Sunday, January 12, 2014

Who Decides What’s Funny?

And for how long? On December 17, 1877, at a banquet celebrating the poet Whittier’s 70th birthday, Mark Twain applied his famous humor to four of the most revered “littery men” of the time: Emerson, Holmes, Longfellow, and Whittier. Today, Twain is by far the most beloved of that group. But at the time, newspapers derided the speech as in “exceedingly bad taste, and… he ought to have known better.”

The misstep dogged him. It affected book sales, may have motivated his departure for Europe, and definitely resulted in shame, apology, and—this is Mark Twain, after all—a recantation of the apology.

And all without the Web. Mark Twain’s speech, intended for playful humor and certainly not to shame anyone, raises two questions pertinent to contemporary writers.

What if you think it’s funny, but your audience doesn’t?
What if you change your mind later?

Tip: The best way to ward off future regret is to think before speaking or publishing.


This is tricky. If you’re a mainstream or literary novelist who adores adventure, you might want to ponder long and hard about identifying your readers. How do you attract the largest readership without extending so far into the periphery that you annoy/insult/drive off your real audience? Novelists rarely, if ever, enjoy the luxury of focus groups. You’ll have to guess. But do that shrewdly. If you want Knopf or Little, Brown to consider you, don’t alienate them by adding even a smidgen of what some might consider “exceedingly bad taste.”


You might outgrow anything sophomoric or cute or questionable that you once considered hilarious. What entertains us at thirty is often less amusing at sixty. But post it and—you can’t take it back.

That might lose you an agent or contract. Of course it might not. Why is writing always a matter of weighing choices? Why must you balance the electricity of risk against the hazard of accidentally starting a fire? You want to be original. You want to be energetic. You don’t want to offend those you hope to amuse or impress. So pretend you really do have a focus group. And listen—carefully and without rationalization—to what you imagine its members would say.

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