At home on the range

It’s been a staple of comedy since everyone’s formative preschool years, when children would ask each other that seminal question: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Since then (at least for most former preschoolers), our idea of what makes good comedy has evolved. We chuckle at witty jokes, giggle at awkward situations, and groan at bad puns. Chickens and their highway antics really don’t make us laugh anymore, and the world has moved on.

Or has it?

Simon Rich, a writer for Saturday Night Live, has put a new spin on an old bird. In his latest novel, Free-Range Chickens, Rich explores the nuances of comedy with a myriad of short stories and dialogues, perfect for on-the-go reading, or for readers with little time to devote to drawn-out chapters. Inside its pages, Count Dracula gives relationship advice and encourages charity, Stephen Hawking wonders why no one has yet read his epic fan fiction, and chess programs plot to take over the world as their human opponents wait for them to compute their next moves.

Throughout the book, Rich takes jokes and scenarios that readers are familiar with and gives them a new cast. His strategy? “I’m always interested in writing about fear and about taking low-stakes situations and turning them into high-stakes ones.” This happens quite often in the book, where readers are asked to consider shockingly normal situations or old stories from a new viewpoint.

The comedy isn’t forced, though. Rich comments, “My goal when I’m writing isn’t always to be funny ... it’s to maintain the reader’s interest.” And that he does. Is there anyone out there who isn’t at least a little curious to know what the missionaries in that classic logic problem were thinking when they discovered that they had to cross a river with a bunch of cannibals, or how Thor feels about the way the world celebrates Thursday now? It’s the sort of humor that reinvents itself with each story, keeps the reader interested, but doesn’t grow tired after a few chapters in.

The titular story of the book, “Free-Range Chickens,” highlights the real versatility of Rich’s work. Superficially, it’s a short story about two chickens that live peacefully in a farm, enjoying every moment of their lives before being taken away to the slaughterhouse. Looking at it more deeply, the reader begins to wonder what sort of a commentary on life it is. Should people just decide to be happy with what they have no matter what, living each day enthusiastic about the same old bird feed that is placed before them, or are some people getting too complacent, too accepting of impending doom when really they could be doing something about it?

Maybe it’s both. Rich likes to think so. Free-Range Chickens has a duality that many other joke books just can’t pull off: Many will comment on the state of the world and how weird life is, but very few of them make the reader consider his or her own views on the issues at hand. Sure, a lot of people here can relate to being the geeky kid that needed to down three cans of energy drinks before getting up the nerve to ask out that cute guy or girl, but how many people have read lab reports about the ups and downs of trying to be cool? It’s one more unexpected thing to look forward to in Free-Range Chickens.

Rich, who has wanted to be a writer since he was young, is hesitant to say that his work has an implicit goal to entertain. He writes “stuff people will voluntarily choose to read,” he said, whether it’s comedy or other genres, stories that will catch and hold the reader’s attention. For Rich, the funniest stories for him tend to be the ones that he had the most fun writing. His two top picks in Free-Range Chickens are “Secret Service,” an application for all those desiring to be his bodyguard (thick physiques and hero complexes a plus), and “The Official Rules of Boxing,” which clarifies the finer, more lethal aspects of the sport for the rest of us.

For an author of two comedy novels as well as a writer for a comedy show, it might come as a surprise that Rich’s favorite genre of books to read on his own is horror. His favorite authors include Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, and even Edgar Allen Poe. But, Rich says, the two genres aren’t all that different. “Horror and comedy are both pretty similar,” he explains. “Both are about danger.”

Sure enough, readers will see plenty of danger popping up in Free-Range Chickens. Whether it’s in the decline of the educated world with no one reading scholarly journals anymore (except for a select few — you know who you are), or in the nighttime machinations of the monsters that live under the bed, readers will find something that scares them, if only a little bit. Rich, though, is content with his work. He says that as long as he can make his mother laugh, he knows he’s done his job right.