I’ve been pondering the many questions I have about the nature of humor as the Chapter & Verse Book Clubs prepare to discuss next week the book Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy, compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus (Candlewick Press). Wherever we go, teachers and librariansâ€”and parentsâ€”ask for more funny and light-hearted books. They want the secret titles, the books we’ve been holding out on them. “There just aren’t enough funny books.”
I always end up asking myself, “What’s funny?” Different people have different senses of humor. How does a sense of humor develop? At what point does a child find something funny and look for something just like that to tickle their sense of the bizarre or inane or ludicrous or slapstick?
In Marcus’ interview with Norton Juster, the author of The Dot and the Line and The Phantom Tollbooth and The Hello, Goodbye Window, Juster says:
“When you’re very young, your natural response to puns is to groan, because you don’t quite get what they’re all about. But after a while you realize that puns and wordplay are fun. I’ve watched it with my granddaughter. Now that she is ten, she is beginning to give them back. She’s not getting it completely right yet, but it’s dawning. At her age, humor is still just a feeling, a vague sense that there are things in the world that are so incongruous and wacky that it’s funny and wonderful just to notice them. She will tell me the most pointless jokes, but with such delight that you cannot not respond to the feeling behind them. It’s a feeling that she will carry with her alwaysâ€”I hope.”
I distinctly remember being punished for my sense of humor when I was Juster’s granddaughter’s age. I laughed at something that was said during Perry Mason and it wasn’t funny to the rest of my family. I was sent to my room, there to ponder the error of my hilarity. As I was growing up, I often heard, “We don’t find things like that funny in our family.” Apparently someone didn’t write up the order ticket for my sense of humor correctlyâ€”it has never fit the family’s idea of acceptability.
Working for an architectural firm in my twenties, I endured a salary review during which one of my management-by-objective colleagues (oh, please) took me to task for my sense of humor, believing it didn’t fit into the company gestalt. I had matured enough to realize that laughing out loud at his comment wouldn’t have helped the situation.
Writers who write books of comedy are brave. They know that not every reader will find their writing funny in the same way. I’ve tried writing humor myself: after the fourth revision, it feels flat. It doesn’t surprise or delight me any longer and I can’t imagine one single reader laughing.
In Marcus’ Funny Business, Carl Hiaasen is asked “Do you revise your work?” He answers: “Constantly, right up until the minute the FedEx guy shows up to get the manuscript. With humor, every beat has to be perfect, and I work like crazy to make that happen.” Hiaasen’s three books for children, Hoot, Flush, and Scat, are funny. At the same time, they’re very serious, not unlike Perry Mason.
Among the funniest children’s books I’ve read are: The Great Brain books by John D. McDonald; Beverly Cleary’s books about Henry, Beezus, and Ramona; the Mercy Watson books by Kate DiCamillo; Clementine by Sara Pennypacker; Donuthead by Sue Stauffacher; Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee; Absolutely, Positively Not by David LaRochelle. I imagine each one of them “working like crazy” to make me laugh while I read. Here’s a huge thanks to each one of themâ€”I needed that.
How about you? Which books make you laugh?