So I was thinking about this the other day, and I honestly think the best thing I ever did in college was my final exam in my Milton class during my junior year.
After a long semester of analyzing Paradise Lost in minute detail and writing essays patterned on the structure of Milton’s student compositions at Cambridge, our professor cut us a break on the final. The terms she set for the exam combined an in-class writing with a speech contest. We had 90 minutes to compose a defense of Milton’s relevance in the 21st century on a single sheet of paper, after which we took turns donning the professor’s doctoral robes and squashy cap and presenting our arguments to the class. The winner was decided by a vote, and the prize was a copy of our $200 Riverside Milton textbook.
I wanted that book. I don’t even really remember why anymore; I guess I was just that big of a nerd for Milton. I examined my options and came to the conclusion that no one was going to vote for me if I made a sound, polished argument. Instinct told me that if I really wanted to win that book, I was going to have to make people laugh. This presented a problem, because I am not, nor have I ever been, a particularly funny person. Tolerably witty on occasion, sure. Capable of abandoning self-consciousness for joyous silliness, not hardly.
The thing about humor is that, unlike other things I’m not great at, like math and drawing, I burn with envy when I watch other people being good at being funny. How are they so un-self-conscious? Where do they get that kind of security? But obviously I can’t ask a question like that without turning right back around and asking myself where my insecurity comes from.
I tend to feel like we’re at our most insecure when we desperately want something we’re not sure we can get. In a way, insecurity has served me as a writer, because the urgency of needing to make people understand! fuels a lot of what I do. It doesn’t really serve me when I’m trying to make people laugh, though. There’s nothing sadder than someone who’s desperate to be funny. I tend to get frustrated and grumpy whenever I try. I suspect that if I occupy any position at all the realm of humor, I’m probably an angry circus clown: “Laugh, dammit! What’s the matter with you kids?”
My favorite kind of comedy has the consistent if unintentional side-effect of reconciling and uplifting the audience. I compare something like John Finnemore’s radio sitcom Cabin Pressure to the weird little sketch shows I used to watch on Comedy Central in the 90’s, and it’s clear where my loyalties lie. Laughter was pretty rare in my house, growing up, and making a joke to try and cut the tension was more likely to provoke an explosion than a giggle. But I can remember the instinct that made me try to use humor in touchy situations, and the exultation and relief I felt on the rare occasions when the joke worked and the storm was temporarily averted. The humor I come back to over and over again evokes that same feeling of clarity and relief.
(I don’t know about you, but I found the sight of Stephen Colbert dumping a package of Oreos all over himself on the Late Show very uplifting.)
I think that’s why satire, in some ways an obvious humor outlet for us angry clowns, didn’t manage to suck me in, even though I gave it a try. I wrote a few pieces for a satirical magazine published by my college’s philosophy department, but satire turned out to be one of those things that I liked having written more than I liked writing it. Satire, at least the way I was going about it, didn’t require flexibility, or spontaneity, or joy. It was just like all my other writing, a desperate attempt to make people listen.
My Milton exam stands as a blazing contrast to anything else I’ve written in my whole life. It was very different from my satire. First of all, it was absurd. Absurdist? I don’t really know what that word means, but if it applies to formal arguments predicated on the thesis that Milton is relevant to the 21st century because reading Paradise Lost will cure Alzheimers and dementia, then absurdist it was.
Secondly, it made the people in my Milton class laugh. They laughed after every sentence. I had to wait between lines for the noise to die down before I could keep reading. My satire had garnered dry praise and smirks from my friends; my Milton exam made a professor from down the hall knock on the door and ask us to keep the noise down. I won the contest (by one vote) and I am prouder of the Milton textbook I won as a prize than I am of my diploma. (I mean that literally—the diploma is in a box under my bed. The Milton book is on display on top of my shelf.)
What made it possible for me to temporarily bridge my comedic tone-deafness and write something capable of getting that kind of response from audience of real live human beings? This is just a guess, but I think it was because, in a way, that Milton exam was the first truly selfless thing I’d ever written. “Selfless” might be a strange way to describe something that I wrote with the sole aim of using it to acquire a prize for myself, but I guess it’s another one of those unintentional side-effects. I needed to make the audience vote for me, so I wrote something that was just for them, just for their entertainment. For once, my feelings and issues and opinions didn’t come into it. No one was going to listen to my earnest assertions that the nigh-impenetrable structural complexity of Milton’s prose and poetry could ward off the neural plaque associated with degenerative neurological conditions and think, “I really feel like I know this person now.” Normally, my writing was all about inviting the reader to know me better. It’s a little humbling to realize that no sooner did I put that need aside than I had my first genuine writing success.
I’ve been thinking a lot about service lately, and how that concept can apply in my life. I’ve also been thinking a lot about comedy and how I wish I was better at it. Maybe it’s possible to see comedy writing as a place where those two things meet: the kind of writing that wants to be at the service of its audience.
Or maybe someone just needs to offer me a $200 book of English poetry again. Or just the $200. A little incentive never hurt.