There are a lot of definitions of comedy floating around out there. My personal favorite is the theory of "bad to worse." There's something about watching someone go from bad to worse, but still bring cheerful, even upbeat about it, that just cracks me up. It certainly works in Curb Your Enthusiasm, the reigning heavyweight champ. You'll also see it on The Simpsons. Family Guy, ditto. The hell with the three-act, Robert McKee, story-structure hoo-haa. Instead of getting someone up a tree, throwing sticks at him, and getting him back down again, in comedy, for me, it's just about throwing sticks at him. Then trees. Then the whole frickin' Great North Woods. You get the idea.
Wilt, a book by a Brit named Tom Sharpe, a book written way back in the mid-'80s when women's lib and sexual lib and educational lib were all the rage, is as close to an episode of Curb as you'll ever find between two paper covers. It is funny in a way few books of any time are funny. Not because it's lampooning dumb Americans or dumb Brits or dumb vicars (hey, what's an English comedy without a dumb, usually soused vicar?). It's funny because it builds a "bad to worse" scenario with such devilish precision that you will find yourself spitting up your Mc-whatever if you're stupid enough to bring a copy with you to McDonald's.
Curb on paper. Who cares what it's about? It could be about giant frogs or stowaways on a boat or frickin' Samurai dry-cleaners, it just keeps punching.
Describing the story (the obligatory) seems beside the point here. I'll just pull a section, willy nilly, out of the middle of Wilt's (for that is the protagonist's name) fall. No setup. Bam. Here it is:
The Inspector was lighting yet another cigarette. His hands were shaking and he had a distant look in his eyes that suggested he had just peered over some appalling abyss. "Mr. Wilt," he said when he had managed to compose himself, "I trust I am a reasonably tolerant man, a patient man and a humane man, but if you seriously expect me to believe one word of your preposterous story you must be insane. First you tell me you put a doll down that hole. Then you admit it was dressed in your wife's clothes. Now you saw that she went away without telling you where she was going and finally, to cap it all, you have the temerity to sit there and tell me that you wiped your arse with the one piece of solid evidence that could substantiate your statement."
"But I did," said Wilt.
It's really hard to add much more to that. Other than to say, that's in the middle of the story and it just get worser and worser.
All Hail Tom Sharpe.
'Til next time...
Mr. Krimstein is a professor, writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in Chicago, formerly in New York City, and Hong Kong, too. So there.