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‘Not Quite a Genius’ smarter than it lets on

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Collection of short writings intelligent, extremely funny

Funny people tend to figure out how to be funny, regardless of the medium in which their humor is being expressed. Now, that doesn’t mean that a great comic writer is a great comic performer or that a great comic actor is a great comic improviser. It just means that funny finds a way.

And Nate Dern is funny.

Dern is a senior writer at Funny or Die and a former artistic director at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater; that’s a one-two comic punch that you don’t often see. His new book “Not Quite a Genius” (Simon & Schuster, $26) is a collection of nearly 50 pieces – personal essays and invented correspondence and short stories and weird lists and even a one-act play. All of them short.

And all of them funny.

“Not Quite a Genius” is divvied into four parts, each titled after one of the pieces contained therein.

“Which One Are You?” kicks off the absurdity, offering up such brief delights as “Before We Begin Our Yoga Practice, a Few Words About Our Other Offerings and That Hissing Sound” – where an unorthodox yoga class introduction addresses the elephant (so to speak) in the room – and “Flowers for Ai_One,” a funny and surprisingly poignant take on the classic “Flowers for Algernon.” “Bruce Lee Novelty Plate” is a delightful bit of weird, while “How Many Farts Measure a Life?” – the section’s longest piece – belies its title by being thought-provoking as well as silly.

Part 2 – “Predator Prey” – is highlighted by the comedic take on internet culture inherent to pieces like “YouButBetter App Review” and “Negative Visualization” and “Transcription of Internet Video ‘DEER STUCK IN SWING FREED AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!!!’” Other highlights include the goofy juxtaposition of “An Intrepid Explorer Discovers a Man Cave” and the layered, nuanced (and still funny) “Predator Prey.”

In Part 3, titled “Not Quite a Genius,” a decided hint of realness eases in, courtesy of a pair of clearly autobiographical stories - the titular piece and one called “Chap Sticks in a Mailbox” - that bookend the section. But there’s more weirdness, too. There’s a Kafka riff titled “The Transformation.” A bizarrely thorough escape plan in “In Case of Fire.” The aptly (and wonderfully) titled “ Headline or Creative Writing MFA Thesis Titles?” Oh, and the delightfully on-the-nose “I’m Not an A**hole, I’m Just an Introvert.”

Finally, Part 4 – named after the one-act play that closes the book and whose title I’m not going to write here – leans even harder into the absurd for the home stretch. There’s a spin class taught by Walt Whitman. There’s a letter to Christopher Columbus from Leif Erickson and a letter from a disgraced politician to his constituents. “The Show of LIFE!” takes reality television to an interesting and unexpected extreme. And the titular one-act features, among other things, Neil deGrasse Tyson playing Isaac Asimov.

There’s a lot going on here – much to the reader’s benefit. Nate Dern is an undeniable talent, gifted with a finely-honed understanding of the absurdity of banality. Or is it the banality of absurdity? Either way, he has a unique viewpoint on the world; this book allows us to get a glimpse of it refracted through the cracked prism of his perspective.

The only qualities consistently shared by these pieces are the fact that they’re short and they’re funny. Turns out my man Polonius was onto something when he said “brevity is the soul of wit” – and Dern’s work is plenty brief and plenty witty. Jokes are allowed just enough time to play out; there’s no needless padding or stretching. We get to the funny bits precisely when we’re supposed to. And while it might prove difficult to take your time with this one, the book’s nature also allows it to be consumed easily in fits and starts. All at once or one piece at a time, there’s no wrong way to read it.

“Not Quite a Genius” isn’t bound by any particular convention. Dern roams hither and yon with regards to whether something is truth, fiction or somewhere in-between. The collection is funny, obviously, but it is also smart and thoughtful and honest. There’s a lot of genuine feeling here – and the best comedy comes from a place of truth.

Charming and clever and occasionally crass, “Not Quite a Genius” is a whole lot smarter than its title lets on.


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