Robert Gray: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to #BEx17

John Hodgman (Vacationland, Viking) took the microphone in front of a packed house just before the start of BookExpo's Downstage event "Do I amuse you? The Work Behind the Laughs." Also featured on the program were Isla Fisher (Marge in Charge, HarperCollins) and Denis Leary (Why We Don't Suck, Crown Archetype).

But Hodgman took the mic first. I'd seen him do this years ago, just before an MPIBA show author breakfast in Colorado Springs. That time, in the shadow of Pike's Peak, he told the story of how "America the Beautiful" was written and led a room full of booksellers in an impromptu, a cappella rendition.

Hodgman, Leary and Fisher entertain the crowd.

This time he announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, Denis Leary and Isla Fisher are here. I'm just going to do about 10 minutes of warmup. How you all doing? Where are you from, sir? Dallas, Texas. I've got no joke for that. It's a joke in itself, he says. He knows where he lives."

Relative order was quickly restored by moderator James West of Mother Jones magazine and an entertaining conversation ensued.  

Noting that his first book was Why We Suck, Leary said "the new book is Why We Don't Suck.... Hey, I'm really original on the titles, aren't I? Nine years later, I came up with Why We Don't Suck. It's optimistic progress."

When Hodgman displayed a sampler for Vacationland, Leary advised: "John, show the cover. F**king guy!.... It's not the finished product, we hope."
Hodgman: "No, this is the whole book.... I wanted to actually sell some copies. I'm like, give them a little less."
Leary: "And it's a quick read. You could read it right now. In fact, I'm going to read it to you."

The discussion turned to being funny in what may seem to be an increasingly unamusing world, specifically referencing the recent examples of Kathy Griffin posing for a photo shoot with a model of Donald Trump's severed head and the "covfefe" incident.

Leary, whom West had described as a "bad boy of comedy," said, "Listen, I saw that picture before it first hit, before she had to apologize. And I'm not a f**king Trump fan. I mean I'm no Hillary fan either, but I was like, I don't know, man. This bit better be really f**king funny if you're gonna decapitate the president's head."
Hodgman: "I will say personally it wasn't funny."
Leary: "I think the line is hard to draw, right? But if it's funny you can get away with anything. I just didn't understand what was funny about it.
Fisher: "I don't find violence that funny. That's all I'm going to say about that."

Hodgman cracked that he has "never had to apologize for a joke because I'm a very good boy and I always say very safe things that people applaud rather than laugh at. That's my style of humor."

In a discussion of the Internet's influence on children, Hodgman asked: "Dennis, when your kids were young did they have a problem with getting bad stuff on the telegraph?"
"It was a big issue, yeah," Leary countered, then recalled: "When I was a kid, we saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot live on TV on a Sunday morning. It was f**king awesome.... We were just eating our cereal watching a black and white TV show where the guy who shot the president came out and some other guy shot him.... I feel like that paid off in my life. I made a career. It turned me into a comedian. So I think kids should be scarred early by violence they see on television because it will turn them into better artists."

Fisher talked about writing to entertain kids. The protagonist in Marge in Charge is loosely based on her daughter. "I sort of am now seeing the world through her eyes as I write, which brings me closer to her and my other daughter," she said. "But, yeah, they're fierce critics and when they're bored they just walk out of the bedroom. And, of course, when my editor gives me notes, I run those notes past my children and if they don't approve, then they overrule the editor. That's how much they matter."

Asked what makes kids laugh, she observed: "Well, I think kids laugh at different things at different stages. When they're babies, they laugh at a tickle or a raspberry or a funny face. They're not that smart. But then as they get older and develop language, they find knock-knock jokes and poop jokes. I think ultimately children laugh at the same things adults do. I think the foundation is just stupidity. Even my two-year-old finds it hilarious when I try to wear her shoes, or when I misunderstand a rule that she assumes I, as an authority figure, should be following through with. And it's the same with us in all cultures. We find stupidity hilarious.... We're allowed to feel superior. And we're allowed to laugh when someone's an idiot."

When q&a began, Hodgman took the mic, naturally enough, and performed his "Phil Donahue move" as he ran up and down the aisles to reach questioners.

One audience member described the event as "the most fabulous and enjoyable panel I've ever been to here," and Leary, who had earlier noted that all of their books are coming out in October, decided a road tour might be in order: "Thank you for your comments. I think we do make a great panel. The superheroes of publishing. That could be our f**king name!"

Hodgman capped off the event by sharing an experience he'd had upon arriving at the Javits Center earlier: "I come walking in at 8:30 in the morning, and Stephen King [who'd spoken at the Author Breakfast] is walking out. I'm so excited."
Leary: "Maybe he was here overnight."
Hodgman: "Spooky convention with Stephen King."

Now that's funny.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor (Column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)
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