Humor can come in many forms, and appear in the least likely of places. Tragedy, romance, drama, and poetry can feature an interwoven layer of humor. To that end, a comic story can take shape in many different genres, and can be a technique put to use by many different types of writers. If you’re interested in learning more about how to write a comic story, the Writers’ Program is featuring a new course this fall, Funny but True: Writing the Comic Story with new instructor Jim Gavin. We recently sat with Jim to ask him a few questions about the course and about comedy writing in general.
Writers’ Program: What can students expect in your new fall course?
Jim Gavin: This is a fiction class, first and foremost, but in our reading we will foreground stories that have a comic edge. These stories are not wacky and satirical in the sense of a weekly sketch show — instead they use comedy as a way to bring characters to life and tell a meaningful and memorable story.
Wp’: In the course description for “Funny but True” you quote Christopher Fry as saying, “Comedy is not an escape from truth, but from despair.” Was this an immediate truth for you, or did it take some time to discover?
JG: I think my sensibility has always been comic. A certain Irish gallows humor has always been a part of my family life. For better or worse, it’s how I see and understand the world and a great comedy, in film or fiction, not only makes me laugh, but it also hits me on an emotional level. It’s a different kind of catharsis. Tragedy marks a chasm, a point of no return, but comedy, at its best, is a force of reconciliation, a way of accepting the world, with all its attendant tragedies. In Joyce Cary’s “The Horse’s Mouth,” the elderly painter Gulley Jimson sits in the hospital nearing death. Thinking of moments from his life. He starts laughing, and a nun approaches him and tells him he should be praying instead of laughing. And Gulley, with his dying words, says, “Same thing, Mother.”
Wp’: What do you enjoy about writing comedy?
JG: As a young writer I had a very solemn view of fiction. I thought it had to be sad and tragic and deal with Major Themes. In my mind I had separated fiction from all the other stuff I loved — Kids in the Hall, The Simpsons, etc. But eventually I started discovering writers who could make me laugh out loud, even when they are writing about pain and loneliness. Another major revelation for me was watching the British version of The Office. It’s hilarious in a million different ways, but I’ve watched it over and over these last eight or so years because of the brilliant way it captures characters, their frailty and loneliness and desperation. I also love 30 Rock, but it’s a ruthless joke machine with one-dimensional characters. I’ve embraced the comic aspect in fiction because you have an opportunity to do something more than drop one-liners (although one or two along the way helps). You can go deep inside your characters and capture life in a fresh and revealing way.
Wp’: Who are some of your favorite comic writers?
JG: James Joyce is my favorite writer. His true mode was comedy, and Ulysses is one of the funniest books ever written. The Cyclops episode, which takes place in a pub, is one of the great comic set pieces. Some of my other favorites are Joseph Heller, J.P. Donleavy, Lorrie Moore, and Sam Lipsyte. Ben Fountain’s new novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is laugh-out-loud funny and also totally devastating. What more could you want from a book?
Sara Bond is the Program Assistant for Creative Writing Onsite.