A Craft Talk with Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

It’s Tuesday night, and 60 or so students and professors are packed into a carpeted, quaint room with square, modern lights on the ceiling and white angel statues in the corner, the lights shining up onto their faces. The room is noisy as we wait for the event to start.

Bynum giving her talk.

Bynum giving her talk.

Suddenly the room goes quiet as a voice takes over the microphone. A woman begins reading excerpts of Bynum’s work, introducing her with more awards than I can remember. We clap and Bynum steps up to the podium, “grateful for the kind welcome I’ve received here at Washington University in St. Louis,” a smile on her face. Trying to hold back her own giggling, she tells us that she will be talking about humor in fiction tonight.

Bynum begins by admitting that humor is highly subjective, making it incredibly hard to analyze. She enjoys lightness in humor; the humor arising from not knowing that you are being funny. Bynum says that the funniest novel she’s ever read is “The Blue Flower” by Penelope Fitzgerald, her last novel before she died in 2000 at the age of 83.

Copies of the (four page-long) first chapter of “The Blue Flower” had been placed on our chairs, and Bynum gives us a few minutes to read it. Bynum uses this as a basis for her talk about humor. We go through many examples in the chapter, but below are the key takeaways.

-Humor is from the experience of incongruity between what is expected and what is delivered.

-The superiority theory of comedy: we laugh from feelings of superiority over other people.

-The comedy of recognition: my private laughter increases as I see more and more of myself in the character. “As Homer Simpson says: ‘it’s funny because it’s true.'”