humour writing

Lessons in Laughter

“If you can’t make your significant other laugh, what hope do you have that anyone else might laugh with you?”

by Rosanna Stevens

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be funny. It’s something that’s hard to admit because I think for a lot of writers and people who are, for whatever reason, practicing being funny, there’s this fear that if I think about it too hard, or if I write about it, or talk about it, somehow any funniness I did have will evapourate. It will do this like a rare bird who alights each time I try and get a photo of it. I will lose all funniness forever. I will never again be able to make my partner laugh, even when I do The Baby Jesus Is a Dog Nativity Act, where I wrap our Moodle in a blanket and sing ‘Away In A Manger’ while he shuffles his eyebrows like he’s the only one who knows that the situation he has found himself in is deranged. If you can’t make your significant other laugh at you, what hope do you have that anyone else might laugh with you? Which is why I’ve been thinking about how to be funny – not just funny to friends and family but really funny. Internationally funny. David Sedaris funny. So when Sedaris came to town last week, attending was the only option. Perhaps, somewhere between reading published essays and personal diary entries, he might let slip the secret to his often inclusive and warm and also unfortunately slightly ableist humour.

You can access most of the things Sedaris read aloud online, which included ‘Now We Are Five’. I read that David Sedaris once told an audience that he marks where people laugh in his stories, and while we sat there, listening to him in the flesh, I wondered if where we laughed differed from anywhere else. What did we laugh at, and why? In Australia, I have noticed, we are brash and fast with our criticism. That something is crap can slip from our lips without caring much what others might think. To think something isn’t good enough is safe. But in the wake of this easy criticism we give and join in with, when it comes to being the ones vulnerable enough to produce work, we are deeply caring: I find myself apologising for myself before I get anything wrong, like an insurance plan for my opinions. I have friends who feel as though sharing their work with the world must come with looking at their shoes the whole time. This lack of weird modesty seems to be exactly what I admire in David Sedaris – because while he is completely self-depricating in his writing, he is also unapologietic for seasoning his words and scenarios with his honest personal thoughts and opinions. It is as though he is saying, ‘There, in that moment, that is what happened truly, and I cannot change it. If I did, it would make the situation I am telling you about less human.’ If he did change it, then maybe we wouldn’t feel Sedaris is the humourist who captures Western thought in the honest ways we find so startling and enjoyable.

But brave stories promise a scarred humourist – to make honesty funny means being ballsy enough to face up to mistakes. Sedaris has regrets, and on stage last week he admitted to one: a past French tutor from his time in Paris features at the core in his essay Me Talk Pretty One Day. In the piece, Sedaris wrote of wary students protecting their heads and stomachs just in case their tutor, in one of her manic parlez-en-Francais states, decided to land a passing smack on them. He decorated the portrait of his frightened struggle to learn French with the tutor terrorising students using pencil eye-pokes and thrown chalk. The story was a hit – the title of one of his more famous essay collections, published by Little Brown – and eventually word of the essay reached the starring tutor. On stage, Sedaris revealed that one of his literary regrets was polarising the tutor’s behavior and omitting how much her class truly adored her. I don’t know if this regret arrived before or after the essay was published and if the tutor got in touch with him, hurt by his portrayal. Certainly, the anecdote made me think about where the cost of our laughs lies, and how we find anything funny at all if it’s always at an expense.

When I was a kid, I remember my mother reading quietly on our sofa, and suddenly bursting into laughter at a sentence in Richard Glover’s In Bed with Jocasta. I’d never seen her truly laugh with a book before, so when it happened I was fascinated. And while a small smile secreted its way between my lips, I realised I wanted my words to make my mother laugh like that. I was seven and at that stage my mother represented the entire adult world: to make her laugh was to be truly funny and probably internationally renowned, maybe even have a book published that was not made of staples and printer paper. Of course eventually I learnt those things that most coming-of-age stories summon: parents are only humans – not all of the humans, always use protection when embarking on a path to sexual discovery, sometimes funny things are mean, everyone is different, sneaking out a window and making it to your first house party is just practice for working a nine-to-five job. I don’t know if I’ll ever make my mother laugh with my words, regardless of whether I take Sedaris’s approach or pursue my own road to humour. I have learnt that I’m more of a fan of Bill Bailey’s music humour than Richard Glover’s writing. My partner loves this joke Kitty Flanagan does, about genuinely trying on a language when you’re in a foreign country, until a French woman kicks you out of her shop for being stupid. For my sisters, Danny Bhoy is their poison. My father has always enjoyed John Cleese. Funny takes such a variety of punch lines, Sedaris is just one form – and he, like others, is an example of how to do it right and wrong, and how to do it at all.


Rosanna’s most recent work, a fictional essay titled ‘Interviews with the Other Three Quarters’, is currently available through Seizure. You can find Rosanna on Twitter.

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