Talking Dirty, with humour writer Emily Kling

It’s been awhile since we posted in the ‘Talking Dirty’ series, which 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 writer Emily Kling, the author of such comic masterpieces as ‘Sexy Halloween Costumes for Straight Men’ and ‘The Wedding Vows of Someone Marrying Their “Best Friend”’. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Weekly Humorist, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, The Belladonna, and Slackjaw.

COMMode: What do you associate with the word ‘obscenity’?

EK: I associate the word ‘obscenity’ with church-going ladies clutching their pearls and huffing ‘that’s obscene!’ in response to something relatively benign. What am I trying to say? I guess I associate the term ‘obscenity’ with a certain socially conservative attitude. I feel like I only hear it (in the day-to-day) as a condemnation, and not as a compliment. Which is crazy, because human beings are intrinsically ‘obscene’ creatures. What often gets classified as ‘obscene’ is stuff related to incredibly human behaviors (such as masturbation and excrement).

COMMode: Why do you think some humour writers use obscenity in their work? Is there something specific it enables them to do?

EK: I think humour writers use obscenity because there’s something titillating about using language that’s generally considered ‘off limits’ in polite conversation.

That being said, I believe it requires a lot of skill to use obscenity in a way that’s new and fresh and not just a crutch for shock value. Like I’m going to use the word ‘chode’ in this interview just so I can be like ‘look! I’m illustrating my point in real time!’ But it was cheap, right? Meta, sure. But definitely weak. So while I think many people employ obscenity, few do it in a way that’s actually innovative and worthwhile. Using ‘obscene’ language at random feels forced and out of place, so the writers who do it well are those being really intentional about their word choice. They’re probably asking themselves, ‘is this obscenity actually supporting the thesis of the joke I’m trying to make?’ before committing to it. Chode.

[MF note: I’ve always seen it spelled ‘choad’, but having consulted the OED I can now confirm that ‘chode’ is indeed the correct spelling. I learn something new every day.]

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?

EK: Well, I’ve done exactly zero research on this topic, but based on that expertise, my gut tells me that men are the primary users of obscenity. Again, based on my extensive (lack of) research, I’m guessing men are more likely to use obscenity because a lifetime of Being Alive In Society has let them know that it’s funny when they do it, whereas women are more likely to have been taught that it’s not feminine or permissible when they do it. So when I read obscenity from men, I expect them to be really creative about it, because they’re more likely to have had the opportunity to become well practiced.

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?

EK: As a general rule, I don’t think there should be any censorship of obscenity in humour writing, save for maybe comedy that’s meant for literal children. Though, poop can be funny no matter the age…so…hmm.

I think it’s kind of like when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was asked to describe his ability to identify pornography, and he responded, ‘I know it when I see it.’ That’s how I feel about excessive sexual and scatological (great word, by the way) material, it’s subjective and the reader knows it when they see it.

COMMode: Have you ever heard of Chaucer? If yes, what do you think of when you think of Chaucer?

EK: When I was a teenager, I saw an educational performance of this guy rapping stories from The Canterbury Tales. This was pre-Hamilton, so it didn’t seem derivative but actually very cool. And I remember my classmate Michael was looking really cute that day (he was always cute but was ESPECIALLY cute that day). So, uh, that’s what I associate with Chaucer.

COMMode: Do you have a favourite piece of writing (from any period or genre!) that makes particularly good use of obscenity to generate humour?

EK: One of my favorite movies is Bridesmaids. It has all my favorite things — friendship dynamics, wedding drama, and a woman in a wedding dress taking a dump in the middle of the street. That scene is such base humour, and it never gets old to me — I think it’s something about the juxtaposition between the fanciness that gets associated with weddings and the scatological (there’s that word again!) need to take a crap.

More of Emily’s writing may be found here, as well as on Twitter (@EmilyKling2).


Cite this blog post
Mary Flannery (2023, May 19). Talking Dirty, with humour writer Emily Kling. COMMode. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/n1nz

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