To call Steve Almond a humor writer would be to call Tito Puente a drummer or Rollie Fingers a mustache-grower. He is the author of ten books of fiction and non-fiction. His latest, God Bless America: Stories is due out in October. Touch his words on this page and you will become more talented.
Almond on writing and when it happens to be funny
My general goal is to aim for a painful truth and use the mighty shield of humor to avoid getting too seriously hurt. But I try not to consciously adopt a style or tone (i.e. "I will now try to be funny") because that never works. It's more a matter of pursuing the material.
Almond on who and what is funny
For me, most humor comes from tragedy -- the simultaneous confession and forgiveness of unbearable truths. In other words: the forgiveness is the joke. So basically, any time we're dealing with transgressive feelings. Shame. Rage. Lust. The inherent moral absurdity of our current political climate is a great example. The insatiable greed and hypocrisy, the mind-bending rationalizations -- it's all so incredibly sad. But Stewart and Colbert make their nut by converting that stuff into laughs. I also laugh (most people do, I think) when the velocity of truth exceeds normal standards.
Almond on literary humor
Humor has to serve an emotional purpose. It's not enough to be making jokes. You have to be emotionally committed to telling the truth, as well.
Almond on humor as a means to disarm
The one person who gets to speak truth to King Lear is the Fool. And why? Because he's "just kidding around." This is why Colbert was the only person in America to tell George W. Bush what a pathetic wannabe cowboy he was.
Almond on why he writes humor
It's just the mechanism I developed to get myself heard. This happened long ago, in my family. If you wanted any stage time, you had to be ready to deliver some laughs. But I think most people have the capacity to write funny. It's the one bio-evolutionary gift we developed to cope with our big, fat, self-conscious, self-thwarting, morally afflicted brains. Also: if i tried to write how I feel, both inside and about the world at large, I (and my readers!) would want to commit suicide.
Almond on when you should try and write funny
I'd advise people NOT to try to be funny. Just run toward the shame and rage and all those other horrible memories and feelings and let the humor emerge intuitively. The main thing I tell young writers is to allow the full range of their personalities onto the page. Don't muzzle the funny stuff in some effort to prove you're a "serious" writer. I did that for ten years before I figured out that I was really just a "boring" writer. Then I loosened up and allowed some of my crazy out of the bag. I've been much happier (by which I mean "less depressed") since.
Almond on humor writing advice
My only real advice is to get rid of anything that feels self-conscious or inessential. This usually requires me to cut 90% of my first draft. Which is an inefficient way of doing business. But the reason published work is said to read so fast is because the writer got rid of all the B material.
Steve Almond is the author the story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books Candyfreak and (Not That You Asked). His most recent book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, came out in Spring 2010. He is also, crazily, self-publishing books. This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey, is composed of 30 very brief stories, and 30 very brief essays on the psychology and practice of writing. Letters from People Who Hate Me is just plum crazy. Both are available at readings.
- March 27, 2012