Where’s the Humor?

At a well-established writing conference, I paid $150.00 to take a humor class entitled Where is the Humor in Your Life —Everywhere. It was five days with 1 ½ hours of class time each day; that’s a total of 7 ½ hours of instruction. Being a nonfiction, memoir writer I wanted to add humor to the family stories I liked to write. A few days before the start of class the instructor sent an e-mail asking us to bring laptops or a flashdrive so materials could be downloaded. An organized instructor with an agenda. I was getting excited.

On the first day, with no introductions or ice breaker activity, the instructor feverishly passed out a flood of paper hand-outs even though we already had these on a flashdrive. His entire curriculum focused on a wide variety of writing prompts and he insisted these could be applied to and improve any type of writing.

The prompts included “fakes” of personal ads, disclaimers, grocery lists, e-mail addresses, complaint letters, epitaphs, honey-do chore lists, t-shirt slogans as well as creating captions for Gary Larson cartoons and Onion headlines. This type of humor was more improvisation and required quick, pithy responses. So, this class will help me become Comedy Central’s next stand-up sensation? Hardly.

Half way through the first day, a student timidly asked if we could go around and find out what each of the seven class members was working on and maybe get to know each other. This seemed revolutionary to the instructor but he grudgingly agreed. We began the go-around but only two people, one was me, got to say anything before the instructor did a quick detour back to, you guessed it, his prompts.

I’d said I was working on a short piece about the challenges of dealing with my 94 year old mother who refused to wear her hearing aid; I wanted to add some humor without seeming uncaring. As class was breaking up, the instructor walked across the room to tell me I should put that project aside and concentrate on the writing prompts he was presenting. I mentally saluted the Nazi writing master, sputtered to my friend as we walked out to the car and fumed all the way home.

I thought overnight about quitting or transferring to another class. Okay, I reasoned, this will activate a side of my brain I don’t usually use. Trying to remain open minded, I put aside the feeling of drowning in a mountain of information, none of which dealt with my own writing, as the course title had suggested.     I decided to give it a go. Bad decision.

It became clear on the second day that the instructor’s entire repertoire had been exhausted the day before. From then on, he ran out of steam during the first half hour of each class and asked us, his students, “so, what do you want to do now?” Oh my. I wouldn’t ask that if I were you! No telling what could happen if someone allowed their true feelings full reign and answer that question honestly.

The mood and the teaching methods of our instructor set a pattern of confusion and chaos that would drive the class throughout the week. He seemed the absent minded professor when forgetting what had been discussed a half hour ago, changing the subject mid-stream and generally cutting off interesting discussion to return to his beloved prompts. Get me some Haldol! Not sure if it’s for him or for me!

Our class was made up of people motivated to work and already funny before they walked in the door. Two students actually belonged to an improvisation group in their hometown and were the most familiar with performance comedy. They seemed to get it; but even they were rolling their eyes along with the rest of us as the class hobbled along each day.

On day four, after we’d exhausted every attempt to address our own writing, someone wrangled approval of picking one of the prompts, whichever one we wanted, and bringing it to class completed on the final day. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one who needed thinking time.

The instructor must have noticed the lack of enthusiasm and silence as he slogged over his tedious material. He commented that the memoir class he was teaching in the morning was upset with him because he was encouraging them to embellish their stories and actually lie. He seemed put out by their reaction.

Out of curiosity, I looked in the class bulletin. His class was titled: Creative Memoir Writing: Let’s Lie This Time! The description stated “famous memoirs lie a lot. So why not you too?” It continued with comments about “spinning the truth” and “making up the truth from scratch.” Perhaps, I began to think, this man is dangerous to the creative process. Who do I call at the New York Times to rat out the guy as the next James Frey of “A Million Little Pieces” debacle?

I understand it’s important to be open to new ideas and realize there’s always something to learn. Now that the class is over, I’ve grappled with that thought. What, indeed, did I learn? Humor is very hard to write and the elements of humor include writing the absurd and the silly. Perhaps now I’m more aware of the need for a strong punch line and more comfortable being outrageous. But at $30.00 per session, doing a short writing exercise and chatting seems too little for the money. It was a stretch to complete the writing prompts and to apply this to my own writing. But try, I did:

Onion headline: “Daughter taken into custody after taping hearing aide to elderly mother’s head. “   Ewe! Icky!

During a noontime program, a celebration of their 50th year in operation, the Director mentioned that although the workshop was sponsored by a large university, they must support themselves and it was their desire to grow the program. I figured I owed them the truth. That would help them. Here’s my evaluation:

TO:                  Workshop Planning Committee

FROM:            Disappointed but hopeful

Congratulations in reaching your 50 year milestone. I support your goal of growing and sustaining the program and plan to attend in the future. In order to grow, it’s necessary to have interesting classes taught by competent instructors. The following is a demonstration of my disappointment at what I learned in the humor class I attended.

Fake E-mail: Humorinstructor@slimcurriculum.unabletofocus.mayhave dementia.repetitive.com

Onion headline: Humor class stages coup. Instructor run out of town on a rail. Seven students hailed as heroes

T-shirt: Deviate from the handouts at your own peril!

Fake Personal Ad: Writer/instructor seeks like-minded students who will not tire of discussing the same ideas over and over and who will allow instructor to put forth only his ideas.

I hope you will find this helpful in your future planning:

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