Thar She Blows

My long voyage with the Great American Novel, 'Moby Dick'

"Moby Dick" is the Moby Dick of American literature. It's the Big One that everyone hears about but nobody ever sees, because if you try, it just might kill you. The "Moby Dick" plot and characters—peg-legged madman Captain Ahab chases white whale Moby Dick to his death—have become engrained in our collective unconscious: They all live independently from the book, which is good, because most people have never read it.

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I learned about "Moby Dick" pretty much the same way everyone else did—through cartoons. I lay in front of the TV and watched Hanna-Barbera's "Moby Dick and Mighty Mightor"; the Flintstones' "Adobe Dick" episode; Tom and Jerry's 1962 homage via a whale called Dicky Moe; and countless others.

I wasn't assigned to read "Moby Dick" in high school or college, so I made it to my 30s without cracking it. I was like the title character in Woody Allen's 1983 movie "Zelig," who went through his entire life meaning to read "Moby Dick."

"Moby Dick" symbolized the kind of serious writing I'd never wanted to do. I was comedy writer at "The Daily Show," which isn't a bad thing. However, despite all the current talk about the importance of satire in the age of Trump, etc., comedy writing has always been considered a lesser sibling to drama. (How many times has a comedy won the Oscar for Best Picture? Not often. "American Beauty" in 1999 and then you must go back to "Annie Hall" in 1977.)

So, at the tender age of 35, inspired by a the fifth or sixth rewatching of "Zelig," I decided that like the novel's narrator, Ishmael, I'd take a long voyage: I'd read "Moby Dick."

I sorta dreaded it, and treated it like medicine I had to take in doses. But just a few pages in, I discovered that this Great American Novel is funny. In fact, it's hilarious.

Melville sprinkled his grim and dark narrative with setpieces that play like comedy routines: a young sailor named Ishmael forced to share a bed with a tattooed headhunter in a scene feels Laurel and Hardy, or Chaplin. The chapter "Ahab and the Carpenter" prefigures Monty Python as the captain curses the fact he must rely on an idiot like the carpenter to make his leg.

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Looked at in the right light, the whole thing does feel more like comedy than tragedy. A one-legged wingnut chasing a really, big fish who ate his leg. I mean, other great American novels (like "The Scarlet Letter") don't lend themselves to cartoon reinterpretations.

It took me about four weeks to read "Moby Dick," I bolted down chunks of it on the subway, getting lost in the world, startling fellow passengers by laughing out loud. Melville's writing showed that my own craft, comedy was not a lesser or separate one, but an integral part of all literature. It meant that if I could write jokes, I could write in other genres.

Since then, I've gotten an MFA in writing. I've not only started annoying the world by writing poetry but have also written children's movies, Christmas movies, thrillers and even movies for the Lifetime network.

People keep telling me my serious poetry and movies are funny—but then again, so is "Moby Dick."

Tags: books