By using humor, Wildgen is able to deconstruct celebrity and masculinity in a way that would probably be less effective in a serious-minded essay.
The recently renovated Madison Central Library has many roles: it's a fantastic community space, an inspiring resource for research and study, and a symbol of the city's commitment to lifetime learning. But a comedy club? Not so much.
That is why it's intriguing to see the Wisconsin Book Festival host Michelle Wildgen's Humor Writing Showcase on Saturday. In this late-night discussion, four writers present short works that emphasize laughter as much as literature. As an official semi-professional comedian, I am curious to see if this panel have the comedy chops to pull this off.
The first reader to the podium is Michelle Wildgen, editor of quarterly literary magazine Tin House. Wildgen reads an essay analyzing a long-forgotten book titled Hot Line: The Letters I Get and Write by Burt Reynolds. Yep, a publisher once released a book cataloging Burt Reynolds' fan mail. I often think the Internet era holds a unique claim on disposable celebrity culture with our fleeting Miley Cyrus twerking parodies, but Wildgen reminds me that the '70s had pop culture equally ephemeral and empty.
Wildgen could write a funny enough essay by simply clipping the best quotes from Burt's sex-crazed fans. Instead, she chooses to go deeper and explores thought-provoking themes in the letters, including pre-AIDS sexuality and the safety of sending erotica to someone you will never meet. By using humor, Wildgen is able to deconstruct celebrity and masculinity in a way that would probably be less effective in a serious-minded essay.
The next presenter is Lindsay Hunter. Adopting a stream of consciousness style, Hunter rips through selections from her second collection Don't Kiss Me. Hunter's pacing and delivery suggests she would fit in at a poetry slam; it is a sensory onslaught. Her rapid-fire style is so quick, much of the audience misses how simultaneously hilarious and devastating these words are.
By the third section of Hunter's epic story about a character named Peggy Paula, I feel like I am adjusting and am in tune with the author. Unfortunately, it is at the end of her reading -- a shame, as the audience is finally ready to listen.
Lucas Mann is next up to read with his essay "Erotic Conquests of a Man with No Style: A Noir." A self-deprecating work, it finds a schlubby character not unlike the author seducing a woman who is inexplicably attracted to his borderline grossness. The piece would easily fit into a non-literary comedy show. Like good sketch comedy, the situation steadily escalates from the slightly weird to the decadently absurd, where things happen in an Old Navy changing room that I will not spoil.
The final reader is Emma Straub. She offers an essay about a gift certificate her mom gave her for Madison's own Betty Lou Cruises. Straub mentions she is not excited about taking a cruise on tiny Lake Monona, and I hear murmurs from audience members angry that she is insulting Madison's lakes. Luckily, Straub doesn't start praising the waters of Austin, Texas, and her warm delivery brings around even the most militant Madison defender.
Straub has no grand change of heart about the cruise. But she gains a greater appreciation of the person her mother is -- someone who seeks life experiences with a positive attitude and lots of laughter. Straub realizes that it is sometimes best to just lock arms with a mother like that and laugh along with her.
The showcase as a whole is enjoyable. All four writers bring unique and funny voices, and my only complaint is that the voices are so distinct that the transition between presenters is jarring. Most importantly, the breadth of the showcase shows the audience that there is a world of literary humor outside of This American Life.
As I leave, I overhear a man in the audience say, "That wasn't just funny, they were good stories too."
Like graphic novels before them, maybe it's time for humor writing to get some respect.