Wednesday, April 6, 2011


I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and he was telling me a story I'd heard years ago. I laughed just as hard this time, so I started thinking about how tough it is to translate real-life humor into writing. It's not just a case of you had to be there, because the verbal teller can work the story for years and years. But when you try to write it down, it feels flat and lifeless.

Emotional replays often work better in text, so why is humor so tough?

Here's a little experiment. This is a bit of the conversation I had the other day, but I'm not sure the humor holds up in this form. This is just the beginning of the story. It goes on and on. It might help to know that Mark is a burly farmer.


We’re standing in the mall, and there’s this display of shoes at the front of a store. My wife picks up a cowboy boot and looks it over, then she hands it to me and says, “Put this on.”

I check the size and see it’s an eight. I wear a ten. Sometimes eleven. “This won’t fit,” I say, and start to put the boot back on the table.

“Put it on!”

“It’s an eight.”

“It’s on sale!”

I’ve seen that look a million times, so I sit down on this padded seat, take off my right shoe, just to show her that I can’t even get my foot all the way in the boot.

“Put it on! Force your foot in there. Just shove it in there! Shove!”

“Can’t. It’s too small.”

“It’s on sale!”

If you know Darlene, you know she won’t take no for an answer, so I cram my foot in there, mash it in there, and my toes are layered one on top of the other.

“Too small,” I gasp, grimacing in pain.

“Walk,” she commands.

I hobble around, and my toes are screaming.

“That’s a nice-looking cowboy boot,” she says.

“It’s too small,” I tell her.

I tug off the boot, and my toes pop back. I’m tying my sneaker when I look up and there she is, standing at the counter, paying for the damn boots!

Then she’s aiming herself at me, handing me the bag. “Put them on. Wear them home.”

“You gotta be kidding me.”

“Put them on.”

So I sit back down and shove my feet into the boots. I wonder how in the hell I’ll be able to stand, but I’m finally upright. Then, like a baby learning to walk, I hobble out. My knees are bent, and my feet feel like balls.

“Hurry up!” she says, looking at her watch. “What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with me? What the hell do you think?”

As I hobble to the car, she keeps casting glances at me and my new cowboy boots.

“Those look so nice,” she says, beaming.

“They’ll look a helluva lot nicer once there off my damn feet.” I’m looking forward to hiding them in the back of the closet. Maybe burning them.

“You should wear them all the time. Whenever we go to town.”

“All the time? I need a wheelchair to wear these.”

“They look nice.”

“They’re killing me.” My elbows are sticking out, but my legs are finally straight. My body is already figuring out how to walk without toes and it's like walking on stilts.

“They were on sale,” she says.

“What does that have to do with anything? There were adult diapers on sale back there, but I’m not forcing you to wear them.”

She glares at me. You know Darlene.


  1. When we use humor in email, we often add a :-) to make sure the reader knows we're [j/k].

    I think that the dark edge a lot of good humor has doesn't translate easily to the page because the reader isn't sure how to take it. Is the above story funny, or is it about spousal abuse? A lot of David Sedaris's work is funnier when I hear him reading it aloud than when I read it on the page, for instance. Would Fawlty Towers be as funny in short story form?

  2. paula, good points! and it is abusive behavior when you boil it down! i think the humor of the story has a lot to do with the teller's incredulous tone. And I was actually thinking of Sedaris as I wrote this. You are so right about how he is funnier live.

  3. It's also really hard to tell someone else's story, no matter how funny.

  4. The moral of the story: high heels.

  5. hi emeraldcite!

    well, maybe open-toe heels. :D

    this kind of illustrates the problem with nonfiction. it's something i ran into when writing the memoir. People do things we don't want them to do,and they do them for no strong reason. we don't want mark to wear the boots. we don't understand why he did it. when my agent of 20 yrs turned down my memoir, he said it was mainly because my marrying the guy i married made no sense and he couldn't get past that.

  6. Sometimes it's hard to get the subtle cues and timing of humor with only dialog. I would love to "see" some of the physical reactions to the a few of the demands. :)

  7. jason, good point. another thing that's missing is deep internalization. a lot of personal humor comes from that.