Posted October 12th 2011 by J. Edison Thomas.
My attitude towards humor follows what I think of as the "Weird Al Yankovic Principle." I'm sure someone smarter has come up with a better name, but it stems from how often Weird Al's song titles are all there really is to laugh about in a Weird Al song. This concept comes up a lot during Saturday Night Live skits—often the emergence of the idea behind the skit has you laughing, and then four minutes later you wonder why they didn't cut it off four minutes ago. The Onion fake news website has a solid understanding of this principle. Often, rather than introducing a funny idea and then beating it into the ground over several paragraphs, they have the sense to limit it to one "news in brief" paragraph, or simply leave it at the headline alone. Speaking of fake news, an Emmy Award–winning writer for The Colbert Report wrote a humor book called Sad Monsters: Growling on the Outside, Crying on the Inside. Clever readers will already have guessed where this 171-page book falls on the Weird Al Principle metric.
Written by Frank Lesser with intermittent illustrations by Willie Real, Sad Monsters is a series of ~3 page send-ups of all kinds of monsters, from the classic mummies and werewolves to specific cases like Dorian Gray and Godzilla. The major theme is showing a mundane, 21st-century American side to popular creatures of myth. It's kind of like if Ugly Americans was a blog. There is some variety to how the entries are presented; some are journal entries, some are magazine articles, some are one-sided conversations in the style of Christopher Walken's "The Continental" SNL skits, and some are simply lists. One is even a fake screenplay. But for all the variety in the presentation of the stories, they all fall fairly flat after the concept is revealed.
The major problem is that none of the characters have any sort of depth beyond their one-note joke. A yeti is applying for a job, but all his work skills involve murdering and eating people. Dr. Van Helsing diagnoses his patients with vampirism regardless of symptoms. A cave-dwelling Skinner is putting on a New York art show, but all of his art involves murdering and eating people. Some segments are more clever than others, such as a living will that takes into account the complexity of end-of-life decisions when coming back undead is a possible option, which I could see hipsters passing around Facebook like The Top 100 Things I'd Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord. There are a few chuckles to be found, but I hesitate to give an example because it would spoil nearly ¼ of said chuckles. Mostly the ideas might make for decent one-panel Far Side–style cartoons (Animals Have Problems Too is almost exactly this), but even two pages is really stretching it.
Another issue is simply that of format. When I was younger I had a book called Politically Correct Bedtime Stories that went along the same line as this—a mundane spin on well-known fairy tale characters and situations. The Billy Goats Gruff tried to keep their ecological footprint as small as possible, and Snow White chews into Prince Charming for date-raping her mouth while she was unconscious. That sort of thing. Anyway, I bring this up because in this book, the spin was laid out within the context of a story rather than flat-out stated; it kept things moving along from joke to joke and availed more opportunities for characters to bounce off each other in amusing ways. Sad Monsters, unfortunately, is modeled in probably the worst way possible. Despite its various tweaks from one chapter to another, each entry is simply one form or another of monologue, a stream of declarative statements that don't connect with the reader.
The style is very similar—unsurprisingly—to the delivery of The Colbert Report, modeled after the ubiquitous American opinion news program. Basically just Colbert talking, dropping one bon mot after another and occasionally wriggling his eyebrows charmingly. The difference is that, beyond Colbert's comedic talents, having a face looking you in the eye during this delivery bridges a gap that unfortunately Sad Monsters does not. If you can imagine how it would feel to watch Colbert do an entire show looking off-camera Bachmann style, well, you have an incredibly emotive imagination and that's enviable. But also that will help you understand what it is like to read this book. It feels hollow. Lesser is clearly well-suited to writing for Colbert's show and there are moments in Sad Monsters that call to mind The Report's "[serious], [serious], [absurd]" joke cadence, but written into a book in this format, he's a speedboat trying to move on dry land. And I think only James Bond has a boat that can do that.
This book taught me, if anything, that it is possible to dislike things beyond the narrow spectrum of hate that I am used to. Typically, some emblematic part of a work—be it a movie, book, website, infant, or television commercial (free advice: do not watch TV with me, I am the Anti-Don Draper)—will strike out at me like a splinter in the mind's eye, and agitate me to the point of rage. If you have seen an old person react to positive news about Obama from the "lamestream media," then you have some idea of how this situation goes. A few building blocks of disgust will provide me the foundation to hate the entirety of the work. Just like Bono's stupid goddamn sunglasses are the perfect jumping-off point to hating the shit out of a globetrotting peace activist, or how Tarantino's lame-as-all-hell nerdwank about "Like A Virgin" makes you want to despise Reservoir Dogs, only you can't, because the rest of the movie kicks ass.
But nothing about Sad Monsters offends me. It isn't annoyingly tongue-in-cheek or smug, and despite what you might judge from its cover (don't do that!!) it isn't a 200-page hipster jerkoff fest like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies probably is (judging from its cover). It is simply a series of clever but ultimately dull stories about various monsters whose mediocre lives are humorously incongruous with our expectations of the creature, except not humorously. It is almost comparable to the fictional "Jack's body parts" series of short stories in Fight Club—curious enough to gain your attention but not worth reading for more than a few pages.
To be fair, I'm not really familiar enough with the lyrics to Hall & Oates' "Maneater" to get much out of the chapter dedicated to it. I'll let Sad Monsters have that one.
This review was based off a review copy of the book sent by Plume Books.
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