Where Have All the Humorists Gone?, Part 2: Conversations with Modern Comedy Writers

Be sure to check out Part 1 of Where Have All the Humorists Gone?, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman and the Decline of Modern Humor Writing.

Even established comedy writers condescend to dabbling in print, to great effect –- Allison Silverman’s (The Colbert Report) “Et Tu, Brooklyn?” being a recent favorite. That’s not the only example — in his review of Elliot Allagash, Seth Meyers reveals that Simon Rich was hired at Saturday Night Live “because of his amazing short fiction.” Before Amy Ozols ever wrote “Let Us Play With Your Look” for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, she wrote “A Mass Email” and “Looking Your Best” for The New Yorker. Aisha Muharrar contributed the hilarious “After Organizing an Emergency Eight-and-Three-Fourths Year Reunion, A Late Bloomer Shares Some Important News with Her Class” to McSweeney’s and was Vice President of The Harvard Lampoon years before she ever penned a word for the characters of Parks and Recreation.

And the New Yorker’s recent Shouts & Murmurs contributors list reads like a who’s who of contemporary comedy writers: Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Larry Doyle (The Simpsons), Sarah Paley (SNL), Tim Long (The Simpsons, Late Night with David Letterman), Nora Ephron, Patricia Marx (Saturday Night Live), Billy Kimball (The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, The Simpsons), Zev Borrow (Chuck), and Noah Baumbach, to name a few.

Countless television and film comedy writers began in print and continue to return to it. In part two of Where Have All The Humorists Gone?, Mike Sacks (Vanity Fair, And Here’s The Kicker, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk), Rob Kutner (The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, The Daily Show, Apocalypse How), and Scott Jacobson (The Daily Show, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk), along with Hudson Hongo discuss their goals, beginnings in print humor, inspirations, and transition from print to writing for film television and other mediums.

What first interested you in writing humor for print? When did you begin – for yourself and professionally?

Mike: Well, my first dream was to become a writer for Late Night with David Letterman or for the movies, but this was out of the question for a 13-year-old. So I began to write for print because it was my only option at that point. But I grew to love it. It just reached the point where I didn’t think I would ever want to write for TV or for Hollywood. I think it comes down to a matter of control. The pay isn’t that great for print, but one does tend to have a lot more editorial control than one would for TV or film, and one’s name is attached to the byline. I’ve done a few projects for Hollywood, and it’s been miserable. And that didn’t pay well either. So I figure I might as well have full control and write what I want. That’s more important to me.

Rob: I began for myself way before anyone wanted to read what I was writing (understandably!) – writing short stories and cartoons to defuse the cognitive dissonance of being a liberal Jew in a conservative Christian school. In college, I wrote for and eventually helmed the college humor magazine. I devoted so much more time and energy to that than my studies, it was like a klaxon telling me what my career path should be. When I was trying to break into the entertainment industry, all my writing was on spec that nobody ever read — so writing humor for print was a way to feel like I was reaching an audience, and pay the bills — well, okay, like .000001% of the bills.

Scott: I think my introduction to funny prose came when I was 14 or 15, when I read Woody Allen’s humor collections. I was already a big fan of his movies — not least of all because most of them were set in New York and for a kid as desperate to move out of North Carolina and into the city as I was, that was like porn — but I was fascinated by his short humor pieces. The fascination came from being able to actually hold in my hands and study the writing. I already wanted to be a comedy writer, but it was intimidating to watch, say, Saturday Night Live or SCTV and think about creating something like that, involving famous people and studio audiences and budgets. Having the writing on the page in front of me in a form I could easily break down and analyze actually demystified comedy writing for me. Even I could make a page full of words.

Another big early prose influence was Spy Magazine. Again, it came from New York, so that was probably a big part of the appeal. God knows I couldn’t have understood half the references or appreciated the catty attacks on NYC media figures (I’m still not sure I could). But even though it was sometimes overly arch, Spy was also the only laugh-out-loud funny magazine.

I started writing prose pieces before scripts. I didn’t write anything that I actually showed people until maybe my sophomore year in high school. At first it was just silly, pointless pieces designed to show off my precocious (for a teenager living in rural North Carolina) vocabulary. Then I discovered SJ Perelman. And man oh man, my vocabulary turned over-the-moon obnoxious. Even among that early New Yorker crowd, Perelman’s virtuosity with language stands out. He’s a big influence on Woody Allen, of course, and I think Allen’s more recent New Yorker pieces actually suffer from too much wordy over-Perelmanizing. What I didn’t realize as a kid was that if you’re not SJ Perelman (as I certainly was not and continue not to be), then simpler is better. My love at the time for the similarly prolix writing of Mark Leyner didn’t help matters.

“Prolix” reminds me — Catch-22 is another early humor influence. There are so few laugh-out-loud funny novels. That one and Confederacy of Dunces are still my favorites. Along with Pale Fire and Lolita.

Hudson: I started writing my sophomore year of college when I put out a humor zine with some housemates. The tagline was “For Those Who’ve Lost Their Faith in Nihilism.” We were trying to be subversive: we distributed it by slipping copies into the fold of our campus newspaper and my first piece was a cheerfully-worded recipe for crack cocaine.
The second issue never materialized so I sent what I’d written for it to some outlets online, who surprised me by receiving my work with far less hostility than I’d come to expect. It’s a publishing method that I have to advocate: far fewer stapled fingers and you don’t have to sneak 500 photocopies from work to get read.

Really I had always been writing humor — as a child I wrote limericks and in high school I had these satiric punk rock songs — but before I started submitting my work I regarded it as a weird, vaguely anti-social practice. Fortunately, writing more was the only thing that ever pacified the urge.

Did you grow up reading print humor? If so, which publications did you read? What authors or comedians influenced your style and decision to become a humorist?

Mike: Yes, I loved print humor. My favorite writers were Jean Shepherd, Doug Kenney and Michael O’Donoghue (from National Lampoon), Al Jaffee and Don Martin (from MAD), Randy Cohen’s “Diary of a Flying Man,” Mark Leyner, Woody Allen, Bruce Jay Friedman (buy his collection of short stories!), the cartoon work of Josh Alan and Drew Friedman (Bruce’s sons), Robert Crumb, George Carlin, Brian Regan, Chris Elliott, Gary Larson’s “Far Side,” Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” Woody Allen, Mark Newgarden, Daniel Clowes, Jack Handey, and Davis Sedaris (who I think is a brilliant writer—great with segues, dialogue, endings, all of it).

More recently I’ve been listening to Sharpling and Wurster. I think they’re the best thing out there now.

As for more serious writers (but writers whom I find funny in a dark way), I love Vladimir Nabokov (in particular, Lolita and Pale Fire), Richard Yates, Jerzy Kosinski, Patricia Highsmith, and Paddy Chayefsky.

Rob: I started out with Mad Magazine, as any honest comedian will admit. I joyfully struggled through the snark and arcana (snarkana?) of Spy. Vonnegut helped set the worldview. I absorbed Monty Python and Kids in the Hall, and then began memorizing George Carlin and Dennis Miller (whom I later had the amazing experience of going to write for).

Hudson: As a child I always read the humor in the magazines my parents had lying around. I almost never understood the jokes, but desperately wanted to, and one day I saw that the piece was written by Steve Martin (Steve Martin! I knew him!). I felt that if a goof like Martin could get stuff into a classy outfit like the New Yorker, anyone could. Little did I know you basically had to be Steve Martin to be in the New Yorker. Later I got his collection Pure Drivel, which surely had irreversible effects on my young mind.

Older, I found Jack Handey’s work (which I think is really the funniest stuff on page) and some of the authors, like Vonnegut and George Saunders, who proved humor wasn’t inherently frivolous: in a just universe the works of Louis C.K. would sit next to Albert Camus on the shelf. Those are who legitimized comedy for a bookish teen, anyway. A childhood diet heavy on weirdness, from Pee-Wee through U.C.B., meant I probably never had a choice.

How does writing humor for print lend itself to writing for television/journalistic writing/stand up comedy? How did you make the transition from one medium to the other(s)?

Mike: It’s not necessarily an easy transition. It reminds me of an interview I once read with Wynton Marsalis. He was talking about how when he switches from playing jazz to playing classicial, it takes him a couple of months to properly adjust. He’s playing the same instrument, but he has to take that necessary time to make that switch. As for writing humor, I don’t think that writers for print can easily make that transition to TV or journalism or stand-up. And vice-versa. All mediums require practice and a devotion of time and effort. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but a lot of books written by stand-ups are not very good.

Rob: The biggest challenge is going from “funny to the eyes” to “funny to the ears” (and don’t get me started on “funny to the nose.”) Dennis Miller, my first boss, has a more verbose and “written” style, so that made for an easier early transition. But I had to almost unlearn all that to write for Jon Stewart’s more conversational voice. I spent weeks at his notorious “reeducation camps.” Lately, I’ve found it interesting trying to master Twitter humor (@ApocalypseHow), a hybrid genre where the words are read but there’s an expectation of casual voice, and of course that character limit.

Scott: My experience promoting “Our Bodies, Our Junk” has just reinforced my understanding that people consume print humor very differently from TV comedy or standup. Prose is really designed to be experienced alone. When you read it out loud to an audience, unless you’re a hell of a performer (which I’m not), it can be a frustrating experience for everyone. In a live comedy setting, people want stand-up comedy rhythms. We could read a piece from the book and get just a polite smattering of laughs, then take the same piece and break it down in a way that’s more conversational or presentational — and less prose-y — and get a much better reception.

There are plenty of crutches you can rely on when writing for TV or putting together a standup routine that aren’t available to a print writer. TV writers know their work can and will be punched up by other funny writers before it’s performed. Plus they can just get lazy and write stuff that the actor or host can sell, but that sucks on the page. Back when I wrote for The Daily Show, when we were getting frustrated trying to write a joke we’d say we might as well just write the stage direction “Jon gives knowing look.” Sometimes a little mugging from Jon was likely to get a bigger reaction than anything we could waste time thinking up.

In which publications has your work appeared?

Mike: Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker, Time, Time Out New York, McSweeney’s, Radar, MAD, New York Observer, Premiere, Believer, Vice, Maxim, Women’s Health, and Salon.

Rob: NY Times, LA Times, the Forward, Maxim, Esquire, and McSweeney’s.

Scott: Little bits and pieces in New York Magazine and Radar. More substantial stuff in Vanity Fair Online, Radar Online, Maxim and McSweeney’s.

Hudson: I’ve been on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Morning News, The Bygone Bureau and on The Barnes & Noble Review.

What are your goals as a humorist? Do you ultimately want to write for television, continue in print, stick with humor, or veer more literary?

Hudson: It would be really interesting to write for filmed material, because I think we’re in a bit of a comedy renaissance where networks are willing to take chances on low-cost high-concept humor, but right now I’m very happy to stay in print. On the web there is a community that takes high-quality writing seriously and doesn’t feel a need to distinguish between high and low art as long as it’s done well.
The next step would be to write back-page type material for magazines or get featured as a regular columnist online. And on some days, usually when it’s feverishly hot or I’ve had too many beers, I imagine what it would be like to write for The Onion, The Daily Show or The New Yorker. I’ve found this impulse to be reliably, but not entirely, cured by sleep.

SNL writer Simon Rich on becoming a humorist, from his piece “Scared Straight” – originally published on Barnes and Noble’s Grin & Tonic:

Humorists

— So you want to be a humorist, huh?
— That’s my goal! Maybe someday I can even write for your magazine.
— My magazine is folding next week. The entire industry is in ashes.
— Oh. What about newspapers?
— I assume you’re joking.
— Well, then… what’s left? There’s got to be some place where written humor is still valued.
–There are a few digital outlets, if you’re really desperate.
— I’ll take it!

For more information about each author, visit the websites below:

Mike Sacks: mikesacks.com, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk, And Here’s The Kicker, Twitter

Scott Jacobson: scottmjacobson.com, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk, Twitter

Rob Kutner: robkutner.com, apocalypsehowthebook.com, Twitter

Hudson Hongo: hudsonhongo.com, Twitter

Is Rebecca O’Neal a Chicago-based freelance writer? Because her mom is kind of worried.

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