The Science of Humor and Travel Writing
Travel Blog • Michael Shapiro • 08.24.06 | 6:53 PM ET
Editor’s note: Travel writer Michael Shapiro just attended the annual Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference in Corte Madera, California. He was on the conference faculty and is writing about the gathering for World Hum.
“There were vast distances between punch lines,” a Florida newspaper wrote about Tim Cahill’s address at last January’s Key West Literary Seminar. So Cahill wrote to this unkind reporter and informed him he had a speech impediment. Cahill even had friends write to the reporter and tell him the same thing. So the reporter published a letter of apology and Cahill wrote again to inform him of the nature of his impediment: he grew up in Wisconsin and speaks slowly. Cahill’s remarks came Sunday at Book Passage during the conference’s closing panel, “Humor and Travel Writing.” Rolf Potts once called Cahill “the most disheveled non-homeless person I’ve ever met.” During Sunday’s panel Cahill retorted: “How does he know I have a home?”
Cahill doesn’t try to be funny—it just comes out when his writing is flowing. Then he has to decide if the humor if offensive—if it is, he takes it out. He cautioned the writers at the conference not to force humor. “You don’t have to use humor—there’s nothing more painful than someone trying to be funny and failing.”
John Flinn, the executive travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, says that if he can’t come up with something funny, he has a go-to guy. “Wherever I’ve been, Mark Twain has been there,” Flinn says. Here’s one example: Twain described an Australian town as having “a grave with no gravestones and a gentlemen’s club with no gentlemen.” So you don’t have to be funny—you can simply quote someone who is. But Flinn often uses his own humor. After wrestling a bear for a feature story, he wrote that he looked like “the witch in the Wizard of Oz after Dorothy’s house fell on her.”
Jeff Greenwald calls himself one of the “best known obscure travel writers in the U.S.,” showing that the oxymoron can be funny. He mentioned that Harry Truman “one of our great humorists” once said he “never gave ‘em hell but told the truth and they thought it was hell.” Similarly, Greenwald just says what happens—like recounting someone saying “yo hombre, tiene huevos?” in Mexico—and sometimes it’s funny. Humor can also be a reversal of the predator/prey relationship, such as when a Westerner makes an ass of himself in the developing world.
I asked the panelists if they ever worry about hurting the object of their humor. Don George, the chair and maestro and heart of the conference, said he finds it much easier to laugh at himself than to make fun of others. Another technique, Flinn said, is to travel with “an inappropriate travel companion” who gives voice to the things you can’t say.
Some of the best jokes seem to come out of the blue. Unfortunately editors often cut these gems. Greenwald was trekking around Tibet’s Mt. Kailash and offered a bottle of water to a Nepali hiker. “I’m not drinking that,” the Nepali said. A surprised Greenwald told him the water was “triple filtered” and asked why he wouldn’t want it. Replied the man: “Well if they couldn’t get it right the second time…”
Michael Shapiro teaches a daylong course at Book Passage on Making a Living as a Freelance Writer. His next class is Saturday Nov. 4. His book, A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration, is a collection of 18 interviews with the world’s leading travel writers, conducted where they live.
Photo of Tim Cahill, John Flinn and Jeff Greenwald by Michael Shapiro.