The most depressing part of almost any bookstore tends to be the humor section. Because publishers produce new books so slowly, humor sections are packed with titles by people
who were funny for a fleeting moment a year or two ago. It's only gotten worse since internet humor, that fickle mistress, started to make its presence known. A perfect case in point is Stuff White People Like, a book version of a blog that wandered into mammoth internet fame over the last few months. SWPL was rushed through the publication process—it even looks rough and cheap, like an uncorrected galley. In six months, people will be embarrassed to have it on their bookshelves, and in two years, SWPL will no doubt adorn 50-cent racks in used bookstores across the country. It's the literary equivalent of drunkenly shouting "Yeah, baby! Yeah!" in an Austin Powers voice.
Based on anecdotal bookseller's evidence, it seems that the majority of humor books are sold as gifts. Another big share of the market goes to teenagers, who simply don't have the experience and wisdom to understand that those FoxTrot and Garfield collections aren't going to age well. SWPL will no doubt climb the best-seller lists for a few months, but how does a book manage to go from tremendously popular to garbage in a year and a half? SWPL, as well as a recently produced book based on a creepy, self-explanatory blog called Hot Chicks with Douchebags, face similar problems as commodities in that they're both available, for free, on the internet. But even without that stumbling block, these cheap humor books have been falling flat for decades now. What's the reason for their intrinsic uselessness? It's perhaps corny to point out, but the real appeal of a timeless funny book—as opposed to your standard humor book—is that a good funny book is written well. Writers like David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, and the writing staff at the Onion produce books that can sometimes be funnier on rereading.
Nobody equates the film fansite Ain't It Cool News with good writing. AICN founder Harry Knowles famously wrote about why he sat all the way through the recent Mike Myers bomb The Love Guru: "People had to survive the Holocaust to hold those responsible, responsible. This film isn't as bad as the Holocaust. Nothing could be." So it was with a great deal of surprise that I absolutely loved reading Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal, by frequent AICN contributor and uninamed local author Vern.
I've never seen a Steven Seagal movie (his grunting machismo is about as appealing to me as watching a dog lick at an infected sore), but the sheer relentlessness of this book is fascinating. Vern watches every single Seagal movie in order—he even reviews Seagal's two records, his energy drink (Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt Energy Drink, both Cherry Charge and Asian Experience flavors), and a 2006 musical performance of Seagal's band, Thunderbox, at Seattle's Tractor Tavern—and after each review, he straight-facedly lists the number of fights in bars, how much broken glass is featured in the film, improvised weapons, and expressions of how badass other characters declare Seagal to be. (Someone in On Deadly Ground actually says, "Delve down into the deepest bowels of your soul. Try to imagine the ultimate fucking nightmare. And that won't come close to this son of a bitch when he gets pissed.")
Vern greatly admires Seagal, but he is supremely aware of the drawbacks of his canon. He quotes some brilliantly foul lines (some secret-agent code from Mercenary for Justice: "Tiger, this is Mouse. What's happening at the beehive?"), and he openly mocks the trashy idiocy of Seagal's later direct-to-video offerings. From his review of Attack Force:
"It's not uncommon for a movie to show an establishing shot of the Eiffel Tower and still feel that it's necessary to put a title on the screen to tell you that this is Paris. That's dumb, but I'm used to that. Attack Force takes it to the next level, using a title that says "FRANCE, EUROPE." So this is a movie that not only assumes we can't recognize the Eiffel Tower, it assumes we don't know what continent France is in."
There were many points in reading Seagalogy where I was suddenly laughing out loud, which is more than I could say for the smirky-at-best experience of reading SWPL and Douchebags. Part of the humor comes from the fact that Vern relentlessly pushes through the horror of these movies to try to find the real Steven Seagal, buried under all the cheese and bad dialogue. To reference another internet joke that has long since gone flat, Vern might begin the book in an ironic Chuck Norris Fact–style context, but as he moves through the Seagal oeuvre, he falls into a weird sort of man-love with his subject. It's a real narrative journey, it's informative, and it's written in a clear voice with a consistent, tongue-in-cheek tone. This is a book that I want to hold onto forever; it makes me laugh, but it also has more value than dozens of other slapped-together humor books churned out by publishers desperate to acquire some tiny, melting slice of cultural currency.