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Laughing Through Life: Humor in Autobiographical Writing

 

By Tim Jackson

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” — E.B. White

Jim Wayne Miller, in a 1993 address to the Fourth Festival of Appalachian Humor at Berea College in Kentucky said, “Humor and analysis go at things in altogether different ways. Humor puts things together—in surprising and unexpected ways. Analysis takes things apart—through rather routine procedures. And this difference is the heart of the problem.”

So let me, first off, provide my wholly unscientific theory of being funny: Some people are funny. Some people are not. Pretty simple, really.

In How To Write Funny, Joe R. Lansdale writes, “I’m sure there are people out there who say humor can be taught. I guess you can learn it in the lowest common denominator sense. If a man goes to a Lions Club dinner and he’s supposed to give a speech, and he gets four jokes that he heard and puts them in the speech, you could say OK, he’s using humor. He’s learned to use humor in his particular speech, but it doesn’t mean he’s funny.”

In The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus, the first chapter is called “Comedy Is Truth and Pain.” Vorhaus writes, “When a clown catches a pie in the face, it’s truth and pain. You feel for the poor clown all covered with custard, and you also realize that it could have been you, sort of there but for the grace of pie go I.

Which brings me to one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris. I have read particular chapters by Sedaris that I didn’t find particularly funny. He certainly takes the “Comedy Is Truth and Pain” theory and runs with it. But what Vorhaus needs to explain is that truth and pain by themselves don’t always equal comedy (several examples come to mind here). Sedaris makes it funny, probably because, as anyone who has heard him perform live or on NPR can attest, he is a naturally funny guy. It is his self-deprecating look at truth and pain that helps to make Sedaris a good humor writer.

Tied closely to the idea of self-deprecating humor is building comic characters using their flaws. In autobiographical writing, one can certainly write about the flaws of others, but it is also important to know how to extract comedy from your own flaws. In a review of one of Sedaris’ books, Philip Gerard said accurately that Sedaris is “insufferably fussy, wickedly charming, gleefully snobbish, extravagantly witty, irreverent, obsessive, completely inept, a compulsive underachiever, a manic who’s not depressed, whose imagination is stuck on permanent overdrive, and whose behavior is almost always, in any circumstance, over the top.” Wow. Now there’s a list of flaws to work with, and I think Sedaris is fully aware of those flaws and uses them to the maximum comic effect.

Other tools and formulas exist for humor, whether they are presented to illustrate a classic conflict or as a simple tool for laughs. One is exaggeration. Dave Barry masterfully uses exaggeration in his writing to invoke laughs. In Dave Barry’s Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need, Barry writes, “Often there will be local fairs and festivals where the kids can ride on the Whirl-’n’-Puke while Mom and Dad enjoy tasty local cuisine such as French fried potatoes, fried chicken, fried onion rings, fried dough, and fried frying oil fried with fried sugar.” Obviously there is no dish of fried frying oil fried with fried sugar. It’s a purposeful exaggeration meant to have a comic effect. Yet watch how David Foster Wallace treats the same subject matter of fair food using a different kind of exaggeration. In “Ticket to the Fair” Wallace writes, “Another artery-clogger: elephant ears, an album-sized expanse of oil-fried dough slathered with butter and cinnamon-sugar—cinnamon toast from hell.” Here, it isn’t Wallace who is exaggerating (much), it’s the food itself that is the exaggeration. Even though elephant ears are real fair food, Wallace takes something that people generally know—cinnamon toast—and shows how elephant ears are a wild exaggeration of that. Wallace uses that same method in talking about the options for pork at the fair. Again, real options, but compared to normal daily options, these seem exaggerated and, and therefore humorous. Wallace writes, “There are uncountable pork options—Paulie’s Pork Out, The Pork Patio, Freshfried Pork Skins, The Pork Avenue Café.”

An interesting metaphor or simile also can be an effective element of humor. All writing instructors warn their students to stay away from the cliché, but in humor writing an original metaphor is imperative.

Another good source of humor is the anecdote. We all have our embarrassing moments. Most of us don’t like to necessarily relive them. But a humor writer can make a career out of exposing the embarrassing moments he or she lives through.

We laugh at things we don’t expect. The humor in slapstick comedy is derived from the unexpected. Shocking revelations, taboo subjects and political incorrectness can, if crafted well, be quite funny because they are unexpected.

In talking about Mark Twain, Charles Neider wrote: “He is no mere funny man, a professional comic. Rather, he has an innate perspective that sees with remarkable clarity, precision, depth and empathy that life, and not the least his own, is comical and barely rational at its very core.

“His humor lasts because its basis is a large humanity, a representation of man’s foibles, and because it rarely descends to cheap-shot single jokes, gags and one-liners. It also survives because its language is vernacular, idiomatic and rich in slang. … Great humor, when blended with wonderful language, wisdom and humaneness, is an irresistible and priceless treasure.”


“Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.”
— Mark Twain

The world around us is often a frightening place. We can read a newspaper or watch the news on TV and be overwhelmed with morbid information. We need a laugh now and then. Humor really does tend to save us when things simply aren’t going our way. Laughter is good for our health; good for our soul.

In How To Write Funny, Esther M. Friesner writes, “Your story need not be one long laugh-fest. Humor is dead serious stuff. In fact, humor gains depth when it’s about something more than just making the reader laugh. Food for thought—serious thought—goes down a lot more readily if it’s coated with a little laughter. Humor observes, analyzes and comments on the human condition, which can sometimes be a pretty scary thing to face head-on. Humor helps us cope with some of life’s harsher realities through laughter.”

In The Comic Toolbox, Vorhaus discusses the “Will to Risk” as an important tool in humor writing. I think writing humor, because of its subjectivity, is always a risk. Erma Bombeck is quoted in How To Write Funny as saying “Anybody can bring out your tears. That’s a piece of cake. It is twenty times—no make that fifty times easier to make people cry rather than laugh.” Gail Galloway Adams paraphrased that quote a few pages later and added, “With humor, it’s easier to bomb.”


 

Tim Jackson is a freelance writer and editor, the Assistant Director for Student Media at Radford University, and a master’s student in creative nonfiction at Goucher College. He is currently writing a collection of autobiographical essays that he hopes has some humorous appeal despite the fact that the subject is his divorce after a 10-year marriage.

 

photo by Dinty W. Moore