A conversation on humor in fiction with Elisa Albert, Steve Almond, Brock Clarke, Sam Lipsyte, John McNally, and Deb Olin Unferth
The conversation that follows took place over e-mail in the fall of 2011 and grew out of a belief among Gulf Coast’s editors that, while humor occupies a prominent place in American culture, we still don’t entirely understand the function of that humor. What exactly is happening when a writer, television host, or stand-up comic invites us to laugh at something? What kind of work is being done, and how is it being done? We considered asking some cognitive psychologists to explain it for us, but they would have used big words we didn’t understand, like “cognitive psychology.” In the end, we decided to stick to what we know and gathered together some of the funniest fiction writers working today to get their take. In addition to having interesting and enlightening things to say on the means and ends of humor in fiction, they also found time to place the Three Stooges in their proper historical context.
Zachary Martin: Humor is such a living thing that it seems unwise, if not impossible, to try to pin it down. Maybe we can begin by taking its pulse. How comfortably do you think humor resides in the world of literary fiction today? Are there any new or surprising ways you see humor being employed in fictional narrative?
Sam Lipsyte: I’m not sure about a term like “literary fiction” (and I use it myself occasionally, as a shorthand, and I should stop), but what I really do notice is an extreme humorlessness out there. A lot of people who should know better have forgotten that serious writing (another bad category name?) is often quite funny. And I think that attitude is passed on to new readers.
Elisa Albert: Yeah, taking oneself too seriously is an express train to Humorlessland. And lots of literary fiction does tend to take itself really fucking seriously. Also? Trying too hard. Very unfunny. And cleverness. Not at all funny. But there I go trying to pin it down. It’s relatively easy to pin down what’s not funny. I’ll go out on a limb and say humor and power don’t go hand in hand; it’s usually the disempowered or the disenfranchised who will reliably bring the absurd and make it sparkle. […]
Brock Clarke: I do think readers, and writers, have a hard time talking about fiction that they find funny […] I don’t know who or what is to blame, exactly, but I do think there’s a larger cultural tendency to confuse reverence with seriousness. And once you do that, anything that you think of as literary fiction can’t also be funny because it’s not serious. But then again, I just used the least funny phrase ever—“larger cultural tendency”—so what do I know?
SL: “Larger cultural tendency” is pretty funny, in fact, but only because you pointed it out and made it so. That’s craft.
John McNally: Years ago, I taught a course on the history of humor in American literature, and what I came to realize was that what someone finds funny is already programmed into his or her DNA. I couldn’t make any of my students find something funny that they didn’t already think was funny. There are a lot of things you can fine-tune in people, but humor doesn’t appear to be one of them.
Deb Olin Unferth: When was the great age of funny serious writing? I think of Kafka, Beckett, Stein, and many of the other modernists as being the funniest, most natural, most depressing of the humorists. But was there another great age?
EA: Every age has its great humorists. Rabelais. Swift. The Bible’s pretty hilarious, especially as illustrated by R. Crumb. Did anyone see the Werner Herzog cave painting film? I’d bet there are some satirical cave drawings. But humor’s hard to translate over time. Comedy can be so intensely specific, so fleeting, so rooted in the precise, idiosyncratic moment.
Steve Almond: The basic misunderstanding Brock mentions begins way back with Aristotle, the idea that the comic and tragic modes are somehow separate and opposed. That’s complete nonsense. The comic impulse arises directly from feelings that are inherently tragic: sorrow, shame, disappointment, moral outrage, and so on. Humor is how we contend with the bad data, always has been, from Aristophanes right up to Jon Stewart. […]
For me, the key distinction is whether the funny stuff is there to force us to face otherwise unbearable feelings, or whether it’s just an advertisement for the writer’s wit. My favorite writers, many of them crammed into this roundtable clown car, are funny not because they’re trying to be, but because they face the dark shit. They get to the truth quicker than I can, by more transgressive paths and with more forgiveness.
JM: I think Steve just conjured the saddest image imaginable: a clown car crammed full of writers. As to his larger point, I think Flannery O’Connor is the perfect example of someone who was funny because of her worldview, not because she was trying to be funny, but because she was always facing darkness head-on in her work. And yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taught O’Connor only to hear from students, “She’s so depressing.” Or they’ll look at me like a crazy person when I begin talking about the humor in her work. The idea that something can be both tragic and comic is simply beyond some people. What’s the Mel Brooks quote? “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
EA: We need humor to save us from realities too painful to otherwise handle. So if a given book isn’t going to do the truly difficult work of finding a way to make light of its own dark matter, we should, I think, find a way to do that work for the book. Like an exercise, a game. Do a shot every time the character’s father rapes her. Take a hit every time the protagonist almost gets eaten by cannibals. It’s just how we survive. If you’ve never been through anything really heinous, wrong, really just bad, you could be forgiven for thinking that the apocalypse or the funeral of a child is a fully somber affair. The crazy truth is that nothing we go through in life, not even the worst shit imaginable, is only one shade of any emotion.
ZM: I often show my undergraduate students Comedian, a documentary about the year or so Jerry Seinfeld spent putting together a new act. It’s always a revelation to them that it takes that much time and dedication to craft anything, but especially humor. There are always a few students willing to admit that they thought comedians just made things up, off the cuff, night after night. Do you feel like that misunderstanding extends to more literary forms of humor as well and to your work in particular?
DOU: It’s easy for the novice to look at someone’s work and have no conception of the time that went into it, or to look at it without seeing the elegance and the contribution to the form. But I suppose, yeah, writing that’s funny is often lauded for being funny and only for being funny, as if that was all the author intended. I recall when Sam’s The Ask came out, and review after review talked about how hilarious it was. While the reviews were raves, I wished they could stop talking for one second about how funny it was and pay attention to how devastatingly vulnerable it was.
BC: When talking to students, I always wheel out a line from Donald Barthelme. I ask them, “What must wacky modes do?” The answer: “Break our hearts.” Writers themselves have a hard time striking that balance, so it’s not surprising that reviewers and readers have a hard time recognizing how important the balance is, or even know how to talk about it when they do see it. But still, it’s annoying.
It’s also annoying when fiction writers with comic tendencies, whether profane or gentle, get called “humorists.” I remember Will Rogers being described as “the humorist Will Rogers.” And when I finally got around to listening to humorist Will Rogers, I thought, “So, that’s what a humorist is.” And I also thought, “God, please do not let me grow up to be a humorist.”
SA: Critics tend to regard any trace of mirth as evidence of an essential frivolity. But critics don’t have a lot of sex, so you have to forgive them for getting confused.
SL: The whole category of “humorist,” well, it’s not even a ghetto; it’s just a desolate crater. I’ve always loved that Barthelme bit Brock mentioned. It reminds me of a Harry Crews line […] where he said something about only being interested in the “crushing of human hearts.” His novels are some of the funniest and wildest, but also tuned in to the sadness of it all. It’s all about knowing that the funny and the tragic are the same thing.
There’s that part of Beckett’s Watt about the three kinds of laughter: the bitter, the hollow, and the mirthless. The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good—it’s the ethical laugh. Hollow is the intellectual laugh—it laughs at that which is not true. But it’s the mirthless laugh that is the pure laugh. It laughs at that which is unhappy. It recognizes the terror that humans endure, but it’s also a laughter streaked with some cruelty, even some self-congratulation. […]
But this doesn’t address the question about popular perception. People don’t know how much work anything of value takes, but it’s especially true with writing. And especially with writing that might be funny […] Since we all use language, we all talk, some people have the sense they could take the weekend off and write something amazing and hilarious and meaningful. Many of them probably could for a few pages. But what the real work is about is learning how to sustain it and shape it and weave it all together over and over again with the same consistently excellent results. And also never giving the sense that you’ve worked at it, that it’s been an effort. One must toil mightily for that effect.