Monday, July 9, 2012

Why Isn't Shouts and Murmurs Funny? Or, My LTR With The New Yorker

The New Yorker and I are definitely in what you might call a Long Term Relationship (LTR).  This is no one night stand, and it's no casual fling.  It's not an on-again-off-again thing.  It's not a case of FWB.  We're committed.

This relationship started when I was about nine years old.  The New Yorker had always been around our home when I was a kid, and for years I had regarded it the same way I'd regarded Masterpiece Theater, the Watergate hearings, and the Phil Donahue show:  something clearly for grownups, something probably boring, something I hoped I wouldn't have time for in my future life as a rock star or rock-star-equivalent.

That slight disdain changed one day when I picked it up in a moment of having nothing else to do, and I found Ved Mehta.  My eye just happened to land right in the middle of his memoir about being a young blind boy in India, living away from his parents at a special school. 

I was immediately gripped and fascinated.  Living away from one's parents as a young child?  Having to relearn how to do everything without sight?  Having to use braille for the simple act of reading?  These were challenges I could barely fathom.  And Mehta wrote about them with the heartfelt simplicity that engages both the New York literati (or so we can imagine, this being The New Yorker) and me, a nine year old girl living comfortably in the bland American suburbs.  I was hooked. 

There were certainly phases during my youth in which I was inattentive, but I'd say over the last fifteen years or so I've barely missed an issue.  There have been times when I've been tempted to regard The New Yorker in the light of a life saver.  I seldom feel "at home" in a place, and I've lived a lot of places where I felt like a freak.  This can be seriously discouraging.  But I could always come home, uncork a bottle of wine, and open The New Yorker, and feel at home in the world through the powerful reminder:  there are, in fact, other people like me.

There are other people who want to read long articles about Chinese race car drivers, Dickens camp, the cutting edge of food technology, and therapy trends among the Hollywood glitterati.  There are other people who care about the politics of apple branding (the fruit, not the computer).  Wanting to know more about the state of soccer mania in Turkey does not make me impossibly strange.

It's because The New Yorker and I have an LTR and not a casual friendship that I got disturbed by the following problem:  Why isn't Shouts and Murmurs Funny?  If you don't know, Shouts and Murmurs is the humor part of The New Yorker.  Obviously many articles in The New Yorker are funny in their various ways.  But Shouts and Murmurs is supposed to be The Funny Page.  Sometimes it's funny.  But often, it's not.

I like funny.  Don't I like funny?  And as we now know, I love The New Yorker.  So how could I not like The Funny Page of The New Yorker?

I thought the problem might just be stylistic.  The writing in Shouts and Murmurs tends to take a single joke and make a page of writing about it.  I don't really go for that.  Once you see the joke, in the first paragraph, you're like OK, kinda funny.  But there's still a lot left to read.

But I was talking the matter over with my friend, and he said he didn't think it was stylistic at all. He said that the problem with Shouts and Murmurs is part of a deep problem with the whole New Yorker, and with its whole way of seeing and writing about the world. 

Shouts and Murmurs, he said, is almost always a kind of mini-parody of something, or a little riff on a familiarity, poking a gentle bit of fun.  Like this week it mocks the escalation of high-end-restaurant-waiter-palaver.  That's very typical.  What it doesn't do is take any kind of stand, for or against something.  But that's The New Yorker all around.  Always safe, always middle of the road, never fired up with indignation and rage.

I was a little shocked.  I defended The New Yorker.  I pointed out that Elizabeth Kolbert often presents highly opinionated views of her own, written up in a style sure to piss some people off.  Her review of Stephen Pinker's book about violence was one of the only reviews I saw that wasn't largely ass-kissing fluff.  I said that sometimes you don't want opinionated ranting, indignation and rage.  Like when you're reading about Chinese race car drivers, or cutting edge trends among the Hollywood glitterati, or the politics of apple branding.  Those articles have points of view but they also try to just tell you some stuff, some stuff you didn't know, that you may find interesting.  I really go for that.

Eventually we agreed that while Elizabeth Kolbert was often highly opinionated, that wasn't the characteristic style of The New Yorker, and that in certain contexts, like politics, that could be a problem.  But we also agreed that in a world that is all political indignation all the time, telling you some stuff you didn't know was important too.  The rest of is a matter of taste.  I have enough indignation going on inside me all the time.  Encountering it in my reading can be too too much.  Evidently, I really like to just be told some stuff I didn't know, some stuff I may find interesting. 

I had to agree with my friend about Shouts and Murmurs, though.  He's right.  Comedy can't be mush.  It has to take a stand, or tell the truth, or be really personal, or surprise you somehow, to be really funny.  The mini-parodies, the riffs, the gentle bit of fun of Shouts and Murmurs mostly don't do any of those things.   


MatthewOfIbiza said...

Thoughtful post. Shouts (instinctive indignation/high-octane venting) and Murmurs (ruminations just reaching the perceptible) may mean to say a wide range of off-the-cuff humor, collected and rehashed at random, in a rambling sort of way. I guess. "This Will Tickle Your Funny Bone" might work, too.

Jared Gulian said...

First, I love your LTR with the New Yorker. Second, I don't think Shouts & Murmurs is really aiming for comedy per se. There's a kind of funny that's not Laugh-Out-Lound funny but rather it's sort of Gentle-Smile-Inside funny. Can we have a new acronym, please? Everybody wants to LOL, but I like to GSI, thankyouverymuch.

Anonymous said...

I found this by googling "Why isn't Shouts and Murmurs funny?" after a discussion with a friend about this. Don't know if any of these theories are correct, but I just know an otherwise fine magazine featuring incredibly talented writers continues to be weak in this one area, which I find very strange. The Onion produces more funny content in a day than the Shouts and Murmers does in a year. Even if it isn't going for belly laughs, as the poster above speculates, it's still rarely even faintly amusing. 'Tis a huge mystery.