Ten Questions with Jon Winokur: How to Heighten Your Sense of the Absurd
Jon Winokur is the author of twenty books on a subjects from advice to Zen. He finds the world’s funniest, wisest, and sarcastic quotes and publishes them in books. Trust me when I tell you that this is harder than it sounds. He’s a one-man Wikipedia of wisdom and sarcasm.
I first learned about him when I read The Portable Curmudgeon. A few years later I truly “arrived” when he included a quote of mine in The Rich Are Different (“They think home banking is when a banker comes to your home.”).
Question: What would you say to someone who complains that my subtitle, “Blogger. N. Someone with nothing to say writing for someone with nothing to do,” is insulting, arrogant, blah blah blah?
Answer: Did Ambrose Bierce insult his readers? Your subtitle immediately sets the tone and separates your blog from the 90% of all other blogs that take themselves way too seriously, so I’d tell him or her to lighten up. The ultimate expression of respect is to tell it like it is, or at least as you honestly see it. [Guy: The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce is required reading for anyone who abhors stupidity and hypocrisy. You can also get it online here (thanks James Shewmaker for letting me know).]
Your subtitle is a very Biercian formulation. It’s reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s definition of rock journalism as “people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read." The literary critic Lionel Trilling said it best: “Immature artists imitate, mature artists steal." But I would never accuse you of being an immature artist.
Question: Do you consider yourself funny or are you a connoisseur of funniness?
Answer: Calling yourself funny is like calling yourself a curmudgeon: You’re funny when someone else says you’re funny. I won’t even accept “connoisseur,” though I like to think I have a sense of humor.
Question: What makes a person funny?
Answer: Funny people have a heightened sense of the absurd. They take life seriously, but not literally. They’re sometimes described as “twisted,” but it’s just the opposite: they’re the sane ones in an insane world. Funny people are also aware of the music of humor. They instinctively know that the stress and number of beats has to be just right and that a superfluous syllable can kill a laugh, whether written or spoken. That’s why copy editors are hazardous to humor manuscripts. They care about being grammatically correct, not funny.
Question: Are people born funny or made funny?
Answer: A sense of humor runs in families, whether as a result of nature or nurture or both. That’s why comedians often cite a funny parent or sibling as a major influence.
On the other hand, some people are congenitally humorless. They go through life not getting the joke. It’s one of the great divides between human beings, and it’s hard for one to get along with the other, as I can attest from personal experience: There was this very attractive, very intelligent woman. One night over dinner I mentioned a funny bit from “The Simpsons.” She didn’t respond, so I asked her if she’d seen the show. “I don’t watch cartoons,” she said, so I refused to sleep with her.
Question: How hard can it be to find some quotes and put them together in a book?
Answer: It’s so easy it ought to be illegal. I can’t believe I’ve been getting away with it for 20 years.
Question: What are the mechanics of finding these quotes?
Answer: They pop out of books, newspapers, magazines, web sites, even blogs. I also quote from newscasts, talk shows, and movies. I sharpen the focus when I’m researching a particular book, but the process is the same: Read and listen until the quotable quotes come along.
Question: Has the Internet with sites like Quotationspage.com made your life easier?
Answer: Those sites are okay for corroboration, but I don’t use them as primary sources. Quotationspage.com seems to be one of the better ones. I generally don’t like to recycle quotations. I try to be the first quoter of a bon mot, so I look for unusual quotes from unexpected sources that haven’t been collected elsewhere.
But the “standards” are impossible to leave out: classic quotes from Shakespeare, Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, H.L Mencken, and Ambrose Bierce, who wrote, a century ago, “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”
Question: Can one actually gain wisdom from reading quotes or are they "just" one liners?
Answer: Quotations can be a great source of wisdom. They stimulate thought, suggest connections, and console you with the knowledge that you’re not alone—but then, I have a short attention span. In fact, I consider myself a short-attention-span pioneer, and I’m encouraged that technology has shrunk attention spans even further since I began doing these books. The quotation just might turn out to be the literary form of the 21st century. Either that or the text message.
Question: How do you pick a topic for a book?
Answer: Out of ignorance and curiosity: I’m attracted to interesting subjects that I don’t know much about. I certainly don’t try to guess what people want to read. I write books that I want to read. I’m fascinated by curmudgeons [The Portable Curmudgeon, The Traveling Curmudgeon] and Zen [Zen to Go]. I did a book about boredom [Ennui to Go] because I’m susceptible to it and wondered if it was just me. I learned something about the craft of writing from Advice to Writers and Writers on Writing.
I compiled a Frenglish dictionary [Je Ne Sais What?] because I don’t speak French and could never find definitions in standard French dictionaries for phrases like esprit de l’escalier (“wit of the staircase”—a witty remark thought of too late) and monstre sacré (“sacred monster”—a performer whose celebrity is heightened by his or her eccentricities). I still use that book as a reference. A publisher paid me to write a book for myself! I told you it’s a racket.
Question: Is there any hope for the French?
Answer: The French will always be the French. That’s both the bad news and the good news. What the British entertainer Ivor Novello said over 50 years ago is still true: “There’s something Vichy about the French.”
Question: Is there any hope for Republicans?
Answer: Not only is there no hope for Republicans, there’s no hope for the Republic until we reform campaign finance. You can quote me on that.
Question: What are you working on now?
Answer: The Big Curmudgeon, an omnibus edition of previous curmudgeon books plus new material, and The Big Book of Irony, a small-format hardcover in which I try to share my delight in the many facets of irony and clear up some misconceptions, because irony is widely misunderstood.
It drives me crazy when people say “ironic” when they mean “coincidental.” The classic example is Morissettian Irony, which I define in the book as “irony based on a misapprehension of irony, i.e., no irony at all.” It’s named for the pop singer Alanis Morissette, whose hit single, “Ironic” mislabels coincidence and inconvenience as irony.
In the song, situations purporting to be ironic are merely sad, random, or annoying (“It's a traffic jam when you're already late/It's a no-smoking sign on your cigarette break”). In other words, “Ironic” is an un-ironic song about irony. Which, of course, is ironic in itself. But wait, there’s more, a “bonus irony” if you will: “Ironic” has been cited as an example of how Americans don’t get irony, despite the fact that Alanis Morissette is Canadian!
Question: What are your favorite quotes on these subjects?
My favorite statement about writing isn’t from a great novelist or poet, but from Edwin Schlossberg, the artist and designer who’s married to Caroline Kennedy. He once wrote that the skill of writing is “to create a context in which other people can think.” That’s the best definition I’ve ever read. I think. [Advice to Writers]
“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.”—John Berryman [Ennui to Go]
“The average dog is a nicer person than the average person.”—Andy Rooney [Mondo Canine]
“I got married the second time in the way that, when a murder is committed, crackpots turn up at the police station to confess the crime.”—Delmore Schwartz [The Portable Curmudgeon]
Northern California vs. Southern California
“Northern Californians are to Southern Californians what German Jews are to Russian Jews.”—Howard Ogden [The War Between the State]
Two favorites, though they contradict each other:
“The armor of irony is a little ugly, it’s difficult to lug around, and it makes it hard to hug one another. But maybe irony is, in the end, better than abs of steel.”—Veronica Rueckert [The Big Book of Irony, (January, 2007)]
“When you’re younger, you think a little irony is all you need. You think it’ll get you to the grave, but it won’t. Loss always seeps through. You do need to deal with it.”—Douglas Coupland [The Big Book of Irony, (January, 2007)]
“When you’re in love it’s the most glorious two-and-a-half days of your life.”—Richard Lewis [A Curmudgeon’s Garden of Love]
“No one wants advice—only corroboration.”—John Steinbeck [Friendly Advice]
“Neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in them. My mother cleans them.”—Rita Rudner [Encyclopedia Neurotica]
“A wonderful game…if you don’t care.”—Gary McCord [How to Win at Golf Without Actually Playing Well]
“To turn $100 into $110 is work. To turn $100 million into $110 million is inevitable.”—Edgar Bronfman [The Rich Are Different]
“Avoid all airplane travel except by privately owned jets operated for the benefit of America’s twenty-five most indispensable CEOs.”—Russell Baker [The Traveling Curmudgeon]
“The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”—Robert Pirsig [Zen to Go]
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