Humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. (How’s that for a banal lede? I’m going for something more or less guaranteed to put every reader to sleep, because I want you all asleep by the time I realize I haven’t figured this out at all.)
Anyway, in all the Lileksian blather of the past few days, there was one comment that drew me up short every time: He’s hilarious! He’s the only reason I even get that paper; how foolish they’d be to drop him. I consider myself a person with a rich sense of humor, and I simply can’t wrap my mind around that one. It took me back to the Lileks Daily Quirk archive; surely I was missing something. Here’s Tuesday’s offering, paragraph one:
I like Pepto-Bismol. There. I said it. When I have a gut full of battery acid and barbed-wire shards, I reach for the big pink bottle, and I glug it straight. You feel it descending on your stomach lining, like a curtain falling on a bad play. It never seems to cure anything, but it’s a comfort; I always have a bottle in reserve, and it’s Maximum Strength, too, baby. Sure, it’s overkill, but once they admitted the existence of Maximum Strength, Regular was off the table. I think Maximum was like their private reserve, something they bottled for popes and astronauts. Now we all have access, and I’m not going back.
I see what he’s going for here, but it’s not working for me. If the newspaper offered this as a morning day-brightener, something to put a spring in my step as I head out the door, well, sorry. It has the flop-sweaty smell of bad standup. That the paper supposedly compensated the man who wrote this to the tune of $92,000 a year — now that’s funny, but probably not in the way they intended.
But it’s unfair to judge a man by one column. Let’s try another, from the day before:
Today’s Helpful Hint: how to customize your tissue boxes. Why? you ask. For heaven’s sake, does everything have to be customized? Must we have wi-fi enabled toilet-paper spindles that download tunes so you can customize the sound when someone rolls off a dozen squares? Maybe next year. For now, consider this: There hasn’t been much innovation in the tissue world since Kleenex invented the interfolded pop-up tissue in 1928. Imagine the reaction the first time someone pulled up a tissue and another took its place. My stars! First radio, then Lindbergh, now this! An age of marvels! At some point they added lotion, for those who want their specs to look like they’ve been rubbed with Crisco. (Kleenex does not recommend using their tissues for eyeglasses cleaning, incidentally. File that under “Don’t put Q-tips in your ear canals.”)
Better than the Pepto-Bismol effort, but still — not laughing, nor even smiling. Kleenex boxes — what’s up with that?
This isn’t a pile-on for poor, soon-to-be-bought-out Lileks. The problem isn’t him; it’s newspapers. Newspapers can be very entertaining to read — I have laughed myself to tears reading them more often than I can count — but they’re very seldom funny on purpose.
An example: One day the morning paper in Fort Wayne ran a story about a dog that went on an incredible journey. He belonged to some extended family of mutants who lost him at a rest stop somewhere around Chicago. They were en route to Wisconsin, the whole clan traveling in an overloaded car with no brakes. They knew there were no brakes, but they all really wanted to go to Wisconsin, and didn’t think such details should hold them back. So they got on the road — U.S. 30, for God’s sake, with no brakes — and somehow coasted to a stop at this rest area, and everyone got out to pee, and the dog got loose. They looked all over for him, but couldn’t find him, so they headed off to Wisconsin in the brakeless car, had their visit, and came back. They stopped somewhere, and whaddaya know, there’s the dog, still hanging around after several days. So they took him home and called the newspaper. The story had great quotes from Linda Mae and Pop-pop and so on, and then there was the photo — the whole family of Cletuses gathered around the dog. One of my colleagues drew a little balloon coming out of its mouth: I thought I’d gotten away from these goobers. I thought this story was hysterical, although my retelling isn’t, but if you had been there, you’d have laughed, too. (The picture had a lot to do with it.)
That’s the kind of humor the newspaper does best. They shouldn’t monkey with success.
For a long time, they didn’t. The designated humor columns were utterly lame, some geezer spinning one-liners or puns. Many editors hate writers who try to be funny, especially if they’re sarcastic about it, because there’s always a contingent of readers who simply won’t get it, and can get really pissy, complaining about it. One of the Milwaukee papers was so freaked by its humor columnist that it ran a tagline at the bottom: A satirical column of personal opinion. This was funny, but again, not in the way the editors intended. In most newspapers, the only place to be legitimately funny was on the comics page, and you know how often we all crack up over “Beetle Bailey.”
One guy changed all this. Dave Barry, of course. I still remember the utter thrill of reading his early columns in the Miami Herald’s great, now-defunct Sunday magazine, Tropic. They were so daffy and original. It was such a treat to read something in the paper that made you laugh out loud from joy. He was syndicated almost immediately. Here’s an early story about how his column went over: He was writing about physical fitness, and had two paragraphs that ran something like this:
“Once upon a time, American presidents were giant waddling tubs of lard like BLANK and BLANK. (RESEARCH: PLEASE INSERT THE NAMES OF TWO FAT PRESIDENTS.)” Later on, he wrote, “An exercise routine without a plan is like a tractor without a BLANK. (RESEARCH: PLEASE INSERT AN IMPORTANT TRACTOR PART HERE.)” The blanks didn’t have anything to do with the column, unless he was making some joke about laziness, but were the sort of wild meta-tangent he liked to take. This was funny enough, but even more amusing was the Columbus Dispatch copy editor who inserted “William Howard Taft” and “Grover Cleveland” in the first two blanks and “motor” in the third, taking out the RESEARCH notes. The editor of the section met Barry at a conference shortly after this, told him about it, and said Barry nearly peed his pants laughing over it.
For many, many years, Barry set the bar for newspaper humor. The first profiles of him that ran, in the early ’80s, pointed out that while he was funny in person, he was also kind of an angry guy, too. This was no surprise; the roots of humor are in pain, as any Jewish comic could tell you. My favorite pieces by Barry remain a few that didn’t run in the usual places — one about his mother’s suicide, another about taking his little boy to the first day of kindergarten, and a rip-roarer long-form essay about South Florida weirdness. The first two were terribly sad but beautifully written, and the Florida essay had few jokes in it, but was hilarious simply for its statements of fact, like how strange it is when your kid comes home from school and reports a classmate brought a machine gun to Show and Tell. Barry understands that nothing is as funny as reality, that car full of goobers and their luckless dog; it’s no accident one of his catch phrases is “I am not making this up.”
(What’s your favorite Barry niche? Mine is Mr. Language Person. I love his rule of apostrophe usage — “to let the reader know an S is coming, e.g. ‘Try our hot dog’s.'”)
Even Barry has his bad days, though. There was a long time when I stopped laughing, and then he got a lot better, and then he took a year off, and then he more or less retired from journalism, and no, I don’t blame him. Comedy, as they say, is hard. And he only wrote once a week. Which brings us back to Lileks, who writes five or six times a week. No wonder he’s not funny. Groucho Marx couldn’t be funny on a schedule like that. He’s a fine writer, but the gruel doesn’t get much thinner than I Go Shopping for Sunglasses:
I found a store that sold clip-ons, and yea, there was much rejoicing. They were cheap and poorly polarized, which gave certain objects a peculiar pattern; when I looked in the rearview mirror, the polarized surface of the back window looked as though it was covered with a giant ultraviolet waffle. I didn’t care. Twenty bucks. But I lost them. Keep in mind that I do not lose things, aside from important financial documents needed around the middle of April. It’s possible I mailed the clip-ons to the IRS. They’ll probably send them back in 2009. Without interest.
So who’s funny now? For my money, Gene Weingarten in the WashPost, known to insiders as The Man Who Discovered Dave Barry, is the only competition. In fact, I think he’s far funnier, and here’s why: He can be mean, and he doesn’t mind showing it. One of my favorites was when he called up PR people and said he’d promote their clients in the Washington Post, in return for the revelation of an embarrassing personal secret. And they did it! “My husband left me for a younger woman,” said one, which was followed by a boilerplate recitation of the merits of some sofa pillow she was repping. Wondering how much more abuse the president can take, he suggested an upcoming weather report:
It’ll be warm tomorrow in Washington, high in the 60s, with clear skies except maybe over the White House, where, anytime now, with any sort of luck, we’re going to see the wrathful, purifying fire of a justly outraged God. Over to you, Christina, for a look at the traffic.
If you’re going to be funny, you have to be fearless. Newspapers have their backs against the wall, and live in fear of offending even a single subscriber. And so too much newspaper humor ventures a weak joke, and then adds an immediate apology: Of course I’m not seriously suggesting we draft the Bush twins, only that… Jon Carroll, for my money the best five-day-a-week columnist in this or any country, explains the roots of humor as well as anyone, and underlines the need to be fearless. He’s also fearless about making fun of himself, which is why he’s as good at being funny as he is at being serious, and he is devastating at both.
Here’s a funny experiment to try at home — Google “humor columnist.” Hit No. 1: Sheila Moss, freelancer, “a columnist for Smyrna AM, a supplement to the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal and Nashville Tennessean.” At the top of her menu, “A Night at the Opry,” which begins:
The other night I went to the Grand Ole Opry and took my grandson. I feel that children need to be exposed to performing arts in real life, not just on television. Of course, the first thing he did when found out the Opry was live on television was to call his dad and tell him to look for him in the audience. So much for the importance of reality to an eight-year-old.
Hit No. 2, Tom Purcell. Read him in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Washington Times, the Jewish World Review and hear him on the Rush Limbaugh show. Uh-oh. Most of his stuff online is pretty old; let’s enjoy an excerpt from a piece called “The Silver-Tongued Devil”:
As the president extricates himself from his latest tangle, I’m convinced of something I’ve suspected for a long time: Clinton is the devil.
My suspicions were bolstered a year ago when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd arrived at the same conclusion. But when I watched Clinton dance through his State of the Union Address, I became sure of it. Clinton is Satan, the prince of darkness, Beelzebub himself.
“Hey everybody!” Hairdresser Lady called out. “It’s The Happy Guy.”
“Don’t try buttering me up, Hairdresser Lady,” I warned. “It’s not going to work.”
“What’s not going to work?” she demanded.
“You can’t cover up your gross incompetence with a ‘Hey everybody’ cheer.”
“That’s right. Just look at my head. Go ahead, take a real close look.”
“Why, it’s a family of sparrows. What a lovely nest,” she grinned.
“No, over here.”
“My, my. If it isn’t a bald spot,” she giggled. “Should I give it a shine?”
Maybe you can see the problem. There’s just something about newspaper humor columnists that isn’t funny.
(I should pause at this late point and address the three of you who are still reading: I was not a humor columnist, but I tried to be funny lots of times, and failed pretty spectacularly, too. Once I wrote 650 words about Demi Moore’s boob job. It won an award for humor writing. I recently ran across it in some housecleaning, reread it and thought, Nope, not funny.)
I wish it were different, but this is another case of the internet ruining just everything. How can any humor columnist compete with The Onion? How can an editorial cartoonist, with one measly hand-drawn panel, compete with The Poor Man’s Keyboard Kommando Komix? An editorial writer may think he’s wielding a rapier of wit, but I guarantee you he can’t compete with Alicublog. (Note: You can substitute bloggers who line up with your own political views, if you like.)
And now, 8 million words later, what have we learned by plowing through this sludge of a blog entry? How about this: I am reminded of an old, old New Yorker cartoon, back when they were multi-panel. A guy sits writing at a typewriter, chuckling to himself. His wife enters the room with a flyswatter, and he asks her to read over what he’s written; he doesn’t want to be guilty of “too much levity.” She reads while he sits smirking, hands it back, stone-faced, and says, “No, I don’t think it’s too funny at all.”
Only one bit of bloggage today: The plight of the residents of tiny Lakeville, Mich., victims of a rule-obsessed postmaster. The DetNews story is very funny, but yes, understated. Funniest single fact: Lakeville has a lake called Lakeville Lake.