Posts Tagged ‘humor’
July 25, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
“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.
June 23, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
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.”
May 19, 2014 | by Jonathan Lee
“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:
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 »
March 3, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Who can talk about the Oscars when Alain Resnais has died, at ninety-one? YouTube offers a number of interviews with him; many consist of baffled Frenchmen attempting to divine the meaning of Last Year in Marienbad.
- Scientists have looked into being funny: the whys, the hows, the what-have-yous. “It could be that office-cooler witticisms, stand-up routines, and sitcoms are just part of one big pickup line you never saw coming.” Surely many of us have seen it coming.
- Bill Watterson, the Calvin and Hobbes creator, has drawn his first public cartoon in nearly twenty years. It contains buttocks.
- “Surely the fact that writers really don’t mean a goddamn thing to nine-tenths of the population doesn’t hurt. It’s inebriating.” An expansive new interview with Philip Roth.
- Take out your credit card and clear your schedule: you’re about to buy an erotic computer game based on Oscar Wilde’s Salomé.
February 17, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Not long ago President Reagan, who should be remembered only for his jokes because his jokes I think are really very good, was asked how it was he could have managed eight years as president and still look so wonderful. Did you see this?
It was in the Times. He said, “Let me tell you the story about the old psychiatrist being admired by a young psychiatrist who asks, ‘How come you still look so fresh, so free of anxiety, so little worn by care, when you’ve spent your entire life sitting as I do every day, getting worn out listening to the miseries of your patients?’ To which the older psychiatrist replies, ‘It’s very simple, young man. I never listen.’ ” Such sublime, wonderful, and sincere self-revelation on the part of Reagan! In spite of all one’s horror at what he has done or failed to do as President, it takes one’s breath away with admiration.
—Harold Bloom, the Art of Criticism No. 1
* * *
I’ve often said that someone trying to write satirically in this country faces the problem of writing something sufficiently bizarre so that it might not come true while his article is on the presses. The Reagan Administration was difficult that way. Once, at a reception for big-city mayors in Washington, President Reagan was approached by his own Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and the president said, Hello, Mr. Mayor, how are things in your city? Now, what does that leave for me?
—Calvin Trillin, the Art of Humor No. 3
December 2, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
Can you remember one of the jokes you wrote hanging on a subway strap?
This was typical of the junk I turned out: Kid next to me in school was the son of a gambler—he’d never take his test marks back—he’d let ’em ride on the next test. Now you see why it wasn’t hard to do fifty a day during rush hour.
—Woody Allen, the Art of Humor No. 1