This is no. 99 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Sometimes trying to describe what makes something funny feels like letting the air leak out of a balloon. I think so many things are hilarious, but capturing what makes them work inside a sentence or a paragraph feels wildly difficult. What is humor but a magic trick? Maybe that’s why so often I turn to the absurd.
Typically, humor is in the eye of the beholder. So much of what makes something funny to a particular person relies on the comedic map of their brain: inside jokes, their upbringing, their background. I would imagine that within a specific friend group, social constructs map out like a Venn diagram of what actually is funny to the whole and what stays closer to the borders of personal preference. But absurdism blurs all those boundaries.
When we discuss the absurd, we are basically asking the brain to not make any connections. This is a weird ask when it comes to most humor, which relies on those connections to make the joke: set-up followed quickly by the punchline. Puns do this. So do traditional knock-knock jokes. Most jokes have some type of innate formula, but absurdism asks you to throw everything you know about what’s funny out the metaphorical window.
An example: the ravioli joke.
For a period of time, I made a point to tweet once a day that something—basically almost any object, food or otherwise—was in fact a ravioli. I might say that a mattress was a ravioli or that a sportscar was a ravioli. Once I claimed that the human skull was technically a ravioli. The purpose behind this? It was very weird, made no sense, and I found it funny. For quite a while I could not unpack what made it so funny for me, which made it even funnier. My brain just liked it. It was nonsense, and I enjoyed the sheer ridiculousness of the daily prompt.
Then the joke morphed into something that was still funny, but explainable. Something I was able to parse out and understand. I did not share it with anyone at first, especially not online, because I wanted to keep gleaning the joy of the daily absurdity—banana as ravioli, clam as ravioli. But I discovered that a secondary comedic element was how people reacted to the absurdity itself. There was the initial humor of posting the absurd comparison, quickly followed by the outrage of those who viewed it. Some people enjoyed them immensely in the same way that I did; they liked the fact that it was strange and did not make sense. Other people attempted to parse it, make it into a sustainable fact (the human skull holding the brain, meat and blood and bone—yes, they could see it, it’s allowed). The third type of person made the joke a different kind of funny. These were the people that were absolutely furious that I had attempted the comparison in the first place. People got very, very angry! Over a silly, harmless joke! About food! I began posting my daily ravioli comparisons and quickly muting the joke itself, all the while knowing that people were in my mentions, commenting on how horrible they thought the joke was, how angry it made them—and I never, ever saw their complaints. This second level of humor, placed on top of the first absurdist level of humor, gave me intense satisfaction.
When we consider absurdist humor in fiction, it is easy enough to spot it in action. A book does not necessarily have to be filled with absurdism to host pockets of it neatly inside the plot. An example would be Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, All This Could Be Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). In one particular scene, Twyla, a woman who is deep in grief and is obsessed with makeup, walks around a CVS picking up tube after tube of lipstick. She tosses all of them in her shopping cart. Handfuls of lipstick. Dozens upon dozens of tubes. When she gets to the checkout and the teenager at the counter starts bagging up all the purchases, Twyla suddenly decides she does not want them anymore. Hundreds of lipsticks, just sitting loose on the counter, halfway bagged, and she is buying none of them. The image is absurd and wildly comical. It works because it is also attached to the idea that for Twyla, beauty has long felt like a trap, but also like something she could control. It’s delightfully funny and also deeply sad. It’s absurdism on multiple levels.
A fun way to try out absurdist humor for yourself might be to insert something silly and improbable within a scene and then work the room around it, just for the hell of it. Let the actual physical elephant sit inside the room and ignore it while your characters drink their happy hour beers. See what comes from it. Technically, this idea…is a ravioli. Enjoy.
Kristen Arnett is a queer writer based in Florida. She is the author of the novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019), which was a New York Times best-seller, and the story collection Felt in the Jaw (Split/Lip Press, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, North American Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, and McSweeney’s, among other publications. Her second novel, With Teeth, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books in June.Thumbnail: David Fedulov