(Why am I writing this post again, this time in English? Guy Hasson is to blame. He Did It.)
Guy Hasson, in a post in his excellent blog ”The Storytellers“, brings examples of writing humor, stressing the importance of timing. Some of the examples are marvelous (Dorothy Parker is a queen among men!), but none of them are familiar even to reasonably well-read people. When I asked Guy why he didn‘t bring some more familiar examples, he suggested that I do it myself. In fact, he suggested a blog-fight, in which each of us will try to quote the best humorous texts he can find. In order to make if a fair fight, it was decided that of the two of us, the winner will be the one whose name starts with an N.
I therefore sent a long hand into my bookshelf and, in one smooth movement, drew out a book by one Jerome K. Jerome. It was in Hebrew. There you go, Guy:
(The three are trying to pack a suitcase for their trip. After laughing at Jerome, it is now George and Harris‘es turn to try:)
When George is hanged, Harris will be the worst packer in this world; and I looked at the piles of plates and cups, and kettles, and bottles and jars, and pies, and stoves, and cakes, and tomatoes, &c., and felt that the thing would soon become exciting.
It did. They started with breaking a cup. That was the first thing they did. They did that just to show you what they could do, and to get you interested.
Then Harris packed the strawberry jam on top of a tomato and squashed it, and they had to pick out the tomato with a teaspoon.
And then it was George’s turn, and he trod on the butter. I didn‘t say anything, but I came over and sat on the edge of the table and watched them. It irritated them more than anything I could have said. I felt that. It made them nervous and excited, and they stepped on things, and put things behind them, and then couldn‘t find them when they wanted them; and they packed the pies at the bottom, and put heavy things on top, and smashed the pies in.
They upset salt over everything, and as for the butter! I never saw two men do more with one-and-twopence worth of butter in my whole life than they did. After George had got it off his slipper, they tried to put it in the kettle. It wouldn‘t go in, and what was in wouldn‘t come out. They did scrape it out at last, and put it down on a chair, and Harris sat on it, and it stuck to him, and they went looking for it all over the room.
This extract (which is merely a part of a longer scene) demonstrates not only Jerome’s amazing timing, but also the impressive way in which he builds an escalating comic situation. Here’s another, shorter extract:
(The three try to open a pineapple tin)
Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the thing with the spiky end of the hitcher, and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup.
Then we all got mad. We took that tin out on the bank, and Harris went up into a field and got a big sharp stone, and I went back into the boat and brought out the mast, and George held the tin and Harris held the sharp end of his stone against the top of it, and I took the mast and poised it high up in the air, and gathered up all my strength and brought it down.
It was George’s straw hat that saved his life that day.
Another escalating situation, with a brilliant ending which takes the reader a second to grasp before cracking up.
Here’s another one:
(Jerome, having decided that he’s a very sick person, goes to a medical man. The medical man -)
…opened me and looked down me, and clutched hold of my wrist, and then he hit me over the chest when I wasn‘t expecting it – a cowardly thing to do, I call it – and immediately afterwards butted me with the side of his head. After that, he sat down and wrote out a prescription, and folded it up and gave it me, and I put it in my pocket and went out.
I did not open it. I took it to the nearest chemist’s, and handed it in. The man read it, and then handed it back.
He said he didn‘t keep it.
”You are a chemist?“
”I am a chemist. If I was a co-operative stores and family hotel combined, I might be able to oblige you. Being only a chemist hampers me.“
I read the prescription. It ran:
”1 lb. beefsteak, with
1 pt. bitter beer
every 6 hours.
1 ten-mile walk every morning.
1 bed at 11 sharp every night.
And don‘t stuff up your head with things you don‘t understand.“
I very rarely laugh out loud when reading a book, but with Three Men in a Boat it happens to me every time.
Ok, Guy. It’s your turn now.