Humor is no laughing matter

Kevin Cowherd

February 15, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd

Every once in a while, I'll be at a party and some glassy-eyed stranger will come up and say: "You the guy who writes for the newspaper?"

"That's me," I say brightly.

Then I wait for him to stick out his hand and say: "You know, I never used to read the paper. Too much gloom and doom. But one day I was cleaning out the parakeet cage and there was your column, partially shredded and soiled but still legible. The one about dental hygienists, I think. And it . . . I don't know, it was the funniest thing I ever read.

"Even though our dog Lucky had just been run over and I'd lost my job at the bottling plant and Emma wasn't feeling too well, I laughed till the tears streamed down my face. And I thought: 'Larry, how bad can things be when you're able to have a good chuckle like that?' It really turned me around. Now I'm off Prozac and we got a new cocker spaniel named Rusty and the bottling plant is gonna start hiring again. Emma's feeling much better, too. Your column gives me something to look forward to every day."

But what he says is: "That crab dip sure looks good."

Then he rakes a cracker through the dip, fishes another beer from the cooler and saunters off, oblivious to the pain and humiliation he's caused.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens with unnerving frequency when you write humor.

It's at moments like these that I think: Look, you don't need this aggravation. You could open a . . . a deli or something. String a few feet of pepperoni from the ceiling, put a big jar of dill pickles near the register -- people will beat down the doors to get in.

Then the only aggravation you have is when the price of provolone goes up a few cents. Once the place gets on its feet, you hire some illegal alien to run it for you, pay him off the books -- hell, you don't have to deal with the public at all.

Please. Don't get me started on the public. I can't tell you how many times a man has come up and said: "My wife reads you all the time. She thinks you're very clever."

Then there is an awkward pause, during which you hope he adds: "Of course, I'm a big fan, too. There's a literate quality to your humor that hearkens all the way back to, oh, Mark Twain. I see elements of Thurber and Perelman in your work, too, only their stuff wasn't as, whatchacallit, finely honed.

"Anyway, me and the wife, we fight over who gets to read your column first. The other day, she tried to snatch it away and I nearly stabbed her with the butter knife. 'Betty,' I said, 'you ever do that again, I swear to God I'll cut you!' Yep, that's how much your column means to us."

Instead he says: "I gotta be getting along now."

Oh, it tears you up. This is what I mean when I say this sort of work is not for everyone.

All people tend to see is the fun side of this job: the casual disregard for facts, the holier-than-thou posturing, the which-way-is-the-wind-blowing opinion pieces, the vicious lampoons of the disenfranchised, the sick, the elderly.

Look. I'm not going to pretend all that isn't enjoyable. I'm just saying the job can be an emotional roller coaster, with a lot more lows than highs when it comes to reader response (hah!).

Here's another one that really burns me up. You'll be at a restaurant -- this is on those few occasions when you can actually scrape a few pennies together to eat out.

Suddenly, just as you stab a forkful of iceberg lettuce, a woman will appear at your side.

And she'll say: "I really liked your column the other day . . . gee, what was it on again?"

"Dieting?" you say, trying to be helpful.

"No, that one was stupid."

"The dancing-impaired?"

"Oh, geez, no. I couldn't even get through that one."

"Natural childbirth?"

"Trite. Didn't like that one at all."

This goes on for several more minutes, with this . . . this fool ripping everything you've written, everything you've poured your heart and soul into for the past month, until finally you mention: "Health clubs of the living dead?"

"Hmmm . . . maybe." she says. "Weather man's calling for snow tomorrow."

Calm down, calm down, you tell yourself. What good would it do to mention the smear of Thousand Island dressing currently glistening above her lip, or the fact that her napkin is stuck to the bottom of her shoe?

Instead all you say is: "Two or three inches, I hear."

Because you're above that sort of thing.

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