Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Comedy Stylings of Simon Rich

The humorous short stories of Simon Rich are what you might expect if, say, Calvin and Hobbes had been written by a sarcastic 20-something Woody Allen. In Free-Range Chickens, Rich's most recent collection, a kid loses his first tooth and is dismayed not only that there is a fairy that comes and takes teeth, but worries there might be an eye fairy or a face fairy and – the horror! – his parents are in cahoots with them!

Rich has a particular fondness for re-imagining the child's world through an adult prism, or maybe it's the other way around. In his first collection, Ant Farm, his "a conversation at the grown-ups' table as imagined at the kids table" is the sort of bizarro world humor that used to be the stock and trade of the old National Lampoon, when they were a magazine and not a cruddy movie brand.
Mom: Pass the wine I want to act crazy.
Dad: Okay.

Or perhaps there's the dismay when a third grader is introduced to a calculator.
Me: You mean this device just...does them? By itself?
Teacher: Yes. You enter in the problem and press equal.
Me: knew about this machine all along, didn't you? This whole time, while we were going through this...this charade with the pencils and the line paper and the stupid multiplication tables!...I'm sorry for shouting...It's just...I'm a little blown away.

With each short vignette – most in the two- to three-page range – Rich finds the comical nugget of each "what if" and finds a way to use the natural precociousness of innocent eyes to vocal very mature absurdisms.

The humor works, in part, because Rich himself is just barley out of his young adult years and is still closer to the wellspring of his memories. The kid got his first book published before he graduated from college (Harvard, where he was also president of the Harvard Lampoon), and between his first and second book managed to do some writing for Saturday Night Live and has a novel due.  A lot of these pieces read like better SNL sketches.

I've encountered reviews that refer to the comedy here as sophomoric, but it's perfectly on par with the early comedy writing of Steve Martin. Where Martin was alternately surreal and philosophical, his comedy more counter-cultural, Rich has crawled inside what contemporary culture finds funny and boiled it down to its essence. "Time machine" turns a three-minute comedy sketch into a half page realization that going back in time to kill Hitler before he could come to power has its drawbacks.

–Oh my God. You killed a baby.
–Yes, but the baby was Hitler.
–Hitler. It's... complicated.
–Officer? This man just killed a baby.

Indeed, no good deed goes unpunished in time travel. And in Free-Range Chickens there's a short vignette that actually predicted something that was recently in the news. In "Amusement" a Burger King employee attempts to sell a customer a candid photo of them dipping their burger into barbecue sauce. The customer is horrified and begs for the digital image on the screen to be taken away. In the real world, Burger King rolled out a test where customers had their pictures taken while ordering customized burgers and found those photos featured on the paper wrapper their burger was put in. Burger King was attempting to underscore just how personalized their service was, but like Rich's comedic fusion of amusement park rides and fast food, they failed to calculate that not all moments are meant to be public. Humiliation works in comedy, not on your food.

There is a certain repetition to the humor, patterns emerge, and occasionally things fall flat. But overall these two collections make for a breezy read, some well-earned laughs, and occasionally a twisted moment of recognition where some long-forgotten childhood memory is unearthed for a laugh. Overall, more hits than misses, and funnier than a lot of things posing as comedy these days.

Ant Farm
Random House 2008
Free-Range Chickens
Random House 2009
both by Simon Rich

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