Funny, how?

Megan Milks: You’re all hilarious. Where does the humor in your work come from? What kinds of strategies have you used to hone your comedic sensibilities?

Brontez Purnell: My humor is based in a very deep form of tragedy. Essentially, I have to laugh to keep from crying, or rather, I feel like I have such deep hands in comedy and drama at the same time that I’m always creating a balance. I also don’t feel like I’m really “honing” my comedy at this point. Sarcastic humor has become so formulaic and weaponized against us, that the older I get, I actually feel like my humor is becoming more fragmented and abstract. In the high school drama department I went to, the emphasis was on improv, and any type of deep improv training teaches you to think on your feet with lightning fast responses—and that is something you can’t ever really unlearn. I like humor because it’s a “fuck you” to the establishment. People who pride themselves as academics tend to find it lowbrow, but I think it takes a very heightened and in-tune mind to wield comedy in a way that makes people actually think.

Melissa Broder: When I was young, there was no internet porn. We had to carve our own porn out of stone or write it as stories. So, when I write sex, I write to turn myself on first. Then I edit for legibility and rhythm. When I write funny, it’s the same thing: make self laugh first; then edit the annoying out. Also, funny sex. I’ve always been somewhat of a ham. In high school, I ate paper in French class because I want unconditional love. In writing, I have a compulsive need to communicate from the recesses of the soul what I fear might be unpalatable. When I coat it in a funny shell, it assuages my fear of rejection.

Like in Melissa’s Milk Fed, my new book Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body is concerned with eating disorders, an arguably embarrassing topic that for many of us has achieved cultural fatigue. So, I knew I needed to make it funny in order to entice and reward readers. I open with parody and camp and a character who is exaggeratedly immature. All of our projects are dealing with subjects that are (in certain contexts) controversial or stigmatized: eating disorders, detransitioning, queer sluttiness (especially as it interacts with aging). Why was it important for you to bring humor to these topics and experiences, and what challenges came up for you in doing so?

Torrey Peters: There’s that truism that as time passes things that were funny get sadder, and things that were sad seem funny. I wasn’t intending to be funny. It’s just that writing a novel takes a long time, and as that time passed, I couldn’t sustain my sense of tragedy. All my complaints started to strike me as funny. Like, what, Gender? Hilarious! I’m mad about my sex-change? Ridiculous! Straight people doing straight people stuff? Lol.

MB: I don’t think of Milk Fed as a book about eating disorders so much as a book about appetites—physical hunger, sexual desire, spiritual longing, familial yearning—and the ways that we are pressured to compartmentalize these interdependent instincts. But compartmentalization is an illusion. My relationship with food is my relationship with god is my relationship with my mother (my first god) is my relationship to the desires I permit myself. Similarly, I can’t compartmentalize “funny” and “serious” topics if I want to stay alive. If there was no funny, the serious would have killed me a while ago (also, if you’ve ever thrown twenty-four slices of Kraft cheese out the window of a moving car as part of an obsessive food ritual, you know that funny things are dead serious and vice versa).

What’s your personal history of humor and how has it informed your writing?

TP: I feel funniest with other people. The origins of my humor came from just laughing with my friends. Like, I could never be a stand-up: all alone on a stage. I’m not that good on Twitter. I need set-ups, and one-upmanship, the space for callbacks. Now, maybe the response to that is: OK, but don’t novelists famously write alone? And yes, that’s true, but novels are usually multiple characters making jokes together. I discovered my humor in writing when I turned to fiction where the characters play off each other. By contrast, I was very unfunny as an essayist, which is the writing equivalent of stand-up: just you and the mic.

MB: I went to an Irish mystic once and we found a “shield-shaped being” inside my chest that had been passed down for generations in my family. The shield-shaped being could be nicotine addiction. It could also be sarcastic humor (shoutout to my Grandmom Eve and to my Dad, Bob Broder, gone to that big beautiful Marlboro Red in the sky). The mystic did a thing where she had me “let go” of the shield-shaped being. But I think I only pretended to let go (I’m a people-pleaser) because I still chew nicotine gum. And I’m still steeped in dark humor.

Historically, comedic modes have been devalued as low art—“mere” entertainment. While nobody’s really holding onto distinctions like high vs. low anymore, I am curious about where comedic modes fit, on a value scale, within literary fiction as a genre—or within, as relevant, women’s and/or gay and/or queer and/or trans fiction more specifically. Do you feel that fiction with a comedic bent gets dismissed within these worlds and within the culture of book awards, accolades, critical reception, etc.?

BP: I like using comedy because we live in a world where it’s not viewed as intellectually rigorous, when, in actuality, I think comics have way more emotion. You always hear about comedians who have to go crazy and get themselves back together in these epic ways, more than strictly dramatic actors. And you notice that more comedic actors can actually do dramatic roles than the other way around: when did you ever see Sean Connery playing a super funny person, whereas Mo’Nique, one of my favorite dramatists, who’s also funny, can do things all over the map. I think that comedians by nature are more versatile people, because so much of our form is based on reciprocity from the audience. If you’re doing something dramatic, you don’t really need the audience to do anything but sit there in silence. If you’re doing something for comedy, you have to elicit a reaction—comedy is a reaction-based form. I just think by nature, we are the gods of drama.

TP: I think that many of our most respected writers are funny. I just think they aren’t only funny. Because it’s not so much that comedy isn’t respected, it’s that I think what people find broadly funny has less overlap with what people think is dramatic. Even some generic joke about, I don’t know, “a Brooklynite carrying a canvas tote-bag” has a much narrower audience for whom that’s going to feel meaningful than, say, a drama about a lover dying. So the awards come around, and the judges can all agree that the dying lover story moved them, but only one of the judges laughed at the tote-bag joke. I find this with my own humor, especially within and about my own trans subculture. My best material has an audience of like a dozen individual people. I wouldn’t expect that best stuff to be recognized.

MB: I don’t have anything to add beyond Torrey’s tote bag. I think the tote bag says it all. So I’ll just share some of my favorite funny queer books: Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor, Crazy for Vincent by Hervé Guibert, Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger and 100 Boyfriends by our very own Brontez Purnell, Faggots by Larry Kramer, Inferno by Eileen Myles.

Torrey and Melissa, you’ve both been adapting your novels for the screen. A lot of the humor and social commentary of both books comes through the narration (and in Melissa’s case, through Rachel’s exuberantly lurid erotic fantasies). I’d love to hear a bit about how you’ve navigated the conversion to visual media, and how humor operates differently onscreen versus on the page.

TP: I think the trick for me is not to be too faithful in the adaptation. My favorite books are Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, and I have been disappointed by the TV adaptation, precisely because it is too faithful. It tries to do onscreen the things that were done in the book, and the screen just couldn’t hold all the same things. So for me, I’m just like, all my book gets me is a premise and a handful of characters—from there, the medium dictates everything, and I think you have to basically build it from scratch, especially if you’re moving towards a thirty-minute episodic format, which is what most comedies are. Hour-long seems to be able to hold the dramatic shape of novels a little better. So what’s funny on other TV shows will be funny for this one: namely the beats, one-liners, reversals etc. And what’s funny in the book . . . might not make it. I’m learning that the skill-sets required for writing novels and writing TV don’t have that much overlap, although some people may have both.

MB: The biggest challenge for me, especially coming from a poetry background, is how much shit has to happen. I feel this way when writing novels too, but especially when it comes to writing for the screen—it’s like, wait another thing has to happen? And another thing? So much happening! In poetry, there is always a turn in a poem, but it can be completely internal—a shift in perception (which is one definition of a miracle). But all these external happenings! Like, does anything actually happen in life? Not in mine.

Brontez, you often play with what we might call the “joke” of fiction writing: this constructed posture of inhabiting and expressing someone else’s interiority. Your narrators often closely resemble you—many of the stories in 100 Boyfriends seem to invite a conflation between author and character that you exploit to humorous (and other) ends. Yet you also bring varying degrees of embellishment and fantasy to your writing (correct me if I’m wrong, but you have not been on the cover of Rolling Stone?). Can you talk a bit about how you approach fiction as a way to write or perform the self?

BP: That book is not a memoir, but we obviously play with all these things. It fits in that kind of nebulous autofictional space.

I like a lot of fractured points coming together in the story. Even in my everyday real life, when the most tragic thing is happening—just where I’m from, and my family, we can go from tragedy to humor so quick, like in a matter of seconds. I remember when my mom had this medical problem and I had to fly back home in Alabama. I’m sitting there with my aunts and my mom is in the hospital bed, but she’s still like fucking cracking jokes and making the nurses laugh, as we’re all sitting there crying. I think generally out of great tragedy comes humor, these are reciprocal things that are going back and forth. And I think in a story format, what we’re always trying to arrive at is balance. I don’t think anything should be hysterically funny all the time or hysterically sad. What I’m always trying to do is go through what I call a zodiac of feelings—everything has to hit kind of an emotional point to feel well balanced. Of course I play with things like the absurd and the fantastical. Things that are stranger than fiction happen all the time. The couple of times I will put something actually really definitely autobiographically true in writing, people will be like, “well I know that part didn’t happen but this part definitely did.” I just think in the writing realm, there’s so much to play with. And when you’re trying to push the point of a story you have to be able to use all these tools.

Audience has come up a few times, so let’s talk bombing. Have you ever just flat-out bombed? I have, a few times, always in institutional spaces. I think the worst was the time I read a locker-room porn fantasy involving My Little Ponies (written in response to trans-exclusive bathroom legislation) to an audience of nervous midwestern undergrads and their appalled parents as the department chair twisted away from me in disapproval. The only thing surprising about this was my own surprise—in retrospect, I don’t mind having made these folks uncomfortable, but at the time I really just wanted to be loved.

TP: Yeah, I bombed the first time I read to an audience of trans women. I wrote this thing about crossdressing and shame, and it was supposed to be funny—cis people had always thought it was funny—but then, what that audience understood on a deep instinctive level was that I hadn’t worked my way through the shame, that I was just hoping to get a cheap laugh instead of having done the real work on myself. I was laughing at the surface because I was afraid of what was beneath. I had no real insight. I remember how sitting down after I read, no one made eye contact with me. The experience was formative in changing my perspective on audience, on who I wanted to laugh, the difference between an easy laugh and an earned one. I’m not sure that the real work of earning your jokes involves being funny.

MB: Reading poetry at a sports bar is never a good idea, is all I’ll say. Oh, one other thing: A manager once said that I should consider doing standup. I’m like, honey, no, I got into the writing game to be alone.

BP: I do remember doing this one really unfortunate open mic in San Francisco, where they invited me to read from my book Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger. That story’s like, it’s tragic and it’s funny and all that, but they put me after this woman who showed up in this weird gold-lame outfit, and she told the story about how she was best friends with her dad who molested her. She’s a little white woman and she took some trip to Africa with her dad in her adult years, where he suggested that they make a porno in Africa, and she’s telling the story so deadpan. It completely fucking traumatized the audience and then I had to go up and read after her and the guy that was hosting it was like, “Wow, that story was really powerful. Next up is Brontez reading from Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger.” I was like, “Oh, my God.” I literally almost canceled. I don’t remember what the reaction from the audience was because I couldn’t tell if the first thing she did was so inappropriate that it just fucking bummed the crowd out or if actually I seemed like an asshole.

Brontez, your writing in particular performs very quick swerves in tone, creeping out into vulnerability then laughing it back in a cycle that itself becomes hysterical and quite moving. Can we talk about something that comes up again and again with comedy: that it’s armor, or deflection, or, as Melissa puts it above, a coating of sorts. There’s that Henri Bergson quote about laughter being “a momentary anesthesia of the heart.” But I wonder if this idea of humor as a tool for deflection is it—sure, laughter can be a defense against feeling, but doesn’t it also enable connection and even vulnerability? How do you think about these things in your work?

BP: Temporal time in writing is really hard. In most interactions of dealing with something, whether it’s funny or whatever, those tragic sad moments are actually all happening at once. In a real emotional landscape, all of those feelings are actually all at once. But for the purpose of writing, you have to put things in a litany of time. There’s no real alchemy to how I’m arranging, I’m arranging all of these things at once. When you put them together, they do feel kind of like, “damn, this is a lot,” but that’s the way a lot of people’s minds work. I think it’s why effective writing is hard because a lot of people pause at letting their mind be the thing that it is: a sponge that’s absorbing lots of fucking information at once and expelling a lot of information at once. I am trying to always categorize just how vast emotion carries us.

There’s this super old book called Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen. I read it when I was a theater major. She later refuted that book, but I remember reading her writing that, oftentimes, we as actors restrain our own daydreams. We say, “Oh, I’m not allowed to feel this or I’m not allowed to feel bad,” or in our heads, where we paint the worst-case scenario of some made-up situation and we don’t want to be too dark and we think that our mind shouldn’t go there. She’s like, “I want you to practice actually going there, sitting there. I want you to challenge yourself to go as far with that thought as you possibly can and see where that takes your acting.” That was something that I always took from it when I was sculpting and writing. Thinking about what is the farthest reaches that this universe goes? The second I started to stop restraining myself, my writing got to some kind of another place.

MM: Melissa, you beat me to this question above—thanks for that great list! Who are some writers you admire who are doing interesting things with humor? In addition to present company, I’ll name Myriam Gurba, whose memoir Mean uses a lot of startlingly crude, lowbrow humor to explore sexual violence and growing up as a mixed-race Chicana in southern California.

TP: There’s the book Independent People, written by Halldór Laxness in the 1930s, which is about Icelandic sheep farmers and which won the Nobel Prize. Initially, I thought it was very boring—it’s like five hundred pages of what I first took to be stilted translations of conversations by old men in which they compare the quality of their sheep’s poop, and I was like, “Welp, I guess what’s considered urgent in literature is different in various places and eras?” Then, all of a sudden, something clicked into place, and I realized the whole thing was deadpan, and now I think it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. However, Halldór Laxness is dead, and I’ve heard it’s good manners to promote living novelists, so I will argue that Elif Batuman is both alive and funny.

BP: Tara Jepsen is one of my favorite people, period, but also she did this thing in a book called Like a Dog. It’s a really sad book in places and then really funny, but there is this part where the main character is trying to be a comedian, and the comedic spaces where the comic is monologuing actually turns into this super trippy, like post-modernist, abstract text. I thought it was one of the most interesting uses of space that I’ve ever seen.

Megan Milks’s latest books are Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (Feminist Press), Tori Amos Bootleg Webring (Instar Books), and Slug and Other Stories (Feminist Press; all 2021).