Talking Dirty, with McSweeney’s editor Christopher Monks
Now that the COMMode team is (more or less) back from summer vacation, we’re delighted to be able to share the next installment of ‘Talking Dirty’, a series of interviews that aims to gain fresh insights regarding what contemporary writers and editors think about the appeal—and limits—of obscene humour in the present day.
This week’s interviewee is none other than Christopher Monks, editor of what may well be the most famous humour website in the world: McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He is also the author of The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life and the editor of numerous books, including Keep Scrolling Until You Feel Something: Twenty-One Years of Humor from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
Given that Chris’s days (and possibly nights?) are taken up with reading hundreds of submissions to McSweeney’s, we’re extremely grateful to him for taking the time to answer our questions about matters obscene.
COMMode: What do you associate with the word ‘obscenity’?
CM: Pornography is the first thing that pops into my head. I wish I had a more nuanced or different answer. Not regular-people-having-sex pornography, but stuff that’s way more obscure and, well, obscene. I won’t list examples for fear this would be the first sentence that pops up when you google my name. But I think you get what I mean.
COMMode: Why do you think some humour writers use obscenity in their work? Is there something specific it enables them to do?
CM: Using the right swear word at the right time can be a funny kicker, especially if it comes out of nowhere and is least expected. One of our most-read pieces is titled “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers.” It’s riddled with variations on “fuck,” and the odd pairing of a relatively bland and innocuous hobby with curse words just works.
Another popular piece of ours is Wendy Molyneux’s “Oh My Fucking God, Get the Fucking Vaccine Already, You Fucking Fucks.” It too contains several “fucks,” a reader counted them and I think it has close to 100 of them. It’s an incredibly cathartic read for those of us who are frustrated by anti-vaxxers. The salty language only provides more relief and really takes the piece to another level both humor- and message-wise.
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?
CM: I think it depends more on the subject they’re writing about it. Most of the stuff we run is commentary on life and culture, so when a infuriated mother rails against anti-vaxxers it feels from the heart. Same goes with work by Black writers satirizing racism. It’s representative, so it’s well-earned and thus easy to buy in to. I’d be way less inclined to accept a piece of lesbian erotica by some cisgender straight guy.
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?
CM: I have turned away many, many pieces that have opened with a person sitting on a toilet. Is that really a place we went to set sail from in a story? I’m pretty prudish in general when it comes to scatological humor. Same goes for sex-themed stuff. With that said, I am the person who proudly accepted, edited, and published this, this and this. So I’m not totally straight-laced, but I do think writing about explicit subjects and using blue language is way more difficult than it looks. There has to be something else that’s driving the action; it can’t just be “fucks for fuck’s sake” throughout
COMMode: Have you ever heard of Chaucer? If yes, what do you think of when you think of Chaucer?
CM: I know he’s a famous English poet, but I haven’t read enough of him to have an opinion. There’s a famous McSweeney’s piece about Chaucer, but that and knowing that he wrote Canterbury Tales are pretty much the extent of my experience with him.
COMMode: Do you have a favourite piece of writing (from any period or genre!) that makes particularly good use of obscenity to generate humour?
CM: It’s funny, but first thing that pops into my head is a story that doesn’t have any obscenities in it at all: Steve Martin’s “Sex-Crazed Love Goddesses.” I first read it when I was 9 or 10. It’s an innocuous story about a boy going to the post office to buy stamps. There’s nothing sex-crazed about it at all, which is the main gag, but the title sent my young mind racing and I kept reading it over and over again to see if I was missing something. It was kind of thrilling for young me!