Art Culture

Richard Russo: Seriously Funny 2021

| September 8, 2021 | 0 Comments
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Richard Russo

On Wednesday September 17th Seattle Arts and Lectures kicked off its 2008-2009 season with a lecture on humor by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo. Humor- it seemed an odd topic to me mainly because most of the aspects I remembered about Russo’s novel Empire Falls were dark in nature. The book explored characters dealing with abuse, vengeance, and culminated with an act of incredible violence that merited no kind of laughter. However, when I arrived at the opening gala for the lecture and began talking to fans of the author, the nuances of Richard Russo work began to come back to me–images that made the book simultaneously full of heartbreaking points and laugh out loud moments. One reader told me that Richard Russo’s work is the one book that her entire book club could agree on—and I think that has a lot to do with Russo’s work being able to slide from the humorless to the hilarious on the same page.

The effect of this combination is powerful and, as Benaroya Hall began to fill with Russo fans, it was clear that the author had made his mark. One patron confided to me that as soon as she heard that Richard Russo was going to be the opening speaker she renewed her membership without even looking at the rest of the season’s guests—which is an impressive list had she needed more convincing.

Russo’s topic may have been humor, but what I took away from it was that his desire is to make people see the world in its fullness. Richard Russo includes the sad parts yet he also knows the things that make us laugh or snicker—sometimes inappropriately or guiltily. “Laughter is serious business, and the inability to laugh at the world and at ourselves should be considered a form of mental illness,” Russo said.

Richard Russo has a keen sense for seeing the hidden humor even when they are sandwiched between things that are anything but. His essay, entitled “The Gravestone and the Commode”, showcased his skill, not only as a comic writer, but also revealed the creation of his narrative voice. Humor is not something that is easily taught; it can be honed and imbued with a sense of timing, but the vision for what is funny must already exist within the author’s mind. The unused gravestone leaning up against the apple tree in Russo’s former backyard had never garnered much attention from him. That is, not until home repairs forced the family to temporarily move their commode onto the porch resulting in the two being placed side-by-side in some sort of tableau of useless objects. Richard Russo didn’t even consider that the gravestone might be morbid until efforts to sell the house became difficult and the gravestone was fingered as the culprit. According to Russo, that is the reason why he is able to effortlessly highlight things that are funny. In an earlier interview with Russo stated, “Comic writers don’t so much invent funny things as strip away the distractions, the impediments to laughter” a point that he re-iterated at Benaroya. The real craft in his art, he insists, is getting people to see things in a way that they are naturally reluctant to. “The writer has to see things twice,” he says, “he has to see the thing and then also see its potential to be used in a story.” Russo is a comic writer, then, because he sees inspiration in the introduction of the commode and not necessarily in the lonely gravestone.

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One reason for the reader’s reluctance to see humor in the “darker” aspects of life may relate to another theme that Richard Russo is constantly weaving into his work: cruelty. He is quick to deny that his interest in cruelty stems from personal demons but rather, Russo argues, from a quest for understanding. Many of his characters are cruel or are the recipients of cruel actions; these almost symbiotic relationships between people are baffling to Russo. The abuser and the abused, as well as the just plain vindictive, attain a depth within Richard Russo’s work that keeps them from being one-dimensional. The reason he keeps returning to this character type, as well as these themes, is because in a perfectly logical world the consistently abused victim would not exist. However, one needs only to turn on the evening news, or to look down the street to see that these are very real situations that continue to thrive. The issues that Russo deals with involve a cruelty that leads to a pattern, then dependence, and eventually a kind of love. This love is unnatural and often hard to watch, but for many of Russo’s characters it is all they have and this dependence on a faulty love makes them all the more real.

So why is it that these two elements are so very moving? I, like Richard Russo, think that it works because it is real. In real life, things are seldom black or white. To use his analogy, the world can be divided into two rooms: the room of sorrow and the room that contains humor. They have a door between them that is always open in varying degrees. “Sometimes it is only open a crack, because that is all it can stand,” he points out, but in Richard Russo’s experience it’s thrown open wide, most of the time, because that is how the experiences are made.

Towards the end of his lecture, Russo decided to tell a joke:

“What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?” he asked, leaving the necessary pause… “Nothing, she’s already been told twice.”

The punch line drew hesitant laughter along with a few shocked gasps and many heads being shaken to and fro, which is exactly what he expected.

“Can a joke like this be funny?” he asked.

“No!” an audience member a few rows in front of me answered loudly and for a moment I feared that Russo had gone too far, that he had lost his charm. However, Richard Russo persevered, stating that, though domestic violence is not funny, the joke most certainly can be. It is not the words that cause the discomfort one feels when they hear it. Russo argues that it is the absurdity of such a joke that makes it funny. How can it be anything but absurd to think that violence is a way to get a point across? What is really disturbing to Russo is the men who laugh a little too heartily at that joke, saying that, “It’s my fellow human beings that make me nervous, not jokes.”

Whether or not that point changed anyone’s mind it did show that Richard Russo understands people and he also understands that the things that we will never understand about people are what make them interesting. His characters are memorable and real because they represent both people that we know and people whose lives we could never even imagine on our own. Yes, his novels deal with some fairly serious issues, but he knows how to walk the fine line between drama and comedy and it is this line that makes his novels so meaningful to so many different types of people. Russo truly accesses the beauty found within the sickeningly ugly, the breathlessness amidst the gravestones.

Seattle Arts and Lectures will be having their next event, an evening with Terry Tempest Williams, on October 7th, 2008 . For more details and a complete events schedule visit

Richard Russo recently edited A Healing Touch: True Stories of Life, Death and Hospice . He is currently working on a memoir as well as a new novel.

Richard Russo has a keen sense for seeing the hidden humor even when they are sandwiched between things that are anything but. His essay, entitled “The Gravestone and the Commode”, showcased his skill, not only as a comic writer, but also revealed the creation of his narrative voice.

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