Cue the Laughter: Thurber Award Highlights Humor

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We could all use a good laugh, so why wait until Dec. 5 for Thurber House to announce the winner of its 2018 Thurber Prize for American Humor? More is funnier, so here are the three finalists for this honor, the highest recognition of humor writing in the U.S.

Would Everybody Please Stop? (Sarah Crichton) by Jenny Allen is her debut essay collection, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker. Allen proves to be the type of humorist who can wring a laugh from the most depressing situations.

A to-do list left in a grocery cart inspires “Can I Have Your Errands,” as she compares a stranger’s chores (“Take in Lexus, Derm—filler, Take R to groomer, B Bros ­— suspenders”) to hers (“Laundromat, Dump, Hardware store for Drano”). A tie-dye project while snowed in at a hotel turns into fear of being arrested for murder (all those red stains). While flirting with a younger man at a wedding reception, she gushes, “You know what? I like Yoko now! I never thought that would happen. I like it that she’s an old lady and still making art. Isn’t it funny how life softens your edges?”

On the ignominies of aging: “Please don’t let me fracture something that means I will have to wear running shoes with dresses.” On discovering she could perform miracles: “I turned Young Adult Dystopian Fiction into a small animal that was crossing the road, and I ran it over.”

Vacationland  (Penguin) by John Hodgman is a coming-of-age story, middle age, that is, as he moves into the time of lost hair, lost confidence and lost hope. Hodgman is a writer, comedian and actor. After he appeared on “The Daily Show” as a guest to talk about his previous books, he was hired as a contributor. You may also remember him as the PC in Apple commercials.

 

Subtitled True Stories from Painful Beaches, the book is a meditation on life, families and his life in particular; he’s a genial everyman. “All dads dream about the end of the world,” he writes. ‘It is a comfort to them…when chaos consumes civilization, you can start over. You get to be young again. All your debts, real and emotional, are canceled. Whatever your dumb job used to be, it has been replaced with the sole, exciting occupation of survival via crossbow or samurai sword.” He also has a chapter on his town dump experiences. Apparently, dumps are great sources of humor.

Priestdaddy (Riverhead) by Patricia Lockwood is a memoir written by a woman whose father has become a Catholic priest. Also a poet, Lockwood shines a piercing light into what it was like to grow up with a priest for a father, in a very unique family situation. Her father had been a Lutheran minister before he became a priest, and thus was allowed to remain married.

Lockwood describes her father’s reaction to her intention to move to Colorado with a boy she’s met on the Internet: “When we came home later, my father was wearing his most transparent pair of boxer shorts, to show us he was angry, and drinking Baileys Irish Cream liqueur out of a miniature crystal glass, to show us his heart was broken.”

After Lockwood and her husband, in dire financial straits, move back in with her parents in the rectory, they look at family photo albums: “There is my mother in a Playboy bunny T-shirt my father gave her for her twenty-second birthday — that was before he found God.” Upstairs, her father is playing one of his many electric guitars.

Thurber House is a non-profit literary center and museum dedicated to the legacy of James Thurber, the late author and cartoonist. Previous winners of the Thurber Prize include Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah; The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key, and Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. Other winners back to 1997 can be found here. The more the merrier.

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Joanna Poncavage had a 30-year career as an editor and writer for Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine and The (Allentown, Pennsylvania) Morning Call newspaper. Author of several gardening books, she’s now a freelance journalist.

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