Posted on December 10, 2013
This conversation between George Plimpton and Garrison Keillor, part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review, was recorded live at 92Y on November 28, 1994. We are able to share this recording thanks to a generous gift in memory of Christopher Lightfoot Walker, longtime friend of the Poetry Center and The Paris Review. Here is an excerpt from the full interview that ran in The Paris Review as The Art of Humor No. 2 in the fall of 1995.
What is the first mistake that someone trying to write humor almost invariably makes? What goes wrong almost invariably?
When some people sit down to write humor, they adopt a giddy tone of voice, a whooping or comic warble, so that the reader will know it’s funny. It’s the writing equivalent of a clown suit. This does not wear well. Humor needs to come in under cover of darkness, in disguise, and surprise people. You don’t want to get that gdoing, gdoing, gdoing
sound in your writing. It makes the reader feel sorry for you.
Isn’t it possible that one of the problems with humor is that a lot of it is devoted to the topical, which then disappears so you no longer know quite what you should be laughing at?
That’s true of stand-up comedy; it goes bad in about six months. But the problem for written humor is that nobody reads anymore. This makes humorists feel invisible, which is OK for poets, but humor is the only literary genre labeled by the effect it is supposed to have on people. So humor without an audience is pointless. No humorist has unpublished stuff. There is no great unpublished humor.