When I was a graduate student at the University of Gussberry-on-Hornsplat reading for my doctorate in “Humor and Humorlessness in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Proto-European Monographs,” my professors often referred to a theory they loosely called “The Banana Peel Slide.”
This meme postulated that a humorous trope—such as the man-falling-on-banana-peel— loses its ability to trigger amusement after it becomes part of the greater eco-social-spiritual consciousness, leading to a revolt by sophisticated elites against populist humor grounded in laughing at another’s misfortune, and eventually coming round to popularity again throughout the entire societal continuum when the joke takes on a wry postmodern irony encapsulating the laughing-at-the-laughter-of-those-who-laugh at such simplistic slapstick (See I.M. Gully-Bull, “They’re Laughing With Me, Not At Me, an essay on the struggles of a stand-up comic in the world of spelunking,” Psychiatric Journal of the Criminal Mind, Jan. 09, 43-57).
In other words, slipping on a banana peel was HIGH-LAIR-EE-YUS when first viewed by Cro-Magnon Man until his momma rapped him on the knuckles for laughing at another Cro-Mag hurting himself, and then became funny again when Momma started giggling about it herself.
But humorous tropes grow stale, so the banana peel gag loses its luster (or “lustre” as we were instructed to write at UGH) when viewed too often.
Humor, of course, varies from place to place and generation to generation (see Habe R. Dashery, “A Most Dreadful Hat: Materialism and Comedy in the Works of Jane Austen,” Oxford Community College Press, 1998, 90), but one thing remains constant—laughter usually accompanies surprise. One expects the man walking down the street in his fine new suit and boater hat to find his path smooth and journey uneventful. Then—surprise!—banana peel, meet foot. What’s not to love?
Nonetheless, humor writing is more than the mere description of slapstick moments which are, in reality, difficult to capture succinctly while retaining the laughter-inspiring elements. Written humor, in fact, depends a great deal on the effect of the words themselves, their groupings, their compilation, if you will, into a contextual image that ignites some inner Jungian childhood-pleasure-memory within the reader (see Diep Krappe, “Syntastic—Grammar, Puns, and Humor from Iambic Pentameter to ‘Yo Momma’,” Journal of Polska Witticisms, Aug. 01, pp. 3-87).
This is not to say one can’t describe slapstick effectively on the written page. As the great humorist J.P. Sartre (not to be confused with her more well-known and morose second cousin Jean-Paul), once wrote: Je vais cherchez du bon vin a la cave, which, loosely translated, means: “It is possible for anything to be funny as long as the writer knows how to effectively communicate the core elements of the humorous situation, whether they be a physical action, a tres amusent observation a la ‘but other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln,’ or even, perhaps, the acting out of despair in a completely unexpected way. It is not the full bottle of wine in the wine cellar that makes one smile. It is the empty bottle of wine in the . . .” (the rest was lost to posterity, but the major components of Sartre’s take on humor appear in the brilliant essay by Dom. Pear I. Gnon, “The Banana Peel and the Descriptive Verb: Physical Comedy in a Linguistic Setting,” Wine, Laughter, and More Wine, Lots More Wine, More Wine . . . Please, June 02).
So, what, aspiring authors ask, is the secret to writing a successful humorous novel? Good spelling and grammar help (see Strunk N. White, “Spats, Spoofs and Spelling: The Dialectics of Inter-Class Dialogue in the Works of George Bernard Shaw,” Auckland Council Kanberry, ACK Journal of Pedants and Proofreaders, Sept 1910). But beyond that, a funny story is really any one that makes people laugh or smile. If it does so for you, the author, you might be on the right path toward igniting the same reaction in others.
Humorous fiction comes in all varieties, from the zany (L. Malin, My Own Personal Soap Opera, Looking for Reality in All the Wrong Places, Sourcebooks 2010) to the zanier (L. Malin, Fire Me, a Tale of Dreaming, Scheming and Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places, Sourcebooks 2009).
There’s no telling what will tickle any one particular person’s funny bone at any one particular moment. There is no formula for success, in other words, just a keen power of observation—keep your eye on that banana peel, sweetie—and the ability to write characters readers care about even as they face unrealistic situations that could make them laugh or cry (see Gloria Steinmart, “That’s Not At All Funny,” Feminism Yesterday, April 1971).
If you’d like a peek at my latest oeuvre, MY OWN PERSONAL SOAP OPERA, go to my website to read a first chapter. It tells the story of soap head writer Frankie McNally, who has to deal with failing ratings, staff members who all want to be doing something else, a leading man who broke his leg on Dancing with the Stars, a jewel thief imitating a similar story on the show, and oh yeah, two men who both want to win her heart.
Hope you like it—or that degree from UGH was a total waste of time!
Libby Malin did not attend (nor go anywhere near) the University of Gussberry-on-Hornsplat. In fact, she holds a bachelor’s and master’s from the Peabody Conservatory of Music. When she finally turned to her first love, writing, she began penning women’s fiction and young adult mysteries (which she writes as Libby Sternberg). Her first YA mystery, in fact, was an Edgar nominee. Her three humorous women’s fiction books (LOVES ME, LOVES ME NOT, FIRE ME!, and MY OWN PERSONAL SOAP OPERA) have garnered critical praise.
Is life stranger than fiction, or vice versa?
Frankie McNally has found the perfect solution for life’s perplexing problems: as head writer for the daytime soap Lust for Life, she works them out on the air!
Meanwhile, Frankie’s being courted simultaneously by the dashing older man sent in to save the show’s sagging ratings and by the soap’s totally hot leading man. And just when Frankie thinks the plot couldn’t get more complicated, a jewel thief starts copying the show’s storyline-a development that could send the show’s ratings soaring, if it doesn’t get Frankie arrested first…
In her signature blending of the hilarious with the poignant, Libby Malin’s latest light-hearted novel combines the best of life and of fiction into an entertaining and incredibly satisfying read.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Libby Malin is published in women’s fiction, including FIRE ME, and is an Edgar nominated YA mystery writer. She’s worked in public relations, as an education reform advocate, and was a member of the Vermont Commission on Women. She lives with her husband and three children in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. For more information please visit www.LibbysBooks.com.