MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Excerpt from Planet Funny by Ken Jennings, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Planet Funny

How Comedy Took Over Our Culture

by Ken Jennings

Planet Funny by Ken Jennings X
Planet Funny by Ken Jennings
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  • First Published:
    May 2018, 320 pages
    Jul 2019, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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Stop me if you've heard this one before. A man walks into a sex ed class.

In my defense, I was supposed to be there. It was the first night of "For Boys Only," a popular four-hour seminar on puberty and sexuality given every month or so at Seattle Children's Hospital. The class, along with its "For Girls Only" counterpart, is the brainchild of a local nurse who thought parents shouldn't be outsourcing sex talk with their kids to elementary schools. "This is a relationship-building class," my registration e-mail told me, "so it will be important to your child to have you attend both sessions. Because class includes interactive exercises for the adult and child, our teachers request that you sit together." The classes have become so popular locally that they're virtually a rite of passage for Seattle-area fifth-graders and their helicopter parents, and the program has since spread to Oregon and California.

Retaking sex ed with a roomful of twelve-year-old boys wasn't my idea of a relaxing Monday evening. To make matters worse, my son, Dylan, discovered a week beforehand that two of his best friends from school had been signed up for the same session. So of course we all had to meet up beforehand for burgers, and then I had to sit through two hours of sex ed with my son's goofy friends and their dads. Also, right before the class was set to begin, a familiar-looking bearded man walked into the auditorium with his young son and sat down a few rows in front of us. It took me a few minutes to recognize him as longtime NBA coach P. J. Carlesimo. This is in no way relevant to the rest of the story, but you can't just go to sex class with P. J. Carlesimo and not mention it.

The instructor, Greg Smallidge, was exactly who I expected: a friendly-faced middle-aged white guy with receding brown hair, a vaguely professorial air, and an easel stacked with, I could only assume, the same grisly cross-sections of the human reproductive system that I remembered from fifth grade. But when Smallidge began the class, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. He was funny! In my day, sex ed wasn't funny. Maybe the girls' class was funny? I don't know, I still have no idea what went on in there. But the boys' class was only funny unintentionally, like when my friend Glenn asked the teacher, "What if pee comes out instead and you pee inside the lady?" and Mr. Jenkins explained that his wife liked morning sex and even when he really had to go, pee never came out when he ejaculated, and then everyone got incredibly uncomfortable and quiet.

Smallidge was a slow, careful talker, but what I had initially taken for unflappable dullness turned out to be a calculated deadpan, in the vein of Bob Newhart. He introduced the topic of masturbation by saying, "It's a very personal subject. It's not like a kid comes home one day and says, 'You know, I had a rough day at school. I'm going to go up to my room and masturbate for about ten minutes.'?" He paused and let the laughter build, then added the topper. "Dad, could you make me a sandwich?"

Later, he asked the room to suggest slang terms for "penis" and jotted down a list on his big drawing pad. Many of the kids had obviously never been given license to yell anatomical slang in a crowded roomful of adults, and they jumped in with gusto, some of them possibly inventing terminology on the spot. "Old one-eyed Mr. Johnson!" shouted a boy two rows back, which I thought was a bit much. The room teetered on the brink of anarchy. But Smallidge got them back! It was essentially a two-hour stand-up set for the most tentative of audiences, and it was masterful. I felt like applauding at the end.

"It's like Houdini," he told me later when I asked him about his crowd work. "How do you get out of this and survive?" Smallidge was a corporate trainer back in the 1990s when a friend at Seattle Public Schools called him out of the blue to see if he'd be interested in teaching puberty classes. He'd been a philosophy major in college and had no background in medicine, psychology, or education. He didn't even have any kids. "Sure, I'll do that," he said. He's now been a full-time sexuality curriculum guy for more than twenty years.

Excerpted from Planet Funny by Ken Jennings. Copyright © 2018 by Ken Jennings. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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