Hits and Misses by Simon Rich: If you like laughing, read it
Review: former ‘Saturday Night Live’ writer’s short stories don’t go deep, but they will make you lol
Simon Rich: smart and goofy hot takes on modernity. Photograph: Melissa Fuller
Hits and Misses
The former Saturday Night Live writer and New Yorker humorist Simon Rich’s new collection is very funny. What does he write? Short stories, I suppose you’d call them, although they’re not quite short stories in the same way William Trevor stories are short stories or Ernest Hemingway stories are short stories. They’re a bit more like short stories in the way Looney Tunes cartoons are, technically, if you think about it, kind of short stories.
The long and short of it is that there are a bunch of jokes on every page and you won’t just smile to yourself wryly at them, which is what usually happens when we’re told a writer is “funny”. No, with Simon Rich’s new collection you will laugh out loud regularly … at a toddler’s surprising revelation that he wants to be a basketball, or an early Christian monk’s reasoned decision to drink his own urine or the bitterness of Paul Revere’s overlooked horse, Oatsy.
Like PJ Wodehouse or Frankie Howerd, Rich’s purview is narrow. He basically employs high-concept whimsy in order to take satirical jabs at pop-culturally obsessed modern jackasses like himself. But that’s why he’s so funny. He knows every inch of this hip, jaded, overly wired, culturally capitalised terrain and he knows how to skewer the expectations of similarly attuned readers with low-key asides and logical leaps that make sense if you think about them but don’t make that much sense if you think about them twice.
A character called “Simon Rich” turns up in several of these stories, because that’s the sort of meta-fictional milieu we’re dealing with. There’s the Book of Job-mirroring The Book of Simon in which God gives “Simon Rich” everything he wants – riches, luxury, fame – in order to see if it inspires gratitude (spoiler alert: it does not). And there’s the Foosball Championship of the Entire Universe in which a seven-year-old “Simon Rich” futilely and tearfully loses his shit when competing with his 11-year-old brother.
Then there are other stories that may as well be about people called “Simon Rich”. There’s the tale of a young writer who is overcome with professional and Oedipal jealousy by the news that his unborn child is, according to a sonogram, also a writer (with a typewriter, an agent and a staff writer gig at the New Yorker).
There’s the story of a “content specialist’s” 30th birthday party at which, thanks to the last-minute purchase of 30 screaming red skeleton candles from a mysterious curiosity shop, he finds himself faced with his younger selves.
There’s a period drama about a self-flagellating Christian hermit who dreams of cutting off his own hands (to prove how hardcore he is) before encountering a holidaying rich girl en route to an ancient music festival.
Some of these excellent yarns seem to lean towards some greater message about art, love and meaning in a wired, superficial world, but I think such subtexts are probably beside the point. I mean, there are also plenty of stories here with no such highfalutin messages. There’s a story in which overawed folks-on-the-street recount their unlikely encounters with the actor Tom Hanks (“He was normal the whole ride. Didn’t scream at me or threaten my life”), a story in which a surgeon recounts the hilarious pranks he can no longer perform thanks to a hospital ban on April Fools jokes (“What about the one where the patient wakes up and I’m wearing a robot costume so that he thinks he’s been in a coma for 80 years”) and a story called Adolf Hitler: The GQ Profile, which is exactly what it describes (“A funny thing happened to Hitler when he lost his iPhone. He realised that he didn’t really miss it”).
Yes, such smart and goofy hot takes on modernity aren’t exactly deep dives into the human condition. But who cares? They’re very, very funny and I’m not sure there is a human condition anyway. The joke’s on us, and I think Simon Rich would agree. Read Hits and Misses if you like laughing at things.