Comedy, as both an art form and means of interpersonal communication, may well be the most subjective medium there is. Given the infinite combination of personality traits, life experiences, cultural, generational and ethnic differences, what may seem hilarious to one person may fail to resonate with another. It’s not necessarily that the humor is lost on one person over the other; rather, it’s simply the point of reference for the intended joke or punchline may be lacking. While physical comedy certainly transcends culture and language, both verbal and written attempts at humor are far more difficult. Not only is there the issue of a language barrier, but also colloquialisms, slang, emphasis and implied sarcasm can determine whether or not the joke is fully understood.
For those with a certain level of education, erudite references and witty wordplay can evoke a knowing laugh in some while completely sailing over the heads of others. Again, it’s nothing to do with “getting” the humor, but more about having a frame of reference and knowledge base from which to cull an appropriate response. For example, wahile a joke about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would resonate with the majority of the general public in the US and elsewhere, any reference to the Schadenfreude of, say, Trump’s stances on foreign policy or Clinton’s inability to register with a younger demographic might fall short of an easier target like Trump’s small hands or Clinton’s penchant for pantsuits. In both cases the gist of the joke will be there, but in the latter the full understanding might not.
Because of this, written humor, lacking the vocal inflections, physical gestures and accompanying faces of a live or verbal performance, tends to become lost on those without the proper frame of reference. With his first collection of absurdist lists, observations, paraprosdokianisms and other assorted literary silliness, James Thomas banks on the fact that his readers will be not only fairly well-read, but also have a fairly broad understanding of popular culture as well as a taste for the absurd. Those who prefer their humor more cut-and-dry and tend to look askance at those engaging in highbrow humor should look elsewhere for their own more relatable and fully comprehended laughs. While something like, “If Forest Whitaker falls out of a tree, then what the hell?” can resonate with a broad range of readers regardless of whether or not they are familiar with the actor, an extended narrative of Edgar Allen Poe attending a contemporary music festival delivered in the style of Poe will be less accessible and the joke will subsequently be lost on a certain segment of the readership.
That said, both are equally amusing and show the multi-faceted range of Thomas’ broadly absurd and absurdly broad brand of humor. While not everything will resonate with everyone and often the non-sequiturs leave one scratching their head, there are enough moments of laugh-out-loud surprise to make Why the Long Joke? a fun, breezy summer read. Without any specific narrative structure, linear or otherwise, readers can dive in pretty much anywhere and find themselves as equally puzzled by some of Thomas’ brand of humor as those who start reading at the very beginning.
Needless to say, it’s not all necessarily A-grade material; some of his one-liners are particularly groan-inducing (e.g., “The loudest haircut is the mohonk”), while others manage to both surprise and elicit a genuine laugh (the aforementioned Forest Whitaker bit caught this reviewer uncharacteristically off guard, causing an actual moment of something being laugh-out-loud funny).
Often, Thomas’ work is reminiscent of that of Far Side creator Gary Larson and his penchant for not only recurring character motifs, but also absurdist situations and cultural observations. Where Larson relied on cows, cavemen and nerdy scientists for laughs, Thomas returns time and again to snails, onions and other assorted randomness. His occasional sketches and crude drawings only further this connection, particularly those dealing with modern dinosaurs and the perceived troubles they might well face when dealing with a 21st century existence.
Given the length of each—not to mention the title’s questioning implication—few of Thomas’ pieces run more than a few lines, allowing for quick digestion of both the prose and the accompanying joke. While the majority of his longer form pieces succeed, his “Letters from Paul to the Venusians” become increasingly forced and derivative to the point of losing the original thread of humor with which it started. Fortunately, there are only three and each occupies but a few pages, allowing the rest of the book’s 300-odd pages ample room to breathe and allow Thomas’ oddball sensibilities to shine through.
As his propensity for humor lies in the quick joke, it’s little surprise that Thomas has largely made a name for himself through myriad Twitter handles through which he disseminates his random musings and often surprisingly pointed observations. Collected here in book form, they take on a more meaningful, less ephemeral feel, allowing for the humor to sink in rather than be but a blip on our internet-saturated radar. Through humor both high- and low-brow, Thomas examines punctuation and grammar, personal idiosyncrasies, social interactions and a host of other issues in his own, decidedly unique voice. Why the Long Joke? is the perfect anecdote to all of the sad and terrible news and information with which we are pummeled on a daily basis. Those seeking refuge need look no farther than the skewed written humor of James Thomas.
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