If you can get your hands on Jenny Allen’s new book, “Would Everybody Please Stop?” you may be tempted to gobble it all up at one sitting, telling yourself, “Just one more, and then I’ll save the rest for later.” But don’t do it. Portion out these deliciously funny essays so that you can have some serious laughs a few days running.
The book is made up of a collection of short essays and other humor pieces from a variety of publications, including the New Yorker and a couple of humor anthologies, as well as some pieces written specifically for the book.
It’s the perfect read for sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for some potentially bad news or traveling home from a funeral, or for any other occasion where you could really use an emotional lift. You can’t help but smile, if not laugh out loud at times, while reading this collection of 35 short pieces.
The titles of the essays will give you some idea of the range of topics covered in Ms. Allen’s ruminations. Some that you’ll probably turn to first if you’re content-surfing are “Canonize Me,” “My New Feminist Cop Show,” “Roger Ailes’ New, Enlightened Code of Sexual Conduct,” and, of course, “I Can’t Get That Penis Out of my Mind.”
Some, like the latter, are stories — presumably from life — about events that are unlikely to be experienced by the average reader (i.e. attempting a huge tie-dye project in a hotel room, attending a high-end fashion celebrity photo shoot disguised as a party). With these, it’s easy to see how Ms. Allen could mine a story’s worth of funny material. But in most cases, the humorist just lets herself loose on the most mundane of human experiences — visiting friends, marriage, divorce, raising teenagers, even food (one of her favorite topics). Ms. Allen is not afraid to admit to having a passion for eating just about anything, especially free food.
Some humor writers work very hard to be funny; others, like Ms. Allen, just can’t help themselves. This is obvious in this collection, subtitled “Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas.” The humorist turns her own slanted perspective on some fairly mundane topics, like Facebook: “I’m trying with Facebook, but I’m sorry, it’s like being in hell to me, the equivalent of answering a knock at the door to find 500 people there, all talking at once.” And an observation on Tupperware: “Have you noticed how ferocious people are about their Tupperware? ‘And I want this Tupperware back,’ they say darkly, handing you the guacamole they brought on the picnic. Like your picnic idea was just a ruse to get your hands on their plastic food containers.” The author even takes a shot at suspenders: “I’ve never understood the message that investment bankers are trying to send with suspenders — ‘I’m the sort of fellow whose pants will never fall down, so you can trust me with your money.’”
Ms. Allen has wonderful descriptive prowess. In talking about bats in “The Trouble with Nature,” she writes, “The wings look like they are made out of thin black leather — another distressing detail — also the wings are webbed like a duck’s feet, which makes some people feel like they might vomit.” At times, Ms. Allen is downright poetic as well as funny. In an empty-nest essay, she describes the crows in her yard: “They take wee, careful steps, lifting their little feet in the air before setting them down, daintily, like ladies trying not to step in something disagreeable. Or in their aimlessness — each crow has his or her own little pointless prancing pattern, oblivious of the others — like dancers in an annoying postmodern performance.”
Ms. Allen often pokes fun at others. She likes to take the air out of pretentiousness. In “Canonize Me,” she explains how she made the world a better place by doing away with some of the things that annoy her: “I turned Young Adult Dystopian Fiction into a small animal that was crossing the road, and I ran it over.”
However, Ms. Allen most often turns her sharp wit on herself. She has a panicky tendency to go straight to worst-case scenarios, which usually end in disease, disfigurement, institutionalization, or, far worse, horrible humiliation.
In “Would Everybody Please Stop?” it’s clear that the writer can find the funny side to just about any situation. You know the expression “serious as a heart attack”? If Jenny Allen was having a heart attack, she’d most likely find something amusing about the scenario, and have the EMTs laughing during the ambulance ride.
Jenny Allen will be signing books and discussing humor writing at “Islanders Write” on Monday, August 14, at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. Visit islanderswrite.com.