Matthew Paul Turner’s new book Churched released last week. He’s doing a lot of blog publicity this week and I’m happy to invite him over for part of his virtual book tour. You can read what I think of Churched here. You can read a bunch of other reviews of Churched elsewhere. But this is probably the only place on the Internets where you’ll get between-the-lines information, including Matthew’s thoughts on “being funny,” what he’s learned from his comedic influences, and how he may have unintentionally incurred the Fireproof wrath of Kirk Cameron.
JB: You’ve developed a reputation for using a lot of humor in your books. Is that something you’ve set out deliberately to do — i.e. I want to be a funny writer — or is it more of a natural extension of your personality? Or both?
MPT: Both. While most people who know me might not say, “Oh, Matthew is one of the most hilarious people I know,” my inner circle certainly knows that, for me, humor is often my therapy. On the other hand, even one who might be naturally funny has to work at how to present humor in my writing. I’m not a comedian! That would be scary. The funniest person you know might be as dry as dirt or come across mean and less-than-spirited on paper. I know comedians who are hysterical on stage, but their “funny” just doesn’t translate to paper. When somebody reads something that I’ve written and then laughs, more than likely, I worked my butt off for those few giggles.
Who are your comedic influences?
Most of them are writers: authors like David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, or Chuck Klosterman have probably had the greatest influence on me. I also love Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report. I’m also influenced by humor on TV or on stage. I’m one of those guys who, when watching TV, tries to understand how the writers of a particular show set up humor. What’s their lead-in? What’s their transition? And of course, what’s their payoff? I also admire people who can make an audience laugh without using the f-word or simply tell a joke that revolves around sex. Sitcom writers of the 50s and 60s could do that with ease. But today, it’s much harder to find people who can be funny without being outrageously crude. Crude doesn’t offend me in the least; I just think it’s too easy.
What role does the humor play in your books, especially in Churched? What does it add to your story?
I try to use humor sort of like a graphic designer might use white space, as a way of directing people’s attention to the most poignant moment in the story or the most memorable scene. Humor is not simply an add-on for me. It’s usually not accidental. When people read my work, I want them to laugh and be entertained. My hope is that the funny parts of what I write make the profound moments stick out.
Have your readers or audiences ever reacted negatively from your humor? Has there ever been much push-back in terms of flippancy or sarcasm or people thinking “We shouldn’t make fun of that”?
All the time. Satire is often misunderstood in the Christian culture. Because stereotypically we Christians take ourselves far too seriously, we sometimes struggle to laugh at ourselves. And sadly, or perhaps thankfully, there’s so much to laugh about. We seem to think that, as soon as somebody puts the word “Jesus” on something like flip-flops or puts a cartoon Jesus on gift cards or a t-shirt, that it instantly becomes sacred or holy. In the end it’s just flip-flops, cardstock, and shrinkable cotton. And I’m sorry, but flip-flops that leave the words “Jesus Saves” in the sand as you and your honey walk hand in hand down a white-sandy beach is funny.
But those who can’t mentally or spiritually separate the two will often write me letters when they believe I’ve crossed the line in some way. Just last week I poked fun at Kirk Cameron’s new movie “Fireproof,” betting my blog audience five dollars it would suck. And then I wrote something like, “I might go to hell… for betting.” A blog reader wrote me a long email, telling me that her parents were going to burn in Hell, that she was terribly offended that I would make fun of going there myself. Honestly, sometimes the response to my humor is more satirical than my humor. The line I walk is a little thin, but I don’t believe that should negate me from walking it. In fact, usually it makes me want to straddle it.
That Hell-offended blog reader of yours is totally going to hate Pocket Guide to the Afterlife when it comes out. So give me some advice. How do you respond to that kind of criticism?
I’m perhaps a little smarter with my responses than I was a few years back. Then, I would try to defend myself or prove my point. At some point, I decided that I would try to learn from negative reviews, and usually there is something I can learn from somebody’s criticism. But sadly, so often criticism today is online and “anonymous.” Unfortunately, the ability to make comments and send emails anonymously has made normal everyday nice people into mean-spirited individuals. When you’re anonymous, you’re far more willing to say anything at all and say it in a way that is unlike your normal personality. And most of the time, anonymous comments are far less constructive. But I think criticism ultimately makes me better at what I do, because it forces me to improve the essays that I write and make the analogies and the satire that I present better.
Buy Churched here.
Stay tuned for the rest of the interview tomorrow. It involves the role of humor in the Church, tips on how to be funny, and the continued relevance of Steve Martin.