Timing gets all the credit, but good comedy is equally indebted to good word choice. In his collection of short-form material, Deliriously Happy: And Other Bad Thoughts, comedian-writer Larry Doyle lives up to the second half of his hyphenate with a smattering of pieces—some short enough for McSweeney’s lists, some that first appeared in The New Yorker or Esquire—that are all united by a craftsman’s attention to sentence construction and precise language. The former Simpsons and Beavis And Butt-head writer and the author of I Love You, Beth Cooper credits his style to some expected comedy touchstones (Woody Allen), and to some less-expected heady postmodernists (Donald Barthelme). But with Doyle’s love of misplaced optimism, nigh-impenetrable jargon, and clueless pitchmen, the Thurber Prize-winning author could just as easily be taking notes from George Saunders.
Like Saunders, Doyle finds room for pathos amid all the cultural backwash: An extortionate service in “The Babyproofer” discovers that a couple’s child would have died 187 times without the company’s very expensive consultation. Later, with wife and proofer gone, the overcautious father tries in vain to kiss his child through the polarized visor of his protective helmet. In another morbidly Saunders-esque tale, a couch-potato dad dies in his armchair, but no one notices until his taste in programming becomes questionable. “Fun Times,” a brochure for a menacingly entertaining family theme park, deserves its place at the top of the book: “There’s a restaurant in here, too, in the direction of the smell,” it crows. Like the ’50s clip art that breaks up the chapters, the disconnect between the cheery tone and the queasy messages give Happy its juice.
The collection is at its best when it goes dark, or when Doyle, a great compiler of funny lists, indulges his inner Butt-head and opts for the short and silly. The more ambitious New Yorker material simultaneously sets its sights too high and too low: The Thomas Pynchon send-up might elicit a smirk, but doesn’t justify the hefty buy-in, and “Huck Of Darkness” reimagines the quintessentially American tale with an X rating, but the joke is played out by the first page.
There’s a gratifying range to the targets skewered and the voices emulated in Deliriously Happy, and that variety serves to offset any clunkers: A list of horrifying dinner specials, a eulogy given some pizzazz by an improv group, and a weak joke that devolves into pages of footnotes like some comedic attempt at Pale Fire all appear. The book is strained when Doyle’s higher pretensions get the better of him, but well-crafted enough to make the reading a pleasure throughout. It offers good writing and good jokes, in that order.