What's So Funny?...A Lit Mag for Humor
“You know, they finally made me Assistant Night Supervisor,” said the schlumpy-looking guy on the cover of Kugelmass Number Two. Reminiscent of a Harvey Pekar character, or of Michael Bolton in “Office Space,” he seemed proudly oblivious of his dorky appearance. But what exactly was he supposed to represent? A riff on modern life – on how disappointing adulthood could be? Or some inside joke that the journal’s contents would reveal?
When I finished reading the last piece in Kugelmass, I looked back at Mr. Assistant Night Supervisor and finally got the joke. And the joke was…well, it wasn’t really a joke, at least not in the question-and-answer, setup-and-punchline format. It was just absurd and random, a little sad yet a little charming at the same time. And it definitely set the tone for the journal itself. Kugelmass is a curious little carnival: sometimes nonsensical, sometimes borderline insane, and sometimes delightful. If you like humor with a strong dose of randomness and a mild dose of immaturity (not to mention a strong male perspective; only three of the 13 contributors are women), you are going to love this issue. But if, like me, you sought pieces that made you laugh out loud or that deftly wove intellectual humor and toilet humor together, you might be disappointed.
I started reading “Kugelmass” with high hopes, laughing uproariously at – of all things – the editor's note. David Holub’s description of eating a box of cereal, then the contents (rimshot!), and his subsequent hallucinations about a cartoon pirate mascot, delighted me. He held a great verbal pep rally for his journal, getting me psyched about the various contributions – especially Dan Kennedy's pieces. I read them before I read anything else in the journal, loving how they juxtaposed forced cosmopolitan glamour with slowly building alienation.
My excitement continued through the journal's first two pieces, though I soon felt like I was jogging in place. I enjoyed the interview with humor writer Steve Almond, finding it honest and insightful. And the “Ask Dr. Funny” piece by Jonathan Silverman was clever enough. But I thought these pieces should've been placed later in the journal, after the reader had had a chance to sample some of the humorous stories and essays. Why ask, “What does it mean to be funny?” before you’ve offered some examples?
Yoni Brenner’s hilarious “Women I Have Loved” picked up the journal’s pace, but the next three stories just didn’t work for me. Daniel Nester’s “On Having Small Hands and Feet” was a bizarre list of observations without a narrative or closure. While I could see some of my friends howling with laughter at William Giraldi’s “Bodies in Motion” – an outlandish story about a man getting seduced by a bodybuilder and two highly educated hookers – I found the characters too cartoonish and the storytelling too detached. And Ben Greenman’s “There Are Only Eight Kinds of Paragraphs” left me scratching my head.
However, Beau Golwitzer’s piece “Dog Eats Dog Eats Dog” was a delight. A fictional tale of an overzealous father who pits his kids against each other in an endless series of competitions, it had heart – something many of the other pieces lacked. Even though the ending was a bit cliché, I genuinely enjoyed this story. I wish I could say the same for Ellen Ferguson’s “Tina Fey Ruined My Beach Vacation,” a very short piece about a neurotic narrator becoming increasingly obsessed. But “Lady of the Mail” by Amy Bender followed it; and while I didn’t chuckle much at Bender’s story, it was one of my favorites in the issue. Like Golwitzer and Kennedy’s pieces, it balanced absurdity with heart, weaving an intriguing and endearing tale about a postal worker who gets lured away from her job to become a playwright.
Next was Fred Siegel’s “Mysteries of the Bronx,” which seemed out of place in “Kugelmass.” A series of vignettes about growing up in New York, it had heart, but was less humorous than it was wistful and bittersweet. But even so, I enjoyed it a lot more than “Squeak Toys” by Colin Winnette, a story about a man trying to have sex with a dolphin (well, technically, trying to let the dolphin have sex with him). Like “Bodies in Motion,” it lacked the dark tone and introspection needed to pull off such an outrageous topic, and I struggled to find it either likeable or amusing.
Julie Kraut’s “Kosher for Africa,” an essay about being the only Jewish member of a Christian missionary trip to Africa, was next. It had some great lines, but overall it felt self-indulgent and a little too enamored with its own cleverness. Kugelmass closed a whimper rather than a bang, ending with “The History of the Cheese Danish” by Daniel Galef. This exaggerated history of the pastry started as a funny premise, but suffered a dull execution.
Then there were the bottom-of-the-page jokes: a series of one-liners that initially brought to mind a droll Twitter feed, but turned into a series of first-draft jokes that needed more revising. (Examples: “One must consider installing a hand pump on their desk, because, well, it probably needs one”, “Can you prove that these invisible raccoons flying circles around my head do not exist?” and “I think it’s time we put an end to volunteering.”) They walked the line between the cerebral and the immature, but didn’t quite perfect either.
I will say this about those jokes, though: they were never predictable. And neither were any of the pieces in the journal. Some of them had heart, and many of them lacked it; but they all left me saying, “Wow. I didn’t see that coming.” Overall, most of “Kugelmass” wasn’t for me, but it will probably delight people who seek out tales of the strange and unexpected, who relish uncomfortable premises and absurd narrators, who aren’t bothered by an overabundance of male-centric humor, and who enjoy a hobo joke now and then.