What Is Truth?

Reviewing Tony Martin’s second book, A Nest of Occasionals, is easy: in pretty much every way it’s just like his first. So if you’re a fan of Lolly Scramble, rejoice! All the wit and insight and solid gags you loved in Martin’s first collection of personal stories and anecdotes continues to impress here. In fact, in some ways it’s even more impressive, as the material Martin is working with isn’t quite as strong. He gets just as many laughs out of more general topics like pornography before the internet and how he discovered racism as he did out of that now-famous bus trip where everyone turned on him for suggesting they watch Spinal Tap, but it could be argued that in this book we’re watching Martin go from being a guy with a bunch of funny stories to an funny author who can make anything he turns his hand to into a story.

It’s a welcome development in a couple of ways. Firstly, considering the rubbish state of Australian comedy at the moment, writing is probably the only field where Martin can do what he wants and be reasonably assured that it’ll reach the public. Another movie is unlikely, commercial radio seems closed to him for a few years at least, ABC radio is too restrictive to bring out his best, community radio is great but where’s the cash, and television… well, guest shots on panel shows are fun but rarely give him a real chance to shine.

So if Martin decides to focus on writing in a more general way – actually, make that “when Martin decides to focus on writing” and backdate it a few months, because his highly entertaining weekly appearances at The Scrivener’s Fancy (see sidebar for the link) have been running for a few months now and they’re always worth a look. If Martin’s third book turns out to be a collection of those pieces, I doubt too many people would complain.

But having Martin move away from personal recollections to more general writing is also a good thing because personal recollections as a genre are, well, kind of lame. Martin’s books are the best of a bad bunch, but it’s hard to deny that a bad bunch is a reasonable way to describe the ever-growing ranks of quirky collections of strange things that happened to people who aren’t quite as funny as they think they are. David Sedaris, we’re looking at you. And while it’s never a good idea to hate on something that doesn’t exist yet, when it’s announced that Marieke Hardy is planning a collection of personal reminiscences it might be time to entertain the idea that it’s a field that isn’t attracting the best and brightest.

Again, let’s stress: Martin’s book is very very funny. Compared to pretty much everything book or otherwise out there labeled “comedy”, it’s streets ahead of the pack. But it’s fair to say that the pack his book is currently in is not a pack that’s packed with well-crafted hilarity (Judith Lucy’s The Lucy Family Alphabet aside). Martin himself pointed out why in a recent interview (one that, if the person responsible gives us the green light, we hope to be putting up excerpts from here): stories are funnier if the reader knows that they’re true.

I probably didn’t need to wheel in Tony Martin himself to point that out to you. “Based on a true story” is a cliché in film and television, and there’s a good reason why there’s a steady stream of literary hoaxes where true stories turn out to be fake but almost none where fake stories turn out to be true. Being a true story is an easy way to gain the heft and grounding and belief that a fiction writer has to work for: you can be as sketchy and garbled and unrealistic as you like when it’s a true story because it really happened. Story confusing? Doesn’t matter, it really happened. Characters unrealistic? Doesn’t matter, it really happened. Whole damn thing is too crazy to believe? Believe it, it really happened.

Let’s bring this back to comedy. For a lot of people out there, Australia’s Funniest Home Videos is the funniest show on television. Not because of the subtle plots, enduring characters or brilliant running jokes, mind you. It’s because funny – stupid, but passably funny – things are really happening to real people. If you made a show that was exactly the same as AFHV but was entirely staged (and most importantly of all, everyone watching knew it was staged), hey presto, not as funny.

For a lot of people, the big attraction to the pranks on The Chaser’s War on Everything was that they were really happening. Funnier things happened in other segments on that show – hell, funnier things happened during the commercial breaks on other shows – but for a very large chunk of the audience the fact that the pranks were real (despite The Chaser themselves admitting there was a certain amount of staging involved in many of their pranks involving the general public) was what made them funny.

There’s even been an echo of this around John Safran’s Race Relations. Did he really steal those women’s underwear? It shouldn’t matter on a show like his where he’s clearly doing crazy things to illustrate a more serious point, but to many of us it does. If he did it for real: hilarious and daring. If it was staged: why bother. Remember Bruno? More people were interested in how it was done than whether the end result was funny, because that simple distinction – real or fake – has a big impact on whether a lot of people find something funny. A shit joke that really happens will often get a lot more laughs than a great one that takes place on a set.

The hopefully interesting thing in all this debate is that something written down – or filmed, for that matter – can never be really “real” or “true”. What actually happened involved living, breathing people moving through space and time: what you’re giving me are black printed squiggles on a white page. No-one not studying way too hard for a film degree can be bothered wading into the many, many discussions about realism in documentaries, but it’s fair to say that even people setting out purely to record actual events with audio-visual recording devices have serious doubts that what they present to the public is in any actual sense “real”. Writing something down can’t even come close.

So the problem with relying on “truth” as a guide to what’s funny is that age old question: what is truth? To spin it a purely personal way, one of the things I took away from my reading of Lolly Scramble was that Tony Martin’s childhood was a little grim. The stories he told were funny, but the occasional detail about family dramas, school horrors or workplace bullying seemed – to me – to suggest that he’d had a bit of a rough go growing up.

But reading A Nest Of Occasionals – written by the same man telling true stories about the exact same life – it seemed to me that he’d swept that side of things a little further under the carpet. There are mentions of family feuds and the like, but in his first book his job at an army surplus store was skimmed over with the most memorable detail being some nasty-sounding abuse involving a forklift; in the second book, the same setting seems like a fun place to work, with not a hint of abuse in sight.

They’re both true stories though, so which version of his past is more real? Did I find the first book funnier because to me the laughs felt a little like someone trying to shrug off the darkness of their life (OMFG how many times is Tony going to the doctors?), or is the second book better because the tone is more consistently light and it’s easier to relax into the laughs? Could it simply be that what was surprising about Martin’s past in the first book now blurs into the background of the second?

In the end, the only thing we can be truly sure of is the words on the page. Sticking “true” on a story will only get you so far, and while for a lot of hack writers and publicity seekers that’s as far as they’re ever going to get, Martin is a writer of true skill and a boundless ability to make people laugh. The real truth in the stories he tells is that he saw a way to shape the events in them to make them funny. Truth is, whatever story he’s telling, he’s a funny guy. If you’re looking for laughs, that’s the only truth that counts.

[next week: are farts funnier when you can smell them? How important is it to the truth of the fart to fully appreciate all aspects of it? If a deaf person farts in the forest and there’s no-one to hear it, does it automatically become a Silent But Deadly?]

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