In a Malfunctioning Anthology
A collection of high-concept comedy from writer James Thomas has hits and misses in equal numbers
“Why the Long Joke?” by James Thomas, being published March 22 by St. Martin’s Press, is a dense collection of one liners and short humor pieces, but an uneven one.
The book starts strong with material that one can easily imagine being delivered by Zach Galifianakis or Jack Handey (in the vein of his 1980s Saturday Night Live “Deep Thoughts” segments). Oddly enough, however, there are some lines or pieces, as the book goes on, that could be called “corny dad humor,” and really not worthy of a collection that promises, as it gets started, to have an alternative and offbeat style to its humor.
Thomas’ work ends up being baffling, overall, especially after a very strong and solid start in the first 50 pages or so, which are packed with one-liner gems like this: “I’d like to teach the world to sing, but I just know a bunch of people wouldn’t turn up for rehearsal,” and this: “I passed my driving test because I was going too fast and missed the turn.”
Thomas also has good concept pieces toward the beginning of the book, like “Video Game Sale,” which has title after title of used videogames that never really existed like “Thom Yorke Winter Olympics,” issued in 1993 for the Atari G1000000, “Flower Pressing With Willem Dafoe” for the Sega Bunion and “Flaunting Your Stamps” for the Amstrad Cubicle. To find this funny, though, you must have a deep understanding of pop culture (and videogame) aesthetics, so Thomas is working on a silly and sophisticated wavelength all once.
He does this with more one-liners, also, such as this succinct parody of “Snakes on a Plane”: “I have had it with these multitudinous snakes on this malfunctioning plane!”
The same mind that comes up with these items and more also produces a lot of misfires, however. A recurring piece called “Letter From Saint Paul to the Venusians” (in three parts) appears to be some sort of Biblical parody but doesn’t make sense to a casual reader. You see a hit and a miss on the same page, later in Thomas’ book that sprang from the same impulse: “The Beatles will never forget that time when my band played on top of The Beatles on top of a building” (that’s the miss), followed by “The flimsiest book I ever read was a pauperback hovel.” (even to like this one, you’ve got to take an extra improvisational leap). This illustrates the thin line between Thomas’ successes and failures in “Why The Long Joke?”
It’s difficult to categorize this book – its publisher bills it as “puns and word play,” but there is more going on here, since there is some high-concept comedy in Thomas’ work, which includes an index that itself is a complex set of jokes. Over 200 pages of this type of material has to be a challenge to produce, but retaining every idea, as Thomas and the publisher do here, keeps this book from reaching greater heights.
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© 2005-2017 Michael Shashoua