What’s funny?

Sometimes we just want a funny book, but our definitions of “funny” differ widely according to individual taste, background and predilection. When I was six going on sixteen I thought my mother’s sense of humor was just bizarre. She loved Jerry Lewis, Tony Curtis and Lucille Ball: it was the slapstick humor she loved. To me, this kind of humor seemed mindless and slightly wrong, since it’s not particularly funny when people fall or get clobbered by a flowerpot. It’s not funny to me. I can’t bear to watch “Funniest Home Videos” – all those poor injured animals and people lying in agony while their loved ones film the whole thing. Others, like Mom, love this type of humor. So when people say they want to relax with a funny book or movie, it’s a crapshoot whether anyone else will love their choice. So, maybe you’ll like these books and maybe you’ll have to wait for part two!

Those who like twisted, sarcastic, bitter and offbeat humor like David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames, are attracted to slightly snarky social commentary like Yiddish with Dick and Jane by Ellis Weiner. People of a certain age met Dick and Jane in the first grade, before we were allowed to acknowledge Yiddish as a language. Now that times have changed, Weiner shows us how much Dick and Jane have learned. You can learn too: don’t be a schmo. I recently picked up Whoopi Goldberg’s new book, Is It Just Me? Or is it Nuts Out There? I was surprised to find that while excruciatingly funny, Goldberg’s book is also a gold mine of practical advice for some people who “inadvertently” offend most of us. My favorite sections of this useful guide are the Civil Person’s Handy lists, such as “Stinky Foods Not to Bring on a Plane” and “Places Not to Use a Cell Phone.” The chapter I find most helpful is “Think It, Don’t Say It,” followed by the handy list of “Things to Think and Not Say.”

Dark humor adds death to “twisted, sarcastic, bitter and offbeat” in a sometimes shocking, but absolutely human, attempt to face those monsters we used to laugh at when we were kids so the other kids would think we weren’t scared. Writers are now forcing our literary icons to deal with this fear in books like: Little Women and Werewolves; Android Karenina; Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters; and Wuthering Bites. Readers take charge of your monsters! If you haven’t read Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, it’s a great place to start. Follow Flora as she takes on her Starkadder relatives in one of the darkest, funniest stories ever told. Likewise Matt Haig’s novel, The Dead Fathers Club, in which 11 year old Phillip Noble discovers where murdered people’s ghosts go after they die. Finally, Jonathan Carroll manages the delicate balance between humor and the macabre in his book The Ghost in Love. Benjamin Gould falls, hits his head, dies and a ghostly escort arrives to take his soul. Unfortunately Ben isn’t actually dead.

Don’t be scared, just laugh!

             ~ Jen B., Central Library

2 thoughts on “What’s funny?”

  1. I just spent some time looking over your blog and it is wonderful – great writing & thoroughly interesting. We at Cecil County Public Library are really honored to be nominated with you for the Salem Press award!

  2. Don’t forget “Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth. I remember reading it when it came out, and re-reading it some years later, and I think it is hilarious.
    I wonder if you have to be familiar with Jewish humor and “culture” to appreciate it.

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