Book Club, History, Non-Fiction, Sociology

Planet Funny by Ken Jennings

During my January funk (which seems so slight compared to what the world is going through now), the Nonfiction Book Club read Planet Funny by Ken Jennings. This is the review I had meant to post 2 months ago!

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Where society’s most coveted trait once might have been strength or intelligence or honor today it is being funny. Yes, funniness. Thanks to social media, we now have a whole Twitterverse of amateur comedians riffing around the world at all hours of the day – and many of them even get popular enough online to go pro and take over television. Politicians have to tell jokes to get elected, and Super Bowl commercials focus more on making you laugh than buying things. Even airline safety tutorials – those terrifying laminated cards about the possibilities of fire, explosion, depressurization, and drowning – have been replaced by joke-filled videos with multimillion-dollar budgets and dance routines.

In Planet Funny, Ken Jennings explores this brave new comedic world and what it means – or doesn’t – to be funny in it now. Tracing the evolution of humor from the caveman days to the latest Twitter gags and Facebook memes, Jennings explains how we built our joke-saturated modern age. Planet Funny is a full taxonomy of what spawned and defines today’s sense of humor.

Review

In the month of January, when I was reading Planet Funny, I was dealing with three family deaths, anxiety, and millennial ennui. The later of which seems completely insignificant when compared to the general state of the world right now. And oddly enough, I’m not really experiencing that much anxiety comparatively speaking either. Point being, though, that when I needed humor and comedy to get me through a difficult time, I was binge watching Saturday Night Live reruns and reading a book about how comedy is killing our culture.

Well, a little bit. Not completely, but a little bit. Two dichotomous notions competing for attention in my brain. The first saying, you’re depressed, you need something to cheer you up, and the second saying, we no longer experience real emotions and connections if we’re all hiding behind our comedic instincts all the time. It was difficult to figure out how I was really feeling and how I should cope, hence the need for a two month time lapse to digest Planet Funny and figure out just what I wanted to say about it.

My mother is an avid Jeopardy! fan and her husband even made it to the second round of qualifying to get on Jeopardy!, that’s how much they love and are obsessed with it. So of course, every weeknight evening when I was in high school, we would watch Jeopardy!, and there were rules. Strict rules I tell you about how one watched Jeopardy! in my mother’s house. But it also meant that when Ken Jennings went on a 74 game winning streak in the midst of my high school years, we watched a decent amount of it.

When I was student teaching world geography to sixth graders many years later, I referenced Ken’s book Maphead a lot. A lot a lot. It’s a very interesting book, and I’m all for supporting my favorite Jeopardy! champ’s post-game career as full time writer. When picking books for Nonfiction Book Club voting back in November, I knew that I had to have Planet Funny, his latest just out in paperback, on the list. I was so bummed when it wasn’t voted in. It was a close fourth and we read the top three. When the pub date for one of the top three was pushed back and we needed a book to fill the month, it was fate.

There’s nothing like a book about humor to keep you going when times seem tough. Or at least that’s what I thought. I thought the subtitle was more tongue in cheek than anything, especially after the first few chapters where Ken shared stories about the history of comedy and his own recent experiences handling awkward teenage situations with his kids with comedy. But as the book progressed, Ken delved more and more into how comedy has become a crutch of American society, and world society as a whole.

There’s a whole chapter dedicated just to Twitter comics, which as a person who doesn’t use Twitter, I found absolutely fascinating. And shortly after finishing it, when I went out with a friend from book club (where we all expressed similar feelings) and when I was telling her about my uncle’s passing, but trying to brush past it so I didn’t encourage sympathy, she stopped herself making a joke because of Ken. Admittedly, the joke would have been welcome, a laugh in hard times is, to me, different than relying on humor to get one through every single daily action and interaction.

But she didn’t want to make the joke because she didn’t want to discount how I was feeling or how we were connecting and relating to each other. She’s taken Ken’s observation about hiding behind humor seriously. And I think he, and she, were ultimately right. If everything is a joke, if we’re all so awkward around each other that we can’t interact without jokes, how can we truly take anything seriously?

Overall, Planet Funny was a great book club book – we had a very intriguing discussion with lots of insights into how we all personally rely on humor versus collectively as a society. There were only four of us in January, February we had many more, and March we’ve cancelled. So we’ll have to see how book club goes for the rest of the year!

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.

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