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Looking for quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series “Underestimated“, we talk to writers and performers from across the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choice that they think deserves more praise.
According to comedian Josh Gondelman, Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel The brothers sisters achieves something most books can’t: humor out loud. The novel follows two brothers, Eli and Charlie, on a quest in California to find a man they’ve been hired to kill. While the story doesn’t shy away from aggressively violent encounters with the people they meet on the trail, the story’s tone delves into absurdity more than outright desperation. They meet a man who can’t stop crying hysterically, a kid in an abandoned campsite who keeps getting hit on the head by everyone he meets, and a dentist who describes how he played with it. the system and cheated to get his dental license. , while extracting a tooth at the same time. Nominated for numerous awards and winning a few, the novel enjoyed moderate success upon publication but never reached the bestseller list.
Recently, the title became best known for the 2018 film adaptation, starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix. The film received critical acclaim, but was a box office disappointment, attracting only $13 million worldwide against a budget of 38 million dollars. But Gondelman has not seen this film. He still focuses on how funny the book is, how difficult it is to capture humor in a novel, and how the comedy presented in a prose narrative influenced his writing style for his new special, pleasing peoplewhich is available to rent on a variety of streaming platforms.
What attracted you to this book the first time you read it?
It’s just in my wheelhouse like a soapbox that I always ride because I always complain that the legendary novels that people describe as “comic novels” so often leave me a little cold, or I find them more heartbreaking how funny. I was talking about it with my wife, Maris Kreizman, who is a book reviewer and podcaster, and she said, “Okay, here are the two books that are legitimately funny.” One of them was The brothers sistersand the other was The clearance sale by Paul Beatty. His recommendations could not have been more relevant. Both are absolutely what I want when someone tells me a book is “funny”.
I think I know what you mean by heartbreak. The book A confederation of dunces is often touted as one of the great comic novels, but I found myself with a lump in my throat with every paragraph I read because of the horror of this person’s life.
I’m so glad you mentioned this book because it’s about 700 pages and people are talking about it as a comic masterpiece! I think it’s an incredibly visceral and uncomfortable experience to read this book. It’s a literary achievement to create that kind of character that you’re just, like, Oh no! You just watch a car accident for 700 pages. But I didn’t laugh. I thought, Is this supposed to be funny because someone is jerking off? It doesn’t make me hilarious, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’ve argued with people like, “No, it’s a comedic masterpiece,” and it just doesn’t sit well with me on that level.
Speaking of characters who masturbate, one of the recurring gags of The brothers sisters is our narrator Eli using “the soothing method” when he gets too angry, and the reader slowly deduces that his mother once told him to masturbate on his own to calm himself down. A key part of this book is that subtle Eli narration where you don’t really get the full picture of what’s going on; you just get his commentary on things and slowly see the bigger picture. Does this kind of story speak to you?
I really like its dryness. I like a subtle comedy. Especially in a book, I think it can be more ironic and witty because you experience it reading and taking it at your own pace. I think Patrick deWitt is doing a great job of giving us more with less. You don’t have to say everything that happens because the reading experience is more sparse than in a movie. It can be a bit drier and still really sharp and funny, which I think is a difficult tone to translate into a film.
Honestly, it reminds me of the dry humor of The real courage. It has a very Coen Brothers dryness, which I love in movies but I think is so hard to pull off. There are the subtle little hints of Eli being kind of an idiot as a narrator. I think it’s really elegantly done — that with a few strokes of the author’s pen, we’re brought into this world, and we see what’s going on through the lens of this guy who doesn’t fully understand do what happens.
Mentioning The real courage is interesting because it almost feels like a better adaptation of this book than the movie this book is based on.
I have never seen the movie! I think that The real courage and this book gives the impression that they capture similar ideas. It’s all very violent, but also really quirky and ironic in a way that plays out really well. The tone could easily have been too dark or too twee in this book. It’s so dense with fun and whimsical and funny and ironic stuff without being this morality piece about a slow-witted man who roams the West killing on contract.
I think that morality point is also very intriguing because it’s an extremely violent and dark story …
It’s so violent.
…and I think the storytelling through Eli makes everything so simple and clear. So when you hear of, for example, the bear attacking his horse and gouging out his eye, it is presented as Well it’s a shame more … than Oh my God, his eye is sticking out of his skull.
And it’s at the very beginning, and there was once a horse that was destroyed in a fire. There is so much violence! It almost feels like Of mice and Men but narrated by Lennie.
It makes so much sense.
He’s just seeing these things happening, and he’s got real sadness in his thoughts, and he’s just going around. He doesn’t have that sharpness that his brother has. And he knows it, but he’s still able to see the world through that lens of Huh, isn’t that weird?
And it’s poignant – like, I don’t think we’re making fun of Eli, are we? We laugh at his sight: This violence is inevitable. And I guess I just wandered the prairie doing violence to my brother. Then it kind of turns into Oh, you could just stop. It’s so funny to imagine those outlaw cowboys saying, “I guess we’re living with our mom again now,” like they’ve been kicked out of a GameStop or something. I think it’s really elegantly done so that you feel the horror of it. It’s not about saying, “Violence is cool and fun.” He says, “The violence is horrible, and isn’t it weird that we keep doing this?”
What part of the book really grabbed you for the first time and made you go, Oh, so it’s a the comedy the comedy?
Going back to the Coen brothers, it was almost like O brother, where are you?, which I guess dates back to The Odyssey. It’s just meeting a bunch of weird guys on the road. Like the scene at the start where Eli needs tooth extractions and the dentist is just a border dentist, just talking about how he’s a loser and he goes, “Name a job.” I’ll tell you how I failed. It’s so funny. It didn’t have to be funny. The scene might as well have been him meeting this dentist; It’s painful.
Or how he gets novocaine for the first time, and they know they want this painkiller as a tool for their violence. It could be a poignant moment to Oh, you can hurt someone so much without them realizing it, but instead it’s just this loser dentist they rob, and then the dentist teaches him how to brush his teeth too. I think this book clearly has a center – like an emotional and a philosophical center – but it’s just offset by this kind of awkwardness from a guy who’s like, “Ah, I suck at even being a dentist.”
Do you ever find inspiration from books like this when writing your own stand-up?
I don’t think I consider it directly, but this book is such an exercise in tonal coherence and character-based comedy, where the things that are said aren’t always witty right from the characters. It’s not like Seinfeld Where Friends Where Cheers, where the characters sit and say funny things to each other. The humor in this comes out so clearly from how we know who these characters are, and then the way they speak is funny because of their weird understanding of the world. I think it’s such a lesson in creating that tone that the characters are true to themselves and the comedy flows from that. So in stand-up, I think it helps to know that you don’t have to sell yourself or your story for a laugh; you can make laugh that comes from who you are. It’s a lesson that applies to all kinds of comic writing: the joke can come from the depth of understanding of who the character is or from the theme and tone.
Let’s say you have three minutes alone with someone at a party and you’re talking about that book you really like, The brothers sisters. How would you sell them on?
I will say it’s one of the few novels I’ve read that’s funny, but it’s also a thrilling western adventure story. It’s not universal, but I’d say it’s a great recommendation for guys – and I mean “guys” across a gender spectrum. I was very lucky in recommending this book because it sounds like Jack Black in High fidelity talk about Evil Dead 2, where he says: “It’s so funny and violent!” So many books feel like homework, and so many books that we’re told are funny are, again, dry literary humor, and this book hits the humor elements in a way that seems more visceral, where you get the full pleasure of a joke.