Several years ago, I spoke at a gala dinner at a writers’ festival in Thunder Bay. Picture a hotel ballroom filled with about a hundred people seated at tables for ten. I had tried to inject some humourous self-mocking bits into the speech when I wrote it, and my lines seemed to pay off when, a few minutes in, a lone woman in the audience started to laugh – loud and long, semi-hysterically, and contagiously. I was encouraged by her vocal positive reinforcement, and so was the rest of the room. I settled into a comic groove, became funnier, and the audience joined in with peals of laughter. At the end of the speech, I floated back to my seat, face flushed, buoyed by a large wave of enthusiastic applause.
It was the best reception I’ve ever had when speaking or reading, But I've always wondered if the woman who started the laughter chain reaction was laughing about something else altogether. Maybe her tablemate had just whispered something hilarious to her, or passed her a really funny note.
All of my novels have had comic elements in them, mostly because I find few experiences as gratifying as making someone laugh. My humour, however, trucks more in wry asides than in laugh-out-loud punch lines. And I’m not much of a laugher myself – I’m more of a quiet chuckler, or a one-yelp utterer. Though there was this one time when I watched an episode of Ricky Gervais’s series Extras – it might have been the one in which David Bowie composes a song in a bar about Ricky’s character that starts with the lyrics “Chubby little loser”– that had me laughing so hard that I couldn’t stop for what felt like five minutes. I could not unscrunch my wreathed-in-grins face, my abdomen hurt, and my eyes were watering. My body was beyond my control, so gripped was I by amusement. It was painful. But memorable.
With my inclination toward humour, you might think I’d know some good literary jokes, or jokes about writers, authors and reading, yet I can only think of two. The first was told to me by D.M. Thomas, author of the The White Hotel, when a group of us were posing for a picture at the Humber School for Writers, and he was trying to make us smile for the photo. It goes like this:
*A man walks into a library, goes up to the counter, and says, “Can I have a pint of bitter, please?” The librarian says, “My dear sir, this is a library!” And the man says, “I’m sorry,” then whispers, “Can I have a pint of bitter?”*
Too bad that joke only really works if you say it out loud (and whisper the punch line), preferably in Don Thomas's Cornish accent, rather than read it on a screen or page.
The other joke about writers I know is a dated one that I’ve seen around online. As written, it’s kind of sexist, so I’ve revised and updated it here:
*A novelist comes home from teaching a continuing education creative writing class (one of the several part-time jobs she works at to pay her rent) to find a fire truck and police car – lights flashing – stationed outside the low-rise apartment building where she lives. Her neighbours mill about outside, in varied states of distress.
Her teenage son runs over to her immediately and breaks down crying, though he appears to be physically unharmed.
“I’m so sorry, Mom,” he says, through his tears. “I was heating up a frozen pizza for dinner under the broiler, and the landline rang, and I answered it, and it was your literary agent, and the next thing I knew, smoke was billowing out of the oven, and the alarm went off, and the super ran through the hallway yelling for everyone to evacuate the building, and the fire trucks came. Everyone’s okay, even Mrs. Watson from 2B, she was carried downstairs by those muscle guys in 2C, but Harley ran away in the confusion, and someone else’s cat is missing too, and–“
“Wait, wait,” the writer says. “Back up a minute. My agent called?”*
Then there’s the New Yorker cartoon I included up at the top of this post, the one that shows a man at a desk looking at an open book and saying into a phone, “Oh not much. Just sitting here sifting through an old scrapbook of past injustices and imagined slights.”
What does it say about me that I assume the man in the cartoon is a writer? Don’t answer that question, but please answer this one: do you know of any good jokes about reading, writing and writers? If you do, send them my way – I can always use a laugh.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Kim Moritsugu is the author of six novels to date, including Looks Perfect, nominated for the Toronto Book Award; The Glenwood Treasure, shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Best Crime Novel award; The Restoration of Emily, serialized on CBC Radio; and the just published comedy of suburban manners The Oakdale Dinner Club. She also leads a walking tour for Heritage Toronto and teaches creative writing through The Humber School for Writers.