In his last posts Joel Chas­noff, author of The 188th Cry­ba­by Brigade: A Skin­ny Jew­ish Kid from Chica­go Fights Hezbol­lah: A Mem­oir, wrote about the bat­tle over his book cov­er and about ask­ing advice from Dave Eggers and Joshua Fer­ris. He has been guest-blog­ging all week for MyJew­ish­Learn­ing and the Jew­ish Book Council.

One of the biggest chal­lenges I encoun­tered in writ­ing The 188th Cry­ba­by Brigade was the switch from com­e­dy writ­ten for the stage to com­e­dy for the page.

I’m a stand-up com­ic by trade. Onstage, I have tools at my dis­pos­al: facial expres­sions, body lan­guage, the abil­i­ty to speed up and slow down as I cre­ate a psy­cho­log­i­cal dia­logue with the audi­ence. Best of all, if a par­tic­u­lar string of jokes bomb, I can switch top­ics, or, bet­ter yet, pick on a fun­ny look­ing guy in the guy in the front row.

In writ­ing humor­ous prose, these tools are, obvi­ous­ly, out the win­dow. Com­pound­ing the prob­lem is that I lose my ever-impor­tant barom­e­ter: instant feed­back. I love the instan­ta­neous nature of stand-up com­e­dy. I nev­er have to won­der how the act is going. Instead, it’s sim­ple: if they laugh, I’m great. If the audi­ence is silent, I suck.

To acquaint myself with humor writ­ing, I read books by the three Dav­es: SedarisEggers, and Bar­ry.

As I read, I looked for pat­terns. Although their styles of humor dif­fer, I noticed a com­mon trait: they nev­er sig­naled the joke. Instead, they sim­ply state the absurd truth in as straight­for­ward a man­ner as pos­si­ble. This blunt­ness makes for a dou­ble punch: 50% of the humor comes from what the author is say­ing, and the oth­er half comes from the fact that he’s say­ing it so bluntly.

For exam­ple: one of my favorite pas­sages in Eggers’ A Heart­break­ing Work of Stag­ger­ing Genius is the one in which Eggers describes his night out with friends in a Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia bar:

Brent and I, and every­one else, are stand­ing on the bar’s sec­ond lev­el, look­ing down upon the heads of the hun­dred or so below us, while drink­ing beer that has been brewed on the premis­es. We know that the beer has been brewed on the premis­es because, right there, behind the bar, are three huge cop­per vats, with tubes com­ing out of them. This is how beer is made.

When­ev­er I read this pas­sage, I laugh out loud. What makes it so fun­ny is that, instead of wav­ing his arms and sig­nal­ing the absur­di­ty of the sit­u­a­tion (that see­ing beer trav­el through tubes implies that the beer is brewed on the premis­es), Eggers instead takes the oppo­site tack: he takes it seri­ous­ly. His dead­pan approach makes the joke dou­bly fun­ny — much fun­nier than had he said, It’s so crazy. They have beer in vats and tubes, as if we’re sup­posed to believe that this means it was brewed on the premises.”

In The 188th Cry­ba­by Brigade, I attempt to uti­lize humor by describ­ing absurd sit­u­a­tions as can­did­ly as pos­si­ble. I start with the open­ing sen­tence of the book, in which I chron­i­cle my first med­ical check-up at the mil­i­tary Induc­tion Cen­ter in Tel Aviv:

The Russ­ian is pok­ing my balls.
It’s awk­ward.

Two chap­ters lat­er, I describe my first day of basic training:

I am Israeli sol­dier num­ber 5481287. I’m at the Armored School, in the south, halfway between Jor­dan and Egypt. I’m dressed like a sol­dier but I look like a clown. My uniform’s three sizes too big, and it’s stiff, so it looks like I’m wear­ing a suit of green con­struc­tion paper; I’d thought I would look sexy in uni­form, but I don’t. I’ve also got a new look — I’m buzz-cut and shaved — and a new name: instead of Joel, I’m now my Hebrew name, Yoel, and my last name, accord­ing to my dog tags, is Shet­znitz.
You mis­spelled my name,” I said to the guy work­ing the dog tag machine.
So don’t die,” he said, and shooed me out the door.

Humor can even be used to describe a sit­u­a­tion as dark as death. Here, I talk about the platoon’s field trip to the Yad Vashem Holo­caust Museum:

Inside Yad Vashem, it’s the usu­al Pla­toon Two, Com­pa­ny B shenani­gans. While our tour guide describes Hitler’s rise to pow­er, Ger­ber pinch­es Uri in the ass. Koos-emok!” Uri whis­pers, then he stuns Ger­ber with a quick knee to the nuts that sends him tum­bling into a dis­play case of Zyk­lon B.
Bitch!” whis­pers Ger­ber.
Your moth­er,” Uri whis­pers back.
Doni and Tanen­baum step between them, try to break it up, but only get sucked into the mêlée. Then Ganz jumps in, then Nir, and sud­den­ly six, sev­en of them are attack­ing one anoth­er with head­locks and noo­gies, Three Stooges style, next to a wall-size pho­to of Jew­ish corpses.
My first thought is to scold my pla­toon mates. Show some respect! I want to shout. For the sake of the six mil­lion dead!
But as I watch my com­rades rough­house, I sud­den­ly have anoth­er thought:
This is awesome.

I go on to describe why my pla­toon mates’ rough­hous­ing in a Holo­caust muse­um is a good thing for the Jew­ish peo­ple — name­ly, because it means that after thou­sands of years of per­se­cu­tion, we’ve reached a point in Jew­ish his­to­ry where the notion of our peo­ple being anni­hi­lat­ed is so for­eign that Jews can goof around in Yad Vashem.

Typ­i­cal­ly, a writer doesn’t get the stand-up comedian’s instant feed­back. But since you’re read­ing this and have the abil­i­ty to post, I’ll go ahead and ask:

Does it work?

Joel Chasnoff’s The 188th Cry­ba­by Brigade: A Skin­ny Jew­ish Kid from Chica­go Fights Hezbol­lah: A Mem­oir is now avail­able. Vis­it Chasnoff’s offi­cial web­site: http://​joelchas​noff​.com/.