Finding Laughter in Interesting Times

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, 1/14/21

Last night I laughed out loud several times while watching a little British film from 1953 called Genevieve. My friends Mike and Betsy had discovered it on Amazon Prime. They have a knack for mining old movie gold there. It also appears to be on YouTube.

The older I get the less I laugh out loud, so I have to appreciate it when I do. The famous Chinese curse is to wish your enemies lived in interesting times. I don’t know who cursed who, but we definitely need comedies in these times.

I had never even heard of Genevieve before, and neither had Mike and Betsy. Wikipedia has quite a write-up about it. Evidently, this comedy found a bit of success back in 1953, winning awards in England, and even garnered couple Oscar nominations over here. Rather sad how good pop culture fades – don’t you think? Genevieve even has a slight connection to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, another film I had found funny this summer that made me laugh out loud countless times. Quite a few people still remember that one and still watch it.

It’s hard to laugh when thousands are dying every day and we have a president that’s shitting all over our democracy. On the other hand, spending all my time worrying about the decline of America isn’t good for my health. I’m reminded of the film Sullivan’s Travels, about a Hollywood director wanting to make a serious film about the depression during the depression. Through a series of misadventures, Sullivan, the director, ends up on a chain gang in the deep south and discovers what people in the depression really wanted – laughter.

During 2020 the sophistication of what tickles my funny bone has taken a hard hit. I can’t handle Saturday Night Live, or other contemporary satire, but linger on scenes from The Three Stooges, Bob Hope, and Jerry Lewis movies while clicking around the streaming services. My favorite comedy during 2020 was Bachelor in Paradise.

I used to hate slapstick and other lower forms of comedy because I saw myself more sophisticated than that. I once took a graduate course in humor and know what I should be watching, but high level humor doesn’t always soothe the soul in stressful times. I’m younger than that now.

Actually, Genevieve had most of the levels above, but It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World stayed pretty close to the bottom of the pyramid. I loved it. And I loved Genevieve, staying up way past my bedtime to finish it.

I was surprised that this 1953 British film seemed a good deal more sophisticated about sex than American films during the 1950s. The story is about two guys who take their wife and girlfriend on an annual antique car rally from London to Brighton. At one point actor Kenneth More laments that every year he brings a new girlfriend on this trip hoping to have an emotional experience but something always gets in the way. Not quite how they express things today, but funnier I think.

Tonight after my dose of the nightly news, I’m going to step out of reality and watch The Nutty Professor. I used to wince at comedy routines of Jerry Lewis. Now I marvel at tiny bits of cleverness. For example, Jerry sits in a chair where he sinks deep down into the cushions about a foot. He gets up and takes a small pamphlet off the desk and lays it across the chair seat cushion, and then sits down again. It holds him up. That was enough to make me happy.

JWH

Three Lessons I Learned About Writing From Going To See David Sedaris

Thursday night I got to hear David Sedaris enchant a nearly sold-out theater. One that holds a thousand people. That’s a lot of readers in one place for a writer. It’s a good thing we all loved him. I wonder if James Patterson or George R. R. Martin could get a horde of fans to shuck out $50 to hear them read? I was amazed by so many people coming to hear a guy read a couple New Yorker essays and banter for a couple hours. I considered it $50 well spent of my wife’s money—thanks Susan. But, is David Sedaris a standup comedian that publishes his routines, or a humorist that’s constantly on tour?

david sedaris

Sedaris is the funniest guy I know, and his skill with words is impressive, but I can’t just read his essays. I have to hear Sedaris speak his words, otherwise those words aren’t nearly as funny. I’ve always bought David Sedaris’ books on audio. Seeing him on stage was exactly like listening to his audiobooks, but with an extra sensory dimension. Strangely, the 3D visuals didn’t add much to his jokes—he’s kind of ordinary looking. He did wear a white shirt and tie, but with culottes, and even that outfit looked conservative on him. No, what makes you love the dude is his voice—and words.

Because Sedaris is so successful, I have to consider him as a role model for writing. I wish I could write blog essays that are as entertaining and funny as those I’ve discovered in the six books of his I’ve listened to so far. Even though I have to hear Sedaris, I’ve bought a number of his books in hardback to study. If I was a young person hoping to make it big putting words together for sale, I’d deconstruct David Sedaris’ career carefully. Strangely though, Sedaris reminds me of two 19th century authors who made piles of dough touring and telling funny stories based on their printed work: Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

The number one Sedaris lesson, is write funny stuff, a hard task, but also write funny stuff that matches your voice. Woody Allen was always great at doing this too. And thinking back, I can remember a lifetime of standup comedians that did just that too. As a kid I can remember reading Bob Hope books, and it was impossible to read them without hearing Hope’s voice and delivery in my head. Which makes me wonder, did P. G. Wodehouse or James Thurber ever go around entertaining people live? This makes me wonder all the more if Sedaris is a comic or humorist. It’s probably easier to break in through print than performing. Jenny Lawson has done a wonderful job as The Bloggess, but will we ever see her on stage like Sedaris? Do all funny writers eventually go live? But I could also ask, do all comedians eventually publish humor books?

As much as I’d love having the skill of writing funny essays, I’d never want the task of reading them in public.  Of course, lesson number two for becoming a successful writer like David Sedaris, is learning to speak in public, a scary concept for me. Evidently, Sedaris has spent countless nights in hotels, interacting with thousands of strange people personally before and after going on stage in front of millions. Sedaris seemed extremely at ease hanging out with us, even though we outnumbered him 1,000 to 1. Sedaris is so engaging, it’s hard not to feel like you know the guy, and even want to hang out with him. What kind of mental abilities are required to talk to people for two hours and not bore them? Does he have an overwhelming need to be liked, or has he learned that with selling books he must sell himself? Is this a requirement for all would-be writers? I assume most would-be writers are like me, introverts. Does a successful literary career require extroversion?

The third writing lesson I took away from seeing David Sedaris the other night is: Pay attention to other people. Sedaris read from his diary, making it obvious he’s a keen observer and collector good anecdotes. Funny stuff is everywhere. I’m surprised by how many jokes he just picked up off the ground. Having long lines of people queue up to get their book signed is a great resource of story ideas. Just be patient and let them talk. Sedaris’ early books were all about his family and himself, but as time passed more of his material came from observations of strangers he met in his travels. This is why Dickens and Twain were so popular. They were great people observers. Just look at the list of named characters Dickens created. Often they were based on real people. Dickens and Twain ended up their lives by touring the world enthralling audiences acting out their most famous characters and scenes. How much of great writing is witnessing those scenes and how much is imagining them? Did David Sedaris really feed his tumor to an old snapping turtle?

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