Given that he’s lived in the U.K. most of his adult life, it should comes as no surprise that Bill Bryson has adopted so much of the English character. Or perhaps it was some inborn affinity for British culture that drew him there in the first place. Either way, Bryson’s bumbling charm, goofy wit, and dry, self-effacing humor mark him as an Englishman-at-heart as surely as his mid-Atlantic accent.
Last week, the Iowa-born writer paid his first visit to Santa Barbara, appearing at the Granada on Tuesday night to read excerpts from his books, share the comic agony of bad headlines and worse puns, and treat his audience to a dose of Brysonian wisdom.
At 57, the father of four still gets his jollies from off-color humor. He cracked jokes about what he’d like people to be saying about him in 100 years (“And the amazing thing is: He’s still sexually active!”) and gave advice for how to react when people don’t hold the door open for you (kill them). Having lived for a few years in New Hampshire, he declared New Englanders a humorless bunch, but acknowledged a lack of awareness of Californians’ comic sensibilities. Judging from the easy laughter he elicited from his audience throughout the evening, not much was lost in translation.
Aside form his astute reading of cultural quirks, one of Bryson’s greatest strengths is his ability wrap up a chapter with a walloping good one-liner, and in his readings he shared a few. From his memoir of growing up in 1950s America, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson read his story of a fateful summer day spent with the mortifyingly un-cool Milton family. In response to an audience member’s question, he read a scene from A Walk in the Woods that captured the quirks of one of modern literature’s most memorably annoying characters, Mary Ellen.
Though Bryson is clearly at his best when behind the writing desk, he has become something of a celebrity speaker — possibly because his humility makes him an unusually endearing public figure. There was no doubt Tuesday night that his audience in Santa Barbara received him real warmth, responding to his easy way of reminding us how to laugh at ourselves.