Taboo topics and forcing the funny at ‘A Wink and Smirk’

David Kipen of the bookstore Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights.
David Kipen of the bookstore Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

It was a lopsided victory of winks over smirks at “With a Wink and a Smirk,” a Saturday afternoon panel discussion at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books that featured comic novelists Diana Wagman, Jerry Stahl, Mark Haskell Smith and Jim Magnuson and was moderated by David Kipen.

That revelation, though, didn’t come until close to the end of a free-wheeling, fast-moving and very humorous chat that included each author reading just the very first page (no more, no less) from one of his or her recently published books, and touched on taboo humor topics and the source of humor in the comic novel.

The panelists seemed in agreement that humor wasn’t something that could be forced. “I didn’t write it to be funny,” Wagman said of her most recent book “The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets,” which includes a kidnapped woman and a 7-foot-long iguana. “I wanted a pet, but dogs are too normal, cats are too independent, and lizards are really too hard to take care of. The funny came out of that situation. The bigger [the iguana] got, the better I liked it.”


“Anybody who laughs at their own work isn’t going to be funny,” said Stahl, whose most recent book is titled “Happy Mutant Baby Pills.” When Kipen asked the rest of the panel if they ever laughed at their own work, Magnuson, whose “Famous Writers I have Known” was published in January, quipped “I’m not going to admit it now.”

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On whether there was any topic too taboo to be treated humorously, Mark Haskell Smith (his latest novel, “Raw: A Love Story,” was published in December 2013) said: “I used to think something like pedophilia or sirenism was ...,” (which resulted in the author having to explain that the latter term involved, to put it delicately, sexual congress with a manatee).

Stahl weighed in with his personal rule of thumb: “If you’re making yourself squirm -- keep going.

As for the aforementioned wink vs. smirk straw poll toward the end of the discussion, each author was asked which of the two approaches to humor they preferred. The answers came rapid-fire and something like this:

“Oh, wink -- I hate smirks,” said Wagman.

“Winks and smirks,” was Smith’s response. “It’s like the literary version of Tourette’s syndrome.”

“Smirk was what I wanted to stay away from [in my writing],” replied Magnuson.

“Smirk? I though it was ‘A Wink and a Twerk’,” answered Stahl.

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With the audience laughter form Stahl’s response still echoing through the room, Kipen ended the discussion by asking each author what he or she thought was the funniest thing about the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

“The really, really long lines for all the YA [Young Author] events,” answered Magnuson.

“You stumped me on that,” said Smith. “To me, these are the High Holy Days for writers. I just fast and drink water -- or eat whatever’s in the Green Room.”

“It’s Ramadan for me,” deadpanned Stahl.

“The titles of all the panels,” said Wagman. “They’re all ‘Writing L.A.,’ ‘L.A. Stories, ‘Stories About L.A.”

Which virtually guarantees Wagman a seat on next year’s panel discussion: “Humor in L.A.”


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