I hesitate to write this.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the funniest book I’ve ever read. I remember laughing aloud during silent reading period in middle school. I don’t recall if only my classmates glared at me or if the teacher also told me to shut up.
My concern is that reverse engineering Adams’s humor will ruin it. As explained by E. B. White, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”
Nonetheless, having just read HGG a fourth time, I’ve identified the categories of humor Adams employs. These techniques can all be found in the first three chapters, but I draw quotes from other areas as well.
Grab your towel.
The Alien Perspective
One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious, as in It’s a nice day, or You’re very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you all right? At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behavior. If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months’ consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favor of a new one. If they don’t keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working.
Adams writes numerous alien characters, and their interpretations of humanity hold up a hilarious mirror to the reader’s own life. The author constantly scans for human traits or institutions that might appear illogical from the outside and spares no opportunity to poke fun at them.
It’s safe to assume that the narrator is also alien because (1) the only humans left alive are Arthur and Trillian, and (2) the text is filled with detached observations like this:
Bypasses are devices that allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what’s so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what’s so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they want to be.
“But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
“Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard, I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying, ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”
Adams preys on the bureaucratic annoyances of the reader’s everyday life. Issues with local government, taxes, approval procedures… He reduces these to absurdity by making the processes increasingly bizarre and tedious:
[Vogons] wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without an order, signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public enquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.
Time & Scale
“But can we trust him?” he said.
“Myself I’d trust him to the end of the Earth,” said Ford.
“Oh yes,” said Arthur, “and how far’s that?”
“About twelve minutes away,” said Ford, “come on, I need a drink.”
HHG’s theme of space’s unfathomable enormity yields alarming gaps in how different characters respond to events. For instance, Ford has traveled the Universe and has knowledge of Vogons. This allows him to react calmly to the Earth’s imminent destruction in twelve minutes.
Ford’s indifference humorously conflicts with the reader’s opinion, which may hold those twelve minutes to be precious. The reader’s perspective is channeled by Arthur’s disbelief, and the effect is accentuated by the subversion of the phrase “trust him to the end of the Earth.”
Adams also likes to play with having simple events take millions of years and complicated events take milliseconds. For example, within moments of being turned on, a brilliant computer goes from “I think therefore I am” to deriving “the existence of rice pudding and income tax.”
Lastly, the author does not leave out juxtapositions of physical scale:
…the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across — which happened to be the Earth — where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.
Ford looked at him severely.
“And no sneaky knocking Mr. Dent’s house down while he’s away, all right?” he said.
“The mere thought,” growled Mr. Prosser, “hadn’t even begun to speculate,” he continued, settling himself back, “about the merest possibility of crossing my mind.”
Utterly absurd things happen in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In the face of madness, a few characters not only keep their manners but use increasingly highfalutin verbiage while most people would be rendered speechless.
The following passage isn’t necessarily an example of good manners, but it humorously contrasts with the fountain of curse words most of us would spout if our houses were knocked down. We can almost feel Arthur’s English propriety holding him back from articulating anything worse than antiquated punishments:
“You barbarians!” he yelled. “I’ll sue the council for every penny it’s got! I’ll have you hung, drawn and quartered! And whipped! And boiled…until…until…until you’ve had enough”
Ford was running after him very fast. Very very fast.
“And then I will do it again!” yelled Arthur. “And when I’ve finished I will take all the little bits, and I will jump on them!”
End the Clause/Sentence in a Twist
The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.
This may be the book’s most famous one-sentence quote. The idea is to start a normal simile, and say the opposite. For example, instead of “hung in the sky like a cloud,” Adams opts for, “like a brick doesn’t.” Regardless, even knowing the technique, it’s difficult to find snappy words like “brick” to implement it with.
It was Arthur’s accepted role to lie squelching in the mud making occasional demands to see his lawyer, his mother or a good book; it was Mr. Prosser’s accepted role to tackle Arthur with the occasional new ploy such as the For the Public Good talk, or the March of Progress talk, the They Knocked My House Down Once You Know, Never Looked Back talk…
We get a standard list of items from each of the characters, and each ends with a twist. Especially potent is Prosser’s subversion of the “I also experienced that” talk, which tends to come up when someone is trying to be empathetic.
The formula is A, A, B. When the reader is expecting a third “A,” give them “B.” For instance, Arthur may have demanded to speak to his lawyer, his mother, and his cousin. Instead, the last item is a “good book.”
The official name for this rhetorical device is “paraprosdokian.”
But the story of this terrible, stupid Thursday, the story of its extraordinary consequences, and the story of how the consequences are inextricably intertwined with this remarkable book begins very simply.
It begins with a house.
Contrasts constantly appear in Adams’s humor. In this case, a large build up in the foreshadowing paragraph is immediately subverted by something less impressive.
However, be careful not to take it too far. Ruining suspense can be funny when it’s done on purpose, but you’re still ruining suspense and giving the reader less reason to go on. Adams counters this a bit by creating a new mystery surrounding a whale and petunias:
Stress and nervous tension are now serious social problems in all parts of the Galaxy, and it is in order that this situation should not be in any way exacerbated that the following facts will now be revealed in advance.
The planet in question is in fact the legendary Magrathea. The deadly missile attack shortly to be launched by an ancient automatic defense system will result merely in the breakage of three coffee cups and a mouse cage, the bruising of somebody’s upper arm, and the untimely creation and sudden demise of a bowl of petunias and an innocent sperm whale.
“…they discovered only a small asteroid inhabited by a solitary old man who claimed repeatedly that nothing was true, though he was later discovered to be lying.”
Adams’s loves sprinkling fiendish paradoxes into his writing. The reader stops, thinks for a moment, and suddenly struggles not to chuckle.
There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
I cheated. This last paradox is not from Adams’s first book. It’s from the sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I couldn’t resist adding it.
Thanks to Allan Milne Lees for pointing out Adams’s word play in the comments:
“It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”
“What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”
“You ask a glass of water.”
Curiously enough, though he did not know it, he was also a direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan, though intervening generations and racial mixing had so juggled his genes that he had no discernible Mongoloid characteristics, and the only vestiges left in Mr. L. Prosser of his mighty ancestry were a pronounced stoutness abut the tum and a predilection for little fur hats.
The author often tells us things about his characters that the characters themselves do not know. In this case, we learn that Prosser is a descendant of the horseback warlord, Genghis Khan. This sets up dozens of small jokes like:
“Some factual information for you. Have you any idea how much damage that bulldozer would suffer if I just let it roll straight over you?”
“How much?” said Arthur.
“None at all,” said Mr. Prosser, and stormed nervously off wondering why his brain was filed with a thousand hairy horsemen all shouting at him.
In another example, we’re informed that Arthur’s friend, Ford, is an alien. The reader now understands why Ford is making fun of astrophysicists, but protagonist does not:
[Ford] struck most of the friends he had made on Earth as an eccentric, but a harmless one — an unruly boozer with some oddish habits. For instance, he would often gate-crash university parties, get badly drunk and start making fun of any astrophysicists he could find till he got thrown out.
To put things in formal terms, most of Adams’s satire comes down to juxtaposition, irony, and subverting tropes.
While analyzing humor makes it less funny in the moment, it does facilitate new implementations. Why don’t you bring some of Adams’s style to historical fiction, romance, or zombie-survival?
I do not suggest trying to become the Adams of academic dissertations, but if you do, please post in the comments.