Funny or Die's Nate Dern searches for a grand theory of laughter 

The Travelers' Rest festival is bringing more than music to town. Funny or Die news editor Nate Dern is visiting Missoula to catch The Decemberists et al. for a weekend of live acts. While he's in the area, he's also taking the opportunity to promote his new humor essay collection, Not Quite a Genius (Simon & Schuster), which officially published on Tuesday.

"A thing that I learned really early on in the marketing process is that if you're a first time author, you can tour all across the country as long as you fund it," Dern says. "So, my book tour is mainly places I'm going to be anyway."

The frugal marketing strategy means that Dern, a widely published humor writer and the former artistic director of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, will hold his first reading after the publication of the book at Fact & Fiction instead of in Los Angeles or New York.

Dern has been interested in comedy since he was a kid. He wrote parody news pieces for his high school paper (when, for one issue a year, The Claw turned into The Flaw) and read the dark humor of Kurt Vonnegut. At Harvard, he sharpened his skills with the university's improv troupe and famed Harvard Lampoon.

Dern has always balanced two passions: comedy and academia. The Colorado native, who now works out of Los Angeles, decided to pursue both loves after college, attending Columbia's sociology graduate program as well as staying active at the UCB theater. While earning his Ph.D. (he's still in the process of finishing up his thesis), he was also publishing short humor and essays for places like The New Yorker, McSweeney's, The New York Magazine and Vice.

Unlike many comics, who traditionally think analyzing humor is next to useless, Dern's academic side means he can't help but investigate, research and dissect his other love. His dissertation is about gender performance in improv and his short humor pieces reflect what he's learned by taking a microscope to the art.

click to enlarge Nate Dern’s new collection, Not Quite a Genius, includes short “Shouts & Murmurs” pieces, first-person essays and Funny or Die sketches. - PHOTO COURTESY MINDY TUCKER
  • photo courtesy Mindy Tucker
  • Nate Dern’s new collection, Not Quite a Genius, includes short “Shouts & Murmurs” pieces, first-person essays and Funny or Die sketches.

"I think most of the grand theories about comedy fall short," he says. "But I look at laughter a lot—why we laugh. It's hard to ask why something is funny. But if you say, why do we laugh? We can tie it to this specific act. Then we can say, we laugh when we are nervous, or to make someone feel good. Or maybe we do it because it is out of our control. It's a form of communication."

Dern writes comedy in the same academic way. He produces a wide range of pieces, from short whimsical "Shouts & Murmurs" pieces to longer first-person essays to sketches for Funny or Die. His book collects his best previously published pieces, plus new essays and memoirs. But his approach is the same.

"I'm very mathematical about writing," he says. "First, I think of a premise. The next step is: If this is the premise, what else is true about my premise? And I heighten it from there, making sure the logic is there for my piece. It has to be more than just funny joke, funny joke, funny joke, funny joke. Then I go back through and punch it up. And that's much more trial and error."

For the last three years, Dern has been with Funny or Die, first as a writer and more recently as an editor. There, he tracks the daily news and trends while managing a stable of a few dozen freelance writers.

"I can't believe that I get to do this for a job," he says. "I get to come to a place and hang out with people that I consider friends and we talk about the news and think about funny things about the news. That I get to do it as a job is incredible."

But in the future, he hopes to fuse his two favorite things.

"Comedy is fun, but there's a lot of uncertainty in the comedy job market," he says. "I'm enjoying doing it, but I also love academia. I have a vision that I want to be a teacher in a school somewhere. I'd like to end up in a communications department or creative writing department. I've always loved school, and I want to end up on a college campus some day, after a year or two in comedy, if that's the case, or after a long and illustrious career."

Nate Dern reads from Not Quite a Genius at Fact & Fiction Sat., Aug. 12, at 3 PM. Free.

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