Humor in Books, and Other Places, Too! An Interview With H.C. Newton

KRR- What was the last thing that literally made you laugh out loud?

HC- No matter when it is that you're reading this it's likely something one of my dogs did in the last two hours. This is a bad question for me—I'm an easy laugh, honestly—when we're watching a movie/TV show as a family, I probably laugh out loud three times as often as anyone else in my family. I guess the most straightforward answer to your question is there's a joke at the beginning of Nobody (Bob Odenkirk's John Wick movie) that really got me rolling last weekend.


As a published writer of humor, are you hard to make laugh? Do you find yourself taken out of the moment to dissect how a joke/idea was constructed so that you don't remember to laugh?


KRR- No, I'm an easy laugh, too. Sometimes, after the laughing is done, I'll think about why said thing was funny, but I don't let the breaking-down of the joke ruin it for me.


What kinds of things do you usually find to be funny? HC- This is a tough question, my friend. I don't know that I've considered this question before—definitely not in a "putting words to paper" sense, anyway. Well-written/performed comedy? Is it too much of a cop-out to go with that? I did some online searches around "types of humor" trying to help me with this answer and got nowhere. I think I have a low tolerance for broad farce (but I can think of exceptions to this) and off-color humor (again, I have a laundry list of exceptions to this—most of which I'll never admit to anywhere my mother/kids will see). Like I said, I'm an easy laugh—and I will embrace any kind of humor that's well done (or just not horribly written/performed).


KRR- Name a few books that have made you laugh?

HC- This is a dangerous question to ask me. Off the top of my head... - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (well, everything Adams wrote) - Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja - The Fran Lebowitz Reader - The Android's Dream by John Scalzi - Heartburn by Nora Ephron - Dave Barry Slept Here - The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz - White House Mess by Christopher Buckley - Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David - Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling - High Fidelity by Nick Hornby - You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism by Amber Ruffin, Lacey Lamar - The Tales of Pell by Delilah S. Dawson, Kevin Hearne

I'm going to force myself to stop there, I could keep going for pages.


KRR-How do you incorporate humor into your writing (blogging)?

HC- I actually tend to delete most of the humor in my posts before I hit the button—I think it too often undercuts what I'm trying to say or makes me seem flippant and insincere. I try to inject a bit in headlines or section heads (frequently, it's subtle enough that I might be the only one who sees the humor). If I can find a way to make a joke about myself, I'll take it—I don't want to be laughing at an author/book that I like (more importantly, don't want to laugh at one I didn't like)—that almost always comes across as mean, even if I'm not trying to be.


KRR- Is there anything off limits in comedy?

HC- Absolutely. But that line is going to differ from writer-to-writer/creator-to-creator and from audience member to audience member. How's that for wishy-washy? But every person has a line, they may not be aware of it, but there are things they'll encounter/say that they'll just say, "Nope, that's not acceptable."

Somewhere (and I keep looking through my books to see if I can find where it was, and it's driving me crazy that I can't find it—and search engines haven't helped, either), C. S. Lewis talks about how he can appreciate dirty jokes (he probably uses "ribald" or "coarse"). Essentially, he has no problem enjoying at least semi-clever wordplay without enjoying the offensive bits. There's something to that—if an author/performer is going blue for the sake of going blue, I find that boring and generally not funny. But if someone is crossing a line for a reason—and is clever about it? I'll find myself laughing.


In his book, Nine Nasty Words, John McWhorter talks about the evolution of profanity—what words are acceptable to use in various eras. And even while discussing the contemporary "Voldemort word" (the N-word), he talks about ways and in contexts that it's acceptable to use. He did the same thing with "bitch," (there's a similar passage in Stamper's Word by Word). There's not a direct correlation between these ideas and what's off-limits in comedy, but there are a lot of parallels in my mind. You should check that book out.


But sure, off-limits...jokes about committing murder/assault and sexual violence? I can't see how those don't cross the line no matter the audience, or the one making the joke. (obviously, I'm talking about actual murders—fictional murders have been funny for centuries) I'd throw in blasphemy, too—but that's a line that varies a lot even amongst the devout of each system (but I think one ought to err on the side of caution there, but I know I'm in the minority there). Beyond that? It's going to depend on the audience and occasion.


When writing Zoth-Avarex did you have lines in your head as you wrote? Or did that come up in the editing? Or were there any?


KRR- Turning the tables on me, again. This is what I get for interviewing an interviewer! But as an answer to your question, I don't think I have any conscious lines in mind while writing. My jokes tend to come at the expense of the powerful, and of institutions, so I don't really worry about offending anyone. But if a questionable bit made it into one of my books, I would double check it with beta readers to make sure it wasn't offensive.


Now back to a question for you! On a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being dead serious, and 10 being non-stop jokes) what is the level of humor you usually prefer to read?

HC- Obviously, I have to ask about the scale in writing before I talk. In your first novel did you say, I'm going to go for as many jokes as I can fit (or something) and then now that you've gotten it out of your system you tuned it down? Or was it a "for this story as I have to be just looney, and for that story I need to be X?" While editing, did you come across a passage and say, "Nope, not enough jokes, I've got to add something."


KRR- It's difficult to look back and try to determine my mindset at that time, but I think the floodgates just opened, and I whole-heartedly embraced the silliness of the situations in the book. If anything, I ended up taking jokes out of it, quite a few, actually. Each time I would go through it I would find something else that wasn't funny enough to make the cut, or felt like a joke for a joke's sake alone. My editor gently let me know that some things just weren't funny, and after taking a more critical look, I agreed.


HC- Back to your question. I don't know that I have a blanket preference. It depends on what I'm reading/reading for. If I'm reading a book that is supposed to be a humorous novel, then I want it to be as close to 10 as you can be without sacrificing the story (John Scalzi, Duncan MacMaster, Scott Meyer, and K.R.R. Lockhaven are good examples) of that. If you have a thriller about a serial killer (Thomas Harris, Val McDermid, etc.) I don't want a lot of humor—1.5, say (just so the authorities can crack a joke to ease the pressure they're under). I prefer my P.I.'s (and Urban Fantasy wizards, lycanthropes, druids in that mold) to let the quips fly in dialogue and in their first-person narrative, so maybe 5-7 for them. Action heroes (see Lee Child, Nick Petrie, Steph Broadribb) should have a wry observation or two, and maybe a couple of smart-aleck cracks per novel, but you don't want a lot of laughs to ruin the tension—maybe 3-4.


He doesn't typically write fiction (and when he does, he's usually in danger of overdoing it—but typically hangs out in the 8.7-10 range), but outside of that Dave Barry is one of the best at varying the humor based on need—and he keeps getting better at it. Typically, his books are 8+, but he knows when to slow it down—and how far to do so. I first saw him do that in the mid-90s, before then I don't know if he could. But he can take a book full of laughs like You Can Date Boys When You're Forty, which features a family vacation to Israel. Most of the chapter about that trip is just as silly and full of laughs as the rest of the book, and then he starts talking about the common humanity of those in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even gets to something verging on spiritual insight—right before making a dumb joke about cell reception or something.


I thought I was finished with this answer, but I just started Mick Herron's Reconstruction, which is a tense, taut, thriller about a horrible situation. And yet...the narration is clever, witty, and hilarious. Somehow he's able to write that way without detracting from the tension—I can't explain it. It almost makes the horror even worse. Now, you don't laugh during the book (at least not in the first quarter of it) but there's no denying that the writing is filled with humor (see also his Slow Horses). So, maybe that puts an asterisk on what I said in the first paragraph. If you're a wizard like Herron is, the rules don't apply.


Have I given you a straight answer to anything? What a pain...


KRR- You're not a pain at all. I love these answers! They're very well thought out. You're obviously a prolific reader, and I'm jealous of your ability to retain the things you read!


What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you?

HC- I can't honestly think of anything. I asked my wife and kids, too—they all came up blank. I don't think funny things happen to me, which just means I have to work harder when I tell an anecdote, I guess.


KRR- Alright, then what is the funniest thing you’ve ever seen/heard/read/written?

HC- That really varies over time, doesn't it? There was a time when I would've thought I'd never encounter anything funnier than Bob Newhart's first comedy album. Then it was reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or any number of Python bits/movies. Then I found Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H (Altman's movie is almost as good). Oh, I mentioned Dave Barry Slept Here earlier—I cannot tell you how many times I read that in high school (I still smile if I read it/a portion of it). "The Funniest" is a moving target. At this point you've got to be expecting me to me say that—what's funny depends on your mood, the kind of day you had, who you're with (think about when you're young and watching something with your parents as an example), your health/amount of sleep, and so on. I'd still rank those specifics as contenders for the funniest thing I've seen/heard/read, but I don't know if they'd come out on top.


When I read the question, though, what flashed through my mind was a night a couple of years ago. My sons and I would watch Comedy Central's Corporate every week. I don't remember what episode it was, or even what character said something—but the line was so perfect my 18 and 19-year-old sons and I laughed so hard (and so loudly) that I had to hit "pause" because we'd missed the rest of the scene and we woke up the other three people in the house (and they were notamused). I don't know if it was the funniest thing I've ever seen—but I'm not sure I've laughed harder.


On second thought, the funniest thing I've seen or heard was probably something that Letterman or O'Brien did years ago that I've completely forgotten about.


KRR- I love Conan!


While teetering on the razor’s edge of the all-consuming void, is humor the best tool we have to fight the existential dread of a finite and bewildering existence?

HC- Sure, wrap things up with a softball question. Is it THE best tool? For many, yes. Probably not for all—certainly it's better than many tools. Maybe it's just because I'm at the end of writing a lot more than I'm used to about humor, but I can't think of a better to use.


While I was mulling on this question, I read Ben Folds' memoir and when I read this passage, it made me think of this question.

"I sensed the weight of humor early on. I believe, to my core, that the saddest things are often best illuminated by humor, and I’ve always felt compelled to express emotion through a comic lens. The type of laughter can indicate the height from which we fear we may fall, the depths to which we could so easily plummet, and the effort required to retain composure in our darkest times. And, of course, sometimes life is just funny."


I think laughter and humor are fantastic coping mechanisms—gallows humor is rampant in certain vocations for just cause. Right? I'd think it's almost essential for a firefighter.


Humor can strip away pretense, it's a great way of maintaining perspective—we are just creatures running around in a vast universe, and we too often inflate the importance of our purpose and place in it, and humor helps us remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.


I guess that might be a better tool to fight the dread—having an honest awareness of our importance and place in the grand scheme of things, and humor is a great tool to get us there.


KRR- Your answer is great, and it immediately brought me to the ending of The Sirens of Titan (have you read it?) Without spoilers, I'll simply say that the ending changed my life at the time, because it made a joke, a huge joke, of the entirety of human existence. It made feeling small and insignificant liberating in a way, like it was something that could be joked about. I hope that made some sense...


HC- I haven't read that--I'm not the Vonnegut-reader that I always feel like I should be. Adding that to my list!


H.C. Newton's wonderfully bookish blog can be found at www.irresponsiblereader.com