There’s something unmedicated about Shawn Berman’s recent collection of poems, Mr. Funnyman. I say unmedicated because so much of it seems to be written from the perspective of needing something, of clawing for it, and yet every desire is belied by the book’s signature meekness. It is a timidity hidden behind the veneer of movie references, Wikipedia rabbit holes, and late night video game sessions, and it is a wrenching portrait of the artist as a young zillenial.
For the speaker of these poems, everything reminds him of something else. A poem about Tony Hawk’s episode of Rocket Power gives way to a reverie about I, Robot. An ode to Nickelodeon’s green slime resolves into an apology for accidentally deleting a partner’s progress in Pokémon. Synapses fire with apparent randomness, but Berman uses this scattered approach to piece together a larger story.
Each poem starts with a premise—sometimes a confession, sometimes a question, and somehow always hilarious—but that’s just the jumping off point. Some start out with a strong narrative, only to be derailed by something shiny—and eventually profound. Some poems begin as dreams, only to be revealed as open wounds. It’s a book that is seduced by the idea that pop culture is a balm, but it’s also a book that recognizes the emptiness of that same idea.
Anxiety seems to be a driving force behind much of Mr. Funnyman, even though it’s never mentioned directly in the text. “i had to ask my psychiatrist anyway and by psychiatrist i mean reddit,” Berman succinctly explains, lest we think the speaker is going to actually get help and change. Later in the same poem, he describes a self-care routine: “i fired up the keurig and marathoned an entire season of lost, googling fan fiction theories regarding the personification of the island.
the optimist in me still thinks the cast was alive the whole time, something we always argue about. the coffee really upset my stomach.” The pain here is the vessel for some familiar and numbing comfort—a brain that’s finally quiet.
It’s easy to group these poems along with other ephemera inspired by pop culture because they’re so damn fun to read, but that is underselling what Berman has managed to pull off in these 70 pages. The poem that starts out about perfecting Hank Hill’s “bwahhhhh” is really a meditation on how deeply the people we love can hurt us. The poem about winning the Dundie award for world’s hottest couple is a treacly, YA-caliber gush-fest, until, of course, it very much isn’t.
I’ve read Shawn’s work before in HAD and Maudlin House, but the effect of reading this book front-to-back is a completely different experience. Even though there’s some formal elements that come standard (use of lowercase, acronyms, first-person, present tense), I don’t attribute every poem to an individual voice. Rather, they feel emblematic of this moment in America. These are poems that could come from any person who is trying to connect with the world through the art that moves them and finding it very, very difficult.
On my third time reading Mr. Funnyman, I was reminded of two quotes. The first is from Irving Howe, reviewing Philip Roth in 1972: “The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice.” My assessment of Mr. Funnyman is the mirror opposite. Reading it once means you’re only halfway through. So much more is revealed on repeated visits and the blitz of humor, heartbreak, and longing mean that every time, you find something new to love.
The second quote is from George Saunders: “The way you’re going to be charming on the page is going to have some resemblance to the way you’re charming in person.” For me, this is the beating heart of the collection. The poems are as intimate as they are funny, which makes the poet feel more like a friend. In the lives we live behind our screens, Mr. Funnyman argues that the things we think are wrong with us are the parts that make us human. I couldn’t agree more.
Kyle Seibel is a writer in Santa Barbara, CA who needs to be told semi-regularly to shut the fuck up. Feel free to do so @kylerseibel.