Monday, June 16, 2014

Three Men in a Boat: Favorite Jokes Project, part 1

After re-reading Connie Willis's essay on comedy, which holds up Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) (1889) as a model of prose comedy, I was seized by the desire to re-read this book again. But the only way I could convince myself that this was a good way to spend my time was to make a project out of it. So...

Welcome to my Favorite Jokes Project!

Which will last at least as long as my reading of Three Men, though possibly not much after. Now, if this were an academic study of the humor in this book, I would go through, categorize each bit of comedy--"this is irony, that is over-statement," etc. But since it's not, I'm just going to go chapter-by-chapter--over a few posts--and highlight one of my favorite moments in each chapter.

Bonus: Since Jerome's book is long out of copy-right, I can quote at length.

If you never read Three Men in a Boat, a) you should consider it, though you should know b) there's so little plot here, since this is basically a collection of episodes of what happened to these three guys on the River Thames. If you're interested in cultural history (ho-hum), this is about the time that the Thames lost its industrial character and became a recreation spot--which was both cause and effect of this book.

Before getting into this, you should also know... well, actually, I can't think of much else you should know about this book: it's about three people, on a boat, with a dog. The dog is fictional; the people involved are based on real people, but, hopefully, fictionalized.

And no, Jerome K. Jerome was not the name he was born with--that was Jerome C. Jerome.

Chapter 1: Desire for a disease
Chapter 1 introduces us to narrator J. and all of his friends, who need a change of pace. In particular, J notes that he's terribly sick: he looked through a book of diseases and realized that he had all of them! This is WebMD before the internet. He lists some of the disease he has and goes on to note specifically:
Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.
I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation?
First, how great is it that J.'s issue is still with us. Second, I love that triplicate form for those three diseases--Bright's disease in modified form, Cholera with complications, and Diphtheria since he was born. Third, the transformation of the single disease you don't have into something you want. What makes you so special, housemaid's knee?

Chapter 2: "How about when it rained?"

After three paragraphs extolling the beauty of nature and camping out at night, the poetry-free Harris bursts that bubble with that simple line: "How about when it rained?" This is reason enough for the story to stop and for us to hear about how Harris has a very practical turn of mind--that usually turns toward getting a drink. But this introduction to him is a perfect puncture of the romantic balloon. And so we fall down to reality. (For your academic paper on Jerome's humor: that fall from the romantic to the real is one of the big sources of comedy.)

Chapter 3: Boss who thinks he does the work

One classic source of comedy is a lack of self-awareness; and chapter three focuses on this with a long aside about the narrator's Uncle Podger (what a name!). We get this aside because Harris reminds the narrator of this uncle, a man who is "so ready to take the burden of everything himself, and put it on the backs of other people."
You never saw such a commotion up and down a house, in all your life, as when my Uncle Podger undertook to do a job. A picture would have come home from the frame-maker’s, and be standing in the dining-room, waiting to be put up; and Aunt Podger would ask what was to be done with it, and Uncle Podger would say:  
“Oh, you leave that to me. Don’t you, any of you, worry yourselves about that. I’ll do all that.”  
And then he would take off his coat, and begin. He would send the girl out for sixpen’orth of nails, and then one of the boys after her to tell her what size to get; and, from that, he would gradually work down, and start the whole house.
It goes on like that for several more paragraphs, with Podger dropping nails, putting the hammer through the wall, bloodying his nose, sitting on his jacket while making everyone look for it, etc. And then at the end, Podger looks at the disaster around him and only sees a job well done.

Chapter 4:

Chapter four covers a lot of ground:

  • food for a trip (overpacked, squashed, and scattered); 
  • the terrible smell of cheeses (an old topic made fresh with some fun details and images, like a man on an empty train carriage by himself while the rest of the train becomes stuffed; and an undertaker comparing the smell to that of a dead baby); 
  • the difficulty of packing (particularly the difficulty of keeping track of one's toothbrush);
  • more packing follies; and
  • dogs and their inveterate love for being underfoot.
This is a prize chapter for me, with almost every episode being funny--probably because they are so relatable. Have you ever been uncertain of whether or not you packed something to the point of having to unpack everything? Have you ever tried to pack food so as not to crush something? Have you ever met a dog? After reading Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, you know you're not alone!

But my favorite parts here are narrator J.'s consideration of grown men packing as a sort of show:
They began in a light-hearted spirit, evidently intending to show me how to do it. I made no comment; I only waited. When George is hanged, Harris will be the worst packer in this world; and I looked at the piles of plates and cups, and kettles, and bottles and jars, and pies, and stoves, and cakes, and tomatoes, &c., and felt that the thing would soon become exciting. 
It did. They started with breaking a cup. That was the first thing they did. They did that just to show you what they could do, and to get you interested.
Naturally, it goes on from there, getting bigger and messier.

And as a dog owner (or depending on your point of view, owned by a dog), I have to love the description of Montmorency, a fox terrier:
Montmorency was in it all, of course. Montmorency’s ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.
We should all be so lucky.

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