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May 5, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | May 5, 2008 |

I was a little hesitant to read The McSweeneys Joke Book of Book Jokes, thinking that most pieces would reference Joyce and other stuff I hadn’t read. There are, to be sure, many references to Joyce and to Homer (whose Iliad and Odyssey I faked my way through as an undergrad) but you don’t have to be well read to enjoy the majority of pieces contained in this book. There’s plenty for everyone to enjoy.

While every joke isn’t perfect (and, at over 70 selections, I’d be surprised if every one tickled my fancy), most are well executed, and only a few miss the mark. Some, it’s true, are a bit facile, such as those that reference the Tom Cruise couch-jumping incident that’s been done ad nauseam. But these are few and far between, and more than a few made me genuinely laugh out loud.

While it’s impossible for me to discuss each one here (I can’t even discuss all that truly made me laugh, or else I’d go on for pages), I’ll do my best to cover my favorites in detail and give a brief overview of them all. We begin with Craig Berman’s “The Recruitment of Harry Potter,” a memo from a coach to his staff in which he orders them to do whatever it takes to secure Potter’s attendance at their school. Other early selections include “Social Security Denies Gregor Samsa’s Disability Claim” and “Winnie-the-Pooh is my Coworker” (needless to say, a honey-loving bear does not a good employee make). Jim Stallard’s “Goofus, Gallant, Rashomon” looks at the various perspectives shared by those who know the infamous Goofus and Gallant of Highlights fame.

Later, we are given Wayne Gladston’s “Yesterday’s Book Reports from Today’s Notables,” in which Matthew McConaughey reviews Alice in Wonderland. Not surprisingly, Matty McBongo loves this trippy novel. Colin McEnroe exposes the true identity of Michiko Kakutani, Pulitzer Prize winner and book critic for the New York Times, in “I am Michiko Kakutani.” The literary world and pop culture collide in Jeff Barnosky’s “Dateline: To Catch a Predator: Humbert Humbert” and in Tyler Smith’s “Jean-Paul Sartre, 911 Operator” (“Freedom. I spit,” he responds to one desperate caller). One of my favorites is the grad-school version of the Diarrhea song:

When you’re quoting Schopenhauer

And release a dirty shower:

Diarrhea. Diarrhea.


As you can see, not all jokes are high-brow; in fact, most aren’t, and many reference non-literary figures such as in “Still Kicking: The Very Authorized Biography of Steven Seagal” and “Tales of Erotica: Chuck Norris and Me.” David Hart’s “Bedtime Stories by Thom Yorke” gives us the depressing, abstract tales we might expect from the Radiohead singer, and Star Trek fans will enjoy “Klingon Fairy Tales.” Another good selection is not really a joke at all, but simply a list of names in Caley Feldman’s “Ikea Product or Lord of the Rings Character?” (See if you can determine the LOTR character out of Griima, Agerum, and Babord; the answer is below.)

Ellie Kemper’s “Following my Creative-Writing Teacher’s Advice to Write ‘Like My Parents are Dead’” is also quite funny, as the student totally misunderstands the point of this advice; instead of writing freely, without worrying what her parents will think, she dwells on the death of her parents, lamenting that “Death is inevitable, and everywhere. It will happen to all of us. Just like how it already happened to my parents. I would like to write about something else, but it is nearly impossible.”

The Philly girl in me giggled at Dave Johnston’s “The Philadelphia Flyers have a Time Machine: Mary Shelley,” in which Chris Therien becomes the inspiration for Frankenstein’s monster. Returning in time, Chris Therien meets a young Mary Shelley, who is, not surprisingly, terrified of the graceless defenseman, especially when “Therien, with the flexibility of a hard pretzel, raised his arm to little Mary Shelley and patted her head gently, which nearly knocked her out.” (Speaking of the Flyers, is it bad form to call for a little “Let’s Go Flyers”? Say it with me now!)

I also couldn’t resist a laugh at Dan Wiencek’s “Thirteen Writing Prompts.” All 13 were good, but number 5 is my favorite: “A wasp called the tarantula hawk reproduces by paralyzing tarantulas and laying its eggs into their bodies. When the larvae hatch, they devour the still-living spider from the inside out. Isn’t that fucked up? Write a short story about how fucked up that is.”

It’s hard for me to pick an favorite of the pieces, but it might have to be Jay Dyckman’s “Re: Hardy Boys Manuscript Submission” in which the editor of Simon & Schuster responds to The Case of the Secret Meth Lab, a submission that updates the classic mystery series. There are many funny moments here, but I particularly enjoyed the response to page 57, when the editor notes that “Lighthearted exchanges with family members have always been a staple of the series. We are having trouble, however, with Aunt Gertrude ‘tying a few on’ and playfully commenting that Frank is ‘a little light in the loafers.’ On that note, Frank’s adamant attempt to persuade Chet Morton that it is entirely normal for boys to skinny-dip together and his persistent requests for help applying sunblock are probably out of bounds. Question: When did Frank develop a lisp?”

I could go on, since in the process of writing this review I found that I enjoyed most of the selections and wished to share pieces from all of them. Unfortunately, I’ve already quite exceeded my word limit. Needless to say, The McSweeneys Joke Book of Book Jokes far surpassed my expectations. You’ll only need a willingness to laugh; prior literary knowledge isn’t needed, except for a handful of pieces. And, in case you were wondering, Griima is the LOTR character. I couldn’t tell, either.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

Literary Low Brow

The McSweeneys Joke Book of Book Jokes / Jennifer McKeown

Books | May 5, 2008 |

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