle has an entry "Day 30. No more water. Have told the native bearers to leave the bathtub behind."

"Three Men in a Boat" is grand. I particularly love the part about hanging the picture, though there are many clever bits and sly sentences. "If ever Harris died, George would be the worst suitcase packer in the world".

Keith Waterhouse wrote a companion novel to "Diary of a Nobody", narrating many of the same events from Mrs. Pooter's point of view.

Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that if a man should get a wench pregnant and then marry her, it would be the same if he in his hat "then clapped it on his head". Very unsound but hilarious, with the force and sound of 'clap' really giving it oomph. And that's from 1660, which I'm sure is within your remit and perhaps a bit earlier than the much missed Douglas Adams.

Anonymous said...

Edit to the above:

The third-last sentence should read:

Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that if a man should get a wench pregnant and then marry her, it would be the same if he (excreted) in his hat "then clapped it on his head".

I used the greater than & less than signs to bracket the substitute word, but the webpage must think it's an HTML tag.

Bertram said...

If you want to look a bit further back in time, Apuleius has brought forth a chuckle occasionally. Perhaps Ovid has too although they may have more been smiles than genuine laughter.
And of course Martial's epigrams have them rolling in the aisles...

Anonymous said...

Susan Coolidge with her Katy books and Louisa May Alcott with Little Women. Don't call me 'girly' because Katy is really not a stereotypical girl, nor is Jo from LW.
And boy, do they make me laugh.

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