Falstaff by Eduard von Gr├╝tzner (1921)

Queens of the Scatological Age

Next month, one book will be crowned America’s funniest. Reviewing this year’s candidates for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and tiptoeing through the doo-doo.

Looking for something new to try, a 20-something New Yorker volunteers at the interactive butterfly exhibit in the Museum of Natural History. When the last drop of her public spirit runs out, she quits, only to realize upon arriving home that a tiny, endangered, South American winged creature has hitched a ride home on her shirt. Unsure what to do, she places the butterfly on her shower curtain. Unfortunately, the shower curtain is decorated with a bright butterfly pattern. This, she complains, makes “it difficult to keep track of the three-dimensional one’s whereabouts.”

Since 1997, the Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio—a literary center and museum located in the old college home of James Thurber, the famous New Yorker essayist/humorist/cartoonist—has handed out awards to the funniest American books. Ian Frazier’s Coyote vs. Acme was the inaugural winner, followed by The Onion’s Our Dumb Century and David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day. In 2004, the Thurberites turned the award into an annual thing, and since then have awarded the prize to the likes of Christopher Buckley, Jon Stewart, Alan Zweibel, and Joe Keenan. Larry Doyle won the 2008 award for his funny book, I Love You Beth Cooper, which has now been turned into a reportedly much less funny feature film.

When this year’s prize is handed out on October 5th at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, it will go to either butterfly thief Sloane Crosley (I Was Told There’d Be Cake), Ian Frazier (Lamentations of the Father), Don Lee (Wrack & Ruin), or Laurie Notaro (The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death). Frazier’s book is a collection of essays he published in the New Yorker and elsewhere. Don Lee’s entry is the only novel of the four. Crosley and Notaro are both self-deprecating essayists, though they are different in many ways. Crosley, for example, is a New Yorker, while Notaro hails from the west. Crosley is single; Notaro is married. Crosley talks about poop sometimes. Notaro never stops talking about it.

With summer’s end quickly upon us, I decided to cheer myself up last week by reading all of this year’s nominees, one after the other. I haven’t laughed so much since Married With Children came on the air. Plus, reading all these funny books by contemporary authors gave me a good sense for what the funny people think is really funny these days. For example, spatulas. Notaro describes her mother as a “member of the Decorative Spatula of the Month Club” who has at her disposal “spatulas for any given holiday, plus auxiliary spatulas with delightful images of things like flip-flops, bumblebees, or cartoon characters on them.” And then there’s Frazier, in one of the highlights of Lamentations:

The other day, while cleaning the house, I pointed to the dustpan in the corner of the living room and asked my daughter, “Could you please bring me the spatula?” She asked, “You mean the dustpan?” I replied—taking a page from her book—”Whatever.” A dustpan and a spatula really are a lot alike. Why use a separate word for each object? “Dustpan” is drab and colorless, whereas “spatula” is a poetic sounding creation that just rolls off the tongue. Also, “spatula” has a venerable history as a comic key word, like “rutabaga” and “Buick” and “schnauzer.”... On the other hand, you don’t want to become so carried away with “spatula” that you repeat it over and over to yourself as you lie in bed late at night. It’s a perfect example of the kind of word that, if repeated often enough, will make you insane.

Also, the aforementioned poop seems to be in vogue. Not much in Frazier, but one of the funniest scenes in Lee’s novel involves the protagonist’s uptight brother celebrating the freedom he feels after getting high and defecating in the woods, only to learn the next morning that the leaf he used as toilet paper was poison oak. Crosley, for her part, devotes almost 10 pages to a story about what to do when she finds a “perfect, cherry-sized turd” on her bathroom floor after a dinner party. And then there’s Notaro.

Reading all these funny books by contemporary authors gave me a good sense for what the funny people think is really funny these days. For example, spatulas.Flaming Tantrum is literally full of crap. Notaro refers to feces even more than her underwear, and hardly a page goes by without some mention of her dirty, tattered, giant panties. There’s so much poop in Notaro’s Thurber entry that, when Colson Whitehead says on the back of Crosley’s book that Cake is “only occasionally scatological,” he must be trying to distinguish that book from Notaro’s. In Flaming Tantrum, poop bubbles up from Notaro’s basement and splashes down from a passing bird. A burglar poops on her front step, and a giant dog poops on her lawn. She herself has an open-door bean-and-cheese-burrito-fueled “morning thunder” incident while unbeknownst to her, a repairperson works on her broken treadmill down the hall.

So who should win? Frazier is marvelously clever, and Lee’s novel is a satisfying, rollicking read. But for me, the choice comes down to the two self-deprecating essay memoirs. And this, in turn, is about poop and its amusing qualities. When I was unsuccessfully trying out time after time for the Harvard Lampoon back in the late ‘80s, there was a “no bathroom humor” rule, as such jokes were considered both too easy and not that funny. Too easy, I can understand. But not funny? In my opinion, in the end, it’s Notaro over Crosley, by the length of a perfect, cherry-sized turd.