Writing a truly good piece of humor is a difficult business. One can end up with something that reads like a cheap joke book, or something that tries so hard to be funny, it really isn’t. Of course, the goal is to land somewhere in-between these two dreadful extremes; to write a book that is intelligent, witty, and laugh-out-loud hilarious, all in one.
When I think of writers who have achieved this, the first name that comes to mind is P.G. Wodehouse. I consider him to be the greatest humorist in the English language. The next name that pops up is that of Jerome K. Jerome, and his comic classic Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). Wodehouse aside, I’ve never encountered a funnier writer or a funnier book. Period.
Three Men In A Boat follows the escapades of three English gentlemen – and a dog – determined to experience the joys of “roughing it”. They hire a boat for a trip up the Thames, and promptly embark on a hilarious adventure where they soon discover that braving the great outdoors may not be everything they thought it would be.
The book is pretty much funny in every sense of the word, and as another critic aptly pointed out, “Jerome’s masterful style turns even the most mundane events into a series of hilarious epics”. Yet beneath all the light-heartedness, it’s plain that the author is also offering a sharp critique of selfishness and ignorance in the English upper class. The jabs are subtle but pointed, and careful readers familiar with Victorian society will catch on without much difficulty. Therefore, as a whole, you could consider Three Men a deft mixture of biting satire and brilliant comedy. Similar to Orwell’s Animal Farm -
just a whole lot funnier.
And the comedy really is brilliant. Jerome never resorts to bawdiness or crudity (as so many “humorists” do these days), and yet he never fails to pull a laugh from the reader. That, my friend, is good comedy. Consider the following passage, one of my favorites in the entire book:
It always does seem to me that I am doing more work than I should do. It is not that I object to work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.
You cannot give me too much work; to accumulate work has almost become a passion with me: my study is so full of it now, that there is hardly an inch of room for any more. I shall have to throw out a wing soon.
And I am careful of my work, too. Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it. I take great pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it. No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation than I do.
But, though I crave for work, I still like to be fair. I do not ask for more than my proper share.
But I get it without asking for it – at least, so it appears to me – and this worries me.
George says he does not think I need trouble myself on the subject. He thinks it is only my over-scrupulous nature that makes me fear I am having more than my due.; and that, as a matter of fact, I don’t have half as much as I ought. But I expect he only says this to comfort me.
Brilliant. Just brilliant.
There’s really nothing objectionable in Three Men, save for some English-style name calling and a bit of old-fashioned slang; and I’d say it’s appropriate for ages 12 and up (readers younger than that likely won’t benefit from the subtleties and cleverness of Jerome’s humor).
So, if you love P.G. Wodehouse, or are just searching for something funny to read, pick this one up. And make sure that when you do, you’re alone. That way, when you fall out of your chair in uncontrolled fits of laughter, you won’t have to worry about concerned bystanders calling an ambulance.