Posts Tagged ‘Terry Pratchett’

colour of magicInterrupting my feature on woman speculative fiction writers to acknowledge the passing of Terry Pratchett — one of the great ones.

I was a fan. Not a huge one, I must admit. In general, I don’t go in for obsessive fandom about any writer or cultural phenomenon. There’s just so much good stuff out there, and it’s always struck me as a shame to limit your focus to one book series, TV show, music group, etc. But I’ve read a number of his books over the years, and was always impressed. In fact, I like to think he shaped my sensibilities as a writer.

Here’s the deal.

I  love jokes. The sharp one-liner. The meandering anecdote filled with hilarious asides. The witty off-hand remark. Even groan-inducing puns and standard-issue “a guy walks into a bar” fare when presented in a certain context. I greatly enjoy exchanges among funny people, where the jokes are flying left and right.

Yet for all that, I find few things more tedious than one of these “joke-off” (phonetic similarity intended) situations. That’s when somebody brings the conversation to a thudding halt by abruptly saying something along the lines of: “Alright, a giraffe walks into a proctologist’s office …”

Everyone else is obliged to sit there silently until the joke-teller brings it in for a landing, probably via a punchline you saw coming a mile away. You do the fake laugh thing out of politeness. Ha. Funny. Can we get back to the conversation now?

Nope. Somebody else says: “I got one! This guy’s on golf course. And a leprechaun comes up and says ‘I’ll give you three wishes.'”

And so it goes. On and on. Labored set-up. Obvious punchline. No organic connection to anything else going on. Just an inherent demand for exclusive attention to some verbal entertainment that isn’t particularly entertaining. And all the while, I’m silently pleading that we can put an end to this and get on with our lives.

I have a similar reaction to humor that’s nothing but a series of disconnected jokes strung together. The “Scary Movie” series is a prime example. Or — sorry, fans — much of “Family Guy.” To me, the jokes have to be in service of something. A solid narrative, like “The Simpsons” at its best. A character arc, like “Community” or “This is Spinal Tap.” Social commentary, like “South Park.” Even well-done absurdism, like “The Kids in the Hall” or “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

Terry Pratchett was a master at that.

In good humorous stories, the jokes have a solid narrative foundation to back them up and give them structure. Even without the humor, the story would ideally be able to stand on its own. Pratchett took it beyond that. In the best of his work, the humor, characterization and narrative were all inextricably intertwined. Each an essential component.

I first encountered Pratchett when I was a geeky and fantasy-fiction-obsessed teenager. “The Colour of Magic” from 1983, the first book of his Discworld series, was available as a selection from the Science Fiction Book Club. The concept sounded like a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” for high fantasy, and I was intrigued.

I ordered it and found it … good. Full of funny lines and situations. Well-drawn characters. Plenty of in-jokes and riffs on fantasy tropes for fans like myself. And a decent adventure story to back it all up.

I didn’t read any more Pratchett for the next couple of decades. My interest in fantasy fiction waned when I hit college age, and I felt no particular inclination to check out his stuff.

I was in my mid-thirties when I was at my local library, searching for a book on CD to listen to during a car trip. I saw one of his books, and was a little surprised to discover that Pratchett was still writing about Discworld. I’d thought of “The Colour of Magic” as an amusing novelty that might merit a sequel or two, but no more.

I checked it out of the library, expecting a diverting if lightweight read for the car trip.


I was astonished at how far he’d come as a writer. It was one of the books dealing with the Ankh-Morpork City Watch — essentially an urban police thriller set in a fantasy universe with dwarves, werewolves, orcs and centaurs. And it worked beautifully. It wasn’t just some exercise in winking, arch humor based on police thriller cliches enacted by elves and trolls. It was a genuinely good story with a complex, gripping narrative, engaging characters, and something substantive to say about the nature of racial tolerance. For all that, it was still really freakin funny.

I picked up a number of his books after that, and was impressed each time. One of the elements I most admired was his propensity for taking fantasy creatures such as vampires and golems, and making them actual characters. Not abstract representations of evil, or enigmatically magical beings. Just regular folks trying to get through the day (or night) and make a living. (Or … you know.)

In doing so, Pratchett gave his works a warm-hearted humanism that (for the most part) didn’t descend into preachiness or cloying sentimentality. Maybe that neighbor who seems so mysterious, threatening and different from you isn’t such a bad guy after all. At least give him a chance.

And he managed to thoroughly entertain his readers in the course of delivering that message.

As far as literary legacies go, you could do a lot worse.

DickI believe I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I edit the quarterly newsletter, called “The Speculator,” for the writers’ group Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers. I like to include an interview in each issue. For the September issue, I had the opportunity to interview Dick DeBartolo — one of Mad Magazine’s most prominent writers and a childhood hero of mine.  (For more about my life-long fandom of Mad, read here.) Needless to say, I was thrilled. Here’s the story that ran in the newsletter. Since The Speculator is for and about writers, much of the emphasis is on the craft and business of writing. But even if you’re not a writer, I hope you’ll find it interesting. And I’d like to thank my good friend Doug for helping make contact with Dick. Doug, give me a shout if you ever need a kidney.


“Mad’s Maddest Writer” Dick DeBartolo on Writing Parody

By Tom Joyce

As you might guess from my membership in this group, and my editorship of this newsletter, I’m a big fan of speculative fiction. So don’t take the following statement as a dis.

Speculative fiction lends itself to parody.

Think of the works of speculative fiction that simultaneously serve as genre parodies and great stories in themselves. The writing of Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore and Terry Pratchett immediately come to mind. For further examples, you could go as far back as Fritz Leiber’s classic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, or head to your local multiplex and watch “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

So I thought it might be helpful for us as writers to get some insights from a parody writer. As luck would have it, I got to speak to one of the all-time greats.

Dick DeBartolo is one of Mad Magazine’s most prominent and prolific writers, having contributed to the magazine since the early 1960s. He specialized in the magazine’s movie and TV satires, which were always my favorite part of the magazine.

Dick also hosts a wonderful netcast about gadgets and technology called Giz Wiz, which is available on He’s a regular guest on segment on ABC News Now, and was recently interviewed on the public radio program Studio 360 (which is available online). He is also the author of “Good Days and Mad: A Hysterical Tour Behind the Scenes at Mad Magazine.”

Dick asked that the interview take the form of a phone conversation, rather than responding to e-mailed questions. So I’ll have to do some paraphrasing, as I wasn’t able to write down everything verbatim. But it’s worth it, because I’ve been a fan of Mad since I was a kid, and being able to talk to Dick made my week, month and year. As an added bonus, Dick turned out to be every bit as funny, charming and flat-out cool as I could have hoped.

So here’s the gist of what Dick and I talked about:

Dick said that he naturally gravitated toward movie and TV satires. And the bad movies were a lot easier to satirize.

“The more serious the movie was and the more pretentious it was, the more fun it was to make fun of it,” he said.

TV satires were more difficult, because they were more of a time commitment. He’d have to watch five or six episodes to get a feel for the show’s approach and its characters.

Unlike the movie satires, which would follow the plot of the source material, he would have to construct his own plots for the TV satires. That could yield some interesting results. When he wrote the satire for the campy science fiction TV series “Lost in Space,” he placed the characters on a planet with giant vegetation. Not long after, he encountered series star June Lockhart on the set of the game show Match Game, where he was also a writer. She jokingly asked him if the magazine had spies on its staff, because the plot of his parody mirrored one of an upcoming episode.

His propensity for making fun of movies meant that he was rarely invited to previews, but that was fine by him. He preferred seeing movies with audiences so he could take note of the scenes that got the biggest reactions from the crowd, and be sure to reference them in the satires.

He was apparently doing something right. No less a luminary than Roger Ebert once told Dick that he learned how to criticize movies through Mad’s dissection of them.

Here are Dick’s insights on:


— Your intended audience should be familiar with the source material. When you’re riffing off something, it helps if they get the references.

— Dick is a big fan of what he calls “The Rule of Three” for satire. You have two references to something normal to establish a pattern and set up the punchline, then deliver that punchline on the third reference.

For example: “Is this rocket going to make it to the moon?”

“Yes. We’re using the highest octane fuel, the most powerful engine, and a big bottle of Mentos and Coke.”

— Running gags can be very effective. Try to find a hook within the context of the story, and keep non-sequiturs to a minimum. For example, in his parody of “The Poseiden Adventure” about a capsized ocean liner, Dick made a running gag out of the characters’ linguistic confusion over “up” vs. “down,” which got more absurd and funny as the story progressed. (“I’m seasick. I think I’m gonna throw down.”)


The magazine was initially very male-oriented, for boys in the 10-through-15-year-old range. Initially, the magazine only satirized G-rated movies. Now its approach is more inclusive. He also describes it as “rougher” than it used to be, with edgier humor.

“When it came out, it was the only thing like it,” Dick said. “Now that’s all changed. Mad is like a mirror of society.”


“The Web is where it’s at,” Dick said “You can do so much with no money.”

Where social media is concerned, Google Plus users tend to be more interested in serious, straightforward information. Facebook and Twitter users gravitate toward the “silly stuff.”

“Make yourself a valuable information source on the Internet,” Dick advises. “You get followers. Follow your followers.”