Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tyler Stoddard Smith: a humorist who "never tells jokes."



With Tyler Stoddard Smith’s new book about prostitutes, there is no fear of reading any solemn, stodgy accounts of the brazen businesswomen and men the French call “les grandes horizontales.”
Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World’s Oldest Profession (on sale now, from Adams Media) is a saucy, shocking survey of 100+ whores—as well as public figures we might not have known were once employed in the sex trade.
When it comes to translating dry, historical, or biographical material into rich, mirth-filled nuggets of prose, Smith is at his best. Whore Stories is outrageous, intelligent, and very funny. It turns out that whores are regular people, too—and many irregular, especially famous people once whored themselves out to get where they are.
As Smith writes of Al Pacino (a surprising addition to his entertaining essays and mini-exposés of infamous whores):

"Dog Day AfternoonThe Devil’s AdvocateScent of a WomanThe InsiderSea of Love . . . Cruising? Perhaps it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that at one time, the über-actor Al Pacino made his daily bread by slanging himself as a sexual spazzino on the island of Sicily. That’s right, before the accolades and before his acting ‘style’ devolved into either whispering or screaming his lines, Pacino the prostitute was a lead role."

Pacino was certainly not the only male thespian involved in whoring. Smith also skewers Inside the Actor’s Studio host, James Lipton, who has admitted his  salad days in Paris as a low-level pimp:

"Today, James Lipton is looking down the barrel at his ninetieth birthday, but all indications are that this histrionic Methuselah may continue pursuing the Holy Grail of Cinema long after solar flares have consumed the rest of us. He’s no Snoop Dogg, but James Lipton and his supercilious baritone, along with his feast of insights and inanities, no doubt sent home from Paris countless young Americans with a thriving colony of genital warts after looking for love in all the wrong plazas."

            Of course, there are the famous whores, such as Xaviera Hollander, the “Happy Hooker” from Penthouse fame. And the violent ones, such as Smith’s personal favorite in terms of pure drama (and uncalled-for violence): Mary “Bricktop” Jackson of New Orleans, who beat her johns senseless in a series of signature, sadistic moves. So, too, there are the Hollywood whores: Thirteen women have won Oscars for playing prostitutes.  Smith covers all types of whores in his raucous compendium of what can happen when money is charged for sex.
With Whore Stories, the always funny Smith (when asked how a pregnant Snooki was going to fit into the new season of Jersey Shore, he responded, “Sweatpants? I don’t know. Look, I just want Tila Tequila back, then we can talk reality,”) explained that he didn’t even have to try to be funny in his new book.  “These prostitutes, pimps, and madams were crazy and funny all on their own. Whore Stories is meant to be humorous, but it’s also meant to be informative and explore some of the darker sides of this ‘career,’ as well.”
For a writer and humorist (or humorous writer) who says he “never tries to tell jokes”—as in, ‘A man walks into a bar…’ Tyler Stoddard Smith’s mind can’t stop dreaming up the funniest way to say things.
“I don’t want people to feel obligated to laugh,” the soft-spoken, surprisingly shy Smith explains of his humor and his disinclination to present obvious jokes for a presumed chuckle. “I know what made me laugh while I was writing, but trying to be funny can often mean trying too hard.  This is why I have such awe of stand-up comedy. It’s not what I do; I‘m a writer. But I don’t want be taken too seriously, that’s for sure.”
So what makes whores funny? “They make people uncomfortable, which is funny,” Smith says. “People also make such grandiose (and often negative) assumptions about prostitution and prostitutes, and they don’t for a moment consider them as people, as individuals. That is inordinately sad, but given the vast number of people who have visited prostitutes, it’s also hypocritical and emblematic.”
By Smith’s own estimation, Whore Stories pays equal attention to both he- and she-whores. But is “whore” now a bad word?  “It stings a little, I know,” Smith admits. “I think it’s a pretty weighted word, at least because, historically, it has been used as a derogatory term, most typically to describe a female. By giving all these whores an unvarnished look, I’m trying to—in a sense—reclaim the word.” His book, Smith explains, might have been more P.C. if titled Sex Worker Stories, “but that doesn’t have any pop.”
Tyler Stoddard Smith

Making facts  “pop” and morph into something new is what Smith often does.  In his inimitable style, Smith works by conducting deep research (usually on Google, especially Google books, he says), then incorporating this serious, historical, philosophical and cultural background into his writings—while ripping on the geniuses who spread big thoughts and created these lasting, iconic impressions. Those jarring juxtapositions, and the absurdity of the situations Smith imagines give life to his unique writing voice.
Indeed, Smith researched well-known quotes about beauty and incorporated them into “Truth and Booty,” a rollicking essay/story (a bit of fact and a hefty dose of fiction) now out in TNB Books’ new collection, The Beautiful Anthology, released June 9.

In his piece in The Beautiful Anthology, Smith riffs on a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“'Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.’ An ironic statement from a man who spent most of his life cooped up in his study, groaning about ‘the infinitude of the private man.’ To be fair, Emerson…once traveled to England where he confused Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium for cinnamon (in the ensuing vision quest, he suggested Coleridge publish “Kublai Khan” as a pop-up book, throwing Coleridge into a frenzy, who then asked the blitzkrieged Brahmin, ‘Why am I not getting any fucking buzz from this? This is exactly what you get when you deal with the Moroccans, Ralphie!’”).

Smith admits that his encyclopedic interests and wide-ranging reading habit help him to create his own humorous works (his stories have been featured in: UTNE Reader, McSweeney's, Esquire, The Best American Fantasy, VICE and The Morning News, among others. He is also a regular contributor at the literary Web site, The Nervous Breakdown and an associate editor of the online humor site, The Big Jewel).  
When a variety of material is read routinely and if, as Smith explains, “you reach far enough in all directions, you can pretty much connect anything, and that’s what I often try to do. I find an interesting topic or premise, then I try to hitch it to something ostensibly incompatible and see if it moves. That’s why I’ve written stories about Jean-Paul Sartre as a 911 operator and Emily Dickinson being coached in rap battling.”
            Smith also tries to keep a lot of balls (no pun intended) in the air, working on an assortment of projects at the same time in order to keep fresh and keep busy. He even has a web series called Cody Gambol.  The writing business is picking up, though as Smith admits, everything in today’s publishing climate is a difficult sell. But “even rejection letters are getting more encouraging. Although I did recently receive a letter from a publication that said they were more interested in ‘fiction and nonfiction’ than in what I had provided. Fiction and nonfiction kind of covers the spectrum, so that was discouraging. But my friends [have been] exceedingly encouraging, and my parents have always been preposterously supportive, so much so that I wonder if they aren’t bullshitting me.”
            The conversation then segues to Smith’s observation that many prostitutes have died, inauspiciously, on the toilet. Asked what commentary about dying on the toilet he might offer, particularly since Elvis (not a whore) died that way, Smith says, “…it seems like Sudden Toilet Death (STD?) afflicts those tormented by a sense of dwindling fame. Or perhaps dwindling fame causes one’s bowels to move with more regularity, so there’ s just more bowl time in general. This is something for Steven Pinker, not me. But Steve and I had a falling out over his mullet, so the research probably won’t get done.” Jokes aside, Smith says, “I think dying on the toilet is sad at first, then funny. Of course, the only thing funnier is ignoring the fact that someone died on the toilet.”
            Humor is a part of life, after all. “It’s important to laugh, even if you can’t be happy.” Smith says. “Humor can be like an episodic shock of happiness. A little taste.”
            So, even when the subject is serious (one-eighth of Whore Stories is dedicated to serial killer prostitutes, after all), there’s no reason not to laugh.  It’s yin and yang:  “Recognizing one’s own faults and absurdities in others” is what brings out humor in people, Smith notes. “It’s a strange blend of empathy and cruelty.”--Elizabeth Collins

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