The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #7: Humor

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 147, Fall, 2000.

MIKE: There was a time, in the first half of the century, when writing humor was an honorable and even lucrative profession. From John Kendrick Bangs to Ring Lardner to Thorne Smith to Robert Benchley to Dorothy Parker to a dozen other equally familiar names, humor was their metier.

Then something happened. I don’t know quite what. But suddenly the American publishing scene could only support one, or at the most two, humorists at a time: Peter de Vries, Max Schulman, a mere handful of others spread out over the latter half of the 20th Century.

With one exception. Humor is, and always has been, alive and well in the field of science fiction.

Just take a look. In the 1940s we had Fred Brown, and more than occasionally Henry Kuttner/Lewis Padgett. William Tenn (Phil Klass) was making his mark. Fritz Leiber could always sneak a funny story through; so could Isaac Asimov when he felt like it.

In the 1950s we had Robert Sheckley, the funniest of them all. Fred Pohl could teach most people a thing or two about satire. Eric Frank Russell won an early Hugo with “Alamagoosa,” a one-punch joke. Even serious Sir Arthur took time off to write his wildly funny Tales From the White Hart. By the 1960s, George Alec Effinger had joined the crowd. So had you, with your Dwellers of the Deep and Gather in the Hall of the Planets. Came the 1970s and John Jakes was writing Mention My Name in Atlantis. John Sladek was showing the field exactly how to parody our biggest names. Bob Asprin and Piers Anthony were showing how far a pun could go. By the 1980s Esther Friesner was carving out a reputation as one of our leading humorists. I managed to sneak 5 novels and about 30 funny stories through. Before the dawn of the 1990s Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett were living on bestseller lists with their humor. And, trust me, this brief list barely scratches the surface.

So tell me: why, in a field noted for its serious, even dystopian fiction, is humor so omnipresent and so successful?

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BARRY: Well, I’m not so sure that humor has been all that successful although it has certainly been popular. Larry Janifer wrote a guest column for Amazing when I was editing 30 years ago murmuring that he and Garrett, humorists both, got no respect for the Mark Phillips novels (Brain Twister, Supermind, The Impossibles) and that science fiction humorists generally got the same reception at awards time that comedians and comic scriptwriters received at the Oscars. (This was before Annie Hall but certainly well after Some Like It Hot, the Marx Brothers, Bringing Up Baby and a whole flock of Stooges films.) Some correspondents pointed out rather unpleasantly that Brain Twister, in its Astounding incarnation as That Sweet Little Old Lady had been final-balloted for a Hugo in l960 (Starship Troopers won) and maybe if Janifer and Garrett had been a little funnier readers would have been more positive. Humor sells; it’s bad humor which doesn’t, seemed to be the point.

But Janifer’s column obviously stirred some embers; science fiction humorists have never been credited much in the awards or for that matter in the critical surveys or histories of the field. Esther Friesner did win two (consecutive) Nebulas in the short story category but they were for stories which were seriously intended and the more recent winner, A Birthday, had all of the merriment of Sylvia Plath’s posthumous collection, Ariel. (And the narrator of that story made the Plath of The Bell Jar a giggle factory.) Robert Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles, we both agree, was the best novel of its year (l968) but received not a mention and Spider Robinson, who has won a fair amount of awards, certainly did not for the Callahan Saloon stories which are his best known work and (he probably would agree) the work of his which has given him the most pleasure. Humor has for writers and readers of science fiction been an illicit pleasure.

But—to get to your question—we sure do need it, it sure does fit well. All of that grandiosity, cosmic suspense, wide vistas, alien domination and the ever-popular through the years nuclear holocaust . . . the more portentous it got, the vaster the deep, the more channeled the silence, the more inevitable the response to that teeming giggle from the back of the room. Nothing is a better and more corrective response to solemnity than absurdity; the anarchy of the Marx Brothers bloomed during a time from which Koestler’s Darkness at Noon or Orwell’s 1984 were crafted. The Great Dictator was a better—and more insightful and effective—response to the late l930’s Hitler than any of those March of Time newsreels. We need humor.

Besides, pace Mike, nothing in the abstract is funnier than the sport of science fiction writing itself.

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MIKE: What amazes me is that I truly do not know of a single editor who will turn a story down because it is funny. That may not seem like much, but it’s a statement that I don’t believe can be made in any other field—mystery, Western, you name it.

Now, it’s true that science fiction lends itself to humor, and especially parody, more than any other field. Just about every SF movie ever made, barring no more than half a dozen, can be seen as a parody of the science fiction genre, however unintended. There is something basically funny (when it’s not being horrifying) about green hominids with skin conditions trying to collect all the good-looking Earth women, or mastering light speeds while being unable to protect themselves from electric shocks.

Still, for humor to work at more than the most basic level, it has to bring a little something more than pratfalls to the table. I think Robert Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles was the most brilliant science fiction novel of the 1960s (yes, I know what novels appeared toward the end of the decade), and I think it was the most brilliant for one simple reason: it did exactly what all science fiction is supposed to do. It took new high ground that had never been conquered before—but because it was an hilarious book, most people missed that accomplishment.

John Campbell was fond of saying that Doc Smith gave us the stars and we were still waiting for the next conceptual breakthrough. Sounds good; after all, he died before the advent of Cyberpunk, or the best of the New Wave. But he was dead wrong, because he looked too high up and too far out, while Sheckley was creating a type of cerebral humor—tentatively in The Journey of Joenes, more confidently in Mindswap, and masterfully in Dimension of Miracles—that doesn’t work in any other field. Our very own comedy, unworkable (and perhaps even incomprehensible) in any field other than science fiction. Now, that’s a breakthrough.

And he did it at book length. Sure, he had a 17-year reputation as a brilliant humorist, but it’s harder than you think to sell a funny book. A funny short story, sure, the editor can bury it in the middle of the magazine or the anthology, and surround it with tales of moral decay and ecological disaster. But when it’s a book, it’s out there on its own in a country that has demonstrably ignored humorous books (other than compendiums of their favorite comic strips) for the past half century.

More than one writer has felt his blood pressure reaching explosive levels when opening up the envelope containing his returned novel-length manuscript and a note from the editor, saying, in effect: “I laughed my ass off, but humor is a very subjective thing, and I don’t know if enough readers share my taste in humor for us to chance publishing it.”

I think it was Sheckley who changed the climate enough for those of us who followed him to get some funny novels into print. Yes, before he wrote the three above-named novels, we had Fred Brown’s What Mad Universe . . . but that was a gentle and loving parody of the field, and it probably appealed as much to people who didn’t understand the humor and didn’t find it funny as it did to people who knew what it was about. There was Kuttner/Padgett’s Robots Have No Tails, but like all those Sheckley books of the 1950s, it was a collection, and somehow publishers never seemed to mind collections of humor as much as they did one long humorous story.

Now, the real old-timers will correct me and point out that Stanton A. Coblentz was writing funny novels when Sheckley was still a gleam in his father’s eye. Well, I won’t deny he was writing back then. And I won’t deny that he and a small group of stylistically tone-deaf readers thought his novels were funny. But it’s like comparing the pratfalls of Jerry Lewis at his worst (Coblentz) to the cerebration of Mort Sahl at his best (Sheckley).

I know that I’ve sold enough funny short fiction stories in the past dozen years to have a collection of 37 of them coming out this summer, in the less-than-subtly signposted In Space No One Can Hear You Laugh. And I never had the least bit of difficulty selling any of those stories.

I also have five funny novels. Did I have trouble selling them? Is the Pope Catholic? Do bears perform their ablutions in the woods?

But before I cry on your shoulder, how do you view the evolution and acceptance (or otherwise) of humor in American science fiction?

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BARRY: I guess that humor was always a significant part of the science fiction genre, i.e. the post-Gernsback era in this country. It’s not hard as you’ve noted to find the examples through the decades. I could add the Robert Bloch Lefty Feep series, the Hogben stories of Kuttner and Moore (I’ve always felt that Kuttner was responsible for these as we know him to have been wholly responsible for the Galleghers.) There’s been no dearth of silly science fiction all through the decades and into the present-day, if you consider Douglas Adams to be a science fiction writer working from inside the genre (I don’t; I think his influences are as much Goon Show as Robert Sheckley and that the majority of his audience comes from other than science fiction readers), then Adams represents a kind of breakthrough figure for the trade . . . he’s made science fiction humor a category for the wider audience, he’s read by many who don’t otherwise read science fiction and he’s also—this is not insignificant—brought what John Clute would call the “tropes” of science fiction from the in-group to the more general audience. All for the good, of course.

But as I’ve said, humor doesn’t, for all of its currency, for all of its presence in the genre almost as long as the genre itself has existed (David Keller’s Literary Corkscrew may be black humor but humor it is and it was published in the early l930’s) has never had much critical legitimacy, I do not believe that a Nebula or Hugo has ever gone to a humorous story or novel, I don’t think that any of the seventeen SFFWA Grandmasters have written other than occasional humor and none of their humorous stories are among their important, their central works. Humor in literature or at least in our literature has always been the illicit pleasure, the unacknowledged, secretly administered drug of choice.

Why is this so? Well, the standard critical ordnance can be wheeled awkwardly into position: science fiction has historically been felt by most of its practitioners as some kind of renegade pursuit, humor is anarchic, it is a renegade within a renegade and to pay it too much credit the fans and writers felt, to give it too much critical legitimacy, might make us seem doubly compromised in the view of the academic factions, the critics, the generalists, all of those parental figures who made the initial experience with science fiction of most of us over 45 a little more difficult than it might have been if we had been reading historicals. Science fiction—gee, I wrote this more than twenty years ago and put it into The Engines of the Night—has always had a clear investment in Not Appearing Too Crazy, in trying to fit in with mainstream cachet and opinion. That’s one of the reasons why most science fiction in the period l960-l972 fell into line with NASA, became advisors and cheerleaders to the space program, it’s one of the reasons why science fiction people (take a look at one of the letters in your most recent Ask Bwana column) have been made nervous by the Rosicrucian ads in science fiction magazines or by flying saucer articles or, pace, Shaverism.

Am I saying that humorous stories look like Shaverism to readers of a certain age, that writers like X, Y or Z make us as nervous as the Rosicrucian? No, certainly not, nothing that extreme at all . . . but there are reasons humorous writing gets little critical respect and I’ve tried to limn some of them and I’d also note that almost every writer who has had notable success with humor has tried later or sooner to become serious . . . Esther Friesner winning Nebulas for two really dark stories, Robert Bloch’s Hugo for “The Hell-Bound Train”, a down-the-line horror story, Sheckley with Crompton Divided or Immortality, Inc., Fred Brown’s Hall of Fame story is “Arena,” a bleak suspense story about single combat for the fate of civilizations. William Tenn, thought by some to be perhaps science fiction’s premier humorist has never struck me as being particularly funny and stories like “The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway” or “Down Among the Dead Men” or “Time in Advance” are frankly despairing. (I disagree with your statement that What Mad Universe is gently humorous; I think it’s a frankly horrific story written by Fred Brown in the spirit of that Dreadful Warning story he could do so well.)

What did Havelock Ellis and Eustace Chesser and other prime sexologists of our repressed generation say about masturbation, “Everybody does it and no one will admit it,” something like that? (Speak for yourself, Eustace old chum.) In that spirit, everyone enjoys humor but very few when it’s stand-up-and-be-counted-for-posterity-time-and-by-the-way-let’s-not-appear-too-crazy, wants to admit it.)

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MIKE: I disagree with you right down the line.

First, humor has won major awards. I believe I mentioned Eric Frank Russell’s “Alamagoosa,” a Hugo winner. I don’t have the results in front of me, but I’m pretty sure Murray Leinster’s “First Contact,” which hinges on a dirty joke, won the retro-Hugo for 1946. Far from considering Bob Bloch’s “The Hell-Bound Train” a down-the-line horror story, I think of it a friendly fable with a happy ending. Connie Willis’ “Even the Queen” was certainly a humorous story, even if it had—as does most good humor—a serious point.

Man and boy, I have never found anyone besides you who thinks that What Mad Universe is a “frankly horrific story.” Brown takes all the tropes that John Clute talks about and turns them inside-out to create a universe that exists only in the mind of a oversexed, undereducated, wildly-enthused fan named Joe Doppleburg (right up to naming the hero of this universe Dopelle). He takes just about every convention that Campbell outlawed in Astounding and pokes fun at it. This is an amusing book, NOT a horrific one.

Same with William Tenn. I know of no one else who considers him anything but a brilliant satirist. Maybe he doesn’t strike you as being particularly funny, but when it comes to stories like “Me, Myself and I” or “Alexander the Bait” or “Venus and the Seven Sexes” or “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi!”, I think you’ll find yourself in a minority of one if you fail to see the humor, the satire, and the parody involved.

As for the Sheckley titles you mentioned—well, as I said, it wasn’t (and still isn’t) easy to sell a funny novel, compared to funny short fiction. He had a living to make, and he made it—but I think he’d be the first to admit that he’s delighted his reputation doesn’t rest with Crompton Divided or Immortality, Inc., good as they were.

A work of humor or satire can nonetheless be a great book or a bestseller, especially if it’s not advertised or perceived as such. I think the best example is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22; it wasn’t until the not-very-good movie came out that most people realized that it was a) hilarious and b) anti-war.

Science fiction hasn’t gotten to that point, simply because we’re still relatively new to the bestseller lists, and it’s more important for category publishers to point out that their bestsellers are science fiction, than that they’re humorous science fiction. After all, they’ve got a lot of titles to push, and very few Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchet books among them.

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BARRY: Why do we disagree so often? We’re both easygoing fellows, tax-paying citizens of high moral stature, devotees of this earnest and ever so lucrative field of science fiction, roughly of the same generation and we share many enthusiasms (enthusiasma?): horse-racing, Robert Sheckley, Hope Lange. You do love Hope Lange, don’t you?

But disagree we do because I think you’re wrong on almost every writer you cite here; Phil Klass/William Tenn is an admired satirist, all right (so was Mark Twain/Sam Clemens) and like Clemens (“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County”) he’s published a few frankly humorous stories (“On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi!”, “Everyone Loves Irving Bommer”), but like most great satirists he is a truly despairing writer and most of his works, however fluidly written and superficially humorous, are anguished. “The Liberation of Earth” (Vietnam adumbrated 20 years before Vietnam), “Child’s Play” (Sam, the lead, gets himself misidentified as a clone and liquified here), the novel Of Men and Monsters (humanity captured by aliens, skittering around the alien interstellar craft like a group of jumped-up roaches which indeed is man’s cosmic fate), there are not particularly humorous stories. What Mad Universe (as the selfsame Phil Klass makes clear in his introduction to the l980 Bantam reissue of the novel) came out of Fred Brown’s grim perception that the fans were taking over the field and were going to make it a playpen for fan editors and writers for the next 30 years. Robert Bloch’s Psycho in its original or filmed version, certainly in the filmed version, is perhaps the scariest work of fiction (hope it’s fiction) of the 20th century. Your great SF humorists, Mike, mostly aren’t. They’re darker than anyone writing in Ladbroke Grove in l967. If you find Of Men and Monsters funny you probably think that The Terminal Beach is a tourist brochure.

But there are funny writers and funny work around and it does sell, no question of that, it gets readers, it just doesn’t get a great deal of editorial or critical respect. Maybe this is indeed because humor is regarded as an eccentric form as is science fiction itself; piling eccentricity upon eccentricity makes a lot of people uncomfortable, including the humorists themselves.

I guess I’d reckon that the funniest of all science fiction writers, the author who wrote more great humorous stories than all the rest and who has written what I take to be the funniest science fiction story ever published (“Selectra Six-Ten,” l969) was the late Avram Davidson, but Davidson never had any significant commercial success as we know so well and his two awards—Edgar for an Ellery Queen short story in the early l960’s, Hugo for “Or All the Seas With Oysters” in l958) were for deadly serious stories. There’s funny and there’s critically successful and as Mel Brooks has been saying sullenly for forty years, there’s damned little overlap. There’s Annie Hall maybe, but Mel Brooks didn’t write it.

Anyway, writers in our dear, struggling field will continue to write funny and they’ll continue to publish the work and they will be the secret pleasure of countless thousands. But that and the financial returns, whatever they may be, will be their reward. I guess that’s okay . . . good work as part of its goodness is its own justification, its own satisfaction.

Like these dialogues, for instance.

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MIKE: Contrary to one of our beliefs, the world is not an entirely depressing place, all good writers are not uniformly despairing, and my pal Avram, much as I loved him, didn’t write the funniest story in the field’s history.

Look, we could argue all day about whether everyone who thinks William Tenn is a humorist and a satirist who happened to write a few serious stories is right, or whether those (and I use the plural with great generosity) who think he was a despairing writer who turned out an occasional funny story are right. Trouble is, we’re getting away from the point.

And the point is that, more than any other field, science fiction has always been friendly to humor. All kinds of humor. From the cerebral stuff that Sheckley of the 1960s and Sladek of the 1970s were doing, to Bob Asprin’s Myth books and my own Lucifer Jones books (than which no humor is lower).

You know, even staid old Victorian Edgar Rice Burroughs wasn’t above a little self-parody. In Tarzan and the Lion Man, Tarzan comes to Hollywood at the end of the book and is turned down for the role of (surprise!) Tarzan because he isn’t the right type.

And I think all of it is a good thing. First, because in a field that, perhaps more than any other, explores the human condition, it’s nice to see that we can laugh at our present and future selves. Second, because this field is the one place where humorists—if they’re good, always a consideration—can either make a living (Adams, Pratchett, a few others), or come close enough (Effinger, Sheckley, Tenn, a lot of others) that they needn’t write too many non-humorous books to help pay the rent.

I hate to refer to movies when discussing literature, but in this case it’s valid. I think two of the most successful science fiction films of the past decade were Men in Black and Galaxy Quest, and given that they grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, between them, I think it’s not unreasonable to assume that a lot of new readers are going to be coming to the science fiction racks looking for something just as funny—and I’m pretty sure that the publishers, who haven’t turned away from humor since the inception of the category, will do what they can to oblige them.

I think it’s a healthy trend. In the meantime, a tip of the hat to Gardner Dozois, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Stanley Schmidt, Ben Bova, Marty Greenberg, Esther Friesner, Gordon Van Gelder, Scott Edelman, Dean Wesley Smith, Ted White, Ed Ferman, Fred Pohl, Horace Gold, even John Campbell, and all those book editors who were and are willing to put their money where their mirth is.

(2013 addendum: I have now sold over 120 humorous stories, along with 8 humorous novels, which is to say: nothing about the field’s acceptance of humor has changed since this column appeared at the turn of the century.
— Mike)

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About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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