Stephen Lee Naish on Stephen Thomas’s latest, comparing jokes on the stage with jokes on the page and asking whether humour can really be philosophized.
Stephen Thomas, The Jokes (Bookthug, 2016) 152pp.
“Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it
better but the frog dies in the process.”
To watch the British comedian Stewart Lee in one of his stand-up shows is to hand oneself over to a destabilising variety of the stand-up format. Lee relies on complex narrative antidotes, aimless monologues, personal and audience ridicule, phrasal repetition, knowing nods, and a kind of well rehearsed body language of a bumbling amateur who’s losing his grasp on the audience attention. It’s loose, yet as the routine nears its end the threads tie together in a floorless and unseen way. When he does tell a traditional joke (the kind his more famous contemporaries might tell) he immediately stops and acknowledges this, dissects the moment, throws it back to the audience, and braves the backlash. On stage Lee is a master of telling comedy without using actual jokes. Yet in his books, How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian, and Stewart Lee! The ‘If You Prefer a Milder Comedian Please Ask For One’ EP, Lee annotates and deconstructs the transcripts from his previous comedy shows, showing an incredible amount of painstaking work and fore planning goes into these seemingly impromptu routines. Even hand gestures and body movements are contemplated for comedic effect. For the most part the books are insightful, yet also strangely hollow. They both open up the idea of ‘the joke’ to academic scrutiny. Yet this is also a drawback. Printed on page, the routines are stiff, formulated, and coherent. The breakdown Lee uses dilutes the impact. On stage, they play out differently; dangerous, unpredictable, yet ultimately hilarious. There is something not quite right about the joke printed on paper.
The majority of opening lines from Stephen Thomas’ micro/flash fiction collection, The Jokes (Bookthug), begin as if it’s setting up for a prime howler. For example, the story ”Beach Sounds” opens with, “A veteran is sitting alone in a bar.”, which should lead into a punch line about lost limbs or a variation of “the barman then says”, but instead curtails into a short and sad meditation on PTSD, whilst the story “Knock Knock” lampoons that old joke’s traditional format in agonizing detail. Hearing these opening gestures without the usual follow through is at first destabilising for the reader. However, the idea the The Jokes will not contain any actual satisfying punch lines comes becomes clear, especially when the stories are read back to back in a single sitting, or are given repeated readings, which is the best and most rewarding option for getting past a lifetimes indoctrination of the joke format.
The Jokes provides an insightful and clever deconstruction of narrative form. It also provides some wild imagery, and descriptive language that rolls and flows across these stories. For these reasons it makes an interesting development in the short story form. It is somewhat unfortunate then that there seems to be a lack of any kind of human heart in the stories. The author has, and in some cases quite rightly, had his stories compared to Israeli writer, Etgar Keret’s short and punchy form. Keret produces short stories which are wildly vivid, achingly sad, extremely funny, and with an eccentric use of humour and language, often all of this can be contained within one two-hundred word micro-short (I’m thinking of Keret’s story “Asthma”, the first story of his collection, Girl on the Fridge, which floors me every time). Thomas’ collection matches Keret’s in eccentricity, imagery, and length of story, but The Jokes lacks Keret’s emotional punch, which makes reading Keret a memorable experience. Keret also invests in his characters; no matter that they occupy a short frame of time, they are there leading the reader through a fully conceived world view. This is sorely lacking in The Jokes. No memorable characters, very little dialogues.
Thomas’s use of an opening line that is traditionally reserved for the opening salvo of a joke, places a distance to the rest of the story, its characters (who are not named, but often referred to by gender, age, or occupation), and its overall meaning. The author is constantly present as the story narrator, but because of the detachment, this offers something akin to an artificial intelligence generated story or joke collection, which is not intended to insinuate that the author lacks humanity, this is on display, but the chosen form puts in place an emotional hurdle that the reader finds hard to jump. The focus is the form, not the impact of the story.
There is intelligence, good motive, eccentric humour, and even jokes to be found in The Jokes. As an experiment in producing some kind of crossover mash-up between poetics, the short story, tweets, and anecdotes, there are places where it works well (the story “Mr, death” for example), but this collection benefits a performance element, like most successful joke telling, these stories need to seen, to be spoken, recited, and punctuated with gestures. To the page, they do not translate so well.
See Stephen Naish’s recent essay on SCUM Masculinity and Donald Trump here.
Stephen Lee Naish‘s writing explores film, politics, and popular culture and the places where they converge. His essays have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zer0 Books) and Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press). He lives in Kingston, Ontario with his wife Jamie and their son Hayden.