Posted on December 10, 2013

This conversation between George Plimpton and Garrison Keillor, part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review, was recorded live at 92Y on November 28, 1994. We are able to share this recording thanks to a generous gift in memory of Christopher Lightfoot Walker, longtime friend of the Poetry Center and The Paris Review. Here is an excerpt from the full interview that ran in The Paris Review as The Art of Humor No. 2 in the fall of 1995.

INTERVIEWER

What is the first mistake that someone trying to write humor almost invariably makes? What goes wrong almost invariably?

KEILLOR

When some people sit down to write humor, they adopt a giddy tone of voice, a whooping or comic warble, so that the reader will know it’s funny. It’s the writing equivalent of a clown suit. This does not wear well. Humor needs to come in under cover of darkness, in disguise, and surprise people. You don’t want to get that gdoing, gdoing, gdoing sound in your writing. It makes the reader feel sorry for you.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t it possible that one of the problems with humor is that a lot of it is devoted to the topical, which then disappears so you no longer know quite what you should be laughing at?

KEILLOR

That’s true of stand-up comedy; it goes bad in about six months. But the problem for written humor is that nobody reads anymore. This makes humorists feel invisible, which is OK for poets, but humor is the only literary genre labeled by the effect it is supposed to have on people. So humor without an audience is pointless. No humorist has unpublished stuff. There is no great unpublished humor.

Christopher Lightfoot Walker

Christopher Lightfoot Walker (1954-2012) served as poster director, prints director and advisory editor of The Paris Review. He also volunteered at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, making transcriptions, which were models of their kind, of audio recordings of live literary events. Chris was born in New York City, attended the Buckley School, then went west to Fountain Valley School and back east to Hampshire College. He was engaged in a number of entrepreneurial efforts (some in collaboration with his father, Angus Lightfoot Walker, longtime chairman of the City Investing Company), when, at the age of 31, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He wore his adversity lightly, retaining, in addition to his considerable wits, his sense of humor and sense of fun. Against the odds he remained a person on whom no delightful thing was ever lost. Chris was always grateful for the refuge he was able to find in the work provided by 92Y.

This post is part of 92Y/The Paris Review: Interview Series.