Monday, March 29, 2010

All about Funny, Or At Least the Uses of Sarcasm

By Maggie Lamond Simone
261 pp. Brodman Publishing $14.95
Review and Interview by Gary Presley

Here’s a guesstimate: write a humor column in the USA, and people are going to point and say, “So you think you’re Dave Barry, huh?”

Of course, like many things in life, women have it tougher: “You’re no Erma Bombeck.”

So it’s inappropriate to even try to rank Maggie Lamond Simone on the Bombeck Scale of Humor and Insight. Let’s simply say, “Simone thinks funny, and she writes funny.”

That applies whether you prefer the pithy observation—“If dating is ‘courting,’ then a date must be a court and we’re all OJ”—or something a little more complex.
Children have no fear. Everything is fair game. I know the books say this is healthy and such abashed curiosity should be encouraged, but absent a relatively advanced capacity for upright mobility, I have my doubts. Remember, these same books also said labor “was uncomfortable.”
Beer has been compiled from a series of Simone’s columns, carrying the reader through the latter part of her dating life, her marriage, and into the joys and tribulations of motherhood. There are ten chapters, and the individual pieces therein range from the straight-up funny to the satisfyingly sentimental. The target audience may be Simone’s female contemporaries, but a man will open the book and find himself laughing.

The title may be somewhat deceptive. Simone spent a measure of her young life in a bottle. Then, when a compassionate policeman picked her up after a one-car accident and offered to drive her home rather than cite her for driving under the influence, Simone asked him to drop her at a nearby bar.
The next morning, when I realized what had transpired, I went to my first AA meeting, and have not had a drink since.
As a writer, Simone often displays Bombeckian ability to use the silly to explore the serious. Simone has found her niche, and if you’re in the mood for a laugh, you’ll join her.
The dog hears me when I speak because he looks at me and reacts. The fact that he reacts in a totally unrelated matter to what I said may someday be effective in deciphering this whole human speak situation … I can actually foresee a day when I will say to a man, “I like that tie,” and he will wash the dishes.

A Discussion of “Funny” with
Maggie Lamond Simone

[IRB] So what’s funny? When did you start reading funny stuff? The first funny stuff I remember was Ring Lardner’s, especially a line funny beyond description: “Shut up,” he explained.

[SIMONE] I used to read Andy Rooney when I was a kid; he was funny to me. I also used to read Erma Bombeck, along with the rest of the free planet, but actually stopped reading her in my late teens for fear of being too influenced by her. And then I had to stop reading Dave Barry in the early nineties because a rejection I received indicated that, and I quote, “The paper doesn’t need another Dave Barry wannabe.”

I don’t consider myself funny. What I hope is that my writing makes people think, “Yeah! That’s what I was trying to say!” I think I’m sarcastic, which in writing can be humorous. But I’m sarcastic when I speak, also, so in my head I’m not funny. I’m just me. And I write the way I talk.
Physical humor is always a source of great joy to me, to the amazement of my husband. Watching someone walk into a really clean glass door can have me in stitches. Of course that doesn’t always translate well to paper, but damn, some of the commercials out there today are wicked funny that way. And Monty Python’s Life of Brian was the first movie I saw that literally made me laugh until I cried.

[IRB] If you stopped reading Bombeck as a teen, and you knew you wanted to “write funny” some day, did you think then think, “There’s no way a woman in the USA can write a humor column and not be charged with trying to be the next Bombeck?”

[SIMONE] I always knew I’d “write funny.” I recently sent a copy of my book to my high school English teacher, David Schultz, who was the first teacher who let me write the way I like to write. He actually encouraged me to write funny. He was That Teacher for me, the one I still remember thirty years later as having helped shape who I am. And to answer the “an a woman write funny without the Bombeck-wannabe comparison.” I believe that Erma, God rest her soul, really screwed things for the rest of us in—or following—her generation!

Because of Erma Bombeck for women and Dave Barry for men, humor writers for probably the next twenty-five years will have to work doubly hard to distinguish themselves as individuals. But, David Sedaris did it. It can be done. And it’s temporary, right? I mean, no one accuses anyone these days of trying to be another Mark Twain, right?

[IRB] Back to sarcasm. It’s funny, sure, but men mostly use it as a weapon. And physical humor, how do you try to translate that as a writer onto a page? It’s a tough gig to be ask to write out physical humor that sparks a laugh. Is it a matter of descriptive imagery?

[SIMONE] Yes, sarcasm is a weapon. When I met my husband, my mother asked me if I could “tone the sarcasm down a bit” because she really liked him and was afraid I would drive him away. Unfortunately, it’s not easily switched off; fortunately the husband liked me anyway. Unfortunately, the kids have inherited my passion for all things ironic; fortunately I had them late and will probably be six feet under before they get really good.

The physical humor can certainly be challenging to put down on paper. In fact I rarely make use of it because I’m just not that good. When I do use it, it usually follows an event that kind of writes itself; the kids playing in the other room, the crash, the guilty silence, the simultaneous “He/she did it” scenario—which is actually more of an implied physical humor than an actual description. Typically if I write about something that I found physically amusing, what I’m writing is my reaction to it—which is usually mental (read: sarcastic).

[IRB] This raises the question—which comes first, the humor or the writing? Can you sit down at a keyboard and be funny? Or do you filter an observation or occurrence in your life through your sense of humor and find a way to get it down, and down funny?

[SIMONE] Boy, I do love those columns that write themselves. Those are the ones when I have a beginning and end before I even sit at the computer. The others, the ones where I have a middle—a story, an event, an epiphany—but no beginning or end … writing those is in some ways like giving birth. I actually don’t know what I feel or what my point is until I’ve gone over it and over it a thousand times.

Which I guess answers that last question, which comes first: it must be the humor, because the writing doesn’t always follow right away. Something will happen—watching my brother’s wife make pizza from scratch—that sets something off in me. I need to explore why I was set off (jealous? envious? defensive?) so I can have some resolution, and the outcome of that exploration is the writing. I’m actually a really shy person who prefers to never leave the house, and I’ve always believed that’s why I’m a writer and not a stand-up comedian.

[IRB] Humor can be a defense, a means of distancing. A coping mechanism too? A way to keep from hiding in a corner crying and whining, or to keep from roaming about with a Louisville slugger and whacking the stupid. Then there’s the idea that many really funny people aren’t the happiest of souls—Richard Pryor, for one example.

[SIMONE] It’s funny (no pun intended) that you mentioned Richard Pryor. I was just recently trying to explain to my kids why someone like Freddie Prinze or Richard Jeni (a standup from here who made it reasonably big) would commit suicide, when they’re so funny; I found myself trying to suggest that many funny people actually use their humor as a mask, and that in some cases they are more sad or depressed than the average person, without frightening them into thinking Mommy’s really sad. The truth is, in the old days, I was really sad, and I did attempt suicide. When I sobered up, I found humor to certainly be the healthier alternative.

[IRB] I found myself surprised that so little of FBTM reflected the “beer” days, and that leads me to ask whether you feel any compulsion to write a memoir about that portion of your life. You may think “What can I say about those days that another writer hasn’t already said?”

[SIMONE] Despite the bleakness on the memoir landscape, I actually wrote a memoir, Body Punishment, before I put From Beer to Maternity together. In 2005 Princeton and Cornell put out a joint study that said 20% of Ivy League girls are self-injurers, and apparently that’s what I needed to hear to put it all down on paper. (In addition to the alcoholism, I’ve dabbled in self-injuring behaviors since I was a child—bone breaking, anorexia, bulimia, as well as the assorted OCDs—trichotillomania, dermatillomania, and your basic depressive disorders.) I haven’t sold it yet, but writing it was stunningly cathartic. I simply have no more secrets, no more shame. And again, I’ve found that humor is so much more acceptable!

[IRB] Since I asked “What is funny?” I suppose I should ask “What don’t you find funny?” I don’t get The Simpsons. If Seinfeld had been an animated series, I would have missed some great writing. I love the Coen brothers stuff—Raising Arizona is a classic—but I don’t crack a smile if I’m forced to watch a Will Ferrell movie.

[SIMONE] Total agreement with what is not funny. Yes, The Simpsons, King of the Hill—never even seen any of the episodes. I am a huge Coen brothers fan; Raising Arizona has always been one of my favorites, and I’ve added O Brother, Where Art Thou? to the list. In movies I tend to prefer the more subtle or cerebral humor (although there was nothing subtle about Python’s Life of Brian!) I really don’t even enjoy the physical humor in movies so much. Apparently I enjoy that more in real life. Have you ever seen “Mystery Science Theater 3000”? A guy and two robots are forced to watch “B” movies for the rest of their lives. They sit and mock the movies. Probably some of the funniest writing I’ve ever seen. That probably sums up my sense of humor right there. Sadly enough.

[IRB] So who writes funny in your estimation?

[SIMONE] Contemporary humor … Hiaasen, definitely. Bill Bryson (I’m A Stranger Here Myself). And actually, there’s a writer named Dennis Lehane whom I adore; he wrote Mystic River and Shutter Island, but he also has a series involving two PI’s (Gone, Baby, Gone was made into a movie, I believe) that really has very funny writing. He’s not a humor writer, but a writer with a keen sense of humor who can translate it to paper. And of course David Sedaris, the man-who-should-be-my-brother.

[IRB] What’s your writing schedule? Are you doing work other than your column? Are you trying to syndicate it? Do you have another collection coming out?

[SIMONE] I write my monthly column, I’m finishing revisions on Body Punishment, and starting to put together a more random sequel to FBTM called I’m Just Saying. I blog for the Huffington Post and write for magazines (, Cosmopolitan, Notebook magazine in Australia.) I’ve never tried to get syndicated because I don’t think I could take the pressure (nice, I know). Otherwise I really just kind of nap a lot and walk the dog when the kids are in school. Napping is another great coping mechanism I’ve perfected … although I still try to hide that one for some reason! “Yes, I pick at my face and I’ve tried to break my own bones and have been on happy pills for two decades—but don’t you dare accuse of me of napping!”

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