Monday, June 12, 2006

Bad Jokes and Relationships

By Patricia Smiley

On Friday evening I went to a screening of the new Robert Altman film “A Prairie Home Companion” at the Director’s Guild in West Hollywood. The action takes place at an old St. Paul, Minnesota theater during the final performance of a live radio show that has enjoyed a long run but is about to end because the theater is going to be torn down to make way for a parking lot.

The film features an ensemble cast, including Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, the theater's VP of Security, and Virginia Madsen as the mysterious and deadly woman in the white raincoat. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are the singing Johnson sisters. Garrison Keillor plays himself. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly are the hilarious and bawdy singing cowboy duo, Dusty and Lefty. They do a knee-slapping number called “Bad Jokes” that includes the following Minnesotan humor:

Sven: “Ole, I think my wife died.”
Ole: “That’s terrible, Sven, but how do you know for sure?”
Sven: “Well, the sex is the same, but the dishes keep piling up.”

When the movie was over and the lights went up, the following conversation occurred:

He: “What was THAT all about?”
Me: “Which part?”
He: “The whole thing. I don’t get it.”
Me: “It's about death. The writer is saying that the death of old people or old traditions is not a tragedy. Life goes on.”
He: “Okaaaaaay.”

I can generally state the theme of movies I see in a sentence of two. “The death of an old man is not a tragedy” was actually a line from the film. It didn’t happen on page three, but I knew the words were thematic as soon as I heard Garrison Keillor say them. After that I began to look for words and actions that supported by hypothesis.

I’m doing revisions on my third book at the moment and themes are emerging that I hadn’t planned, one of which is about relationships and how tricky they can be. All of this analytical thinking got me asking questions about themes in crime novels. Do they pop up unexpectedly for other novelists, as well, or are they planned from the get-go? Do they even matter? Other than “crime doesn’t pay,” can you state the theme of the last crime novel you read?

If this discussion is too heavy for a Monday, may I recommend something less taxing? Hint: make sure the sound on your computer is turned on.

Thematically yours,

p.s. The photos of my Westie PJ and my Scottish Fold cat Tigger-boo aren't thematic. I just don't want to be the only NakedAuthor who doesnt't have pictures in her post.


  1. I think themes are immensely important in fiction, that they give context to plot. An appropriately handled theme, in my opinion, is one of the key components of really good, versus just pretty OK, crime fiction. Most recently, I read Lee Child's The Hard Way. The theme in that book, as in all of the Reacher novels, is "do the right thing".

  2. I agree with you, Rae. Another example, Harry Bosch has a personal motto that governs everything he does: everybody counts or nobody counts. For me that adds context and depth to his character.

  3. Hey Patty, I love Scandinavian humor.

    Lena's husband Ole died so she called the weekly newspaper to place an obituary. The editor asked what she wanted to say.

    "'Ole died Thursday,'" Lena said.

    "For the same price," the editor told her, "you get three more words."

    "Okay, then. 'Ole died Thursday. Boat for sale.'"

    Corny, sure. But reflective of the culture. Stoic. Thrifty. Wasting no words. And moving on.


  4. Ha! Are you sure you're not from Minnesota, Paul? Remind me to tell you the one about Ole and Lena at their high school reunion...