Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Sad Laughter: A Totally Unessential and Demotivational Guide to Reading, Writing, and Publishing by Brian Alan Ellis. (Civil Coping Mechanisms)
A few years ago, I spent about six months going to open mic comedy shows at least once every couple of weeks. I never took the stage to try to tell my own jokes because I’m well aware that my jokes are terrible. At this point in life, I know that I am not a stand-up comedian, and no one would enjoy me at the mic, including myself. I liked being in the audience, drinking beer, and enjoying the talent our medium-sized city had to offer.
During this six-month routine, there was one comedian that periodically took the mic. He wasn’t a storytelling comedian. He was a one-liner comedian. His jokes didn’t build off of one another, but instead stood alone. Most of his jokes came without context, and he delivered them relatively quickly, occasionally pausing to laugh, but a subdued, quiet laugh. And the best part: he fucking killed. The first time he began his set the room was dead quiet. He rattled off his one-liners, and as they began to pile up and compound, the people around me started chuckling. Then laughing. Then applauding. Through sheer quantity and persistence, he won us over; and years later he is the one comedian I remember the most from my half-year of visiting the comedy scene.
Brian Alan Ellis’s new book Sad Laughter had a similar effect on me. Early on, he says #amcopyingandpastingtweetsintoamanuscript versus #amwriting. Ellis goes back to the idea that he’s simply taking tweets and status updates from his social media and plugging them into this book; and from following him on Twitter, I can verify that he’s telling the truth, it checks out.
Ellis lays out each quip, or status update, so quickly that it’s easy to blow through and let the format begin coalescing into a larger picture of someone choosing to live this existence that seems to produce only, well, sad laughter. Ellis wants to be a successful writer who is respected by his peers at the same time he wants to burn the whole institution down and make fun of anyone who takes it too seriously (and I can imagine him making fun of me right now for writing that sentence). Ellis is chipping away at sincerity almost as a defense mechanism, because to paraphrase him late in the book, your rejection pile will always be bigger than your acceptance pile, and even though we’re aware of that doesn’t mean it hurts any less.
The contradiction: if he hates all of this so much, then why does he have such an insider’s look at it? I think the honesty involved shows a complexity that is compelling. This is more than a book of pithy burns at the lit community (even though it can be read that way), it’s a book about someone who wants to fit in, but his self-doubt is almost too encompassing for him to really throw his whole self into it.
There are a few chapters that are about a specific theme. This is where Sad Laughter shines.
There are a few chapters that are about a specific theme. This is where Sad Laughter shines. “No Book Blurb, No Cry,” “We’re All Going to Die Someday, so There’s No Use Wasting Precious Time with Archaic Formalities,” and “AWP is Fucking Dog Shit” are the highlights for me. These are the moments where Ellis finds himself hyper-focused on one target and we are able to build this mosaic where reality and Ellis’s worldview meet.
The book, as a whole, is jamming differing perceptions against each other and seeing what comes out; and most of the time it is pretty damn funny and entertaining, but sometimes it feels like it’s simply meandering along. Of course, the moment I think it has run out of gas, he throws in a “You might be a while male writer if… you have an MFA; wear only earth tones; host a podcast; keep a well-groomed beard; should maybe stop writing” and I think, How in the hell did he know about Extremist Movie Debate? (my now defunct movie podcast) and then ask myself, Should I maybe stop writing? I mean, when we get down to it, it’s a fair question.
Sad Laughter is a tug of war with how people look at the writing community. It comes with such a quick force that, like the comedian I watched all those years ago, the level of entertainment Ellis seems to get out of putting these updates together transfers to the reader and I can’t help but take pleasure in reading his view of the world we’ve both chosen. As morose and sad as his perception seems to be, I think it is probably the healthier one.
Sad Laughter is not asking you to take sides, because doing that would be dumb. It would defeat the purpose of this life we’ve all chosen to pursue. The whole ordeal with writing, reading, and publishing is silly, and a little dumb, but at least we can all get together and have a sad laugh about it.