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Volume 16, Issue 2: Counterpoint

P. J. O'Rourke

Interviewer: Douglas Wilson

C/A: In writing humor, do you play by ear, or are you a trained professional?

PJ: A sense of humor is, thank God, something that can be learned. Children are terribly serious—sometimes silly but never humorous in the sense of standing back and taking a philosophical view of life's absurdities (and being philosophically amused, rather than philosophically appalled). I was a terribly serious child. But I admired humor as a graceful way of coping with existence. In learning to find things funny, I learned to be funny, or try to be. It also helps to have a humorous family. Mine was so, intentionally and otherwise. There are two kinds of Irish families—the hitting kind and the teasing kind (not counting the painfully pious kind, a type of the former). My family didn't hit (or go to church much).
C/A: F.H. Buckley argues in The Morality of Laughter that humor is deeply moral and requires a butt. Do you agree with this, and if so, how would you say this relates to your writing?
PJ: Humor—good humor, at least, in both senses of the term—is probably not possible without a realization that the world has a moral order and an equal realization that one is hopeless at understanding how that moral order works. To be technical, "humor" is a perception of how things are and have been and will be, as much as we try to pretend otherwise (a sense of the "humors"—bile, phlegm, and so forth). "Satire" is humor with a specific moral point to make. The rest is one or another form of mockery, which is just aggression with slippers and pipe. As I have said elsewhere: "There are three forms of humor: satire, where you make fun of people who are richer than you are; parody, where you make fun of people who are smarter than you are; and burlesque, where you do both while taking off your clothes."
C/A: Do you agree with Buckley that ethical relativism is ultimately destructive of humor?
PJ: Ethical relativism is destructive of all thinking. Jokes may not be thoughtful. But it takes some thinking to come up with one.
C/A: How would you distinguish a satirist and a humorist, and which label best describes you? Could you answer the question, even if you hate labels?
PJ: I think I answered the first part of this question when I answered the question before last. As for a label, it depends on what I'm trying to be funny about. Sometimes I'm a satirist, sometimes I'm a humorist, sometimes I'm an annoying clown. And sometimes, of course—right now, for example—I'm not funny at all.
C/A: Have you seriously considered writing a satiric novel?
PJ: I'm a journalist, not a novelist. I don't have the kind of psychological insight (let's be frank: human sympathy) that fiction requires. Also, I read a line somewhere about a failed writer who "had too much imagination to write fiction."
C/A: Could you comment on three of the most significant books you have read in the last year?
PJ: I took Ovid's Metamorphoses with me to Kuwait for the Iraq War. (When you can't pack many books, pack the ones that will take you forever to get through.) Check out the "House of Envy" in the story of Mercury and Herse in Book II. It's all one needs to know about doctrines of "fairness" in liberal political philosophies. "Envy within, busy at a meal of snake's flesh…"
Martin Luther by Martin Marty in the Penguin Lives series (which I love). A terrifying portrait of the original antinomian. The more so since that's not what Marty means to paint.
I've been reading a lot by and about the Adams family for the past couple years. In The Five of Hearts by Patrice O'Toole, a letter from Henry Adams to Henry Cabot Lodge is quoted: "no man should be in politics unless he would honestly rather not be there." It sums up everything I've ever written or thought on the subject.
C/A: How do you see the doctrine of the Trinity relating to humor? Could deeply polytheistic or unitarian societies produce a tradition of humor?
PJ: The Trinity is proof of a witty God, gently letting us know that we have brains enough to understand our world, but not His.

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