Send in the Clown
Humorist Forgets To Bring The Funny In Pursuit Of American Subcultures
The American Dream. Big houses. Big cars. Big careers. Big hallucinations. It's amazing this thing has been in existence for as long as it has. You'd think we were turds with feet the way we run around spewing our delusions while our reality is that little ol' Norway makes us look medieval, complete with plague-ridden bodies being launched over our imaginary white picket fences. And yet the fantasy persists. Sort of.
In his new book, The American Dream: Walking in the Shoes of Carnies, Arms Dealers, Immigrant Dreamers, Pot Farmers, and Christian Believers, comedian Harmon Leon sets out to find the true essence of the dream in these forgotten corners. Instead, he discovers that humor writing is harder than he thought, and what he really wanted to explore were freaky subcultures, not anything so over-exposed as nostalgic Americana.
Humor writing as a genre has a few basic rules--it's sort of like Fight Club that way. One, if you have to explain your joke, it isn't funny. For example, if, like Leon, you're making hermit crab jokes with a fellow carny (for those of you purebred types, a carny is a carnival worker: he/she is also often a drifter and sometimes a felon), and that carny doesn't get it, and you have to say, "crabs in this case could apply to both a crustacean or a venereal disease--thus the humor," don't put that line in your funny book about carnies. At the very least, do omit the "thus the humor" part.
Two, awkwardness borne of repetitive, juvenile behavior isn't funny, it's awkward, and should be deleted from your manuscript. If, for instance, you invade a celebrity impersonator convention as Austin Powers and yell, "It's horny time! It's time for horny" a lot, or attend a weapons show chanting, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!," or show up at a swingers' party and say, "Let's get freaky!" to everyone you meet, you're just being that guy, and it's best not to try to pass that off as humor writing. As Leon himself notes, without a hint of irony, while he is in the presence of another attention whore on the set of a game show, "The obligatory 'funny' guy gets old fast."
Three, and this one's key, if you're going to make fun of people--and why shouldn't you, people are ridiculous--always make fun of yourself even more. After Leon skewers a crowd of ludicrous celebrity impersonators, he does acknowledge, "If we're talking freaks, there's no bigger freak than myself!" But it comes too late. He feels like a bully in a schoolyard full of kids with inhalers--something every genuine humorist should avoid at all costs. Plus, his too-little-too-late confession comes with that exclamation point. Oh, the exclamation point. It's the honking red nose in the humor writer's bag of tricks--use it so sparingly, if at all.
Four, good humor writing must be extremely sharp, well-crafted writing. Good humor writing requires inordinate attention to word choice and cadence. Good humor writing succeeds or fails utterly based on the author's ability to pick and juxtapose details. Good humor writing, like good writing in general, and unlike Leon's disappointingly sloppy storytelling, is devoid of clichés and self-righteous rants, as well as, of course, exclamation points. Good humor writing deftly shows us what is funny, it never tells us.
Even though Leon's book is a collection of two-dimensional profiles of weirdos (ain't nothin' wrong with weirdos--they're humanity at its best--but they're only interesting if you portray them as humans) and not an exploration of the American Dream, it does have its moments. In the chapter on celebrity impersonators, he offers, "in the thirties, Charlie Chaplin entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike competition and, ironically, placed third." A man at the weapons show asks a vendor, "'Is this based on your MST design?'" which Leon laments dryly as "the question I was going to ask." And in the chapter on pot growers in California, Leon makes this arid observation about a guy named Zeke: "Somehow, I get the feeling that one day Zeke might end up in a wood chipper."
In the chapter on Hollywood, Leon quotes a wannabe starlet as she chronicles her rocky rise. After recalling a bunch of false starts, she shares this leg of her journey: "You begin writing," she says, "because it's easier." You get the sense that Leon agrees, or at least he agreed when he started this project. Perhaps he now knows what all of us who work with words know: Writing, even humor writing, especially humor writing, is harder than almost anything else. Except riding a really tiny bike. That's crazy hard.