Friday, August 05, 2011

The Fragility and Robustness of Humor

Remember a time when you laughed so hard you nearly cried? They're very close sometimes, those particular extremes of emotion. I've been watching this video from the Philoctetes Center (unfortunately closed now) about poet Marie Ponsot's struggle with aphasia. It's moving and wonderful for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that this amazing woman and gifted poet is 90 years old!

But if you watch for just a few minutes from about 1:35:55 onward, you can listen to a writer in the audience speak about his stroke. What's so peculiarly moving is that he is a writer of humor, and that this part of his work is not returning to him.

In discussions of craft, we often hesitate to talk about the writing of humor, as if it were something so flimsy and frangible that it would die if we did.

But humor can be much more robust than that. Humor's tough. It often comes from having grown a thick skin, and it can help others do that.  Leonard Marcus's collection of interviews, Funny Business, is compelling precisely because those thirteen comic writers are unafraid in this regard.

On page 88 of Funny Business, there's a picture of the 8- or 9-year-old Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) at Cub Scouts. He's out of uniform. He's looking right into the camera. His chin is set. He has a scowl firmly fixed upon his face. There are universes of intent behind that scowl.

A couple of other kids in that picture, like the young Daniel, are not engaged in the knot-tying that's going on. They, however, are not taking on the world.

I hope that writer finds his funny voice again. When he does, we may learn something about how humor operates in the brain. Unfortunately there won't be a Philoctetes roundtable to bring that knowledge to the world.

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