John Swartzwelder is the J. D. Salinger of comedy writing. The prolific Simpsons writer (he's written 59 episodes of The Simpsons, far more than any other writer, even when the show is quickly approaching five hundred episodes) is as well known to his fans for his eccentricities as his writing.
He was allowed to send his scripts in from home because the other writers couldn't stand his chain-smoking. When he could no longer smoke in restaurants, he bought his favorite booth from his favorite diner and had it installed in his home.
Swartzwelder's final Simpsons was in 2003, and since then he has written a novel a year, all self-published, when realistically, he could barge into any publishing house and declare “I've written 20% of all Simpsons episodes” and be handed a contract. I read all eight of Swartzwelder's novels in a row and have put my impressions together here, hopefully in a way that's slightly less absurdist than Swartzwelder's prose.
The Time Machine Did It: This book is a verbal cartoon; a literary Marx Brothers movie. In its way, Time Machine is actually more cartoony than The Simpsons. There's no pathos, no moral, just screwball, anything-for-a-laugh comedy. The protagonist is Frank Burly, a private detective who freely admits that he's not very observant, which is kind of a problem in his field. To reach his office, prospective clients have to walk past the offices of three more competent detectives.
Burly is hired by Thomas Dewey Mandible the Third, “a scraggly, smelly specimen” who claims to be a multi-millionaire. Mandible woke up one day to find that everything he owned (including his mansion and his stocks) have been stolen, but he has hired Burly only to return a small statue. To prove how serious he is, Mandible gives Burly not just one, but five blank checks.
After some snooping, Burly realizes that it all has to do with a stolen time machine, housed inside of a briefcase and invented by a Professor Groggins, who got the idea from watching science fiction movies (a theme Swartzwelder will revisit in the future). It turns out that the hard part of inventing is actually thinking up the idea. But once things like disintegrating rays and teleporters have been thought up by television writers, building real ones are surprisingly easy.
And like Chekov said, if you introduce a time machine in the first act, it has to go off by the midpoint. Time Machine's most creative scenes are the ones where Burley finds himself trapped in the 1940s. Unlike the later Frank Burly novels, The Time Machine Did It ends with Burly being surprisingly resourceful and clever, actively bringing about the resolution.
Double Wonderful: Double Wonderful is surprisingly ambitious. Where Time Machine is a silly farce, Double Wonderful is a full-on satire, focusing on a fame-obsessed town in the Wild West called “Slackjaw.” After kidnapping a pulp novelist from the East, the town's residents force him to write a series of novels based on their exploits, which rockets them to instant fame.
The novel's most distinct element is that it has no main character. In Double Wonderful, the protagonist is the entire town of Slackjaw. It's similar to the way the town of Springfield can become a character on The Simpsons, morphing into an angry mob whenever it's necessary. The town is full of colorful characters, like Crackers, the town drunk, or Shakespeare Jones, the town's resident writer/actor.
Unlike Time Machine, which found comedy mostly in absurdism, non-sequiturs and the cartoon zaniness of the plot, the humor in Double Wonderful comes, for the most part, from a much more subtle place. The novel hinges on the differences between the view the people of Slackjaw have of themselves and the way the rest of the world views them.
Double Wonderful has high ambitions, but doesn't always reach them. By the end, it seemed like Swartzwelder had introduced so many targets that he wanted to hit, that he wasn't able to really focus on any one. The narrative becomes a little muddled, but it's a great concept. I wish that Swartzwelder would have pursued his unique take on satire on at least one other novel.
How I Conquered Your Planet: The next novel once again stars Frank Burly. Burly's a great vehicle for Swartzwelder: he's dumb, doesn't really learn from his mistakes, and is perfectly willing to accept the absurdity thrown at him. While The Time Machine Did It felt like a noir with a science fiction element, Swartzwelder abandons the mystery angle in his other novels, focusing on sci-fi parodies.
How I Conquered Your Planet opens with Burly, now having trouble finding work as a detective, taking a job as a bus driver. After a series of strange happenings all around the new bus stop by the crop circles, Burly begins to suspect that one of his co-workers, Arthur Gremlin, may be hiding a sinister secret. Gremlin, who can apparently control people's thoughts, forces Burly to hire him as his secretary, and Burly uncovers a secret meeting of magicians. He is knocked out, and then wakes up on a rocket ship to Mars. Surrounded, of course, by Martians, who look a lot like Earthlings, except they tend to be smaller, greener and look more like insects.
After a quick Martian brainwashing, Burly enters into a kind of Martian domestic sitcom, with his new wife and young children and Martian neighbor “Norton” (if it's a reference to The Honeymooners, Swartzwelder doesn't linger on it). Soon after, however, Burly is recruited into the Martian army, where he quickly rises in rank and inadvertently sets off a war of the worlds between Mars and Earth.
Swartzwelder is parodying a lot in this novel (as he does in every one), and doesn't stay on any topic for too long. Rather than have the whole novel act as a spoof of '50s alien invasion movies, he also touches on war and war films, '50s sitcoms, and dystopian fiction. There's a little satire in this one (as any comic novel that deals with war must have), but as far as satire goes, How I Conquered Your Planet is more Duck Soup than it is Wag the Dog.
The Exploding Detective: Swartzwelder has flirted with dark humor in the last few novels (mostly with the occasional murder) but The Exploding Detective opens with one of his darkest and funniest lines: “I suppose the first thing I should do is apologize for the billions of dead.”
But before he explains that, the narrative moves to Burly experimenting with a jetpack designed by Nazi scientists for their plan to invade heaven. Although Burly is planning on branding himself as “The Flying Detective” the jetpack's limitations (and Burly's own inability to fly it) cause him to be dubbed “The Exploding Detective.” And since Burly seems to have the ability to crash his exploding Nazi jetpack without dying, this leads the town's citizens to naturally assume that he may be a superhero. After a brief stay in the hospital, Burly is hired by the corrupt mayor to fight crime after a series of mysterious thefts.
Like in How I Conquered the Martians, Swartzwelder has abandoned the actual detective-work that comes with being a detective. The Exploding Detective begins with a small mystery but quickly abandons it in favor of a superhero send-off. Burly attempts to figure out the identity of the supervillain terrorizing Central City, which includes hobnobbing with a Gentlemen's Club of supervillains like Professor Kryptonite and Colonel Awful.
If it riffs on topics that have been covered inside and out by The Venture Brothers, The Exploding Detective is hardly to blame. Although the novel is largely a superhero parody, it also touches on James Bond movies and features some unauthorized versions of Philip Marlowe and Sherlock Holmes. There are also some clever throwaway references to dystopian fiction, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tolkien.
Dead Men Scare Me Stupid: Swartzwelder's fifth book opens with the detective doing some actual detective work. Ignoring the mess left at the end of The Exploding Detective, the opening chapter of Dead Men Scare Me Stupid is a take-off on Agatha Christie, with Burly assembling a group of murder suspects and accusing them one by one. Unlike Hercule Poirot, who would have accused a handful of people in a drawing room, Burly has filled an entire baseball stadium with false promises of seeing Babe Ruth Jr. and having an owl sing the national anthem.
With his current mystery a failure, Burly drives home, only to be visited by the ghosts of two former clients that were killed during their cases. It seems that a lot of Burly's cases seem to end with his clients being killed. Although they initially tell him they want to help him, they really want to make Burly's life miserable. Which is harder than it seems. Eventually, they get Burly sent to prison, after the body of Amelia Earhart is found in his trunk.
Although Burly escapes from prison, he finds himself captured by the government, who are running some sort of shady conspiracy. They hook Burly up to a machine named “Clarence” (after the angel from “It's A Wonderful Life”) that creates a world where he was never born. Finding himself in this “Capraesque nightmare,” Burly is pleasantly surprised with how much nicer this world is, and how many more people are alive.
The final chapter includes Swartzwelder's general thesis for his books (that could very well be applied to The Simpsons), when Burly claims, “I always like to end my exciting stories pretty much back where they started, so readers will get the feeling that whatever happens in this crazy world of ours, old Frank Burly will always be right back where he started. He's not going anyplace.”
Earth Vs. Everybody: After a strong first act, Earth Vs. Everybody quickly begins to read like “Frank Burly's Greatest Hits.” For some reason, I found the opening unusually funny, with Burly (unable to “afford both a vacation and a bathing suit”) laying on a beach in his suit. He's vacationing in “Mexifro,” which is just like Mexico, only cheaper because it doesn't have any sugar, toilet paper, language or traditions. In fact, it doesn't even exist in a country.
After running into a criminal acquaintance named “Shifty” who, along with other criminals, can afford a much nicer vacation, Burly quickly changes sides, deciding on a career in organized crime. He applies for a job at CrimeCo (Formerly Crime & Sons), where he's given an entry level job as a bodyguard. He quickly climbs in bodyguard ranks, mostly because he's basically indestructible, until he becomes bodyguard to the organization's number two man: Larry Laffman, the greatest comedian on Earth.
Larry is mostly a combination of catchphrases (including Krusty's “Hey hey!” and Fozzie Bear's “Wocka wocka”) who never fails to leave Burly in stitches. The only person Larry fears is the head of the organization. And this is where things start repeating themselves. The head of CrimeCo is an alien, named Mr. Theremin, but who Burly calls “Buzzy” because he's made of electricity and he hates being called Buzzy. Burly can tell that something suspicious is going on, and after Buzzy is taken into custody by space policeman Doug Rogers (no relation to Buck), Earth is invaded by aliens. Again.
And Burly is taken into outer space. Again. Although this time he's not limited to Mars, traveling across the galaxy and taking a number of odd jobs. It seems like Swartzwelder may have wanted to create a kind of “Frank Burly: Space Opera” in this section, but it never really gels together.
The ending is tied up a little too neatly, and much too easily. Even the obligatory “another character explains to Burly exactly what happened” chapter felt forced and unnecessary. And, at the risk of spoiling the ending, there's also a major plot element that is very, very similar to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
The Last Detective Alive: This whole book is about time travel. Every chapter. I think I may have miscalculated how much Swartzwelder likes the idea of playing with history. The Last Detective Alive feels like Swartzwelder trying to force time travel out of his system. The whole novel reads like an extension of the climaxes The Time Machine Did It and Earth Vs. Everybody, where Burly travels through time and interacts with famous people. There's also a subplot about donuts.
The novel opens with Burly in the hospital after unsuccessfully chasing a “con man named Edward Blinkmann, or 'Binky', as he was called, because he blinked his eyes all the time, I guess.” Blinky has been selling bogus historical artifacts, including signatures from Revolutionary War heroes like General Oddsbody and President Snodwell, to Burly's wealthy client Mr. Aristotle Acropolis.
After accidentally creating a series of Time Holes throughout the city by playing with a machine in the back of his favorite donut shop, Burly realizes that he has inadvertently sent all of the citizens of Central City backwards in time. He quickly follows, if only to nab Blinky, who has been using the name Frank Burly as an alias, creating a bad name for the detective throughout history. As Burly travels through the past, he runs into Puritans in 1680 Boston, the Founding Fathers just before the Revolutionary War, and even Robin Hood, each time messing up history just a little bit more.
Although I find Swartzwelder's repetition in his novels a little annoying (mostly because the guy clearly has a very fertile imagination), I actually enjoyed most of The Last Detective Alive. Rather than write a chapter or two about time travel, it felt like Swartzwedler was finally giving the necessary attention to something that obsessed him.
The Fifty Foot Detective: The most recent Frank Burly novel, The Fifty Foot Detective thankfully does not feature any time travel elements, nor does it involve alien invasions. It opens with Burly obsessed with the adventures of Lucius B. “Loose” Cannon, a fictional hard-boiled private eye who “wasn't one of those 'thinking detectives' you run into in most detective books” and shouts out quips like “Smooth move, Ex-Lax” and “You asked for it, Ex-Lax.” As usual, Burly is going through a slow period, detective-work-wise, when he's visited by Professor Moriarty, “a professor of Fourth Grade Mathematics at Central City Elementary School” who has changed his name from Lawrence Sneed to mimic Sherlock Holmes' infamous arch-villain and has decided to become Burly's enemy.
After failing to commit the crime of the century, Burly and Moriarty set in a motion a series of events that leads to Burly breaking into a scientists' convention and accidentally adding dangerous chemicals to their punchbowl. Logically, this leads to the scientists becoming “mad” scientists in the vein of 50s B-movies. Since these scientist have little imagination, however, they end up getting most of their ideas from actual science fiction movies, which they're all discovering for the first time.
Their creations, then, are knock-offs of famous movie monsters, changed slightly to avoid copyright issues, leading to creatures like “The Friend of Frankenstein” and “Beach Godzilla.” Experimenting on Burly leads to them creating the eponymous “Fifty Foot Detective,” although truthfully Burly is only fifty feet tall for a few brief chapters. At other times, he's normal size or even two inches tall.
Although every Frank Burly novel is a full of pop culture parodies (usually obscure and vintage one), The Fifty Foot Detective feels a little extra stuffed, maybe because it doesn't get bogged down with time travel or maybe because they're laid out a little bit more obviously.
My grade overall: A solid B+/A-. I could be vaguer about it if you like.
Very few comic novelists have been able to sneak over in the literary cannon. Swartzwelder is clearly not trying to join the ranks of writers like Vonnegut, Mark Twain or Philip Roth. And yet, even as screwball novels, they fall short in a few places. They lack the depth and comic philosophy of novels like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.
Swartzwelder also has a tendency to repeat himself. And not just the the time travel and the alien invasions, but in a lot of little plot elements too. Every novel features Burly either breaking into or breaking out of some sort of locked facility (usually both) and he seems to have his brain taken out of his head a lot.
Still, there is a lot about these novels to recommend. They're close to the writing of humorists like Jack Handey, Woody Allen and even S. J. Perelman. Unlike Swartzwelder, however, these writers only write short stories, which can sometimes read like a list of jokes. A lot of Swartzwelder's success as a novelist comes from the books' meticulous structure. Swartzwelder is clearly inspired by his career as a television writer, using a very sharp three act structure. Each chapter moves the plot forward, but also allows Swartzwelder to play around, building on jokes and creating what feel like little sketches, while the tight structure frames everything together.
Simpsons fans will easily be able to spot common threads: old timey Americana, terrible television from the '50s and '60s, general idiocy, B-movies, and a total rejection and distrust of any authority figures. Altogether, the books are well worth the read, not just for Simpsons fan, but for anyone who enjoys sci-fi novels about private detectives and the aliens they encounter.
Anthony Scibelli is a handsome stand-up comedian and comedy writer, but dreams about becoming a time traveling private eye. His writing has appeared on Cracked.com and his blog “There's No Success Like Failure.”