Category Archives: Humor

Mr. Non Sequitur

nonsequiturMy father called my sister’s old boyfriend Charlie, Henry, and Scotty before he relearned his real name again. The boy’s name was Joey. Corrected, Dad used the right name for the next hour or so, then reverted to other names ending in “y.”

Some years later he told my sister, “I never cared for Joey,” and when my sister asked how he could recall Joey’s name after 15 years and not for more than an hour at the time, Dad answered, “Oh, I knew it. I just didn’t like him much.”

My father possessed a sneaky sense of humor. He could be silent a whole evening and then tell a joke that involved putting a napkin on his head. He could render statements meaningless by substituting whistling sounds for words he wished to hint—apparently most of them. He could hit you, as with a roundhouse punch, by giving the least likely answer to bland questions.

From him, I learned to consider the wrong response to every innocent query—a bad habit. When my children asked me what the stuffing was in one of their balls, I answered, “Human hair.” When they asked what I was eating so loudly, I covered my mouth and paused only long enough to mumble, “Pig molars.” Once, when they were curious about what might be making the odd noise outside, I said, with appropriate authority, “I believe that must be lovemaking weasels.”

These remarks aren’t funny—more troubling, really—and I hope I haven’t passed my father’s way of thinking on to my own children. A person with this ailment can look quite ordinary and yet live estranged. Aside from my incessant doodling, I’m sure I seem quite serious in faculty meetings, yet every question elicits dissonance first. “Torture,” “Borscht” and “Custom Toupees,” are answers that occur to me often. When it comes time to propose names, I’m always on the edge of nominating “Larry Storch, former star of F-Troop.”

Then, “Any other comments?” and the first thought passing through my mind is, “There’s a very loud amusement park across from my present dwelling.”

And I bite my tongue.

My daughter, who went to the school where I teach, used to say—sweetly—that I could never embarrass her, and I began to fantasize about announcements during assembly. In one I’d stand on stage with a plastic bag in my hand and say, “I’m looking for a partner to start a synchronized diving team.” Then I’d hold up the bag, “I already have the speedos!”

Perhaps it’s a terrible sign my daughter egged me on to enact every potentially embarrassing announcement I conceived.

When the situation calls for it, I maintain appropriate gravitas, and that other voice quiets down. I’m nothing if not serious—if you read this blog regularly, you know this—so I don’t compare an especially intractable problem to “wrestling a hippo in custard” or consider goat noises as the best way to quiet a class. Those thoughts only lurk. Still, knowing what not to say or do seems as easy as considering the proper course. Both often seem equally absurd.

Walter Mitty had his internal screenplays of grandeur, and I have my amusement park calliope music. With concentration, I reach past the wrong response to the right one. Yet sometimes I worry I see my future, the fury of not-at-all-funny (except to me) lunacy awaiting. You’ll find me on the street, shouting lines from Die Hard into a dead cellphone or miming the dance of a storm-soaked butterfly. Or clogging.

My father died 20 years ago, so I can’t ask him what to do. That may be all for the best, as I’m unsure he’d give a straight answer anyway.

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Filed under Doubt, Epiphany, Essays, Humor, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Play, Rationalizations, Recollection, Revision, Teaching, Thoughts, Voice, Words, Work, Worry, Writing

Everything, Everything, Everything is Crap

urca42ckfu0qgllaty5jSometimes, in conversation, you criticize someone or something, and another after another complaint comes out. Soon indignation climbs on indignation until you’re riled. The world fills with unjust and intolerable and dumb circumstances. People around you are insensitive and/or ignorant. You’re incensed, as you should be.

A sympathetic listener nods and sighs, perhaps clapping a hand over yours, whispering, “Yes, the world is misguided… all but us.”

And sometimes you hear your laments as they’re heard by others. Your listener’s eyes lose focus or shift to a screen, window, or plant nearby. In that context, sighs have a different meaning. Air goes dry. The keening noise, that shaking-fists-at-the-sky, ready-to-leap voice, is yours. You’re as wrong as anyone.

I have opinions. When I evaluate poor decisions, miscues, and the culprits behind the blunders around me, I believe I’m right. I see the blunders and the blunderers, which some people—those people—don’t.

Then, in an instant, I hate listening to myself. Judgment is a terrible default, yet anything anyone tells me or anything I read or anything I experience instantly becomes good or bad, right or wrong, sensible or silly, feeling or unfeeling, interesting or dull.

I’d be happier with curiosity or sympathy or a profound desire to investigate and learn.

But perhaps I shouldn’t assess myself so harshly. American society is judgmental. One party and candidate sneers at the other. One product puts another in the shade. Arguments make good TV punditry, and all those people stranded on islands or traveling and the dancers and singers and generally talented people, they need eliminating. Cooks need eliminating. Disdain permeates media and politics. We enjoy laughing and love a snappy put-down or gotcha.

Even a president explaining the Affordable Care Act does so in mocking-cable format on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis on Funny or Die. The President must follow the script—“C’mon everyone knows it’s a script, Obama is so wooden!” the critics cry—as he continually insults the cluelessly obtuse, hapless comedian. At last, he reaches his plug, his plug being openly dismissed as “a plug.” The comedian interrupts the President to point out how dull his message is. “This is what they must mean by a drone, ” Galifianakis opines.

My history classes listened to Franklin Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat praising the American people for their understanding of the Emergency Bank Holiday, lauding the two political parties for their patriotic cooperation, and applauding the financial sector for self-sacrifice as we (plural) met the unexpected crisis.

The contrast woke me up. Of course, I could and maybe should be skeptical, critical even. FDR isn’t be telling the whole truth—history records his many detractors and the friction his reforms met—but speaking praise without fear of censure seems, in our age, surprising. He too needed to plug, to justify government action, but he explained with poise and calm. No one was hurt or threatened in the making of his broadcast. Many felt reassured.

My students seem better prepared for the mixed humor and earnestness of Between Two Ferns, and, even now, I hear them judging me, saying I’m clueless They’d say Americans are honest now. FDR’s Fireside Chat—really just as calculated as Obama’s appearance—exploited Americans too, only less openly. We can’t be so easily exploited now.

Maybe, but the extremity and judgment that permeate humor and earnestness exemplify our strident age. Nothing is solely what it is—it’s itself and what it’s worth.

Dear Reader, you may find me strident now. I’m ready to accept my part of the problem. I’m as cynical as the next American and won’t make any ridiculous, cringe-worthy (and judgment-worthy) resolutions to change. I won’t spout bombastic, self-righteous calls for others to change.

Instead, I’ll just say I hear myself now. Some matters deserve censure, others not.

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Filed under America, Anger, Between Two Ferns, Doubt, Epiphany, Essays, Humor, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Politics, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

Writing Funny

David-Sedaris_lYou may have to take my word for it, but in real life I have a sense of humor. Not one as reliable or uproarious as I’d like, but I ocassionally make others laugh, or, failing that, I laugh at stories, absurdities, clever turns of phrase. Laughter is a survival skill I appreciate, but I doubt any reader of this blog comes here for yucks.

Writing to be funny is a challenge I shirk. Oh, I try occasionally (I’ve tried more than once) and hope someone might laugh or smile at some point in nearly everything I write. But, with laughter, it’s so much easier when you sense live results. In the absence of a reaction, you fall into can’t-miss anecdotes or resort to formulae to entrap readers. Funny episodes, images, verbal combinations, and crazy lists occur to me, but, as I write them, my sails slacken. It all sounds artificial, contrived. Once I strain for a laugh, I lose will. I can’t tell you how many half-written, not-so-funny pieces I’ve spared you.

You’re welcome.

I’ve gone to see David Sedaris read a couple of times, and I’m continually amazed at the consistency of his work. He seems to have a nearly infallible sense of the comedic. Having the name “humorist,” Sedaris leads loyal readers to expect snorting, chuckling, guffawing even. While that expectation could be the worst sort of imprisonment for me, he ranges over all sorts of subjects, ambushing readers and listeners though they suspect what’s coming.

To be truly funny, I think, is to do more than surprise. In fact, writing humorously often means surpassing rather than violating expectations. The comedian Bob Hope, now long gone, kept a small and shifting stable of joke writers, and no one’s job was ever secure. They met together to pitch their best stuff, and when you came to this meeting with Mr. Hope, he only accepted jokes that made the other writers laugh… which meant those jokes made people laugh even when laughing at someone else might mean an end to your own employment.

In contrast, when I listen to comedians now or watch a comedy, I’m sometimes confused. Am I laughing because it’s genuinely funny or because the subject matter is shockingly out of bounds? Is what I’m hearing and seeing really funny or something so bizarre only laughter answers it? The two aren’t at all the same thing. As Hope’s mad method suggests, something is really funny only when you laugh despite yourself. Does laughing out of discomfort or embarrassment even count?

Funny is a cruel taskmaster. Sedaris’ early work contained odd turns into illuminating or even instructive territory, but I don’t see nearly so many of those interludes now. I wonder if sincerity seems glib or cliché to him, whether he worries any surprise of that sort would be the wrong sort. When he tries to be poignant, he could seem ironic or, worse, simply false. Perhaps it’s sour grapes, but I’m not sure I’d want t0 be Sedaris. I like the freedom to write what occurs to me, whether it’s happy, sad, funny, or just plain strange. Establish yourself as a comedian and suddenly the disassociative associative style that once seemed fresh can come across as meandering, lazy, being you, doing what you do.

Perhaps that explains why the half-lives of comic actors are shorter than dramatic actors. They play themselves out—we seem to want them to—or they turn, often unsuccessfully, to serious or mixed roles. If they can be more than the usual clown, they continue. The hardest task is to be taken seriously, to make us cry or make us care and make us laugh. Failing that, they’re gone.

All writing is magical, but funny writing particularly so. A writer can dazzle readers, as Sedaris has, with the escalating quirkiness and unpredictability of his actions and observations, but continuing success requires even more. It requires reinventing the way you write to attain the poignancy of Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut, producing effects that transcend pure humor or joke-telling.

Every writer is finite—housed by his or her idiosyncratic perspective and approach—but what do you do when you’ve overmined your life and find yourself sitting on a block of swiss cheese? All writers must worry what they will do when they run out of material, but funny ones have it hardest.

Maybe this blog post is all just an elaborate excuse—Dear Reader, I do wish I could make you laugh more, I really do—but I’m happier not raising your expectations. I’d rather be myself (whether that means being funny or not) and pray you hear something more genuine in my voice than wanting a laugh.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Blogging, David Sedaris, Desire, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Humor, Identity, Laments, Mark Twain, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Tributes, Voice, Worry, Writing