Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Still funny after all these years, and better than ever on audio

Humor is arguably the most difficult genre of writing to pull off. Hampered by the limitations of the print medium, humor writers must ply their craft without the benefit of a number of tools commonly used in live comedy and in film—visual gags, voice inflections, timing, and so on. This inherent difficulty is why good comedy writers like Dave Barry are a scarce commodity, and worth reading when you can find them.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of those rare examples of written comedy that actually works. When I last read this book back in middle school (it seemed like every dorky, D&D and Atari-playing kid like me was toting it around at the time), I enjoyed it very much. But I was in for an even more pleasant surprise when I recently returned to this book via the audio format. This was actually the first comedy I’ve listened to on CD, and I now believe that this genre might benefit the most from audio treatment. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a first-rate example of what a talented narrator/actor can do with funny, well-written material. English actor/comedian Stephen Fry takes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to new comedic heights, and on a few occasions I found myself laughing out loud during my commute to work. Fry literally turns the text into a running Monty Python skit.

The plot of the book is as follows: Arthur Dent, a nondescript Englishman, is about to lose his house to a construction crew in the name of progress (an overpass is scheduled to run through Dent’s property). Simultaneously, an alien race called the Vogrons has scheduled the vaporization of earth to clear the way for a hyperspatial express route. Dent is saved from destruction at the last second by his friend Ford Prefect, a roving alien researcher on the earth to complete an entry for a galactic encyclopedia called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Prefect and Dent later hook up with Zaphod Beeblebrox, Galactic President and rogue ship-thief, and his two crewmates (an annoying robot stricken with depression and ennui named Marvin, and Trillian, a female and earth’s only other survivor). Beeblebrox has stolen a cutting-edge spaceship called the Heart of Gold and is on a mission to find the lost planet of Magrathea, rumored to hold riches beyond imagining, as well as the answers to the mystery of life, the universe, and everything.

To appreciate The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you must like Monty Python (author Douglas Adams has writing credits in an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and appeared in two others, and his British comedy influences are plain). Here’s an example of the type of humor you’ll find:

Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning” four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leaped straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.

The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator, Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England, in the destruction of the planet Earth.

Although The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is ostensibly mere over-the-top comedy, part of the reason (I believe) for its enduring appeal are its pithy insights about the nature of humanity and the universe and mankind’s raison d’etre. Overall it’s well worth reading and/or listening to.

This review also appears on SFFaudio.com .

5 comments:

sacha3791 said...

Have you ever listened to the original radio play, which pre-dates the book?

Brian Murphy said...

No, I haven't. I'd be interested in hearing your or anyone else's thoughts on it who have.

Eric D. Lehman said...

The radio play is excellent. I listened to it many years ago, but I'm sure it remains entertaining. It's the sort of book that a radio play works for rather than an audiobook. I have found Sherlock Holmes does quite well in that mode, as well.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Eric!

Mr Baron said...

As good as the original book is, I really liked the second book. The scene with the tea vending machine is just priceless. Decades later, I still find it extremely funny.