The spoof that lived

I’ve been recommending Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm to a lot of people lately. I may have started a small revival in my library. I was surprised and delighted to see this short article by Sam Jordison in The Guardian about Cold Comfort Farm and other parody books that have outlived the books or topics they were making fun of in the first place. Jordison quotes another reviewer who cites Three Men in a Boat and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. What a curious phenomena where the punchline outlasts the set up.

Still from Cold Comfort Farm (1995)

These books, and other like them, survive because they have enough originality and solid writing to make them funnier on their own. When I recommend Cold Comfort Farm to people, I often tell them what Gibbons was mocking. But I don’t think it really matters. You could read this as a woman visiting and helping her deranged relatives in the country. Or with The Hitchhiker’s Guide, you only need to know the conventions of science fiction to to laugh. (Although Douglas Adams would have been funny in any genre, I think.)

It’s amazing think that people can still find books that are decades or even centuries old jokes funny. Though, when I say that, I’m reminded of all the people in my eighteenth century literature class when I was an undergrad getting offended by Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Satire doesn’t seem to age as well, or maybe its that harder-edged humor doesn’t age well. Silliness seems ageless.

What will be really impressive is if these books are still making people laugh in two thousand years’ time. I found this review of two books of ancient humor in The New York Times Review of Books from back in 2008 that gives many examples of jokes and funny stories that just don’t translate or aren’t funny because our culture is so different from ancient Rome or Greece. While digging around for old jokes, I did find these gems:

A student invited to a meal didn’t eat. When one of the guests asked him why he wasn’t eating, he replied, “In case I appear to have come for the food.”

A student writing to his father from Athens, thoroughly proud of what he had learnt, added, “I hope I will find you charged in a capital case, so I can show you my skill as a lawyer.”


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