Humorists on Humor: Cracking the Code on What Cracks Us Up

James Thurber
James Thurber
World Telegram & Sun Photo by Fred Palumbo/Library of Congress

One of the most popular writers of his day, James Thurber was, to use his own words, a wit, satirist, and humorist. As he explained, “The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself.” Named for him, the Thurber Prize for American Humor is awarded annually to recognize the art of humor writing; the 2017 winner will be announced at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York City on October 2, 2017. The Post invited previous prize winners and finalists to share thoughts on the art of being funny today.

What characterizes modern American humor?
“People talk about the perils of being politically correct, but in a way it’s just the opposite. There’s so much more you can say now than you could 30 years ago. Louis C.K.’s comedy routines are a case in point, but there are writers who push the envelope just as far. What used to be on the edge is now family humor.”
—Calvin Trillin
Novelist, poet, food writer, regular contributor to The New Yorker; author of Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin

“I tend to write political satire. But I decided that American politics have reached the point of being sufficiently self-satirizing, so for my recent book, The Relic Master, I travel backward in time to the year 1517. And you know, I had such a good time doing it I may just stay in the 16th century. And while it’s probably true that a lot of the comic/satirical energy has shifted to TV, there’s still an awful lot of good stuff being written these days.”
—Christopher Buckley
Novelist, essayist, critic, memoirist; author of No Way to Treat a First Lady

“Humor is less filtered now than it used to be, it’s darker, more inappropriate, but at the same time humor with heart reigns supreme. It’s hard to characterize the humor scene today because it’s so diverse. It’s become a conduit for political issues, for social, class, and gender issues. Is it possible ‘funny’ is getting too ‘serious’? People still want to laugh, but they also want a really good story to go along with it.”
—Sloane Crosley
Essayist, novelist; author of I Was Told There’d Be Cake

What qualities does good humor writing have, and can it be learned?
“Essentially, you take an essential truth and twist it, turn something upside down so it’s seen in unexpected ways. That’s the heart of it. Afterward, there are matters of timing and pacing, a rhythm you need to establish. Throw in some elements of storytelling. Build up, push back, build the tension, and finally you hit the mark. I used to think humor couldn’t possibly be learned, but now I absolutely believe it can. ”
—Laurie Notaro
Journalist, novelist; author of The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death

“I don’t know how Thurber would do these days. His agent would probably tell him he needs to get a sitcom before he can shop his book around.”

—Dan Zevin

“I think you can analyze what makes good humor. And you can sum up techniques of how to make it work. But something like that would end up in the Journal of Structural Engineering. It would be that dull.”
—John Kenney
Novelist, regular contributor to The New Yorker; author of Truth in Advertising

Where does humor come from? Is there a humor impulse?
“I don’t think it’s a humor impulse. It’s a story impulse. After the idea comes to you, you have to think what form it will work best in — a short piece, a novel, the theater, late-night TV show. I’m blessed that I’ve been able to work in all those forms, so I can decide which one works the best. Maybe next I’ll try writing a pamphlet.”
—Alan Zweibel
Screenwriter (Saturday Night Live), playwright, novelist; author of The Other Shulman

Do you find humor comes out of your own experiences?
“Of course, although I had trouble finding anything funny about turning 80. At least I don’t have to take my shoes off at the airport anymore.”
—Calvin Trillin

Do you see any difference in the humor between men and women?
“I think men and women are equally funny, but because men’s experiences are way different from women’s, it makes for a difference in perspective. That makes us different but equal in a number of ways.”
—Laurie Notaro

“Tina Fey and Lena Dunham have both written staggering, laugh-out-loud funny books. Many of the funniest people writing today are women.”
—John Kenney

Do the internet and social media have an impact on contemporary humor?
“I find a lot of cool, interesting voices on the internet that you won’t find anywhere else. You can publish and reach an audience there that you can’t anywhere else. That means that someone in Minnesota who works at a power company can publish short pieces of comedy that people anywhere in the world can find and laugh at. Through the internet, the sky’s the limit as far as creativity.”
—Steve Hely
Screenwriter (30 Rock, The Office); Author of How I Became a Famous Novelist

Would you consider the humor on American television to be literary in its broadest sense?
“Only written humor, written by one person, published on paper, in a book or magazine, is literary humor. TV sitcom scripts, screenplays, blog posts, transcripts of stand-up routines are all fine, but none come close to literary humor. Every so often, a work of literary humor lasts forever. A few pieces by Thurber fall in that category. Ditto S.J. Perelman and Robert Benchley. Roy Blount is a great literary humorist, as are Garrison Keillor and David Sedaris.
—Ian Frazier
Essayist, staff writer at The New Yorker; author of Lamentations of the Father

“From a book-publishing perspective, I think humor writing is in great shape, just as long as you’re a famous TV star. I don’t know how Thurber would do these days. His agent would probably tell him he needs to get a sitcom before he can shop his book around town. Or at least he’d need an Instagram account. He’d probably be taking selfies with his dogs instead of drawing them.”
—Dan Zevin
NPR contributor; author of Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad

Laugh Lines

On Parenting: “Parenthood is an amazing opportunity to be able to ruin someone from scratch.”
—Jon Stewart

On Social Media: “Getting your news from Twitter is like asking a cat for directions.”
—Andy Borowitz

On Politics: “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”
—Mark Twain

On Marriage: “Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.”
—Nora Ephron

On Religion: “Anyone who thinks sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.”
—Garrison Keillor

On Taxes: “Tax reform is taking the taxes off things that have been taxed in the past and putting taxes on things that haven’t been taxed before.”
—Art Buchwald

On Women: “Women are wiser than men because they know less and understand more.”
—James Thurber

On Death: “That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment”
— Dorothy Parker

News of the Week: Baseball Begins, Dandelion Ends, and a new Philip Marlowe Is on the Way

Play Ball!

Like last year, we’ve had a weird spring so far here in the Northeast, really not even a spring at all since it has been so cold and raw and snowy. Somehow in between the fall-like chill and two days of downpours, the Boston Red Sox got their home opener in on Monday, defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-3. If your favorite team didn’t win their opener, well, I’m sorry, but this is my column and I get to mention my team winning.

If you’re a diehard baseball fan, ESPN has a schedule for every single team and every single game they’ll be playing during the 2017 season, complete with the names of the starting pitchers and links to buy tickets. If you don’t want to wait until the season is over to see who wins the World Series, my friend Will Leitch has looked into his crystal ball and predicted not only who will win everything but exactly how it will all go down.

Goodbye, Dandelion

There’s an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry, George, and Elaine are talking about George’s new girlfriend, Sienna. Elaine asks, “Sienna?” and Jerry says, “Yeah, he’s dating a crayon.”

Sienna (officially “burnt sienna”) was saved from retirement by fans in 2003. But that’s not going to happen with dandelion. Crayola has announced that they’re getting rid of that color (and if you didn’t even know there was a dandelion color in the box of 24, you’re not alone, even though it has been around for 27 years). In this Facebook video, Crayola says that the color is “retiring,” as if it’s going to go live in a toy retirement community, along with Monopoly’s boot. Maybe you should grab as many of the dandelion crayons as you can before they’re gone forever, or buy one of the many dandelion collectibles that the company has on its website.

Luckily, there are approximately 497 other crayon colors that are pretty close to dandelion, so kids and adults alike will have plenty of yellow to choose from. Crayola will unveil a new color (another shade of blue) in May, and fans will be able to help name it.

RIP Don Rickles, Jack Ziegler, Gilbert Baker, Richard Bolles, James Rosenquist, and Joe Harris

Don Rickles certainly knew how to insult someone. In fact, he was an expert at it. Besides being a standup comic for over 60 years, Rickles was also a good actor, with roles in such classic movies as Kelly’s Heroes, Casino, Run Silent, Run Deep, and the Toy Story films (he’ll reprise his Mr. Potato Head role in Toy Story 4 later this year). He also starred in his own TV shows — The Don Rickles Show, CPO Sharkey, and Daddy Dearest — and appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Get Smart, I Spy, The Twilight Zone, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, Hot in Cleveland, and dozens more.

Rickles died yesterday at the age of 90.

He was a regular and memorable guest on The Tonight Show. Here’s a classic episode where Johnny Carson discovers that Rickles broke his cigarette box the night before, when Bob Newhart had filled in as host:

Jack Ziegler was one of the great New Yorker cartoonists, creating 1,600 cartoons for the magazine since the 1970s. Here’s a gallery of some of his work. I love the one with the guy who misses his dog.

Ziegler passed away last week at the age of 74. According to The New York Times, he’s the seventh New Yorker cartoonist to die in the past year.

Gilbert Baker created the rainbow flag that has become so symbolic in the gay community. He came up with the idea after Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person to be elected to office in California in 1977. Baker died last Thursday at the age of 65.

My sister bought me Richard Bolles’ classic career/life book What Color Is Your Parachute? in the late ’70s/early ’80s. If you are of a certain age, you’ve probably read it too (millions of copies are still sold every year). Bolles passed away on March 31 at the age of 90.

James Rosenquist was one of the pop art pioneers of the 20th century, using montages of pop culture and advertising images to create bold art. The New York Times has a gallery of some of his most famous works. Rosenquist passed away last Friday at the age of 83.

If you loved Underdog and the Trix rabbit, you have Joe Harris to thank. He drew those characters, along with Tennessee Tuxedo, Go Go Gophers, The Beagles, and Klondike Kat after forming a company with other advertising execs and creatives to make Saturday morning cartoons. They wanted to compete with the company that made Rocky and Bullwinkle. Harris passed away March 26 at the age of 89.

The Singular They

It seems like we’re getting new grammar/spelling/punctuation rules every week now. Here’s the latest.

The Associated Press has announced several changes, with the big one probably being that they will now accept the singular they in situations where saying anything else would be awkward or unclear. It has a lot to do with new gender definitions that have risen the past few years, changes I will never get used to.

Other changes to the AP Stylebook include cyberattack, which will now be one word instead of two; baby bump, which the AP says they will never use again; and the increased use of our old friend the Oxford Comma, which, the AP reminds us, has always been available when it’s needed for clarity (and it often is).

They’re also changing flier to flyer, as in the phrase frequent flyer. Funny, I’ve always spelled it flyer, which just proves that sometimes you can do something incorrectly for decades and eventually be proven right.

Hey, There’s a New Philip Marlowe

There’s an old joke that says foreigners are taking all of the jobs Americans used to do. And they are! Just look at all the American characters being played by actors from different countries in the movies and on TV. Seriously, are we going to give every action movie role to Liam Neeson?

The answer is yes. It has been announced that Neeson will be playing Raymond Chandler’s classic detective, Philip Marlowe, in a new movie based on the 2013 Benjamin Black novel The Black-Eyed Blonde. The screenplay will be written by William Monahan, who wrote the screenplay for The Departed and is a guy I had a few beers with three decades ago, but he probably doesn’t remember me.

I’m looking forward to this. I’ve been saying for a while now that we need a real private eye series on TV again, preferably in black and white, set in the ’40s and featuring Marlowe. Maybe if this movie is a big hit, they’ll think about bringing him to television again. He was played in a late-’50s series by Philip Carey and in an ’80s series by Powers Boothe. There was a pilot made for a new series in 2007, but it got bad feedback and never made it to the screen.

The star? Jason O’Mara, who’s from Ireland. Of course.

By the way, even though Raymond Chandler often griped that he wasn’t the type of writer who was published in The Saturday Evening Post or other “slick” magazines, he actually did write for us. His story “I’ll Be Waiting” appeared in our October 14, 1939, issue. Unfortunately, we no longer own the rights to republish it online for you.

The Circle 

This movie could do for social media and smartphones what Jaws did for going into the water.

The Circle stars Tom Hanks as the CEO of a massive tech company that, well, controls everything online and, increasingly, offline. Emma Watson plays a new employee who starts to suspect that not everything is what it seems. It’s based on the novel by Dave Eggers and also stars John Boyega, Nate Corddry, Karen Gillan, and Patton Oswalt. It opens on April 28. Here’s the trailer:

This Week in History

Pony Express service begins (April 3, 1860)

Did you know there’s a Pony Express National Museum? There is, and it’s in St. Joseph, Missouri.

U.S. enters World War I (April 6, 1917)

In “Is World War I Relevant?,” Saturday Evening Post Archives Director Jeff Nilsson writes about a fascinating article by Corra Harris from our pages in 1915.

This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: “Hanging Clothes Out To Dry” (April 7, 1945)

My dryer broke last week. I took my wet clothes out of the washer and put them into the dryer to, well, dry and noticed there was no heat. The repairman came over that same day so I didn’t have to deal with wet clothes for more than a few hours, but it got me thinking of the clothesline we used to have when I was a kid. My mother always put clothes out to dry outside in the backyard but it’s something I haven’t done in almost 40 years. I wish I had a backyard now.

Here’s the April 7, 1945 cover by John Falter.

Children play in yard while mother hangs clothes on lineHanging Clothes Out to Dry
John Falter
April 7, 1945

Play Ball and Eat!

I always sense a shift of eating habits when the warmer weather and baseball come around. Heavier comfort foods and drinks, like pasta with heavy sauces and chili and bourbon, give way to salads and sandwiches and refreshing iced tea. Of course, baseball stadiums seem to destroy that theory by serving pizza and nachos and beer and the aforementioned chili, so maybe there’s room in our minds and stomachs for these comfort foods in the warm months, too.

Oh, and hot dogs! Delish has more than 20 ideas on what to do with hot dogs that they call “insane and brilliant.” I don’t know if those words apply, but I do like these Hot Dog Skewers and these Taco Dogs.

Next Week’s Holidays and Events

Palm Sunday (April 9)

As this site explains, Palm Sunday is the final Sunday of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week. On this day, many services include the carrying of palm leaves that symbolize the palm branches that surrounded Jesus as he entered Jerusalem.

Passover (April 10)

Here’s a detailed description of what the Jewish holiday — called Pesach in Hebrew — means.

National Scrabble Day (April 13)

One of my favorite Scrabble words is Qi, which, according to Merriam-Webster, is “vital energy that is held to animate the body internally and is of central importance in some Eastern systems of medical treatment (as acupuncture) and of exercise and self-defense (as tai chi).” At The Daily Beast, David Bukszpan has a poem that will help you remember it and 100 other two-letter words you can use the next time you play.