Conceptual comedian Steven Wright and poet Sommer Browning walk into a bar. “Is it weird in here or just me?” Wright asks. Browning listens to the silence. He hands her a screwdriver. The two proceed to remove every screw from every screw-filled object in the bar. How much support can you take away from a thing—or an idea—before it collapses? They’re not interested in the collapse; collapse is for toddlers. The teetering moment right before the collapse, played out to infinity—that’s what turns these crazy cats on.
But Browning doesn’t stop at the soda gun, the coat rack, or the phone. She turns the screwdriver on herself. She takes apart the pieces, then glues fake blond mustaches to the pieces of the pieces, and sets up a still life atop a plastic covered kitchen table in an eerily idyllic 1950s-style ranch house. She titles it, “Robert Redford.” No, that’s what I’d title it. She’s way too spare and elemental for that, but the occasional pair of piano key suspenders do float by.
Sommer Browning writes poems, draws comics and tells jokes. She is the author of Either Way I'm Celebrating (Birds, LLC; 2011), a collection of poems and comics. She also has three chapbooks out, most recently The Bowling (Greying Ghost, 2010) with Brandon Shimoda. With Julia Cohen she curates The Bad Shadow Affair, a reading series in Denver.
You catch her Xtreme Tweeting here. Her About Me: "When I die, I want my ashes scattered along the As Seen On TV aisle in Rite-Aid." Sample: "Totally forgot we had a vengeful god for a second." I saw her tweeting this week with MARC MARON! Hello!?! Like not just retweeting his tweets, but interacting via tweets! Tweet that.
Is your sense of humor genetic, or are you a singular freak?
I am definitely a freak, but some of my humor came straight from my parents. I haven’t spent enough time with their families to see how my mother and father got funny. The stories they tell about their childhoods are usually very not funny, so it’s a bit of a mystery. My mother likes to tease, likes to point out absurd things, she regularly sends me cards and packages from her alter ego, a duck named Drexel. She genuinely enjoys the adventure of life and to me that necessarily means you have to have a good sense of humor. It’s a little harder to draw the funny from my father, but when it happens it’s usually in the form of a witty pun or an apropos quote from Fletch. Or on rare occasions he will be straight up, mind-bendingly silly. He had funny nicknames for my sister and me, I think this reflected his idea that life was to be enjoyed, that nothing had to be too serious, though “serious” is probably the first word one would use to describe him. My sister and I grew up surrounded in this environment and went in and out of funny phases until we turned into what we are now. She’s very funny, also in her unique way, inventing words for everyday things, pulling just the right details into the hilarious stories she tells about her middle school kids. Whether it’s genetic or not, I think growing up knowing that humor is an acceptable way to see and learn and be in the world is what molded my sense of humor the most.
All that being said, I was a truly miserable, scared, worried child. I never felt comfortable being young and I’m so happy that it’s all over.
When did you first realize you were funny?
I remember talking about snot at the top of the jungle gym with Tina when we were 5 years old. I remember laughing uncontrollably in 3rd grade (also with Tina) and getting into trouble. But it was some time in 9th grade that I remember making my friends laugh and noticing the way everyone loosened up, the mood changed, people seemed pleased in me. But I didn’t realize I was funny; I probably just realized that a few weeks ago. But I did realize that I could have an impact on the world around me through something I did spontaneously—a kind of rudimentary existential awareness. Little by little those types of realizations gave me confidence (which I thoroughly lacked), leading me to finally dismantle my crushing shyness—a long process that began when I was about 18 and is nearly over.
When was the first time you made people laugh with your writing?
There are two things I remember in answer to this. I remember showing my writing to my friend Ron Miller and him appreciating it. Whether it was funny or not, I can’t remember, but he certainly encouraged my weirdest, wackiest self-expression. And the second thing is dreaming up the most absurd, weird-ass bumper stickers with my closest friend Sam Rio. Some of them read: My Other Car is Grey, I Sell Double Helix Costume Jewelry, Sumo for Wrestler, and Please Recycle Your Dog or Cat. We ended up doing an impromptu performance/presentation of these stickers at a local café after some friends played music one night and they were a hit. Something that could only happen in twisted, drunken Richmond, Virginia.
How would you describe your sense of humor?
Noah, my husband, says that he’ll crack 350 jokes a day and 5 of them are funny, while I’ll crack 5 and they’ll all “go over”. While that’s sort of an exaggeration, its essence is true. I tend to think about what I say before I say it, not totally consciously, whether it’s a joke or not. I’m not the kind of person that just talks and talks and funny stuff comes out. I like those people, though. In general, my humor leans more toward the wry, the witty, the absurd, but I can be pretty mainstream and classic if I try. My twitter feed reflects the whole spectrum I think, while my poems and comics more reflect the former qualities.
For you, how does comic timing and pace differ from the less funny bits of a poem?
I’m not sure it does necessarily. I’m not sure timing and pace are separate things from the content of the joke or the poem. Timing is part of the form and form is content in most everything, but especially concerning jokes and poems. Comic timing is a changeable element that depends entirely on the context/content of the joke. There are jokes meant to bore you, that meander, that build up details, the timing seems all off, and that’s the style of that joke. Then there are the classic setup delivery punchline type jokes. Same goes for the timing and pacing in poems, that rhythm is the poem as much as what is said in the poem is the poem.
Have you ever realized that you’ve crossed a line?
I guess the only time this happens is when I think of something very offensive, which frankly, isn’t very often—maybe because I don’t find much offensive. But there is one instance in particular that comes to mind: I used the horrible word “faggot” in one of my poems and I went back and forth with my editor and with friends about whether I should change it or not. In the poem, the word comes in at a semi-humorous point, and I used it for two reasons. First, I wanted for it to create tension with the rest of the poem’s diction—vulgar, street type word in a sentence that also used the word “ennui.” And two, in my mind, in my reading of the poem, I had taken on the persona of a douchebag and I was calling myself a faggot. But I came to believe that I couldn’t use it, it didn’t work, I didn’t have a right to use it, I didn’t feel like I owned the agency of that word, I don’t know what it truly feels like to be called a faggot, it was an awful choice on my part—and mainly and most importantly—it wasn’t funny. If something is offensive and not funny, then it isn’t a joke, it’s an insult. If something is offensive and funny, then it’s a joke. It’s very simple and impossible to explain beyond that.
I have also offended at least one woman on Twitter. Seems she was a big Tina Yothers fan.
There are people who will read this (hopefully) who've never seen Twitter, and they'll never understand (or believe) how (or that) the ven diagram for Tweets and poems intersect.
Twitter could be considered a kind of twisted poetic form. You are allowed only 140 characters, a relatively normal poetic constraint, maybe a little high-tech, but poets are used to specified length requirements. I think where it gets twisted, and ambiguous, is in the temporal aspect of a tweet. The tweets appear on a scrolling time-line, as well as, on your profile page which is a bit more static, but still moves--the newest tweets push the older ones down the page. So there are certain things you must consider about your audience's attention span and about the audience's physical context (they could be reading on a phone, they could be reading while driving). I suppose poets unconsciously think about where a person may be when he or she is reading their poem--or where a poem will appear, in a journal, in a book, etc. But for Twitter, that aspect is especially present in my mind. So a tweet is an answer to the form of Twitter. I do consider similar things when crafting a poem or a tweet. In both poems and tweets, I think about diction, syntax, conservation, brevity, the perfect word, I think about exploding ambiguity, exploring absurdity, and mining tensions between words and images and ideas. But for tweets, my aim is always first and foremost to make people laugh, that is one big difference between writing a poem and writing a tweet.
Have you ever been dissed/dismissed for being a funny poet?
I haven’t that I’m aware of, and if I have been, please don’t tell me. Sometimes I prefer living obliviously. But I am a little self-conscious about writing funny poems—so I diss myself, at times. I’ve always had a slight complex about not being an intellectual and no matter how much I have made the arguments, how deeply I believe the arguments – that humor is a valuable intellectual endeavor – I’m not immune from the dominant culture’s belief that humor isn’t as admirable as other endeavors, that it is somehow low-brow, undeserving, easy. I’m shedding this belief and I really only think it in my dark hours, in fact, I’m utterly ashamed to even mention that I feel this way, but it’s something I occasionally fight against. Maybe it’s just the form my self-doubt takes.
Do you decide to be funny, or does it just happen?
All of my poems and comics just happen. And spontaneous jokes that I make in real life just happen. But recently, I learned that I could also decide to be funny for brief periods. Late last year, I attempted to make fun of or crack a joke to each of my Twitter followers—I had 1400 followers at the time. I spent about 30 hours over the course of three days writing jokes based solely on the tiny profile picture and brief bit of information contained in each person’s Twitter bio. After 700 jokes, my brain ruptured, my eyes imploded and I was in jeopardy of losing my job, so I decided to quit. I only made it halfway. I vastly underestimated how long it would take. But I learned that I could be funny on purpose (and I’m not claiming all 700 were funny…hell no). There are tactics and strategies one can use when crafting jokes—some of them became very apparent to me during that time.
Do you believe that you sacrifice anything when you choose to turn the poem down a funny road?
This ties into my answer to the getting dissed question—so the first part of this question will have to be, at times, yes. But the second part addresses what is most important in all humor! And probably what keeps humanity from killing itself. Levity—it’s been said a million times—imbuing something horrible and difficult and awful with levity is our best survival technique. So what a funny poem gains (if the poem is successful) is a strong bond with the reader, a sort of trust, an intimacy – over the course of this poem, see what we did with loneliness? disease? fear? We laughed at it, together.
I love so much the way laughter and weeping implicate us. God I can’t believe she’s crying at this! They can be signals—Hmmm, we’re both laughing at the same thing, I’m going to talk to that girl. These two reactions are especially important and necessary in this American culture that values emotional repression and devalues intuition.
Who are your favorite funny people?
Louis CK is amazing. Tina Fey is incredible. Robert Benchley is my all time hero. Groucho Marx is a genius. I just rewatched Richard Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip and was so blown away again—how brilliant and moving and funny—and that performance is not considered as impressive as a Rothko?! Unbelievable. John Waters, Lily Tomlin, Moms Mabley. I could go on forever.
Do you think the humor in your writing comes from a place of self-loathing?
No, I don't. I don't think I loathe myself anymore. There are qualities I possess that I hate at times, but for the most part I feel pretty whole. If I feel ambivalent about writing funny poems, that's an afterthought and something I let take hold of me through the nasty mechanisms of societal influence and personal doubt. I think my tendency toward humor, and my love for it, comes from a place of celebration, discovery, and adventure. I aim to think of all things as an adventure, besides making everything more fun, thinking that way also helps me shed any qualitative values I may place on what I'm doing now. Those kinds of values make you stop in your tracks and choose a safer path or encourage you to reassess your intuition until it's destroyed. I think laughter holds a big position in attempting to live a life that way, for dozens of reasons. It's something I strive to do and fail at often, but I try to keep that sense of adventure, that sense of humor, in the center of things.
Tomorrow: Rachel Shukert
In a Bedroom
of the house she meets the mechanic. And wants to
drink hot chocolate through a catalytic converter.
Is sexier with a beer in her hand.
She waits until he looks
then poses as an orchard,
but her hips.
Poses as a geode,
but her big feet. As drapery, but her
short fingers. An adolescent’s mustache,
but her stomach, her spine, her veins.
She poses as a muletrain.
I collect books found in celebrities’ bathrooms; so far
my life sucks.
You are beautiful. So I won’t.
There is too, a galaxy in poetry.
Picturing your skeleton makes mine claustrophobic.
Is this how people fuck until they’re not angry anymore?
I’m miles and miles and Miles
One baby is cute and 300,
If a human exploded isn’t a question.
Live as if
as if it were nighttime in the Multiverse.
When you knew what I meant I said I do
know there’s a vas deferens between us.
My audience uses semi-colons
accurately; I am a whole ass.
So now you own a pair
of piano key suspenders.
The world is much
as it was before
still filling emptiness
too easily. That first night
when the theatre darkened
you pressed my hand—
the pressure, size, and shape—
it’s recorded somewhere,
this immediate jealousy
between what the mind perceives
and what is
as it was before.