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Posts Tagged ‘humor’

Letter from New York, 2005

January 26, 2015 | by

Adventures in tastelessness at The Onion.

Photo: Casey Bisson, via Flickr

I used to be an editor at The Onion. This was in 2004, when most of the original writers were still there—just a handful had gone off to Hollywood. I was hired by my friend Carol Kolb, who’d just been made editor in chief.

Carol is the funniest person I have ever known. One time we went to a German restaurant together, and our server was a cross-dresser. The cross-dresser was the newer kind. He was a man, dressed as a woman, but I think the polite thing is to use the female pronoun. She didn’t wear any makeup, and she didn’t have styled hair. She wore blue jeans and a shirt from the Gap. Her chin-length red hair was lackluster, and looked a little oily. She was about forty years old, and she behaved like a forty-year-old woman—tired, kind, a little weary.

I went to the restaurant a lot, and for whatever reason, she never confused me, but Carol, I have to say, was uncomfortable. It was as if she couldn’t decide whether this was just a guy who had accidentally put on his wife’s clothes that morning or she was a woman who had just given up all hope. Carol had trouble ordering—she stumbled over her words and couldn’t meet the server’s eye. I noticed she kept looking nervously at the server’s breasts and hips. It wasn’t too big a deal, and the server handled it like a forty-year-old woman would, not taking it personally and not acknowledging that it was happening. When the server walked away, Carol said, “I am so embarrassed. I was acting like somebody from Spencer, Wisconsin.” She made her eyes glaze over as a hayseed’s would if he met Divine. “I was like this!” she said, “I just couldn’t get it together.”

Another joke of Carol’s was to say, on a crowded subway, “Did you hear about Maria’s new boyfriend?” Read More »

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John Bayley on British Wit

January 22, 2015 | by

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John Bayley with Iris Murdoch, 1980.

The New York Times has reported that John Bayley died last week at eighty-nine. A literary critic and Oxford don, Bayley was best known for his vivid, searching memoir, Elegy for Iris, about his married life with Iris Murdoch, who in the late nineties had fallen deep into Alzheimer’s disease. “To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone,” he wrote. “To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.”

But Bayley was a keen critic, too. Remembering him in the Guardian, Richard Eyre writes,

John was a brilliantly readable reviewer, often witty and sometimes waspish, but invariably bearing the authority of a man who could speak knowledgeably of all European cultures. He believed that the point of literature was to make sense of the world, and, although shy and unassertive, he was a blazingly confident guide to how and where to discover those truths. If I were looking for an epitaph for him it would be from Tolstoy: “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

In our Spring 1998 issue, The Paris Review asked thirteen British writers to answer questions about the state of the nation’s literature. Bayley was one of them—here, to remember him, are the two questions he answered.Read More »

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A Brief History of the GIF, and Other News

September 30, 2014 | by

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Image via Giphy

  • The origins of genius, which is a relatively new concept: “The term genius in its modern sense was first adopted in the eighteenth century and it involved a conflation of two Latin terms: genius, which for the Romans was the god of our conception, imbuing us with particular personality traits but nevertheless a supernatural force external to us, and ingenium, a related noun referring to our internal dispositions and talents, our inborn nature … Why did the moderns need a term like this, in which natural characteristics are fused with supernatural associations?”
  • What is remarkable about Ibsen’s work is that it seems both to reflect the specific, Scandinavian bourgeois milieu that formed the author and to have a universal appeal that allows endless reinterpretation … the issues that Ibsen deals with, of class, of status, of who may speak and who may not, ‘are timeless, especially as we are now moving back to the conditions of the nineteenth century, with a very, very small, wealthy and powerful elite.’”
  • An analysis of the GIF, the Internet’s most divisive image-file format: “Created in 1987 by the digital communications company CompuServe, the GIF was originally designed for speedy transfer across pre–World Wide Web Internet networks … GIFs are chiefly agents of pleasure within a sensibility that predominates online, but one that has yet to be invoked in analyses of the format: that of camp. The web-born incarnation of this attitude goes well beyond historical definitions of camp as (variously) over-the-top sprezzatura, effete affectation, stereotypical homosexual display and its hammy adoption by straight society. In fact, it has a potentially international and transcultural reach as a genderless way of engaging with the modern world.”
  • A British teen novel unwittingly illustrates the wide gulf between senses of humor in America and the UK: “I had to put a glossary of words [my editor] didn’t understand in the back for the American editions. Words like ‘prat’ (someone who plays air guitar at concerts or puts two legs down one knicker leg) etc. Common-or-garden comedy words … But you know how cheerful [Americans] can be. Always wanting you to have a nice day. Perking you up by going up at the end of sentences in case you had nodded off. Bounding over to serve you in restaurants.”
  • Remembering the loudest sound on Earth: the eruption of a volcano in Krakatoa on August 27, 1883. “The ear-drums of over half my crew have been shattered,” the captain of a nearby ship wrote in his log. “My last thoughts are with my dear wife. I am convinced that the Day of Judgement has come.”

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The Best Medicine

July 25, 2014 | by

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Gerard van Honthorst, The Merry Fiddler, 1623

“He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.” —Catch-22

Can a reader and a character be simultaneously amused? I’m sure plenty of really smart people have written about this—and maybe even answered it authoritatively—but I can’t find any such answer myself. I suppose the question also holds true for movies and TV—although arguably the blooper reel changes the entire conversation—but I’m chiefly interested in the question as it pertains to writing. I really want to know!

So far as I can tell, accounts of people being amused are never amusing. (In my opinion, this also holds true for most stories involving drug-induced antics—a scourge of modern storytelling—but I’m willing to admit this might be one of my “things.”) When a character “laughs,” “jokes,” “kids around,” “cracks up,” et cetera, it is not funny, even in an otherwise funny piece of writing. (Although, I think you’ll find in the funniest, characters don’t go around guffawing much.)

I’m not saying a character can’t laugh within something funny, but, rather, that their amusement is wholly divorced from the reader’s. It’s not just that human beings are sadists who, famously, enjoy watching the misfortunes of others; we all like to see beloved protagonists find love, get redeemed, generally achieve happy endings. Emotion is communicable. Laughter, maybe, isn’t. Or at any rate, the necessary distance imposed by narration makes the communication tricky.

Nothing is deadlier than writing about the workings of humor, so I’ll keep this short. If you can think of an exception to this, won’t you let me know? Am I just reading the wrong books? Has some author cracked this code? Or is this, maybe, just one of my “things?” Inquiring minds want to know.

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The Vestigial Clown

June 23, 2014 | by

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Detail from Hans Breinlinger’s The Clown, 1948.

Yesterday, a friend and I entered into a great debate. It started with my question:

“Does the clown exist who could make you laugh?”

He said yes; he thought that clown who does the act with snow off Union Square would make him laugh. (The show is lauded for its masterful clown-craft and its evocation of childlike wonder.)

“Okay,” I said, “has a clown ever made you laugh?”

“Of course not,” he said.

Does anyone expect to be amused by clowns in this day and age? We all know that clowns are creepy, clowns are scary, clowns are lame—but that understanding has always been predicated on the understanding that, like dolls, clowns are supposed to be happy, fun, innocent. Thus, when a clown goes psychotic, it is doubly terrifying. Or it was thirty years ago, at least. Now, in a world of John Wayne Gacy and It and Insane Clown Posse and Diddy’s coulrophobia-driven “no clowns” rider, we expect clowns to be sinister.

Take this recent survey of kids in children’s hospitals, a historical clown stronghold:

More than 250 children aged between four and sixteen were asked for their opinions—and every single one said they disliked clowns as part of hospital decor.

Even some of the older children said they found clowns scary, Nursing Standard magazine reported.

The youngsters were questioned by the University of Sheffield for the Space to Care study aimed at improving hospital design for children.

“As adults we make assumptions about what works for children,” said Penny Curtis, a senior lecturer in research at the university.

“We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them frightening and unknowable.” 

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Always on Display: An Interview with Joshua Ferris

May 19, 2014 | by

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Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/Hachette Brown Group

“The mouth is a weird place,” says the dentist-narrator of Joshua Ferris’s new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. “Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate—where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul may just fail to turn up.”

It’s not just dentists who peer into dark spaces. Fear that the soul may fail to turn up is everywhere in Ferris’s work. To date, he has explored the human search for soulfulness in the anonymizing ecosystem of an office (Then We Came to the End); in the repercussions of an isolating, untreatable disease (The Unnamed); and repeatedly in words themselves. A short story like “The Fragments,” published in The New Yorker last spring, is constructed from snippets of half-caught conversations. It takes as its subject the not-quite-bridgeable gap between overhearing and understanding, between the sound of a sentence and the meaning inside. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour turns this artistic interest in misunderstandings into an impressive investigation of faith and doubt. It’s a novel full of existential humor, and the laughs start before the book has even begun. Not many American writers, searching the Bible for an appropriate epigraph, would have found their eyes alighting on this one:

Ha, ha

—Job 39:25.

I met Ferris on a Friday afternoon in Brooklyn. We talked about his desire to shift his writing away from what he calls “the over-manufacture of the imagined” to a more “face value” approach. We also discussed the ways in which he envies the sense of belonging religion can offer, and why literary critics could afford to lighten up when it comes to funny fiction. “We don’t exist in the world solely to grow goatees and stroke them,” he told me. “We’re here also to make one another laugh.”

I heard that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour started its life as a detective novel called The Third Bishop. How did you find your way from that original idea into a novel about baseball and religion, narrated by a dentist?

Ten years ago, I was despairing of writing any book at all. I had about 250 pages of the novel that eventually became Then We Came to the End, and those pages were wanting. So I put them away and eventually gave myself over to a very different manuscript. It was about a kid who had been thoroughly indoctrinated into a cult and was convinced that his strange view was the worldview. I was interested in the borderland that exists between a cult and a religion, and especially fascinated by Joseph Smith and the evolution of Mormonism.

After Then We Came to the End and The Unnamed were published, I ended up coming back to that story of an indoctrinated kid. Slowly it evolved into the story of a private detective investigating a possibly ancient religion. In a way, the books you almost wrote on the way to finding the final novel will always be more interesting than the published version. They’re a more colorful record of the writer’s life. But with the help of my two editors I came to see that the private detective, who’s inherently a kind of mediating narrator, or a cipher, wasn’t working for me either. I needed a narrator right at the center of the novel, encountering the religion for himself. He eventually became a dentist because I need my characters to have jobs in order to feel real to me. People have to work. I thought, Why not make him a dentist? It doesn’t get any more real world than that. You’re getting in there every day and making shit bleed.Read More »

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