Humor is such a slippery concept. What’s funny? And I don’t just mean what makes something funny, but what is the definition of funny? Funny is different from humorous, and humor is different from comedy, right? I think? Sometimes I get bogged down in the semantics when someone asks me why I like a book and I say, “because it’s funny.”
For me, funny means that it makes me laugh out loud. Laughing out loud, alone, while reading, is one of the most pleasurable experiences I know of. And sometimes, I will like a book for no other reason other than that it makes me laugh. Do you have to be smart to be funny? I think so. In writing, at least. So the writers I find funny have that going for them, too, but their ability to make me laugh out loud is what makes me revere them. I think it’s very hard to be funny on paper.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’m reading Everybody Says Hello, Michael Kun’s new novel (released Apr.16th). You probably haven’t heard of Michael Kun, and that may or may not be because I sometimes think he was put on this earth solely to make me laugh, but I think he’s one of the funniest writers in America. Everybody Says Hello is a sequel to his novel The Locklear Letters, a book composed entirely of letters from hapless narrator Sid Straw to Heather Locklear. It’s hilarious. I laughed out loud on every single page.
I love all of Kun’s books (My Wife and My Dead Wife is my favorite), and I’ve been talking about him a lot lately, and so inevitably having to answer the question, “so if he’s so funny, and you like him so much, how come I’ve never heard of him?” I really have no answer to this question. I mean, there is the obvious – he was never marketed well, he’s a lawyer by profession and so not part of any of the lit circles that are responsible for the dissemination of so many authors – but I’m not sure those are very interesting answers. I think the real answer may be that often, books to which readers and reviewers overwhelming response is “funny!” aren’t taken very seriously.
But Michael Kun is seriously funny. I remember reading his short story “Fresh Fruit,” in the collection Corrections to My Memoirs, on a bus in Montreal, and having to get off the bus because I was laughing the kind of laugh that turns into sobbing, and no one wants to be seen sobbing on public transportation. “Fresh Fruit” is the transcription of a conference lecture on “Health and Wealth Through Mentalization,” in which the text rapidly devolves into the moderator accosting the audience in an attempt to discover who is stealing the fresh fruit from the conference room next door. I swear to you, I wept with delight at this story.
I can think of only a handful of other authors who can do this for me: Jincy Willett, Cintra Wilson, and Barry Hannah come to mind immediately. None of these writers are my “favorite writer,” but they command a very exulted level of respect from me, because they make me laugh out loud. No matter how brilliantly satirical, or ironically funny, or tongue-in-cheek (or any other euphemism for humor) a book is said to be, if I don’t open my mouth and laugh, it’s not funny. Or, not funny enough.
What I want to know is: what’s funny to you? How do you define “funny” in literature? What books have made you laugh out loud? What books are maybe funnier in a quieter way, and does this then make them more “serious?”
I’m serious. What’s funny? Help me out.