Sunday, July 27, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different: An Asperger with a British Sense of Humor

I co-chair a book club geared to those with Asperger Syndrome or otherwise on the high end of the autism spectrum. We meet every Thursday night at eight P.M at the Barnes and Noble on the Ohio State campus. This past week we finished Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I had read Good Omens once before, but, like most books by either Gaiman or Pratchett, it was worth reading a second time. Good Omens is a hilarious romp through the apocalypse featuring an angel and a demon who conspire together to save humanity from the forces of both Heaven and Hell. This is top of the line British humor, my favorite kind. British humor, though, is not something that can be appreciated by everyone. The reactions of the group were mixed. As I see it, British humor reflects on different elements of the Asperger mindset and, depending on the person and circumstance, can either work very well for those with Asperger Syndrome or can utterly fail.

British humor, as exemplified by Monty Python, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, entails manic insanity mixed with running gag references that span the cultural gambit and is usually quite dark. (For example Douglas Adams has the Earth blown to bits by aliens, building an interstellar freeway, in the first few chapters of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) Good Omens deals with the world coming to an end next Saturday afternoon. Heaven and Hell are preparing for a final showdown in which, no matter who wins, humanity will lose. Unfortunately, due to an error on the part of a satanic nun, the anti-Christ has gone missing. Out to save the day are the unlikely pair of Aziraphale and Crowly; an angel and a demon who are in fact good friends and who rather like the earth as it is. To those of you who are befuddled by this, not to worry; things only get more absurd as the book moves along. What keeps this all afloat is the fact that Good Omens is a satire on Paradise Lost and Revelations. It also makes fun of the Screwtape Letters, Star Wars, Doctor Who, televangelists, seventeenth century prophecies, witch-hunts, and James Bond just to name a few things.

British humor inundates the audience with strings of information, but revels in absolute absurdity. People with Asperger Syndrome are particularly suited to handling strings of information but are ill equipped to handle things that make no sense. British humor can be effective for such people if they have the necessary background to understand the references and if they can get past the fact that nothing makes any sense. One can then revel in how a given piece of British humor spits out information and how it follows its own innate logic off a cliff into perfectly “logical” absurdity. If the person with Asperger Syndrome does not pick up on the references, though, everything will backfire. All that would be left is a something that is all over the place and utterly overwhelming; in other words the sort of thing that those with Asperger Syndrome are woefully ill equipped to deal with.

The traditional assumption is that people with Asperger Syndrome have, in general, a difficult time dealing with humor. Humor is not logical and requires a certain flexibility in how one understands things. While this is particularly true in regards to British humor, British humor, because of how it uses strings of information, can, under the right circumstances, work very well for those with Asperger Syndrome.

Our next book is going to be Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. This book also fits into the model of British humor. We shall see how the group deals with this one.


James Pate said...

I liked Monte Python's Meaning of Life, but not much else by him. A lot of his stuff seems silly to me. It would probably do me well to watch Life of Brian, however, since a lot of my professors refer to that.

Do you like Are You Being Served? That's a British comedy, right?

Izgad said...

I admit that Monty Python can be very hit or miss; not everything they did was actually funny.
You should definitely see Life of Brian as it deals with the New Testament. I think you would particularly appreciate seeing Cleese and the gang in kippot, beards and sidelocks.
I have heard of Are You Being Served and have seen bits and pieces of it. I never really got into it though. Yes it is a British Comedy, but I am not sure how well it fits into the model of British comedy that I outlined.

HerbLover said...

Knowing that Pratchett has Alzheimer's, do you detect some sort of regression in "Unseen Academicals", compared to the previous books?

Izgad said...

I actually have not read the book yet, though it certainly is on my list, so I cannot judge. I have seen some recent clips of him speaking and he seemed ok, thank goodness. Obviously Alzheimer’s is not one of those diseases that can be diagnosed at a glance. (Unlike the dwarf ax that has been in my family unchanged through generations that I put into a troll head to aid him in his kind act of suicide.) I imagine that Pratchett and his publishers are smart enough to bring in outside help if there was anything obvious in the downturn of his writing.

Pratchett can write better comedy with half his brain tied behind his back than just about anyone so I am not worried.