One of my old Army buddies, Eric Hoffman, went on to become a comedian, making a name for himself in the Chicago improv circuit and landing some good roles in TV and film (most notably, he parodied the John Travolta character from Pulp Fiction in My Big Fat Independent Movie). He even wrote for Bob & Dave’s “Mr. Show” for awhile. Well, now he’s an author, or co-author with Gary Rudoren, anyway, with the release of a great humor book: Comedy by the Numbers
I didn’t intend to review the book here, but it’s such a singularly funny read that I just have to. Sure, I’m biased. But don’t let that stop you from buying it.
Comedy by the Numbers is a mock “how to be popular” book — a technical guide to being the class clown or life of the party — with a catalog of 169 tried-and-true comedy “secrets” that are applicable to any stand-up routine, comedic screenplay, or water cooler conversation. The book parodies itself with mock authority, and as it enumerates all the cliches we’ve all seen before (#1 Animals Doing Things Humans Do, #16 Clowns, #36 Dwarves, Midgets and the Like), it catches you off-guard once in awhile by throwing in an absurd example of a tip here, or an excessive and over-the-top application of the secret there (like the list of “Clown Names Still Available for General Use” that includes names like “Cancerella, Spoogie, Stone Phillips and Blazey the Arsonist Clown”). Ever wanted to know how to properly shop for ventriloquist dummies? (Floppy legs are best). Which facial expressions are the best reactions to pain? (Sometimes it’s the “anger face,” sometimes it’s the “Indian shot arrow in the windpipe” face). What the best choices are for mimes who want to pretend to be trapped inside an object? (The back end of a horse costume always gets a laugh).
As you read along, you’ll find yourself caught up in all the stock examples from film comedies you’ve seen, and you’ll start to realize that Comedy by the Numbers still manages to be rather educational despite itself, by successfully surveying the genre and exposing all its formulas, strengths, and weaknesses. But beyond its content, the writing succeeds because the authors adopt a comedic perspective on their own material — at times excessively bragging about their own wit, at others pulling the rug out from under their own advice — and it’s a perspective that’s utterly contagious. By practicing what it preaches, the book charms, even when it fails to get a belly laugh by, say, going for an obvious fart joke. It’s an altogether fun, light-hearted and often “blue” (e.g. rated R) read, littered with hilarious illustrations and scenarios.
There’s a sense of nostalgia about this book, too — you can tell that these writers love old slapstick movies — and reading the book reminded me of Mad Magazine in its heyday. But I also found it inspirational (and I can’t believe I’m admitting this) for brainstorming my own writing ideas. For example, Secret #26 is “Death Portrayed as an Entity” which recommends writers put the grim reaper in their screenplay as “an ice cream salesman, bumbling civil servant, adorable doggie, crotchety librarian, or smarmy bellboy.” Hilarious. That got me thinking about other scenarios for a potential horror story in a similar vein (my notes say something cryptic like: “trial testimony by grim reaper arrested for indecent exposure”).
From the profane to the sacred…
When I pre-ordered Comedy by the Numbers from its publisher, McSweeney’s, I also picked up a curious little book called The New Sins by David Byrne (yes, that’s Mr. Big Suit of Talking Heads fame). The New Sins is another parody of textual format, but in this case it aims for the heavens instead of the belly: the book is quite literally a mock up of those freebie bilingual bibles you may have seen, with gold foil stamped lettering imprinted on a faux red-leather cover. Indeed, as a sort of public art performance, Byrne placed copies this book anonymously in hotel rooms during the 2001 Valencia Biennial. Now it’s available for sale, “with 9% more sin,” in a revised Spanish/English paperback edition.
Blasphemy? Not exactly. The New Sins fictionally purports to originate in newly-discovered ancient scrolls “that seem to imply a negation of vices and a missing set of sins.” It presents itself as a translation of the original tongue of a lost tribe from Croatia. It’s a fiction that presents itself as sacred text — and this may be the argument that Byrne wants to make about all sacred texts, too, though he means no disrespect: to Byrne fictional metaphors are potent and meaningful. Indeed, this book is a very poetic and philosophical musing on the spirit and the true meaning of suffering…and it’s quite funny, too. Byrne’s book is a thought experiment, and reading the various sins in its catalog (“charity, a sense of humor, beauty, ambition, thrift…” — yes, he turns what we assume to be virtue on its head) was an experience that for me felt like I was reading an expanded album cover from one of the Talking Heads’ old records…while sitting in a cathedral.
Byrne’s photos, collages and colorful artwork throughout the text are just as important as the writing. The intended meanings are impenetrable, yet they get you to reconsider what you already assume about vice and virtue and religious belief. Although it does make the argument that “heaven and hell do not exist…they are metaphors,” the book never tries to substitute a dogmatic belief system of its own. It is purposefully written in a way that is wide open to reader interpretation (in the necessary section called “How to Use this Book,” Byrne writes that “the pictures in this book will explain what the text obscures. The text is merely a distraction, a set of brakes, a device to get you to look at the pictures for longer than you would ordinarily.”) Cool. It is, in sum, a weirdly fascinating and inspiring book about books and how we rely on words and icons to sustain our faith. And like Comedy by the Numbers, it also got my creative engines running at full speed, producing new story ideas involving the supernatural.
Both fake books are now available cheap (under $15 ea.) from The McSweeney’s Store: http://store.mcsweeneys.net
Or visit these web sites:
Comedy by the Numbers: http://www.myspace.com/comedybythenumbers
and if you want interactivity: http://www.comedybythenumbers.com
The New Sins: http://www.davidbyrne.com/art/new_sins/index.php
If you are disappointed because I didn’t specifically recommend a HORROR book to read, why not drop by my excessively annotated list of “Must-Have Horror Anthologies” that was published recently in the Horror Fiction News Network’s “Reading Room”? There’s plenty there for your reader’s eyes to chew on till next time.