The likes of others

There’s a scene early on in Juno where the audience meets Allison Janney’s character, Bren MacGuff, and learns about her dog obsession. She’s got sweaters of knit dogs, a dog mouse pad, dog statuettes galore, they’re everywhere. I at least appreciated the absurdity of her character’s predilections, but it also served a purpose in Diablo Cody’s script, namely to knock us off guard. For she is the last person, this stepmother, who we all know are supposed to be evil doers in the world of the protagonist, to support the pregnant teenager. And then, she does, wonderfully, in fact.

And that is why I like absurdity, and humor writing, or in this case, a comic screenplay. It helps of course, that Allison Janney played her, because the woman has some really good timing, as evidenced throughout her Emmy-laden career on The West Wing. For what it’s worth, I would really love to see a series about congressional staffers and the polarization of the political parties, told in the same quickfire and witty way. I hear NBC has a few time slots they could use.

But seriously, humor is not easy to write. Good humor, anyway. Often, it demands accessible cultural reference, or audience identification with the situation and punchline. Some of the funniest stuff out there takes a common experience and turns it around, creating a completely new take, like making an origami swan out of a greasy KFC wrapper and giving it to one’s older brother as a lunch treat, since one had previously eaten the chicken inside that he was expecting to receive. Or something.

I was not a regular viewer of Seinfeld, but Larry David is very funny to me when it comes to showing the annoying side of people, and laughing through it. Elaine, stuck in a toilet stall, begging her neighbor for just one square of tissue paper, George’s unintentional killing of his fiancee because he insisted on buying the cheapest invitations to the wedding, and those came complete with toxic envelope glue, these are moments I remember even though it stopped airing in the last millennium. There’s also something about how humor makes for a full and breathing character—it takes loving big parts of George for viewers to be okay with the fact that he’s relieved he doesn’t have to get married, because otherwise, he’s an abhorrent person. Well, he’s kind of abhorrent anyway, but he’s still got his lovable parts. For me, David sometimes gets a bit too mean-spirited, so I can’t be counted among his big fans, but that’s okay, there’s a long list of folks I have to admire for their contributions to comedy.

All of this is to say comedy writers and humorists are supposed to make it look easy, to tap into our frustrations or insecurities and turn them inside out, exposing the fluffiness on the inside, if our experiences were like socks. My experiences have a couple of holes in them but mostly look okay, thanks to OxyClean. I just try to remember that my goal isn’t to make writing funny, it’s to reveal that finding life funny in general should be documented, in case anyone else agrees with me. I didn’t venture out to be a humor writer because most young writers really, really, powerfully want to write the next great novel, American or otherwise. But the humor kept showing up, like Uncle Lloyd at our Friday night dinners, and we never really knew why he kept hanging out with us until we realized his wife made really awful Van deKamp fish on Fridays and he was just looking for a non-fishy-smelly house. Two weeks in a row of Gorton’s finest imitation cod and we were free. No, I haven’t found a way to banish humor, but I’m not looking for one.

I am the prepackaged fish dinner of writers, and I’m okay with that.

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Categories: ponderings

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