The perils of ironic funniness

I had a sobering experience some time ago at one of our local eateries. The restaurant sold this paper, and I watched as someone who looked like an out-of-towner picked up a copy to read it. I knew my column was in there, and I could watch as she started leafing through the pages.

Wow, I thought, this will be great. To see how someone who doesn’t know me or my work reacts to my humor! I tried to look as inconspicuous as I could, so she wouldn’t recognize me from the photo, but I couldn’t wait to see her reaction.

The title of the piece that week was “How to Be An Aging Parent,” and I had gotten good reactions from friends.


I could see that she had reached the page containing my column. “Ah, here’s something interesting,” I heard her say to her husband or boyfriend (or guy she was having an affair with).

I couldn’t wait to hear her first laugh, to hear her say to the man she was with, “This guy is funny!”

Maybe she had connections in New York. Maybe she was a literary agent. Who knew how far this could go?

But after a minute or two she said, grumpily, “Oh, he isn’t being serious,” and she went to the next page.

I felt a mix of emotions, none of them good. First, I was crushed. No big deal; that’s almost an everyday experience for me. Second, I felt guilty. There she was, probably having trouble with her own aging parents, and thinking this might help her understand them, and all I presented was wit. And I began to realize that a lot of your success in humor depends on people knowing you’re a funny person before they even read or otherwise experience your work — especially if your humor is ironic (as is often the case for me).

I’ll show you what I mean.

Consider the following two quotes. Let’s call them A and B. One is from a famous philosopher and the other is from a famous humorist.

First, as usual, is A:

“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then, one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be happy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness.”

And next, no surprise, is B:

“Abstraction deals with possibility and actuality, but its conception of actuality is a false rendition, since the medium is not actuality but possibility. Only by annulling actuality can abstraction grasp it, but to annul it is precisely to change it into possibility. Within abstraction everything that is said about actuality in the language of abstraction is said within possibility. That is, in the language of actuality all abstraction is related to actuality as a possibility, not to an actuality within abstraction and possibility.”

For my more intellectual readers, I’m sure it’s obvious which one is the philosopher and which the humorist. But what about the rest of you? Not that I’m putting you down for not being intellectual; I don’t think of myself as an intellectual. I always pretend I know what people are talking about when they make Shakespearian references, but I usually don’t.

Anyhow, here’s the answer:

A is from Woody Allen (actually from a wonderful little speech by Diane Keaton in Allen’s 1975 film, “Love and Death”).

And B is from Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, who, so I’ve read, did have a good wit, but was not in the same league as Allen. And let’s face it, there really was not that much to laugh about in mid-19th-century Denmark.

It’s all about expectations. If you know someone is funny, then you are primed to laugh at what they say or write. At a Woody Allen film, I start laughing when the opening credits are rolling by. But when I read Kierkegaard, I have no expectation of laughter, especially when I’m reading him in the original Danish.

So for me, as a humorist, the key is for people to know I’m at least trying to be funny before they start reading my work. I realized, after seeing that woman’s reaction, that a lot of my humor is indeed ironic, sometimes even bordering on the sarcastic. My titles often don’t suggest humor at all, e.g., a piece I wrote in March of this year: “An Inspiration.” It was about a woman who attained fame in her 90s when her diary was discovered in a dumpster. She wasn’t really an inspiration for me. For one thing, I never throw any of my writings away, so what are the chances I’ll be discovered that way? Secondly, becoming famous in my 90s isn’t what I have in mind, though actually getting to my 90s might be nice.