On Thursday legendary New Yorker writer and humorist Calvin Trillin will share the stage in Toronto with Canadian comedian, actor and author Sean Cullen to talk about Mordecai Richler, satire and comedy as part of PEN Canada’s Ideas in Dialogue series. The Globe asked event moderator and award-winning Richler biographer Charlie Foran to ask his principals five questions about the serious art of funny in advance of the formal discussion.
What made Mordecai Richler funny?
Trillin: He was in the tradition of the man in the movies who slips on the banana peel. Snarly funny. Most people who do humour try to connect with the audience, with the lady in the second row who just isn’t laughing. But not Mordecai. He never tried ingratiating himself. He didn’t care if that lady laughed or not.
Cullen: Richler was a classic outsider. You need to be removed. As an outsider, you see the quirks of a society that you don’t see if you’re deep inside it. It’s why Canadians, who look and sound like Americans, can be so smart and funny about that country.
Is the kind of satire that Richler wrote necessarily comedic?
Trillin: I’ve never been clear on who’s a satirist and who’s a humorist. I’m sometimes described as wry. I think that means I’m almost funny.
Cullen: Satire is meant to instruct. Often by its very nature, it highlights things that are wrong. Humour can make those things look ridiculous. Satire brings more edge.
Is it harder being funny than serious?
Trillin: Having a humorous outlook is natural to some people. It’s like the guy who can bend his thumb right back to his wrist – it’s what he can do. I certainly don’t equate being funny with being more intelligent than anyone else. You can just bend your thumb back.
Cullen: One reason being funny is hard is that most people think they have a sense of humour, but it’s actually quite personal to them. So it’s hard to strike a chord with everyone. With drama, there’s a generally accepted theory about what is serious and important. Also, once you’re called funny, it’s hard to ever get taken seriously again.
Is language at the root of good comedy?
Trillin: In college I took a writing course called “Daily Themes.” You had to write a little bit every day, and you were told to “individualize by specific detail.” So you can say, “The cheese steaks in south Philly are better if you eat them leaning against a car.” But it’s better, funnier, if you say “against a Pontiac.” And you hate when your humour is misquoted. Comedians are horrified not by bad reviews but when their jokes get repeated, and they’re wrong. It’s all in how you express it.
Cullen: My style of humour definitely plays with words. I link so much of what I find funny with language that I can’t ever separate them.
Wittgenstein is said to have argued that a serious and good philosophical work could be written entirely of jokes. Do you agree?
Cullen: Maybe. Kafka, I suppose, did it. And Woody Allen does it. Isn’t that kind of the Jewish tradition that Mordecai Richler was so much part of – dealing with a lot of dark things through humour?
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Funny Strange: Satire After Mordecai Richler takes place Thursday at 7 p.m., at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Click here for ticket info.
Special to The Globe and Mail