Let’s get the facts out of the way: trying to make a living writing humor is an exercise in self-deception on par with toupees and elevator shoes. And don’t let this essay fool you. It’s just forestalling the inevitable. I envision myself pondering the humor writing successes of Laurence Stern and S.J. Perelman as I feed copies of Tristram Shandy and Westward, Ha! into the sputtering woodstove for warmth. An orange stack of Wodehouse Penguins cowers nearby.
The trouble is there are just no outlets for literary humor these days. So you can imagine my happiness when the New York Times Sunday Magazine premiered its humorous “Endpaper” column a few years ago — and then decided to publish some of my own humor pieces. Someone pinch me!
Well, someone did, and I’d like to tell you about it. It began when the editor said he’d be calling me up after the fact-checkers had gone over the piece. Fact-checkers? Understand we are talking about a humor piece titled “Gretel’s Skull Discovered!”, on the incredible discovery of Gretel’s tomb in the Black Forest. (Incidentally, for those of you skimming this, that never really happened. It will be important for you to play closer attention from here on in; no more parenthetical heads-up)
Anyway, the piece related other faux archaeological discoveries from the realm of fairy tales and folklore: the moldering cottage of the three bears, the Yugo-sized skull of the giant in the Jack and the Beanstalk story, and so on — all pretty far-fetched, n’est-ce pas? I wondered what the fact-checkers might have to say about the mummified remains of my non-existent braid-wearing heroine.
Actually, the first “factual difficulty” had to do with Hansel. In the piece I had written I had him emigrating to Constantinople where he opened a candy store and was eventually killed by an exploding mortar shell. I was informed that mortar shells weren’t around in 1453, before Constantinople fell. Fair enough. But did it matter that Hansel wasn’t around then either? That he’d never breathed a single, solitary, sugary breath? Still, some level of verisimilitude does help the humor. So I changed his method of death to an alchemical explosion. So far, so good.
The next difficulty involved young Jack, of beanstalk fame. I’d written that a cache of gigantic, fossilized beans had recently been discovered in England, but that efforts to rehydrate them had fallen through “due to lack of funding.” “‘Due to lack of funding’ is wrong,” said the editor. “The Times doesn’t use that phrase.” Yes, yes, but it sounded funny. In its wrongness. Hadn’t Mark Twain used “gwine” and “nome” to comic effect? This was evidently not a negotiable point. Again, I acceded. This time I could hear hundreds of grammarians and prose stylists across the nation breathing a collective phew of relief. I’d envisioned Strunk and White all set to spin in their graves. On 43rd Street in Manhattan, William Safire had just come in off a high window ledge.
Then there was a problem with Sneezy, one of Snow White’s seven abbreviated friends. “A portion of Sneezy’s scalp reposes in the Smithsonian,” I wrote, beside his brother Dopey’s kidney and Happy’s exploded sedan chair.” I was informed, with complete seriousness, that Sneezy and Dopey were not brothers, but merely colleagues. Colleagues? I stifled a giggle. “Uh, are you sure?” “Yes.”
I couldn’t believe this was happening. Had my editor forgotten we were talking about forest-dwelling gnomes? Or had the howling ridiculousness of the name Sneezy been lost on him? I was stunned. Would he now cite the incontrovertible datum that there are no mummified kidneys in the Smithsonian? And what of poor Happy’s expoded sedan chair? Wasn’t it, in fact, true that explosive devises weren’t used in anarchic acts against wealthy gnomes until a full century after Happy’s death? And who would object to Happy’s filially being linked to Sneezy anyway? Was there some litigious “Society of the True Descendants of Sneezy” waiting to take on The New York Times? A large silence loomed on the other end of the phone. The word “brother” would have to be removed.
Well, you would think the labyrinth couldn’t wind much further into itself. We are talking about a mere thousand-word humor piece. You would be wrong. There was yet one final indignity to be borne, and as a perfectly humiliating little fillip — a kind of sharp, parting kick — it had to do with the decorative feather in a leprechaun’s hat. I had written that a shepherdess had found the mummified body of a middle-aged leprechaun in a peat bog near her home, and said that the weensy creature had worn a diminutive felt hat with a feather which, “in a typical rite of passage among the wee folk, he would have plucked from the downy breast of an invisible bird.”
I learned that the fact-checkers had scoured Irish folklore — the verb “scoured” was actually used — and had not found a single instance of, nor allusion to, this charming little rite. I took a moment to compose myself before explaining that this was because I had invented it out of whole cloth in an effort — mirabile dictu — to be humorous. Didn’t writers sometimes just make things up? No?
But then it sort of hit me: maybe they had a point after all. You can’t have people blithely blurring the line between fact and fiction as though it didn’t matter. Didn’t that sort of misinformation lead to violence? Before you knew it people would be roaming the Emerald Isle jacklighting trolls and lynching leprechauns. Unicorns might even become extinct. Just like literary humor pieces. Which reminds me: “Endpaper” folded two years ago. Good night, Sneezy. And Gesundheit.
** (This essay was first published in Regeneration Quarterly.)