It was eleventh grade, during Mr. Ivins’s English class, when I discovered my fondness for James Thurber. Mr. Ivins read the story, “The Catbird Seat,” in his upper-class North Carolina drawl, and that accent and the story practically made me fall out of my desk chair with laughter. The story is about Mr. Martin, a man who has never taken a drink or smoked a cigarette in his life, but who, one evening, visits an annoying co-worker, Mrs Ulgine Barrows. Mrs. Barrows uses phrases like “sitting in the catbird seat” and “tearing up the pea patch,” phrases that drive Mr. Martin to conclude that he needs to be rid of Mrs. Barrows. I won’t give the story away, but I will say that Mr. Martin ends up sitting in the catbird seat (i.e. in charge or sitting pretty).
Humor is difficult to write. I think the force of a good joke or a funny story depends on the poker face-ability of the narrator. Thurber accomplishes that with Mr. Martin as the straight man against whom Mrs. Barrows’s conniptions can bounce and tangle. His cartoons, which were mostly published in The New Yorker, are among the funniest the journal has published. One cartoon depicts a woman walking up to a man at a party and saying, “I have a neurosis.” Another shows a woman sitting next to a man, saying “If you can keep a secret, I’ll tell you how my husband died.” These one-liners burst my seams even as I write them. The closest humorist we have to Thurber today is Ellen DeGeneres, who in her stage show “Here and Now,” suggested you say to a stranger in an elevator, “Hey, want to smell something funny?” Both comics don’t make “jokes” in the strict definition but they make fun of the strange possibilities of everyday situations — true talent.
I bring up Thurber today because I introduced my creative writing students to “The Catbird Seat” and nobody laughed. How could the story not be funny? To explain the joke is to ruin it, so instead I focused on the title and instructed them to write three titles, avoiding statements like “My Life” or “My First Break-up”. But the class got me thinking: how do you write humor? It’s a challenge. I was once in a psychiatrist’s office and, when he asked how I was doing, I slapped my ear and said, “Shut up, we’re going home soon.” He laughed. I know how to do it — make people laugh — but I do not know how to teach it. On Monday I gave a lecture on how to write silence by emphasizing the ticking sound of a clock to sharpen the quiet space; I also explained how people rarely say they’re angry when they’re angry, so to write anger is to describe the body’s physiological changes. But humor?
If anyone knows, please share your techniques with me. In the meantime, I’ll curl up with Thurber, a man who was born sitting in the catbird seat.