“There’s a dead guy over here!” she frantically tells her audience. The usual reaction to a statement like this is not to laugh, but laugh we do. Laurie Notaro, bestselling humor writer and ASU alumna, is telling the audience about the importance of putting the crux of a humor piece in the story’s beginning. “You don’t bury the lead,” she admonishes audience members, especially the ones as familiar with journalism as she is.
Laurie Notaro was at the Polytechnic campus on the evening of September 17 to discuss humor and sign copies of her latest book, The Potty Mouth at the Table. The event was co-sponsored by Superstition Review as part of that week’s Project Humanities lecture series on humor.
One of the highlights of the night is her reading of Don’t Make Me the Asshole, a nonfiction piece in her latest collection. (Potty Mouth seems aptly named in places.) Perhaps reading is not the right word, as it is more of a dissection, a step-by-step explanation of what writing conventions are used to maximize the humorous retelling of the time she discovered her bath puff had been tampered with. “‘Using someone else’s bath puff is like using someone else’s hairbrush, or toothbrush, or the gum on the underside of a table,’” she reads. “What I did there was build tension. You don’t want to lead with the gum, but you want to build up to it.”
Laurie eventually built up to the question-and-answer session, artfully answering (and sometimes dodging) questions like “What is your writing process?” and “What does your workspace look like?” (“Messy” was the answer to both. She was kind enough to wait for the audience to laugh before elaborating.) A question she did not shy away from was “What is something you shouldn’t write about?” Inside jokes should be avoided. If the backstory is longer than the joke, it’s not funny. An example she brought up is the gallows humor she uses with a friend who has a terminal illness. How can terminal illness be funny? I thought. “My friend says to me, ‘Laurie,’ she says, ‘I’m going to haunt you.’ And I said, ‘Okay. Well, let’s set some ground rules.’”
The night ended with a book signing of Laurie’s various collections, including the Idiot Girls short story collections; There’s a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell: A Novel of Sewer Pipes, Pageant Queens, and Big Trouble; It Looked Different on the Model: Epic Tales of Impending Shame and Infamy; and of course, her latest collection, Potty Mouth. ASU Bookstore employees had set up a maroon table adorned with several of Laurie’s titles, but many fans of Notaro’s had brought their own copies, a few complete with creased spines and dog-eared pages.
I think I speak for the audience when I say we were glad she was able to make it, and would be happy to see her come back. Thank you for the laughs, Laurie.