In the middle of his fifth collection of comedic short stories, Hits and Misses, Simon Rich writes a story from the perspective of a court jester named Havershire. “I’ve developed what the French might call une reputation,” the clowns says as introduction. Havershire, we learn, believes he’s disliked because his “barbs have bruised the breast of many nobles.” In fact, it’s easy to see—he’s hated because he’s unfunny. “But thus is the jester’s lot!” Havershire concludes. The jester’s lot: fame, celebrity, delusions of grandeur.
Rich has always written comedy as tangential autobiography. “When I was 25, 26, the only thing on my brain was dating, and that’s why I wrote all those love stories which became The Last Girlfriend on Earth. And then for a year or two I was obsessed with class and privilege and turning 30, and Spoiled Brats is the result of that,” he said in an interview with Longreads. And now, Simon Rich is kind of famous.
Rich is multi-hyphen-able: show creator (Man Seeking Woman and the upcoming anthology series Miracle Workers on TBS), screenwriter (work on Inside Out and on the upcoming Willy Wonka), and novelist (What in God’s Name, Elliot Allagash). He was part of a “dream team” as the youngest writer in Saturday Night Live’s history. He started this career at 17, when he left his role as editor of the Harvard Lampoon with a two-book deal from Random House.
But even more uniquely, Rich is one of the few people in America we call, unironically, a “humorist.” The publicity materials for this new collection dredge up reviews comparing him to James Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse, and Douglas Adams—the youngest of whom was born in 1951 and all of whom are dead. Rich is 34.
But so do a lot of people. We are being hit by a comedy avalanche. The New Yorker uploads at least one piece of humor a day—same for McSweeney’s. Plus, there are everyone’s tweets. Most of it isn’t good (count me as an offender). Or it’s part of a daily churn. A lot of it’s too on-the-nose, or comedy as jeremiad, or not personal, or so personal it feels fake. The joke is often in the title of the piece. Right now, you can go binge the YouTube videos, the podcasts, the GIFs, the stand-up specials on Netflix. Somehow late-night TV now is both losing ground because it’s not fast enough to be funny and gaining importance—a recap each morning in the New York Times—because a vacuum has been left by politicians for believable moral platitudes. Everyone’s a comedian and comedians are now also comparing themselves to preachers.
All of this could be mocked. But we know that story. Instead, it serves as backdrop in Hits and Misses. Rich, despite being a wunderkind, chooses to focus on the good-hearted losers. His characters include: a novelist whose baby is already outwriting him in the womb, Paul Revere’s horse that never got credit, a former rocker trying not to “relapse” into making art, and sundry Hollywood never-beens bumbling through the mid-30s question of how to quit (or what it means that they did quit). In his world, Thomas Edison is ignored after inventing the kinetograph and Adolf Hitler gets the GQ profile treatment.
The point: Fame is ridiculous. Especially his own, however minor it might be.
When Rich does write about a Hollywood “winner,” it’s usually the character “Simon Rich”—self-caricature as the laziest, most narcissistic and petty man in the world. “There’s nobody worse than me,” Rich said discussing a previous book, Spoiled Brats. That collection featured the astoundingly funny novella “Sell Out”—in which a Rich ancestor appears in modern-day Brooklyn via long-term preservation in a vat of pickles and reveals all the faults of the modern-day Rich. A higher judge looks down on him in Hits and Misses.
In the piece “The Book of Simon,” God has given a faithless comedy writer in Brooklyn named Simon Rich everything and so the Devil starts making fun of our Lord. Satan’s bouncing on God’s cloud, saying, “’Sup now?”; Satan’s showing God Bill Maher clips; Beelzebub takes special delight in reading to Yahweh the writings of Rich—ever the nonbeliever, despite God blessing and blessing Rich in a reverse-Job gambit. By the end, Simon Rich, the character, is so detestable that God and the Devil form a union. Now, this is how you do self-hatred!
Yet it never feels indulgent. When writers write about their writing process—or artists talk about their art—it can veer into the self-serious, boring, or pretentious. Rich makes it funny. The pitch-perfect mimicking of Old Testament verbiage certainly helps: “Now, there was a wicked Hebrew in the land of Brooklyn named Simon Rich.” (I repeat this phrase to myself all the time. I find it so amusing.)
“I was definitely reading the Torah through a comedic mindset, especially through The Simpsons and Looney Tunes,” Rich once said of his bar mitzvah process. “When you read the Torah—especially when you’re 12—it definitely leaves you with a sense of fear. I think in almost all my writing, I’m telling the same story over and over again. I do see it as a Jewish story: We’re small, God is big.”
Big and small. It is what comedy is made of. Kurt Vonnegut once paraphrased Aristotle and wrote, “If you want to be comical, write about people to whom the audience can feel superior; if you want to be tragical, write about at least one person to whom the audience is bound to feel inferior.”
Not to step on Aristotle or Vonnegut, but I often find Rich’s characters both tragic and comic. His “creatives” in Hits and Misses are failures of all stripes—personal, professional, spiritual. We feel pity for them. And yet they’re so confident, or thrown into situations so bizarre, they end up silly. Isn’t that life? Feeling big and small at once?
Whatever Rich picked up working at Pixar shows through. The stories end in cliche. Not flimsy or ridiculous cliche—lovely, age-old themes spelled out clearly. What if we cared for one another? What if stopped being so selfish? What if our actions reflected our morality? Rich’s stories aren’t mean. At times, they have genuinely moved me: particularly a longer piece titled “Hands” in the new collection, about a monk who wishes to be famous by torturing himself the hardest for God. This is surprising—because comedy is better at destroying than creating.
Imagine a house blocking your view of a vista. Comedy is the bulldozer that can tear down that old structure to let us see the truth of the horizon. But rarely can it be the thing that builds a new house. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. There’s a ton of bullshit in the world to take down. Yet at times, in the ruins, we don’t feel glad for the destruction of the old order—we miss structure. Rich’s insistence on hope, love, and that people (other than himself) are basically good is refreshing. People are not evil; they’re oafs, idiots, self-serving.
But they can learn. Havershire, that dolt of a jester, does. “It occurred to me I had lived my whole life as a man stuck in a maze, sprinting headlong down some futile trail,” he discovers near the end of the story. “And now, for the first time ever, I was standing on a hall, watching myself from above, and all my years of struggle seemed so foolish, so absurd, that I couldn’t help but laugh.”