Talking Dirty, with humour writer and editor James Folta
After a brief hiatus from our regularly scheduled blog posts, the COMMode team is very proud to introduce a new mini-series of blog posts: ‘Talking Dirty’, a series of interviews with contemporary writers and editors of humour about the appeal—and limits—of obscene humour in the present day.
One of our project’s key aims is to gauge the contemporary acceptability of the bawdy humour for which Chaucer is so famous. This new series of interviews aims to gain fresh insights regarding what contemporary writers and editors think about these issues.
We want to get this interview series off to a roaring start. To that end, we are launching it with a truly outstanding first interviewee: James Folta. James’s short humour has featured in such publications as The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Esquire, and Funny or Die, and he has created two magazine parody projects, The New Jorker and Paul Ryan magazine. James is also a writing coach and the managing editor of the humour site Points In Case, and co-writes a weekly newsletter called A Newsletter of Humorous Writing.
James’s responses to our questions are both illuminating and entertaining—we’re extremely grateful to him for being our interview series ‘guinea pig’.
COMMode: What do you associate with the word ‘obscenity’?
JF: In the broadest possible sense, I think of obscenity as something which is offensive to a norm or a perception — things that are gross (offensive to senses) or things that are taboo (offensive to mores). I associate it a lot with being a kid and a teen, and the time in my life when I was making a habit of testing limits, and when being gross and weird were points of pride.
COMMode: Why do you think some humour writers use obscenity in their work? Is there something specific it enables them to do?
JF: I think humour and obscenity are, at some basic level, operating through similar dynamics. To put it very generally, humour functions like surprise: you’re finding ways to subvert a reader’s expectations. And obscenity seems to function the same way, by subverting what we know to be normal or polite.
And with humour, often a writer is finding ways to play with juxtapositions, between language, character, context, etc., and obscenity is a particularly potent tool for doing this. Obscenity in humour can help you find the sharpest, most disparate juxtapositions. Or to put it another way: it’s pretty funny if some guy is eating a bowl of chili and farts, but it’s a lot funnier if the Queen of England is eating one of those little crustless, cucumber sandwiches and farts.
There’s a danger here, though: violating a taboo can sometimes get laughter out of discomfort or tension, which in my mind is different than laughter from enjoying a joke. It can feel, to the joker, that they’ve found a shortcut, and can lead to comedy that is primarily about offending. A good writer and comedian will be aware of how and why an audience is laughing. The crucial question is: what does the obscenity do and why is it being used? Are you punching up or down? Are you being cruel just to be cruel?
COMMode: Do you think aspects of a writer’s identity like gender or sexuality affect how we read their use of obscenity in comic writing?
JF: Every writer’s unique point of view is going to inform a similarly unique expectation of what constitutes ‘normal’ and ‘expected.’ And if jokes are coming from twisting things so that they defy those expectations, then each writer’s comedic distortions are going to be different, depending on where they’re starting from. So your sexuality, your gender expression, your community, your culture, all of it is going to change what you find funny and what you find obscene.
COMMode: Our project focuses on bodily humour and the role of sexual and scatological material in medieval comic literature. Do you feel this kind of obscenity has a particular role in humour writing? Are there circumstances in which you feel like it doesn’t belong in a piece of humour writing, or when you feel it’s excessive?
JF: I think both certainly have a space in humour, though my sense is that both have been siloed a bit. I touched on this before, but my read on the broader comedic culture is that bodily and scatological humour has been branded as less mature; it comes across as kids’ jokes or bro comedy, the sort of thing you’d see in an early-2000s gross-out comedy or an icky cartoon in MAD magazine. It feels like the expectation is that when a writer puts on their serious, important comedy hat, they’re not doing piss jokes anymore.
In humour writing, you always want your jokes to be serving the premise of your piece, and all your jokes should be pulling in the same direction. If a piece isn’t obscene or using obscenity from the outset, something sexual or scatological can often be a distracting escalation — it can be jarring for a reader to suddenly hit a sex joke, or a line about turds. This can work to a writer’s advantage if that’s the reaction they want, but if a piece suddenly goes somewhere that feels unearned or out of place, it can derail a piece of writing in a way that’s hard to recover from. I think a lot of writers think they can toss in an off-colour line or two just because, but I tend to find that those lines are a cheap ploy to shock, and come at the cost of drastically changing the stakes and expectations of a piece.
COMMode: Have you ever heard of Chaucer? If yes, what do you think of when you think of Chaucer?
JF: I read a few of the Canterbury Tales in high school, and then read the whole thing for a course in college, and I enjoyed reading them both times. These days, I mostly think of the Canterbury Tales in terms of its framing device — a group of travelers telling stories. It’s the first time I remember seriously thinking about form in storytelling, and these days, form is something I grapple with often for my own projects: what is the best way to contain an idea or a cluster of ideas? Chaucer had such a fun and elegant solution to that question!
COMMode: Do you have a favourite piece of writing (from any period or genre!) that makes particularly good use of obscenity to generate humour?
JF: The first thing that comes to mind — and probably the most famous example in the short humour world — is Colin Nissan’s ‘It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers.’ Colin’s a great writer, and this piece is so funny and evocative because of his use of profane language to discuss something so twee: small autumnal gourds. It’s a mismatch that makes us laugh, bringing an outsized verbal cannon to the pumpkin patch.
Jen Spyra’s really good at this sort of thing too, and her writing pushes limits in really controlled and thoughtful ways that don’t distract from her main idea, or push so far that a piece loses its sharp comedic edge. Definitely check out her story collection Big Time.
I also think Jack Handey plays with obscenity well, but in that very Handey way, the transgressions are never really treated all that seriously. Two of his Deep Thoughts immediately come to mind:
As I bit into the nectarine, it had a crisp juiciness about it that was very pleasurable – – until I realized it wasn’t a nectarine at all, but A HUMAN HEAD!!
In weightlifting, I don’t think sudden, uncontrolled urination should automatically disqualify you.