PEN International Talk on Humor – 4

At this point in my talk, I started to get dry mouth and began to occasionally whistle when I pronounced the letter “s”. I couldn’t whistle to save my life as a kid, even though I tried. Now, as a much older man, apparently I can whistle while I work. In this next section, I discussed what it means to be a humorist.

E.B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” I am not going to analyze humor this evening — or cut up a frog. But I would like to share with you seven personal observations about writing humor.

  1. Humorists save their best sentence or words for last—the Dave Barry rule

In an interview with Francine Prose for the By the Book section of the New York Times, she cited what she considered a funny passage from a favorite book by a different author.

“After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections that have caused a 72-year-old man to have the face of a 9-year-old Filipino girl.”  

Here’s a short passage from the dark comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh. The play opens with a sequence about a dead cat; someone has killed Padraic’s cat named Wee Thomas. Padraic is an Irish Liberation Army enforcer. He loves that cat more than life itself, and someone is going to pay. Donny is Padraic’s father and Davey is a neighbor.

DONNY. Why else would I be upset? I don’t get upset over cats!

DAVEY. Not your Padraic?!

DONNY. Aye, my Padraic.

DAVEY. Oh Jesus Christ. Donny! Not your Padraic in the INLA?!

DONNY. Do I have another fecking Padraic?

DAVEY. Wee Thomas is his?

DONNY. And was his since he was five years old. His only friend for fifteen year. Brought him out to me when he started moving about the country bombing places and couldn’t look after him as decent as he thought needed. His only friend in the world, now.

DAVEY. Was he fond of him?

DONNY. Of course he was fond of him.

DAVEY. Oh he’ll be mad.

DONNY. He will be mad.

DAVEY. As if he wasn’t’ mad enough already. Padraic’s mad enough for seven people. Don’t they call him “Mad Padraic”?

DONNY. They do.

DAVEY. Isn’t it him the IRA wouldn’t let in because he was too mad?

DONNY. It was. And he never forgave them for it.

The topper in this exchange is Donny’s final words. In the exchange, the playwright saved the best for last.

From Lunatics, a wild romp of a road trip novel, by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel:

“There are precious few activities that grown men should do while naked. Showering. Swimming when no one else is around. Sex, whether someone else is around or not. And anything that takes place in front of blind people. Beyond that, all unclothed activities should be filed under the heading of “Dear Lord, If He Bends Over One More Time I’m Going To Hang Myself.”


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