In honor of George Saunders’ lecture at Vassar this past week (which I found mostly quite funny), I am going to look at how humor works in one of his short works, “I can speak!™”
“I can speak!™” is pseudo company-to-consumer letter in which Rick Sminks, product service representative at KidLuv Inc. writes to Mrs. Faniglia to express regret regarding her disappointment in their product. The reader soon finds out that this product is essentially a mini-robot in the form of a mask: the parent slips the I CAN SPEAK!™ over their baby’s head, and the product “recognizes familiar aural patterns” (i.e. processes the conversations of those in the vicinity of the baby) and then responds in a more advanced manner than would typically developmentally correspond to the baby’s age. One example of this in the story: “Say baby sees peach. If you or Mr. Faniglia… were to loudly say something like: ‘What a delicious peach!’ the I CAN SPEAK!™… might respond by saying ‘I LIKE PEACH!’ or… ‘FRUIT, ISN’T THAT ONE OF THE MAJOR FOOD GROUPS?’”
One of the older versions of the I CAN SPEAK!™ mask only comes with a pre-set baby face; thus, the parent would have to choose between seeing their baby in its natural form, and being able to interact with a more advanced version of their baby (which the reader is supposed to presume is appealing to some consumers in this fictional world). This aspect of the product, along with the fact that it does not read the baby’s mind, seems to have upset Mrs. Faniglia and caused her to write the complaint that prompted this story-letter. However, we never see the original complaint: “I can speak!™” is entirely the response letter of product service representative Rick Sminks, and just like many real-life product service representatives, he is an unreliable narrator who jumps through various arguments in an attempt to sell his product.
As a satirical piece, “I can speak!™” is mostly amusing due to its exaggeration and absurdity, but Saunders weaves in many forms of humor into this short story. In fact, I would argue that “I can speak!™” relies on combination humor: the style of humor keeps morphing throughout the letter to allow the story to be continually and freshly funny to the reader.
Overall, the piece is satirical in that its purpose is to mock an aspect of society—in this case consumerism—and it uses humor as a means to critique. The piece also starts off on a satirical note by quickly establishing the function of the I CAN SPEAK!™ product, which is by nature absurd but does allude to certain products of our modern consumerist society that supposedly make our lives better (I cite Snuggies and egg slicers). Saunders also employs pseudo-anecdotal humor in his references to Sminks’ very specific and strange baby experiences. For example, Sminks mentions that his son “Billy wears his (I CAN SPEAK!™) while sleeping… If we forget to put it back on after a bath, he pitches a fit.” This anecdote is funny to the reader in a similar way as a personal anecdote of a nonfictional child: the specificity and the unconventionality of this child is funny, regardless of its fictionality.
In addition, Saunders relies on the humor of words in “I can speak!™” Some of this word humor is sophisticated, and relies on structure. For instance, in the final paragraph, Sminks says, “We at KidLuv really love what kids are.” Besides the obvious falseness of this statement, this phrase stands out due to its rhythm and repetition. (“KidLuv” and “love…kids” work as a sort of palindrome.) Although language rhythm isn’t inherently hilarious, the sentence structure does enhance the sophisticated humor of this story.
Finally, Saunders uses juvenile humor to round out this story’s comical effect. The I CAN SPEAK!™ product is promoted as a way to make the baby seem more intelligent and interactive at a young age, so that it doesn’t have to “sit around all day going glub glub glub.” The glub glub glub motif comes up several times in the story, acting as a reference to young babies’ inarticulateness. But beyond function, this phrase is simply funny, and reminds me of various Dr. Seuss phrasings. Glub glub glub is humorous due to its sound and silliness.
Like many good pieces of writing, “I can speak!™” works because it constantly surprises the reader and keeps them interested. This story engages the reader largely through its humor, which is offbeat and culturally savvy, and remains alluring throughout the story due to its ever-morphing and inconsistent nature.