You’re over-thinking it, an author might say. It’s just a joke. But jokes mean something, too. Why go to the trouble of making something, even a joke, if not for other people to think about it—even if they’re thinking about it while sitting on the can?
I mention this now because I’ve just read a book that seems calculated, from its very premise, to resist any attempt to take it seriously, to repel any standard of critical discourse as a duck repels water. It’s called How to Be, and it’s by Tracie Egan Morrissey and Rich Juzwiak. It’s an outgrowth of their Web video series “Pot Psychology,” which appears at Jezebel—Egan Morrissey helped found the site, while Juzwiak has a regular gig at Gawker—and it’s billed as “lowbrow advice from high people.”
And seriously, that’s the shtick. Rich and Tracie are two best friends who get blazed regularly and dispense life advice. In the Web videos, they’re responding to letters from readers, because even a couple of potheads know better than to give advice unasked. In the translation from Web to print, however, the reader’s-choice conceit is mostly dropped. We see only one emailed question—although, to be fair, it’s a dilly; it starts with “I’m interested in your advice for a girl with a penis, in two scenarios...” and gets better from there.
In the absence of such, um, idiosyncratic inquiries, though, the book must stand or fall on the author’s voices and choices. Juzwiak and Egan Morrissey stick to some general topics in How to Be. True to the “lowbrow” label, they lean towards the juvenile and gross in these micro-essays: along with smart and sensitive pieces on the perils of workplace etiquette and proper courtesy to the disabled, we get pieces on “How to Be Around Whores,” “How to Be Gassy in Public,” “How to Be Covert When Scratching Your Crotch,” “How to Be Polite about Someone Else’s Booger,” and the like.
The funny thing—and it’s considerably funnier than most of the book—is that by being so determinedly quote-unquote “outrageous,” Juzwiak and Egan Morrissey are actually playing it safe. They’re Giving the People What They Want. Boogers, as any hack comedian will tell you, are guaranteed funny.
How to Be takes the easy road too often, and it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It’s really not sage enough to be particularly useful as an advice book, but it’s too earnest to function as a parody of same; though the tone is consistently wry and flippant, the intent seems sincere. And here’s where the authors can shrug at me and say, “What did you expect?” Of course this project is lazy and chatty and obvious; it’s a translation of the stoner experience, of toking up and sitting on the couch, blathering on about banal things that seem at least semi-profound at the time. Which, I suppose, would be enough—if there weren’t shadows of another, better book flickering just below the surface of this one.
Reading between the lines of the space-filling listicles and the gratuitous paeans to Judge Judy, there’s a strong sense of milieu here, and an implied narrative—let’s call it How to Be Bluffing Your Way Into Adulthood on the Underpaid Fringes of a Big City Media Scene. That scenario has been the backdrop for brilliant social comedy from talents as diverse as novelist Tama Janowitz, screenwiter Tom DiCillo, and essayist David Rakoff. In its asides and digressions, How To Be occasionally elicits that same squirmy laughter. Its off-the-cuff tales of horrible roommates, wage slavery, and drug deals gone wrong—and love gone even wronger—emerge from that familiar interzone of youthful superiority, bitterness, and sweet, sweet self-pity; I found myself wishing for a whole book of that stuff, to be honest, and less of the “stoners give advice” premise—which wears very thin over the course of this book, even though it is a very slim book and amply illustrated with cartoon rendering of house pets doing people things.
The whole reason I stopped smoking dope socially is so I wouldn’t have to listen to potheads just talking shit, frankly. But the reason I love reading books is to hear new voices saying things worth hearing. Juwziak and Egan Morrissey are sharp, funny writers, together and separately, and either or both might write a terrific book one day. And I’m getting all that from a bathroom book that’s just good enough to make me wish it was better.
Jack Feerick, Critic-at-Large for Popdose, always preferred nitrous to weed, anyway, but all that dental work started getting expensive.