When the news is endlessly violent and depressing it becomes hard to be amused by anything. But even when we need to cry, we must also find ways to laugh. And that’s why I remain on constant lookout for examples of outstanding humor writing. I’m a sucker for buying books simply because some reviewer has labeled them “hilarious” or “riotous” or “hysterical.” Of course, one person’s quip is another’s insult, and my bookshelves are littered with titles where I missed the joke. Still, I remain in awe of those writers who consistently make me laugh, but I’m also amazed by the skill of these writers at delivering a full range of emotion in their storytelling.
Richard Russo comes immediately to mind. His latest novel, Everybody’s Fool (https://www.amazon.com/Everybodys-Fool-novel-Richard-Russo/dp/0307270645/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1465673500&sr=1-1&keywords=richard+russo+everybody%27s+fool), a sequel—after a two-decade span—to Nobody’s Fool, is filled with madcap actions and events that at times border on slapstick, yet remain perfectly consistent with the characters and story and contribute to themes of loyalty and personal connection. Russo’s Straight Man (https://www.amazon.com/Straight-Man-Novel-Richard-Russo/dp/0375701907/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1465673541&sr=1-1&keywords=richard+russo+straight+man), another wild romp, this time in academia, remains one of the funniest, and yet, thoughtful books I’ve read.
Clint McCown (http://www.amazon.com/Clint-McCown/e/B001K8LX8Y/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1465673442&sr=1-2-ent) is another wonderful writer whose work is both funny and tender—and wildly entertaining. Luckily for me, Clint was one of my instructors during MFA studies at Vermont College of Fine Arts (http://vcfa.edu/writing). Unfortunately, while his tutelage dramatically improved my writing, I absorbed little of his skill at humor. I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that—like talent—you can’t teach funny. That’s not to say hard work can’t bear fruit: in his recent memoir, Still Foolin’‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? (https://www.amazon.com/Still-Foolin-Em-Where-Going/dp/1250051843/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1465673259&sr=1-1&keywords=billy+crystal), Billy Crystal relates how it took him two-years of standup performances to hone one tight and hilarious twenty-minute routine.
Some people, of course, are just naturally funny and I don’t know how they do it—my brother for instance. The guy makes people laugh, especially in conversation; he has an easy talent for finding absurdity in the prosaic and the nimbleness to express it. He was always funny, my brother (well not always: not during the buildup to his bleeding ulcer, not when he got kicked out of boarding school, and certainly not when he’d stick a finger in my face after a night of hippie debauchery and say, “Smell this”). But any time I tried to imitate his style, well…
So I’ve got to work at it, which is why I’m a sucker for any panel during the Association for Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference that purports to offer insight into the craft and skill of humor. And that’s what brought me to Harrison Scott Key. He was listed as a panelist on a presentation about using humor when writing about difficult subjects, along with Ariel Felton, Lauren Wolf, and Cal Morgan (former Harper Perennial editor). After Ariel discussed using humor when writing about race, and Lauren talked about using humor to come to terms with her bi-polar diagnosis, Harrison read an excerpt from his memoir, The World’s Largest Man, (https://www.amazon.com/Worlds-Largest-Man-Memoir/dp/0062351508/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1465673615&sr=1-1&keywords=harrison+scott+key), covering his father’s sometimes vicious use of a belt for parental punishment. The incidents were certainly horrific, and the main focus was his father’s final use of the belt, a particularly dramatic incident, but the writing was out an out hysterical. I couldn’t believe how expertly he managed to reveal humor within events that most of us would find hard to accept…so I ordered the book.
Simply put, this is one of the funniest memoirs I’ve ever read, one nonetheless filled with warm reverence and affection for his subject matter, primarily his father, growing up in the deep-south (Mississippi), marriage, and raising a family (the belt beating chapter being a departure from most of his recollections, although still amazingly funny). Somehow, Harrison Scott Key’s sensitive intelligence and quick wit manages to bring a joke or hysterical observation to damn near every paragraph in the book! His humor is relentless and I found myself laughing so furiously that my wife wondered if something was wrong with me—other than what she’d already documented. Here are a couple samples:
“The first fistfight I ever saw took place at a football game between Ole Miss and Arkansas, a contest of two esteemed institutions that serve as Arcadian oases for the citizens of their respective states, where the Best That Has Been Thought and Said is both thought and said and occasionally screamed by a drunken man who is not afraid to urinate into an Igloo cooler.”
“When I grew up, I didn’t so much renounce firearms as leave behind the life that required them. In graduate school, I found myself in all sorts of places where guns had no quarter: research libraries, cast parties, pagan meditation labyrinths, underground contemplation orbs. I felt it was wrong to bring a gun to an open-mic poetry night, even when people were reading Pablo Neruda.”
In this memoir’s 331 pages, my guess is the joke-count numbers in the thousands! But as I said, it is also respectful of heritage and place, and a celebration of the challenge of becoming an adult. Near the end of the book, where Key contemplates the realization that his father had, contrary to a lifetime of stubborn behavior, actually softened and learned something, he summarizes what for me was the point of the entire work: “What a gift, to learn, and change.”
It is also a gift to bring humor to serious writing. I’m still learning and reading and listening, and maybe one of these days I’ll figure it out, but in the meantime it’s a pleasure to have Richard Russo, Clint McCown, and Harrison Scott Key as teachers.