When asked what it is that makes a writer funny, my friend Geraldine DeRuiter, author of the popular and hilarious travel blog The Everywhereist, simply replies, “A traumatic middle school experience.”
It is a deft rejoinder, showcasing a keen wit and succinctly demonstrating her brilliance as a writer and humorist. While one might take this question as an invitation to expound at length on the philosophy of humor, Geraldine’s answer neatly compresses as much insight into five little words. For all its concision, her response conveys layers of widely relatable truth, while pinpointing personal experience as an essential source of humor. It works because it delivers the incisive honesty that underlies so much great comedy. The joke is funny because it’s true. Geraldine is funny because she is honest.
To be clear, Geraldine doesn’t actually identify as a humorist. Indeed, she is reluctant even to identify as a writer, preferring to call herself a blogger, which she feels “sounds less boastful.” Though she pens daily essays, has been recognized in national publications like Time and Forbes, and is currently at work on a full-length travel memoir, she considers the “writer” title something she still aspires to achieve. And as far being labeled a humorist, she says she has “never considered [herself] as part of that genre or aspiring to be part of that genre.” She describes herself as “surprised and delighted” that people find her work funny.
This is not to say that Geraldine’s writing is unintentionally funny – that the humor found in so many of her posts is not deliberate. While getting laughs may not be Geraldine’s primary motive as a blogger, the amusing tone of her writing emerges as the inevitable by-product of a naturally humorous disposition. “It’s just a reflection of how I view the world,” she explains. “I find humor in a lot of things. Every day … I encounter stuff that makes me laugh.” And though not every observation lends itself to humor, Geraldine explains that some posts “practically demand that you take a humorous approach.” Given this outlook, it is not surprising that so many of her posts land squarely in the “funny” column.
Whether or not one actually identifies as a humorist, crafting a funny blog post takes skill. Many would argue that a great joke hinges on its delivery, and for a blogger like Geraldine, the delivery comes in writing. This means that snappy writing skills are an essential component of her humor. Fortunately, she has no small amount of experience as a writer, and plenty of passion for the craft. “I’ve always loved write,” she explains. “It satisfies the creative bug in me.”
It was this love of writing that led her to initially pursue a major in journalism, and ultimately earn a communications degree from the University of Washington. After college, she held a series of jobs in which her duties entailed writing blog posts, newsletters, marketing material, and more. Though Geraldine found much of this work creatively limiting, with few opportunities to write in her own voice, the experience was undoubtedly useful in helping fine-tune her skills as a wordsmith.
Geraldine launched The Everywhereist in 2009 after being laid off from a full-time copywriting position with the Seattle game company Cranium. The loss of this job, she writes on her site’s homepage, “might have been one of the best things that ever happened to me.” It finally freed her to accompany her husband on the frequent jaunts across the nation and the globe demanded by his work. The blog, which has become her primary creative outlet, serves as a lighthearted diary of their adventures abroad, preserving these memories for the benefit of a man who spends much of this time in meetings and giving presentations. “Yes it’s a travel blog,” she writes. “But at its core, it’s a love letter to my husband. A big, long, cuss-filled love letter. The only kind I’m able to write.”
Putting it this way, Geraldine stays true-to-form, blending unvarnished humor with heartfelt purpose. This is her voice – a humorous style she describes as “observational … peppered with sarcasm and occasionally punctuated with long tirades written in all caps.” Her approach is at times “so insane, so passionate, so over-the-top” that she makes herself “cackle like a madwoman” while she writes.
Luckily, this voice finds tremendous liberty in the freewheeling format of a personal blog. Real-life Geraldine and her Everywhereist persona are “virtually identical,” she explains. “Which is kind of terrifying, because it means I say lots of inappropriate things in person.”
As a result of this candid style, Geraldine’s posts often veer from travel into discussions of her marriage and personal life, her quirky obsessions with cake and Jeff Goldblum, and a particularly heart-tugging (yet somehow still amusing) series about undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor (which she had named “Steve,” and from which she has mostly recovered). It’s an honest, likable approach that enables an easy personal connection with her audience – the kind of connection upon which the best comedy relies.
Geraldine’s answer to my question about what makes a writer funny is a perfect example of this relatable style of humorous writing. What, one might ask, does “a traumatic middle school experience” have to do with being funny in your thirties? She doesn’t elaborate. But I think the point is that she doesn’t need to. She knows her audience, and banks on the assumption that they will be able to relate. Many of us can recall the awkwardness and anxiety of adolescence, and the internalized pain that often resulted. While this certainly doesn’t make everyone funny, Geraldine has an undeniable knack for locating the humor in such trauma and exploiting it to full comic effect. She isn’t afraid to make light of her insecurities or to poke fun at her own human imperfections. Indeed, disarming self-deprecation seems to be a cornerstone of her appeal. “I’m really awkward, and I’m a huge dork,” she replies when asked why people read her blog. “I’m kind of a walking disaster … which I think people can relate to.”
While Geraldine tends not to target any specific audience with her work, readers of the The Everywhereist do seem to be predominantly women in their twenties and thirties. When asked why this is so, Geraldine guesses that her easy-to-relate-to approach may have a lot to do with it. “Often times people are more comfortable relating to those who are in their same demographic,” she supposes. “I’m a woman in her early thirties. Many of my readers are, too.”
In 2011, The Everywhereist won a spot on Forbes’ “Top 10 Lifestyle Blogs for Women” list, and the blog has been named among the magazine’s “Top 100 Sites for Women” for the past two years. While she truly appreciates these honors, Geraldine notes that she’s a little uncomfortable with the “for women” modifier. “I just like to say that Forbes magazine listed me as ‘one of the best websites for human beings … many of whom happen to have vaginas.’”
Even as the numbers show her blog’s most frequent visitors to be women, she isn’t necessarily shooting for an all-female audience. It just goes to show that as much as a blogger decides what she wants to write and how she wants to write it, she can’t decide who is going to respond or how much they will enjoy it. Audiences tend to choose themselves.
What all of this comes down to is the subjective nature of humor. What makes a writer funny is a question of how well they speak to the experience of a given audience – whether the sheer silliness or outright absurdity of a bit will resonate with readers. There is no objective formula that guarantees laughter, no mathematic equation that adds up to funny. Every attempt at humor is essentially a gamble. “My post about German food did really well,” Geraldine explains with a degree of surprise. “I’m not really sure why it’s so funny. At some point, I think I just started writing crazed proclamations about sausages in all caps.”
But, even when the gamble pays off, humor remains a far-from-universal thing. There will always be those who don’t get the joke, and Geraldine’s offbeat antics and sarcasm-laden rants have had their share of detractors. “The post I wrote about dying our milk pink garnered quite a few angry responses,” she recalls. “BECAUSE I DYED OUR MILK PINK.”
Nevertheless, there are plenty of folks who look to The Everywhereist for a daily dose of irreverent hilarity. One commenter recently wisecracked, “You’re my favorite immature jerk who isn’t me,” capturing the pitch-perfect harmony between Geraldine’s humor and the comedic tastes of her readers. They get her, it is safe to say, because she gets them.
Geraldine’s writing is funny for many reasons. She is naturally inclined toward humor and she enjoys making people laugh. She is incisively observant and wickedly clever with words. She is unabashedly candid and unflinching in riffs on her own warty humanity. She is unpretentious and humble, with an appealing authenticity that draws thousands of readers to The Everywhereist each day. She addresses her audience with well-earned credibility; they come back with genuine admiration and devoted fandom. It is the complete honesty of her writing that makes this possible – a “keepin’ it real” style that cannot be faked. Her fearless embrace of this approach is evident whenever she rolls the comedic dice, and made explicit in her own tidy summation: “I feel like there’s humor and value in my opinion – I just need to express it honestly and be myself.”