October 2004

Emily Cook

fiction

Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans edited by McSweeney's

There are those who think that, say, the brand of slapstick comedy in Monty Python skits or the movie Airplane is funny -- and there are those who don’t. Two polarized types of humor, I believe, with very few “undecideds.” And so it is with the McSweeney’s brand of humor.

Created in Darkness By Troubled Americans is a collection of McSweeney’s short humor pieces, divided into two sections: longer pieces, and a collection of “Lists.” I read them on a commuter flight to Minneapolis, first, and then finished the book through a soggy sandwhich lunch at the “Rainbow Rooster” -- putting the book to what I think of as the David Sedaris test. As in, is the book so funny that it makes you laugh out loud in public? So far, David Sedaris is the only writer who has made me laugh out loud. So far, that is, until now.

To find out if this anthology was as good as I suspected, I put it to two tests.

First of all, did this collection make me laugh out loud? Did it pass the David Sedaris Laugh-Out-Loud-In-Public test? Yes. Once, on the plane. I stifled a laugh and the woman seated next to me said “Bless You.” Once, in the taxi. Hard to cover up; the taxi driver raised his eyebrows. Then I laughed out loud again, at lunch.

Test number two: Would other people think it was funny? I tried a couple of the short “lists” out on my waiter -- a scrawny 18-year-old with smudges of eye-liner under his eyes (left over from his transgender-band practice the night before) who recommends “anything chicken.” He caught me shaking with laughter and so I tried to explain:

“I’m reading this funny book---”

“Oh, what book is it? I like funny books.”

“Well.” How to explain? “Have you ever heard of ‘McSweeney’s?’”

Blank look.

“It’s this publishing group in San Francisco, and they have a website, and...”

Blank look turns to polite boredom.

“Okay: here. Take a look at this. Do you think it’s funny?” I refer him to page 216 in the “Lists” section: "Infrequently Asked Questions.”

He starts to read. Quickly gets bored. Eyes wander.

I say, haltingly: “You see, it’s funny because, you know... Infrequently Asked Questions? Like, as opposed to frequently asked ques....? Oh, anyway, its a good book.

“Yeah, well, I like funny things," he says, making a galloping motion with his hands and points to the side. “Look, there’s a horse!” He giggles and gallops away.

In order to prove my point (yes! this book is actually funny!), I thrust the book back into his hands when he returns with my drink refill. “Read this one: Bad Names for Pro Wrestlers -- Next Generation.”

He reads silently for a minute, mouth slightly agape. “Oh!” He says. “Hehhehhehheh. ‘Incontinent Minstrel.’ Hehheh. That’s funny.”

And so: yes. The waiter thought it was funny. It passed tests one and two.

But not every piece in the book is laugh-out-loud funny, even to me. Mostly, they made me groan, inwardly. Some of them I skipped out of boredom or eagerness to get to the next piece. A reviewer’s confession: I did not even read the whole book. In fact, of the 49 total pieces in the book, I skipped 13 of them, either when the first few lines bored me or I failed to “get” the inside joke (prime example: “Journal of a New COBRA Recruit” by Keith Pille -- one that I skipped but that my husband later loved. He played with G.I. Joes as a child and got the reference. I did not.)

My personal favorites? “The Latest in False Meat Products” by Danielle Hess and Mickey Hess. I mean, “Replicarcass”? “Pork Pretender”? That’s some funny stuff. I also thought Rich Michael’s and Jon Crawford’s “Signs on the Lawns of People Whose Lawns You May Want To Avoid” was funny. Example: “I squirt on your shoes from my special place.” Asinine? Yes, I know. But I was in near hysterics over that one.

Actually, as I dove into the book, I started to wonder: who are the people who wrote these pieces? Most are men. Out of 75 contributors that I counted at the end of the book, 63 are male. I kept picturing the contributors as a very certain brand of kindred spirits. Neil and his fellow geeks from the short lived “Freaks and Geeks” series, or the guys who decorated their cublicles with Star Wars memorabilia and stole company supplies at my first job in publishing (always good for sarcastic remarks about the executives, always upfront about their main objectives: i.e. milking the company for a hefty salary while they browsed the internet, feigned busyness, and waiting for a chunky severence package) come to mind.

So now the question remains: should YOU buy this book? Are you, too, a kindred spirit of the McSweeney’s brand? Treat yourself to a test of your own. Visit the McSweeney’s website and click on the archived “lists.” If you find them remotely funny, then, yes: surely you need this book. Great for a plane ride, great for reading in short snippets. But if you don’t? Then I pity you, and wish you well in your life void of clever, geeky humor.

Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: The Best of McSweeney's, Humor Category by McSweeney's
Knopf
ISBN: 1400042240
256 Pages