How to be Funny and Serious at the Same Time

Steve Almond lets us into his furious and hilarious mind.

There is a short video on YouTube promoting Steve Almond’s new short story collection, God Bless America. In it, Almond, sitting on a couch, outlines how right-wing talking heads like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin absolutely love his book. Fox News clips at first seem to back up his claims. Soon, however, you realize that these are actually just snippets of the commentators saying the phrase “God Bless America.”

Check it out. It’s hilarious and a good peek into the mind of Almond, a writer whose work has included stints at daily and weekly papers, seven books and a teaching career at Boston College that ended when he resigned via a Boston Globe op-ed objecting to Condoleezza Rice delivering the commencement speech at the university.

God Bless America presents 13 stories that together provide an “urgent investigation of America’s soul,” as he puts it. But the stories also include the sort of humor he dished out in his nonfiction investigation of rock fandom, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. The politically charged writer comes to Get Lit! as part of a trip through the region he’s calling his “Northwest All Hail the Militia Tour” and took some time away from his wife and two children to chat with The Inlander from his home near Boston.

INLANDER: You’re a pretty funny dude in your writing …

ALMOND: [interrupting] And then you get on the phone with me and it’s like, “Ahh, get off the soap box!”

Well, that cultural commentary is a lot of what you do. But do you consider yourself a humorist?

I certainly feel apologetic when I read a depressing story. I don’t want to be like the Candyfreak days [referring to his book about his candy obsession] and be like, “I’ve got 50 funny words on Tootsie Rolls!” When I think about the world, I’m a lot more bummed out than that.

My intention, oftentimes, is that people don’t want to hear how f---ed up the country is and how f---ed up my kids’ lives are going to be because of the stupid selfish decisions made by our culture — left, right, everybody. They don’t want to hear that. I don’t want to hear it. I want to figure out a way to make light of those circumstances by telling jokes, or at least giving the readers the insights at a velocity that exceeds our normal experience.

The laughter is a sort of forgiveness. Does that make me a humorist? Yeah, I guess. But it’s a bio-evolutionary thing. This is how we’ve learned to cope with all the things our big, oversized brains feed us and all the regrets we harbor. The only way to deal with that bad data is to f---ing get over ourselves and realize we’re all f---ing messes.

Have people told you to get into standup comedy?

When I do readings, it’s my little chance to say what I have to say. Some of it is in the form of reading, but some is in just sounding off and talking about whatever people want to ask.

I have a lecture that I prepared for a conference called “Funny is the New Deep” — it’s also a class I teach — the idea is that people have this duality in their minds that something is either tragic or comic and they don’t realize that the comic comes directly out of tragedy. When you’re in a world that’s morally out of balance, it’s always the fool — whether that’s The Fool in King Lear or Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert or Lenny Bruce or Charlie Chaplin — who gets to speak the truth, or is quicker to the truth, in their culture.

And a satirist like Jon Stewart can accomplish a lot in conveying what’s wrong in the world, right?

Yeah, and to me, the sad thing is: Why is that our moral backstop? Anytime the comedians are the leading moralists of the age, something is really out of balance. Common sense, decency and values are not being expressed in the political arena. So if these guys are the cavalry and they’re f---ing wearing clown shoes and a red nose, then we’re in trouble because sitting and watching a funny TV show is not a political action.

[From somewhere in the background, his 5-year-old daughter yells, “We’re eating supper!”]

OK, sweetie, I’ll be right in!

[“Who are you talking to?”]

I’m talking to a man named Mike and I’ll be in soon, I promise.

OK, you’ve got dinner waiting for you there, we’ll try to wrap this up. But we haven’t even got into God Bless America.

One thing I will say about that collection — and then my wife will throttle me if I don’t get back to them — I don’t mean that title ironically. I’m not trying to be snarky about the United States. Only in this country could I do what I do or go to something like Get Lit! where all these f---ing crazies and super-interesting people can get together and get their freak on. I love this country, I just want to be honest about where we’re at. It’s not by design, but writing short fiction in America over the past decade, stuff seeps in. 

Steve Almond appears with Susan Orlean • Thu, April 12 at 7 pm • $15 • Bing Crosby Theater • 901 W. Sprague Ave. • Also, he’ll sit on a panel about humor writing • Fri, April 13 at 9:30 am • Eastern Washington University’s Hargreaves Hall