The Year’s Best Humor Writing 2011
It’s a good thing I enjoy humor because, if I had to estimate, I’d put the number of humor pieces I’ve read this year somewhere in the low thousands. As a fan — and as someone who’s numb to the embarrassment that comes with laughing aloud while riding public transportation — I imagine I’d have read some fraction of these just for fun. But as someone who’s had the privilege of editing Splitsider’s Humor Section for the past nine months and compiling the list below (who am I kidding? tl;dr), I’ve been overwhelmed in the best way possible by the volume and quality of the humorists populating the internet. So many good things exist! And here are more than a few:
“American Dream” by Teddy Wayne – Shouts and Murmurs: If you’re anything like me, you’ve always wanted to read Dick Cheney’s paleoconservative fan fiction, fever dream-induced vision of America. Lucky for us all, the consistently funny Teddy Wayne ventures where liberals fear to tread – into the unconscious mind of Dick – in “American Dream.” If the twin terrors of “the rap music” and “The New York Times” keep you up at night, remove your tongue from your cheek and enjoy.
“Paywall” by John Gillespie – Shouts and Murmurs: John Gillespie successfully lampoons several things at once in “Paywall” – oversharing, insipid suburbanites, the oversaturation of content on the web, the value of intellectual property, web marketing, and tons more. So what is “Paywall” about? Imagine that improbably long Christmas letter your mom sends every year, but weekly and behind the eponymous paywall – because when you’ve got something good, why not incentivize?
“Do You Like Me? Click Yes or No” by Jason Harrington – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: Spoofing online opportunists was definitely a thing this year. From “Paywall” above to Alex Blagg’s pitch-perfect A Bajillion Hits to Jason Harrington’s “Do You Like Me? Click Yes or No” – the story of a grade school relationship in the digital age, humorists made their feelings known about your personal brand. After all, if everyone’s a content creator, who’s consuming all this stuff?
“Money Can Buy Happiness, As If” by Woody Allen – Shouts and Murmurs: Did you think Woody Allen wouldn’t be on this list? The inclusion of Woody Allen’s annual Shouts and Murmurs contribution almost feels like hype, but the emperor is still fully clothed! In “Money”, Woody Allen imagines Monopoly – the boardgame – with real world stakes: insider trading, legal ramifications, familial strains, and more. This simple, but well-executed piece almost makes the idea of the forthcoming Monopoly movie (ugh…) seem palatable. Almost. With lines like “[he] had recently passed Go and was liquid” and “his demands for rent after the next person had thrown the dice led to complicated litigation,” I don’t think I’d mind a Monopoly movie with Woody Allen at the helm. But we all know that’s never EVER going to happen.
“Wager” by Ben Greenman – Shouts and Murmurs: Even it weren’t bylined, I’d probably recognize a Ben Greenman piece by its ending – which will often simultaneously provide the reader with a satisfying sense of completion and the feeling that he or she is trapped on one of MC Escher’s staircases. I have very few opinions about sports, but in “Wager,” Greenman mobiuses his way into a pretty convincing extended metaphor about the similarities between athletes and politicians. Similarly, after finishing his “Paper Trail” for McSweeney’s, I was reminded of one of my favorite Jack Lewis sci-fi shorts, the baffling “Who’s Cribbing?” – the titular question is never answered, by the way.
“I’d Like To Buy Your Novel, Good Sir” by Andrew Ford – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: Writing, as we all know, is a very public performance art and should be done before an audience of as many people as can be tolerated. That’s obviously FALSE, but if aliens came to any of Earth’s coffee shops, I’m not sure we’d be able to convince them otherwise. Andrew Ford takes on the caffeinated literati in “I’d Like To Buy Your Novel, Good Sir”, the tale of every entitled scribe/temporarily embarrassed millionaire’s wildest dream – that a kind benefactor would fund their aimlessness. This Mad Men quote comes to mind:
Roger Sterling: “I guarantee it—in the bottom drawer of every desk in this place is the first ten pages of a novel.”
Don Draper: “Five.”
“Family Meeting Announcing My Recently Published Submission” by Tim Cushing – The Bygone Bureau: If you write things on the internet – and let’s be honest, who doesn’t? – it may be hard to explain to your family exactly what you’re doing with your life. In this piece for The Bygone Bureau, Tim Cushing attempts the impossible. My mom still isn’t comfortable with me being featured on a site called “Jezebel” because of its Bibical slut-shaming implications, so Cushing’s narrator veers almost too deeply into it’s-funny-because-it’s-true territory with this piece, telling his family, on the subject of his obscure publishing credit: “Your previous unawareness of its existence has little bearing on its renown and respectability.” OKAY, MOM?
“The Seething Resentment Reading Series” by Lucas Klauss – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: Don’t you hate it when people are successful AT you? It’s the worst! Just as in Mike Drucker’s hilarious “A Form Letter to Your Friends Regarding Their New TV Show” for Splitsider, Klauss’s “Reading Series” speaker manages to tunnel away his resentment by being as passive-aggressive and underminer-y as is humanly possible.
“What your Favorite ____ Says About You” series by John Peck – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: It was a great year for music-related comedy writing! John Peck, in an ongoing series for McSweeney’s, explains to music-lovers of all sorts just what their tastes say about them. And those tastes speak volumes. As a huge Phil Lynott fan and self-proclaimed layabout, I wasn’t too surprised to learn that my love for Thin Lizzy shouted to the world that I was “often forced to change or cancel plans due to NO LOITERING signs.” Of course, most of these insights are patently ridiculous (“Foghat: You swim in man-made lakes exclusively”), but some seem likely enough (“Rick Springfield: Your wallet weighs over a pound”). Really, I just want SO BADLY for them all to be true!
“Billy Joel vs. Allentown” by Brian Boone – The Humor Section: It’s not often that a piece about a personified steel town’s protracted beef with piano fellow William Joel will tug at your heart strings AND make you laugh, but Brian Boone’s “Billy Joel vs. Allentown” does just that. Dripping with Mainstreet, blue-collar, Carhartt-clad pathos and a delightful streak of absurdism, this piece was one of the most popular to be featured in The Humor Section and certainly one of my favorites.
“My Ex-Girlfriend Reviews the Mix CD I Made Her in High School” by Pedro Salinas – The Humor Section: Women, as a rule, just don’t like Rush. It’s one of those things that sounds like a sweeping generalization, but there’s so much anecdotal evidence to back it up that you can’t help but accept it as canon. If that’s too much of a leap for you, read this piece by Pedro Salinas because he makes a good case. With their cosmic lyrics and impenetrably ornate instrumentation, Rush’s music is a more fitting soundtrack for an alien abduction than a high school hook-up. All the same, the latter’s the case in “My Ex-Girlfriend Reviews the Mix CD I Made Her in High School”. It’s just as ridiculous as it sounds.
“Your Movie SucksTM”- All of Roger Eberts one-star movie reviews: Few things are funnier than when Roger Ebert reviews movies he hates. For that reason, I recommend reading all of his one star movie reviews from 2011. When he loves a movie, you can expect to read a well-written, sometimes even saccharine and erudite love letter; on the other hand, the eviscerations are much more fun. Channeling one of my favorite early lines from A Confederacy of Dunces (“This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft.”), Ebert had this to say about Conan the Barbarian: “’Conan the Barbarian’ involves a clash of civilizations whose vocabularies are limited to screams, oaths, grunts, howls, ejaculations, exclamations, vulgarities, screeches, wails, bellows, yelps and woofs. I’d love to get my hands on the paycheck for subtitling this movie.” I’ve mentioned this before, but strange pluralizations are the funniest thing in the world to me. On Trespass’ constant threat of gun-violence: “First, we’re afraid somebody will get shot. Then we’re afraid no one will be.” Describing the gravity of Transformers 3’s climactic fight scene: “a battle for the universe which for some reason is held at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive in Chicago”. Don’t you ever change, Roger.
“An Open Letter to the Guys Who Kicked the Soccer Ball Over the Fence and Asked Me to Throw it Back to Them, Thus Scarring Me for Life” by Jen Cordery – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: This open letter from Jen Cordery would make Paul Feig proud. It’s got everything he loves in a personal essay: public humiliations (“my smiles were more and more forced (no, you can’t normally see my wisdom teeth)”), epiphanies, mortifications in front of the opposite sex… all in a story about a woman with no athletic proclivities being put on the spot by upsettingly handsome intramural sportsmen. The first time I read this, I cackled aloud in a library and was probably mistaken for one of the local vagrants. My rereading was no different. Jen Cordery has the motor skills of a toddler and I find that hilarious.
“Corrections to Last Night’s Party” by Melodie Maksin – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: If you’ve ever attended an event hosted by an ill-timed, uninformed, crying party people-pleaser, this piece from Melodie Maksin will be a gratifying read. My takeaway: if you’re cripplingly awkward and insufferable, maybe don’t host so many parties. You’re making people uncomfortable.
“An Open Letter to the Gentleman Blow-Drying His Balls in the Gym Locker Room” by Ross Beeley – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: My first reaction to this was – Great. Dick Jokes. But this piece is much more than that. If anything, it’s a character study; an investigation into the motivations of a man – according to Beeley’s speaker, a “gentleman” (strange thing to call a guy whose uninvited balls are in your line of sight) – with no qualms about baring his all in public. The physical descriptions of the dimensions and particulars of this fellow’s genitals alone (“Your scrotum reminds me of boardwalk taffy.”) make this piece worth a bookmark.
“Yiddish Words for the 21st Century” by Tim Harrod – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: Is there any better way to precisely express a hyper-specific situation or emotion than with a Yiddish or German word? I think not. And if anyone wants to get in on the ground floor of this thing, I think IsThereOneWordForThat.com could really be a lucrative venture for all the aspiring polyglots out there. Kummerspeck – “the excess weight one gains from emotion-related overeating. (It translates literally as “grief bacon.”)” -, for example, is now a part of my vocabulary. You’d be surprised at how frequently there’s occasion to use it. Tim Harrod has clearly got the right idea in “Yiddish Words for the 21st Century”. I’ve often failed to succinctly describe “the phantom vibration that makes you wrongly believe your smartphone has rung” – and now we have the word “Ziternenlign” for just such a phenomenon. Thanks, Tim!
“As a Background Extra in the Film’s Café Scene, You Can Say Anything So Long As You Appear To Be Smiling and Talking” by Don Kennedy – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: 2011 was a banner year for gibberish. In the Don Kennedy piece linked above, “An Open Letter to Window’s Speech Recognition” by Quentin Rodreiguez, and Paul F. Tompkins’ wonderful Google Voice Transcripts podcast segment – we all learn what we’d sound like if suddenly afflicted with an aggressive aphasia. Rutland Weekend Television tackled this conceit decades ago, but the thing that separates these modern incarnations from glorified games of Mad Libs is context. Kennedy’s speaker is a real life troll, taking the chance to weird/creep out a fellow on-set extra by recounting youthful insect torture and being a general asshole. Still, I wonder if those two kept in touch! For bonus laughs, try reading any of these pieces aloud. There is really no use trying to impose meaning on gibberish with inflection – but that’s never stopped me!
“Ineffective Pick Up Lines for the Modern Internet Persona” by Stephanie Georgopulos – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: I consider myself a right-on-time to fashionably-late adapter, so this piece from Stephanie Georgopulos mostly seemed like things extraterrestrials would say during mating rituals. (Paul F. Tompkins put it best in a tweet: “I just saw some blog headline that read, “Will Spotify Kill Pandora?” Which I assume is some sort of Game of Thrones shit.”) That said, I GET that none of our social currency is tangible. If the internet were to cease to exist tomorrow, my resume would be 80% null and void. This piece is funny because nebulous things like our Tumblr notes and Klout scores are actually more important to us than we’d ever dare admit.
“Review: The Mead Spiral 100 College Ruled Notebook” by Zach Miller – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: Here’s the thing about this piece: if it were published in earnest, I’m sure there’s some anti-tech, analog purist print-zine that’d pick it up. As far as things-I’m-not-sure-would-be-a-joke-if-in-the-hands-of-the-right-or-is-it-WRONG-people go, this is right up there with Artisanal Pencil Sharpening. It takes all types! In this review of a literal notebook, Zach Miller’s incongruous diction parodies gadget blog language perfectly; the pen is a stylus, the pages a graphic user interface. And yea, from a notebook loyalist, I’ve got to say that the thing’s pretty intuitive. Would buy.
“Minutes from the Ridgeside, Pennsylvania Town Hall Meeting” by Michael Pielocik – The Humor Section: This piece from Michael Pielocik begins harmlessly enough but quickly degenerates into a plotline that wouldn’t be out of place on Star Trek or Doctor Who. Borgs? Child’s play! Daleks? WHO-leks? It’s the sac you should really fear. Pielocik’s inclusion of business-as-usual town hall bureaucracy is what makes this more than just an amusing sci-fi short and secures its place as one of my favorite pieces of humor writing of the year.
“An Open Letter to Writers of Open Letters” by Teddy Wayne – The Morning News: The open letter is a staple in humor writing, a tried-and-true construction that isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. That said, Teddy Wayne’s taking umbrage! I’ve got several open letters on this list, so I hope they don’t take offense to being called out. No telling how many open letters that could trigger.
“The Most Emailed ‘New York Times’ Article Ever” by David Parker – The Awl: Though this is a flawless parody of The Times’ weeks late trend pieces, infatuation with excruciatingly precocious wunderkinds, deference to only tangentially relevant “experts”, and tendency to shoe-horn in buzzwords wherever possible, all while pandering to each of its overeducated demographics, the best thing about this piece is the comments and online reactions. Some people just Did Not Get It – which amplifies the effectiveness of the whole thing.
“Area Woman’s Baseless Hatred of Anne Hathaway Reciprocated” – The Onion: When Gawker polled commenters at the beginning of the year about which actors and actresses they irrationally hated, it felt more than a bit silly. The questions were posed in jest, but skimming the comments told another story. People really have strong feelings about famous strangers! Perhaps that’s why The Onion’s June retort – “Area Woman’s Baseless Hatred of Anne Hathaway Reciprocated” – was so spot on: “’You can tell Cathy Lerro’s totally in love with herself, even though she’s really just fucking annoying,’ Hathaway said in reference to the 36-year-old Sudbury resident, who the Devil Wears Prada star grudgingly acknowledged was decent that one time as an office manager but hasn’t done anything nearly that good since.” Area woman just got told!
“American Marvel” by Edith Zimmerman – GQ: I’m not sure how well this piece worked as a celebrity profile (I don’t read many, so I’m no judge), but as a piece of humor writing it is amazing. I came away from this even more indifferent to Chris Evans than I’d been before – which is, by definition, impossible – and an even bigger fan of Edith Zimmerman’s unique and hilarious writing. I honestly think this could have been a think piece about a paper clip and it would have been as good a read, which is not any reflection on Mr. Evans, but an indication of how much I enjoy Zimmerman’s style. There is no category for this kind of thing – is it Gonzo reporting? Is it a personal essay? Is it a celebrity profile? I don’t know, but it’s funny. Read this. You’ll love it.
“Friend’s Excuses For Why He Can’t Hang Out Getting More Sophisticated Over Time” – The Onion: Uh oh. I’m definitely the “friend” in this article. Social anxiety and depression have the unpublicized side effects of making those stricken very resourceful avoiders! Lines like “Shulman, whose routine brush-offs of invitations were once vague and somewhat predictable, now reportedly offers highly detailed, plausible-seeming, yet entirely made-up reasons for his unavailability anytime a friend asks what he’s up to this weekend” hit almost too close to home. I feel indicted by you, The Onion. Also, I spy humorist Mike Sacks in the article’s lead picture!
“Sometimes State Flags” by Caity Weaver – The Hairpin: I was unaware of my interest in vexillology until this post. Apparently, flags are a thing I enjoy. A lot. Honestly, if you can wring the comedy out of state flags, you’ve got a new fan.
“The League of Ordinary Ladies” series by Esther C. Werdiger – The Hairpin: 2011 showed us that normal women are very, very funny. The comic strip linked above – Esther C. Werdiger’s “The League of Ordinary Ladies”- was one of my favorite comedy ANYTHINGS of the past year. It’s really funnier than it has any right to be. Innocuous things like haircuts, and travel, and wifi, mayonnaise, and moms aren’t inherently funny, but Werdiger’s sensibility and staccato illustrations make them so. This along with Aisha Muharrar’s “Women’s Magazine Profile of a Normal Girl” for Hello Giggles (the patron site of average girls everywhere, I guess….), the optioning of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad City for FX, and Tiny Furniture’s Lena Dunham’s aptly titled Girls for HBO made 2011 a great year to be … regular… and funny and female!
“Remembrances of Being Very Very Skinny” and “Remembrances of Being A Little Bit Fat” by Tina Fey – Bossypants: Obviously, you should read all of Bossypants, but it was impossible to pick a favorite for this list – especially because everyone’s already read the piece Tina Fey had excerpted for the New Yorker about her male SNL coworkers peeing in cups. The companion pieces “Very Very Skinny” and “A Little Bit Fat” are as funny as anything else in the book – plus their parallel structures make for some poignant callbacks that are really pleasant to read. But yea, read the whole thing.
“How to Kill a Joke (And Your Boss)” by Todd Levin – GOOD: This really isn’t a humor piece. It’s a piece about comedy writing by a comedy writer, so naturally it’s very funny. If you’re at all interested, even peripherally, in what goes on behind the scenes at Conan, or what it’s like to be a comedy writer – or really, any kind of writer who can be tentative about his or her own work – read this. It’s reassuring, servicey, and you’ll get a good laugh!
“I Fuck Food” by Rob Delaney – Vice: All of Rob Delaney’s Vice contributions are stellar, but “I Fuck Food” is a real standout. The title leaves no room for subtlety. This isn’t a quiet meditation on the sensuality of eating. No. The – given the insights in this piece – remarkably fit Rob Delaney gets off from devouring horrible processed foods. That is it.
“Nation’s Weirdest Teenager Buys Season One DVD Of ‘Murphy Brown’” and “Cool Dad Raising Daughter On Media That Will Put Her Entirely Out Of Touch With Her Generation” – The Onion: Like last year, this year’s Onion pieces jumped out at me in pairs. I want the Murphy Brown kid and this culturally irrelevant tween to meet and live happily ever after with their anachronistic passions.
“The Do Monkeys” by Patrick Mortensen: You won’t have read this piece from Splitsider contributor Patrick Mortensen anywhere before now, which is a real shame because it’s fantastic. Coming in at a lean ten pages, this piece is truly the best saved for last. I mentioned in an earlier Splitsider contribution that pieces attempting, from an adult’s point of view, to accurately describe childhood perceptions will, when done right, always be favorites of mine. I wrote that over a year ago and rereading this piece reminds me why. If you were ever endeared to Ralphie’s heartbreak at the consumerism pervading his Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Pin in A Christmas Story, or, like me, loved pieces like Robert Benchley’s “Yesterday’s Sweetmeats“, S.J. Perelman’s “Cloudland Revisited“, or Simon Rich’s “The Wisdom of Children” – or if you’ve ever been a kid! (which, I mean… of course you have. If not, there are bigger concerns than whether or not you will enjoy this piece) – read this. Without giving too much away, it’s basically about mail-order Sea Monkeys. But don’t let that put you off! Stick this in your Instapaper account or on your list of longform reads; bookmark it or print it out. Whenever you get around to it, you’ll be glad you did.
Be sure to check out last year’s list for even more funny stuff to read.
Rebecca O’Neal is a freelance writer in Chicago trying to be a full time writer maybe not in Chicago, but… you know how that kind of thing can be. Her mother is very concerned.