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Humor, boredom and literary pyrotechnics

By Hannah Selinger | RAW STORY COLUMNIST

It isn’t often that I take my mother’s advice, and it is even less often that I repeat things she says to me on the page. I don’t know how many of my columns she reads (not all of them, I assume), but I do know how many of them she comments on (hardly any of them). So when she does say something, I tend to mull it over.


“I really liked your last column,” she told me Saturday. “It was very funny, and not as acerbic as your other pieces.”

Acerbic, I thought? Do I, or do I not, write for a partisan website? My writing may be researched, but it is also fundamentally biased. So isn’t my acid-tongued response to right wing politics part of the job description?

Either way, this got me thinking. My editor had sent me an earlier e-mail, telling me that my column had made him laugh out loud. When the piece finally hit the website late last week, it received four times as many comments as my columns usually receive. Okay, some of the comments weren’t great—“When’s this story gonna come down? It’s weak,” writes Reader Joe—but there was, at the very least, a fervent response. What made this article different from my other rants?

The answer was humor, but I never thought I was being funny. Writing about myself is an easy way out of the 800-words-per-week grind, and if my life, comedy of errors that it is, comes across as funny, well, so be it. But humor was an inadvertent result of a process that is grueling at its worst and gratifying at its best. Not only do I have no concept of what other people find funny, but I also don’t think that my best articles are necessarily the ones that employ humor. My Columbia Daily Spectator editor once told me that rhetoric was no substitute for research, and my MFA program column-writing instructor used to plug the importance of grounded argument over cute opining. What would these two smart writers say about my most recent piece?

But here’s a better question: How do writers like me, who must produce material week after week, maintain a steady readership without writing the same thing over and over again? As a reader of columns, I can’t say I know the answer to that question. For years, I was a Maureen Dowd devotee, but even I became bored at some point with the same type of clever wordplay and president-bashing. I get bored with Krugman, too, and Herbert and—sometimes, but not often—Frank Rich. I even get bored with Hendrik Hertzberg, whom I heard this afternoon on the Al Franken show. I get bored because I always know what’s coming next.

Dowd will always bash the Bushies. Krugman will always pick apart the deplorable economic policies of the administration. Herbert will always argue that the country is race biased. Rich will always tap into contemporary culture, while tearing the President a new one.

Well, here’s the thing. Maybe keeping people on their toes is as easy as being funny. I guarantee more people listen to Al Franken than Alan Colmes. Why? Because Al Franken is one of the funniest people in media, and Alan Colmes is one of the unfunniest. Is it rhetorical whoredom to cheapen my arguments by making them laughable? And I don’t mean laughable in the non-credible sense of the word, either. Would my readers be more inclined to read—and trust—my articles if they knew, for instance, that I am typing with a splinted middle finger, broken due to a missed pass in a pick-up football game in which I made not one important play? Would my political views be more salient if I were to impart last night’s story: Here, your faithful raconteur stands beside her car, embroiled in angry argument with a man named Nelson, who dislikes the bumper-sticker that reads, “George W. Bush Couldn’t Run A Laundromat”?

“Do you really believe that?” Nelson asked. “The man went to Yale.” (All jokes aside, this actually happened. This former Ivy-Leaguer was forced to explain that not all Ivy grads are smart. Or even close.)

If laughter is a means to an end, I’ll be funny. I’ll engage in whatever kind of literary pyrotechnics my readers desire, so long as they promise not to miss the point. So, please, remember this: Protect the Environment; Save Roe v. Wade; End the Death Penalty; Support Gay Marriage; Impeach George W. Bush; Bring Our Troops Home.

Oh, and before I forget—A man walks into a bar…

Hannah Selinger is a weekly contributor to Raw Story .


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