Familiarity Breeds Content

25 May

I just came across this talk I gave as part of a panel on humor and writing at Jersey City State College. The rest of the writers were mainly children’s book authors (Jon Scieszka had gotten me the gig). I believe it was sometime in the ’90s. In it I talk about the relationship of humor to my own writing, and I still stand by most of what I said back then.

   I’d like to begin by making a distinction between humor and what I’ll call “funny writing.”  Humor is writing that tries to be funny; funny writing is writing that happens to be funny.  Humor begs for laughter; funny writing will receive it graciously.  Humor’s primary function is to make us laugh, and the function of all truly good writing (or, at least, those writing’s called “creative”) is to give us aesthetic pleasures, laughter being one of the pleasantest of all.

   Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Julio Cortazar and even William Faulkner are quite often very funny writers, but nobody would call them humorists.  Bombeck, Buchwald and Barry, those three B’s, are humorists.  Mark Twain, James Thurber, and S.J. Perelman are all funny writers, not humorists; I’d venture to say that Perelman got much more pleasure from playing with language than from the laughter he received in return.  A funny writer is most interested in making writing, and if it makes you laugh, all the better, while a humorist is most interested in making you laugh, and if it happens to be good writing, all the better–unless it detracts from the laughs.  Because funny writing has no obligation to be funny, it’s more likely to be funny for good reason.  Because humor is compelled to be funny it often tries too hard, and fails, and is terribly embarrassing.

   But let me be done with my catalogue of writers, lest it seem that I’m trying too hard to make a point, and fail, and embarrass you all.  And I hope you’ll not find it too arrogant on my part if I now state, having already provided myself with a harem of flattering bedfellows, that I consider myself a funny writer.

   The funny writer is most interested in making writing.  A simple statement, and worth repeating.  Any good writer’s primary obligation (and perhaps I should add, to any good reader) is to make good writing, period.  Another simple statement.  Yet I know from experience that my contention that anything else (morals, politics, celebrations of the human spirit, or what have you) is mere icing on the cake will not go unchallenged.  In fact, I could swear I just heard a rumble in John Gardner’s grave.  Nonetheless, I said it, and I’ll stick by it, rain or shine.  But before I sink too deeply into the morass of general pronouncements, let me add, “Well, at least it’s true for me,” and save myself the bother of a nasty episode in the hallway after this is all over, or sooner.

   Well, at least it’s true for me.  I suppose you’d call me a formalist, which is another way of saying I have nothing to say, or at least nothing in particular.  I agree with Goldwyn–or was it Mayer?–if I want to send a message I’ll call Western Union.  John Cage said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”  I’m not interested in what to say, but how to say it.  And if sometimes I actually do say something, I’m surprised, and I’m happy–happy because I’ve said something and happy because I’m surprised.

   So, if I have nothing to say then where do I start?  With the obvious, with language, and language being the mode of saying things, things do get said after all.  But even so, language is not enough, just as splashing some paint on the void will not do.  Hanging a canvas on the void–well, that’s something else.  So give me vessels, structures, form.  Content will follow.

   And that’s where the title of my presentation comes in: “Familiarity Breeds Content, or This Side of Parodies.”  Among the many givens or starting points I use to get going with a piece of writing, a number could be grouped under the general heading of Parody.  Perhaps–though borrowed structure might be more precise.  Aeschylus and Euripides (there he goes again) did not invent Orestes and Electra, or their story, but rather, and more significantly, animated them.  You wouldn’t call those plays parodies, but then again, it’s all too Greek for me.

   Test questions, tired old tales, TV sitcoms, these all provide me with structures and, for better or worse, a built-in set of expectations.

   Familiarity breeds content.  You know what to expect.  Or do you?  Language and your expectations — well, I have at least two things to play with.

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