We live in an era of shortages. From water to income, there's dearth of the things we need to make life livable -- especially humor. Yes, we're lucky to have writers like Dave Barry and Nick Hornby to get us through a week or two with a smile on our faces. But once we've exhausted the obvious, where do we look next? Are we headed into the next humor shortage?
Fortunately for readers, there's lots of laughter to be found in places where one least expects it. Humor is not just a genre. It can be a part of any writer's literary toolkit, and deployed as needed. It's in the turn of the phrase as much as the pratfall or fart joke.
Probably the last place one might look for a great, funny, even hilarious piece of writing is a book on meditation. Unless you're hiding under a rock, you've been told meditation is good for you, and "good for you" is generally the most effective laugh-killer on the planet. But, if you're Dean Sluyter, and the book is Natural Meditation: A Guide to Effortless Meditative Practice, you know that laughter requires no practice.
Sluyter (pronounced "slighter") offers readers solid advice for meditation in prose that's often funny, and lessons that run toward the risqué. Here's the only meditation guide where the author demonstrates the "hammock pose." Sluyter soft-pedals his prose; he doesn't overplay the humor, but lets it cross the road. Not too much of a surprise for the author of Why the Chicken Crossed the Road and Other Hidden Enlightenment Teachings.
Era-sweeping political memoir is generally the stuff of self-congratulatory puffery. "Import" is inversely proportional to laughter, but in the case of Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage, humor is a big part of author's arsenal. Author and former congressman Barney Frank is well-known for his wit, and it's on full display here, even (perhaps especially) when he's explicating the inner workings of the sausage machine.
The first paragraph of the book gives the reader a great idea of Frank's approach: "In 1954, I was a fairly normal fourteen-year-old, enjoying sports, unhealthy food, and loud music. But even then I realized that there were two ways in which I was different from the other guys: I was attracted to the idea of serving in government and I was attracted to the other guys." No matter what your affiliation, there's a lot of dry wit. Frank is an equal opportunity observer of human frailty, including his own. He's so entertaining, you might even see sausage in a better light after reading his book.
Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Henry James are names one might associate immediately with humor. Nor would one think the meta-fictional combination of the two in Dan Simmons' compelling, suspense historical mystery novel The Fifth Heart would also be so funny. But make no mistake -- Simmons takes his characters and his suspense seriously. His detailed prose re-creates the post-Victorian era with meticulous care. The premise in The Fifth Heart is clever: Holmes, having deduced that he's a fictional character, seeks James' help in solving a mystery. It's a novel that really needs nothing more to be enjoyable.
But Simmons has so much fun sending up Holmes, James, and his own metafictional construct that he turns it into a rousing combination of satire and suspense. It helps that he's hardest on himself, as one of those narrators who pops in now and again to interrupt the story. The deadpan patter between authors and characters on every level adds a layer of laughter to this book that's transcendently hilarious.
We know that the internet is the new frontier for maliciousness and malingering. Fingers flicker across a keyboard and families fly asunder. It's an instrument with which one can commit social suicide on an international scale. None of this should be funny. But Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed makes the case for the enjoyability of embarrassing others.
Like any good comedian, Ronson takes aim at himself. "It’s like when I used to smoke and I’d hope the tobacconist would hand me the pack that read SMOKING CAUSES AGING OF THE SKIN instead of the pack that read SMOKING KILLS -- because aging of the skin? I didn’t mind that." Ronson manages to offer lots of fascinating dissection of a culture that's in constant flux, with prose that mines his astonishing powers of self-deprecation. The world is going to hell on a bullet train, but Ronson makes sure he gets there first.
The power of books that are funny, but don't look like it, is that you can have it both ways. Learn something and laugh out loud early and often. You can fight the humor shortage -- without recycling jokes.