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gary k wolf

Fantasy/Sci-Fi Humorists

by Susan Henderson on December 6, 2006

Hi folks! My name is Pete, and I am the editor and publisher at Creative Guy Publishing and Liaison Press in Vancouver, BC, Canada. I managed, through some begging, pleading and plain old bribery, to get some opinions and insights on the state of humour in science fiction and fantasy these days, from some of the funniest people I know, some of whom I’ve had the pleasure of publishing, and some just of reading.

Joining in the discussion are (in order of appearance) Paul Kane (PK), who is very involved with the British Fantasy Society in his post as BFS Special Publications, and the author of Alone (In the Dark), Touching the Flame, and of course, FunnyBones (from CGP) and Aurelio O’Brien (AOB), author of the novel Eve, and with twenty years of production design, story development, script writing and other more glamorous entertainment work on award winning films under his belt. Next up is Adrienne Jones (AJ), author of the novel The Hoax from Mundania Press, and the novellas Temple of Cod (CGP – chapbook and audiobook) and Gypsies Stole My Tequila, part of the very first Amityville House of Pancakes anthology (CGP), followed by Gary K Wolf (GKW), author of Who Censored Roger Rabbit? and Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit? and whose new story (cowritten with Jehane Baptiste), “The UnHardy Boys in Outer Space,” appears in the third volume of Amityville House of Pancakes, due out in December 2006. I’ll also poke my nose in a couple times here and there, to keep things rolling.

Pete: So — the point of gathering all you funny-pants types is to let them spout off about the state of the world, specifically your part of it, that being what the deal is with humour in fantasy, science fiction and even horror. Ahem — Panel, I see huge amounts of humour everywhere, except in F/SF, and that people seem to not want to associate humour with their SF — do you find this to be so?

PK: It definitely seems to be a niche market, although I think things are getting better in this respect as we’ve recently had the parodies of books like Harry Potter (Barry Trotter), Star Wars (Star Bores) and Lord of the Rings (Bored of the Rings). But in terms of more original stuff, it’s still quite thin on the ground. Pratchett, Tom Holt and the late, great Doug Adams spring immediately to mind, but that’s not many in the history of the genre(s). Most fans and other writers I’ve met at cons have a great sense of humour, so it does seem a little odd.

AOB: I find there is a lot of humor in F/SF, but perhaps much of it is there unintentionally? I don’t know, I’m a satirist at heart, so I can’t help but get a chuckle from things like unpronounceable multi-syllabic character names, or “all-powerful beings” that somehow are defeated anyway.

Or when magic in a story suddenly doesn’t work just when the character needs it the most, kinda like my internet service provider.

I do wish there was more deliberate humor in F/SF though, because real life is so often funny and, for me, it makes stories much more believable when they reflect our real human condition.

AJ: It’s amazing that ‘humor’ can be a dirty word in speculative fiction, but often that’s the case, especially from a marketing stand point. We’ve all either participated or observed writer’s groups that get prickly when you god forbid JOKE about the ‘reality’ of their favorite fantasy world. I’ve tried to inject humor into sci-fi forums and ended up getting a Klingon blood pie in the face. But humor isn’t just a deliberate injection into an otherwise sterile genre. Humor is a necessary ingredient that should figure in every work of fiction, as it does in life.

This doesn’t mean every scene needs a dead dog or a door slammed in a face; humor should be subtle. Mainly it should come out in dialogue; both internal and external. Situational humor is just as powerful, though many writers today try too hard with this type and bleed it over into slapstick. Whether you’re writing an intense work of science fiction where the entire earth is infected with the evil wrath of the slug virus, a hard core horror novel, or a playful fantasy where trolls move in on unicorn territory, humor is what makes the extremity of any scene palatable to the reader. The reader is more apt to stomach what you’re feeding them if you disarm them with a laugh.

GKW: I hate pointing to the infamous “marketing department” and blaming it for the decline of humorous science fiction, but I can’t shake off one especially relevant story.

I had a publishing contract with a major publisher. My deal was that I would write a novel and they would publish it. Simple. This worked quite well for three novels. Then I wrote Roger Rabbit. My publisher rejected it. This came as quite a shock to me since I believed it was by far the best novel I’d ever done, and my editor agreed. When I asked my editor why they had done that, she told me that because it the humorous premise was so unusual that she felt compelled to show it to the infamous marketing department. They were the ones who rejected it.

I talked directly to the head of marketing and asked him to explain why he had rejected my novel. He said they rejected it because the marketing department couldn’t sell it. There was no category for it; there was no place to put it on a bookstore shelf. It wasn’t mainline fiction, not a traditional mystery, nor a children’s book. There was no shelf at Barnes and Noble for humorous adult fantasy fiction. When I asked him what he would do if he were presented with Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland, or The Wizard of Oz, he leaned back in his chair, thought for a moment and told me “Frankly, I couldn’t sell those either.”

Obviously he was wrong. Roger Rabbit sold quite well. People haven’t lost their sense of humor. They still watch funny TV shows, satirical movies, and stand up comedy. They still read humorous books when those books get printed and when potential readers are able to find them and buy them. The market is still there. It’s just that these days it’s much harder to reach.

PK: I’ve recently become friends with Matthew Holness who does the exceptional Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place – which is doing a roaring trade on DVD, but which was largely ignored by Channel 4 when first screened a couple of years ago (for anyone who’s not heard of it, he plays a horror writer who uses every cliché in the book and it’s hilarious). In short, I’m not quite sure what the reason is for the lack of comedy horror/sf/fantasy – but you’ll find that the ones that like it serious will also be the first to laugh at all the in-jokes in something like Spaceballs…

Pete: Perhaps the point is that stories or scripts, from a marketing point of view, need to be intentionally ‘funny’ to be able to be slotted into a specific market — I know that one of the things an agent or publisher will look for is a specific category — multi-genre stories are a hard sell, at least up until recently.

GKW: The people who run publishing companies and film companies seem to be of a new and not necessarily better breed. These companies used to be run by people who had come up through the ranks. People who knew markets, knew their readers or their audiences. These people had a sense of humor. The new leadership comes from the ranks of the bean counters, the accountants and attorneys. Their only interest is in putting together a package that will have the broadest possible appeal. To them it’s all about money. There’s nothing funny about money, honey.

AOB: An old adage in Hollywood is, “Funny is money,” and I think Gary’s Roger Rabbit proved this in spades. That his publisher’s marketing department missed the boat on that one is quite telling. The “category” problem was what led me to self-publish Eve without really even trying for a publisher. Publishers with genres are like politicians with race. Mixed race folks are difficult if not impossible to target in politics, but they are rapidly becoming the norm. Politicians can’t keep up – and their job becomes harder. The target murkier. The old buttons don’t work anymore. In the same way, the publishing industry ignores a quickly growing volume of mixed-genre speculative fiction; it seems to me, because it too is hard. I have news for them; it’s not going to get easier.

Humor seems to especially flummox them. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they don’t trust their own senses of humor? My guess though is that it is because humor, at its heart, is frivolous, so it is hard for publishers to be serious about frivolity.

The combination of humor and sci-fi is such a natural though! I mean, sci-fi is taking the world and making it odd, or making an odd world unlike our own, and humor is actually the very same thing. They both serve up a twist on the norm, so to combine the two enriches both. At least this is how I see it.

AJ: Serious about frivolity, that’s a great contradiction, Aurelio. The story Gary just told about Roger Rabbit getting rejected because of the supposed ‘lack of category’ is something I’ve thought of often, especially since he told me that particular story. When I first began selling my fiction, I can’t count the number of times I heard the word ‘cross-genre from editors; mainly the ones that were rejecting me. My novel The Hoax is a cross-genre if ever there was one, but after taking more hits than the first ten minutes of Saving Private Ryan, I learned. I learned that to get in the door, sometimes you’ve got to tell them what they want to hear. So I reworked my query, focusing only on the ‘science’ elements of my plot, and tagged it ‘Science Fiction’. I finally got the damn thing read, and once I got it read, I got it sold. Since its release, what I’ve heard over and over again from new readers is ‘This is funny. I didn’t expect it to be so funny!’ There’s a tone of surprise there, like they expected it would have come with a ‘funny’ tag. But just look at the categories in the movie store; Drama, Comedy; Action; Horror; Science Fiction. I think Gary makes a good point in saying that people still DO want humor. I believe that the avid reader out there is basically an intelligent, enlightened being with a great sense of subtle humor. What I wish the ‘marketing’ gurus of the publishing houses would realize, is that there’s a REASON that Terry Pratchett is considered a genius among fantasy fans. There’s a REASON Roger Rabbit is a name that’s known globally. Which brings me back to Aurelio’s point about genre. Now that certain no-fit genres, that once met with the scratching of heads by marketing departments have busted through, they become their OWN genre. And when they do, the sales they generate, and the fan-base they generate is immense. I wouldn’t have known how to categorize Irvine Welsh when he first came out, but guess what? Now his brand of fiction is referred to as ‘Irvine Welsh-ish’.

And when Pete published my novella ‘Gypsies Stole My Tequila’ in AHOP 1, I was met with the same strange commentary — ‘Why is this fantasy? It’s a comedy’. I had to remind people that there’s a DEMON living in a calendar in the story. So what stands out more in a humorous sci-fi/fantasy, the fantasy or the humor? I’m leaning toward humor.

GKW: We’ve also lost our training ground for both readers and writers. I discovered science fiction in general and humorous science fiction in particular by reading any of the scores of magazines that used to print science fiction stories. I’m not talking about the genre magazines only. Other, mainstream magazines did it too. I learned how to craft fiction and how to tell a funny story by writing stuff for publication in those magazines. Now they’re almost all gone. So there are far fewer places for budding writers to hone their craft and for new readers to discover how funny humorous science fiction can be. As a side note, I probably caused the demise of a goodly number of those magazines personally. I lost count of how many of them went out of business the month after publishing one of my stories. That would certainly seem to not bode well for Amityville House of Pancakes 4.

AOB: For me, so much of life is observably funny and this automatically feeds my writing. When I was creating my all organic, genetically designed future, things like McDonald’s Characters directly inspired me to go further than I might otherwise think to go with my Creature Comfortsâ„¢. For example, the fact that Mayor McCheese’s head is actually a big slab of ground beef is pretty funny to me. The little giggling “McNuggets” are really chunks of dead fowl flesh with cute little smiles carved into them. I find these kinds of things to be so twisted and humorous and odd. Most people don’t think about these characters beyond their surface appeal. So, when people tell me my Lick-n-Span© is gross, I think, is it really any grosser than having a hacked up chicken giggle at you? No! It’s cute! The satire or humor only comes because I’ve taken it a very small step away from the norm and people recognize it for what it is. Another example: The cool street fashion for a while was for tough teens to wear HUGE pants with their underwear showing, and then have to hold them up with one hand all day long. Here in LA that was considered uber-cool. But… it’s cool to have your big pants fall down so your underwear shows? Circus clowns used to do that for laughs. So when everyone in my future wears goofy elaborate hats – sure, it’s funny, okay, but completely plausible to me.

Or celebrity cosmetic surgery – okay, that’s not really funny, it’s just creepy. I bring it up though because it is so extreme, and if you were to write such things say, 100 years ago, everyone would think you were nuts or your writing was too unbelievable. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could just as easily have been about the King of Pop.

It’s hard to completely admit that I write satire because it is based on reality. It is merely life as it is, or perhaps will be in the case of EVE. As writers, we all select and edit things we observe; we reform them into something new. We do this whether our writing is funny or serious – the process is the same. I think the best humor is the stuff that on some level rings true.

Adrienne is especially gifted at combining humor and the horrific. I laughed and cringed all the way through The Hoax, and really all her stories. It has been said that there is an emotional connection between laughter and tears, that it is almost the same reaction inside your head, or something to that effect, and similarly, AJ takes her reader’s nervous laughter – that kind you get when the ground shifts under you, or you fear what might happen next – and she uses that to elicit great humorous moments. I’ve never seen anyone else do it as well as she does.

AJ: Wow, I think Aurelio said it all just then. What do stand up comedians do but point out the obvious silliness of life and make the audience laugh? Funny you brought up the McNuggets; we were just talking this week about how funny it is to have a farm theme in the kitchen. I know people with chicken kettles, cow cream pourers, Salt and pepper shakers shaped like cute little pigs; or even the food brands that have a happy little apron wearing pig on the packet of ham. Observation is the key.

As far as writing funny intentionally, for me it’s a combination. I’ll set out to write about something that tickles me personally, and if I’m lucky, the story and the characters will set the tone and the bizarre scenarios will keep coming, maybe because my subconscious mind has been set to that dial.

Pete: So to head toward a conclusion of this humor discussion, we haven’t really talked about characters yet, which is pretty much the start of anything, humor or not. You’ve always got to remind yourself when crafting a story, not to ask ‘what is this about’, but to ask WHO is this about. And what’s funny about them?

AJ: I think the largest ingredient in creating a character that will tickle the reader in any genre is the flaw. Everyone’s flawed, everyone has problems, imperfections they want to hide from the world. The reader enjoys characters that have it worse than they do.

I’m thinking of some of the others’ work here (I haven’t read Paul’s Funny Bones but I intend to), Aurelio’s character Pentser in Eve is a discontinued robot, an antique that resents the mechanical genocide of his robot species; his anger and survivalist mentality turn him into a diabolical meddler in the fate of humanity, an Evil Iago, controlling the characters around him to meet his own ends.

In Gary’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, Roger Rabbit is….well, DEAD. Can’t find a much bigger problem than that. Along with the classically flawed detective who’s struggling to get a job done in a town full of double-talking toons.

What I’m saying is, it’s the IDEA of these characters that are funny, before the actual ‘story’ even begins. In my own novella, Gypsies Stole my Tequila; the plot was all spring-boarded off the character of Joe Blood; washed up, jaded, former punk rock star about to turn 40, working in a butcher shop where he has to wear a degrading cow costume. The very IDEA of Joe Blood is funny, before the plot takes its first turn.

Thoughts?

GKW: Humor arises not from the character but from the personality and inclination of the humorist. In the second Terminator, Ahnold was a discontinued robot. Dracula was…well, DEAD. There was nothing funny about either one of those two (discounting Ahnold’s corny one liners and his political career.)

There’s something unfathomable about humor writers that compels them to look at a situation or a character, twist it, turn it, squeeze it, squash it until it’s a round peg that fits into a square hole and looks funny doing it. Good stand up comedians have the same ability, taking everyday situations and making them funny. They do it verbally. Most of the humorous writers I know, me included, aren’t very funny in conversation. In fact I’m so boring I could suck the laughs out of a hyena convention. However give us a blank page and a pen, and we’ll have you in stitches. I’ve been applauded by editors, critics, and readers for the humor in my work. All well and good except they were talking about what I consider to be my serious work. What I’m saying is that there’s something perverse about the way I look at reality or, in the case of science fiction, unreality. I see a situation, I make it funny. Can’t help it. Don’t do it intentionally. That’s just the way I write. Thank goodness I wasn’t there at the Continental Convention or We the people of the United States would have formed a more perfect Comedy Club.

AOB: I think observing real people you know is the key to creating a believable character, and is especially important in creating funny ones. Yes, you can dress your characters up in goofy clothes or give them a silly job or place them in an odd locale, but that is only surface humor and won’t carry you too far. It can work effectively as a catalyst into humor, but the real humor comes from your character’s internal struggles and reactions.

For example, changing a flat tire isn’t particularly funny, but Lucy and Ethel changing one might be. And it’s because we know how their minds work, we know their character, we know Lucy will approach the situation in her own quirky way and find an unexpected solution to her problem. The “funny” springs from her character, from within, rather than simply being laid on the surface.

This is what makes writers like David Sedaris so irresistible. A visit to a nudist colony could be creepy or titillating, but through Sedaris’s eyes it is a laugh riot.

We all know people who are just plain funny. They have unique ways of looking at things. Their very personalities cause those around them to see things from their own odd angle and humor is the result. As writers, we can observe and recreate these people in our work.

And these are generally people who don’t realize how funny they are! They are my favorite archetypes to draw on, because they carry an endearing quality with the humor – you love to read about them, and you inevitably care about their outcome.

AJ: I’m gonna have to disagree with everyone here, or perhaps clarify. It’s not just someone’s attire or silly job that makes them funny. It’s the IDEA of the character. When I was talking about Joe Blood, I meant in terms of his *situation*, which IS the catalyst for his internal struggles and reactions.

I DO think that the characters themselves can start out the humor; but of course these have to be humorous characters. Dracula and the Terminator were not SUPPOSED to be funny guys. There’s nothing surrounding their scenarios (though I love them both deeply) that’s mean to arouse a tickle.

Your character, in a novel, is not an actor; your character is not a ‘character’ until you GIVE them some characteristics, until you feed them some dialogue, until we to some extent KNOW their situation. I’m not referring to undeveloped characters here. Those lumps of clay are the first things you work on, and nothing can happen until they’re visible.

AOB: This is pretty much what I’m saying and it seems you and I are in agreement here, AJ. Whether you are writing a character or acting a character, (or more to the point, writing a character for book or screen) the difference between shtick and personality is the same. Shtick gives you a joke, or a pratfall, or a one-liner; character creates humorous possibilities in ordinary things and involves your reader in the humor-building process. The reader is waiting for the other shoe to drop, if they know the character’s quirks. The anticipation of your character’s reaction heightens the laugh.

Not that I have anything against a good joke…

Pete: I suppose that probably should sum it up. Ok, delicate readers, support these poor bastards and go out and buy their books. Christmas is coming — skip back up to the top and see where you can find their works — or Google them. They won’t mind. Also, if you’re a myspace addict, you can find (almost) all of us on there:

PeteAdriennePaulAurelio

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Tomorrow (yes, a special Thursday, Pearl Harbor Day edition of LitPark), I’ll show a video of Pop Pop Henderson telling his story of December 7, 1941, when he was eight and living in Honolulu.

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