Month: August 2014

The Real List of Adrian Messenger (if he had a sense of humor)

Here are a few–well, fifty–of my favorite writers who traffic in the craft of humor, in alphabetical order by first name: Alan Bennett, Andrew Bergman, Andy Borowitz, Art Buchwald, Billy Wilder, Bruce Jay Friedman, Calvin Trillin, Carl Hiaasen, Charles Portis, Craig Wright, Dave Barry, David Ives, David Sedaris, Dorothy Parker, Douglas Adams, Dr. Seuss, Elaine May, Elmore Leonard, Flannery O’Connor, George Carlin, H.L. Mencken, Ian Frazier, James Thurber, Jean Shepherd, Ken Ludwig, Kurt Vonnegut, Lewis Caroll, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, Mark Twain, Mel Brooks, Michael Frayn, Moliere, Molly Ivins, Neil Simon, Nora Ephron, O. Henry, Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, Roy Blount Jr., S.J. Perelman, Stanley Elkin, Stephen Leacock, Steve Martin, T.C. Boyle, Theresa Rebeck, Walt Kelly, William Shakespeare, and Woody Allen.

What’s your list of humor writers look like?



Naming Your Darlings

When writing humor, don’t be afraid to give your characters funny names. British authors tend to do this exceptionally well. In the below first example, Wodehouse’s use of Gussie Fink-Nottle is a character in his Jeeves & Wooster stories.

As for Gussie Fink-Nottle, many an experienced undertaker would have been deceived by his appearance and started embalming on sight. (P.G. Wodehouse)

Dickens was a master at assigning his characters memorable and often humorous names: Uriah Heep, Henrietta Boffin, Anne Chickenstalker, Canon Crisparkle, Volumnia Dedlock, Luke Honeythunder, Mortimer Lightwood, Charity Pecksniff, Wackford Squeers, and Prince Turveydrop, to name but a few.

Back to P.G. Wodehouse, who was no slouch when it came to naming characters: Percy Frobisher Pilbeam, Pongo Twistleton, Admiral George J. “Fruity” Biffen, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, The Bishop of Godalming, Lady Hermione Wedge, Richard P. “Bingo” Little, Gwladys Pendlebury, Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright, and Comrade Butt.

It’s not just British writers who assign their characters funny names. Here are a few from Damon Runyon: Apple Annie, Madame La Gimp, Harry the Horse, Sam the Gonoph. Humorous character names from Charles Portis include Ray Midge, Norwood Pratt, Professor Cezar Golescu, and of course Rooster Cogburn. And a few from Flannery O’Connor, such as Madame Zoleeda, Mr. Shiftlet, Mrs. Shortley, Lucynell Crater, Mr. Head, and Mrs. Hopewell.

What are your favorite funny character names (real or imaginary)?

Cartoon #11

My friend and fellow cartoonist David Boxerman and I created the weekly cartoon panel “The New Epicureans.” I did all the drawing and we shared the gag writing. David had the much harder task of marketing our cartoons. Here’s the first cartoon in the series, even before any of them were published. It was one of the cartoons we used to sell the panel to editors. When the San Jose Mercury News picked up the panel, where it eventually ran for five years, the editor we worked with thought I needed to give the characters “nose jobs” because their audience was more sophisticated. About three years into the panel, we ran a caption contest. The newspaper received more than 500 entries, as I recall. After viewing the caption entries, the editor told us he was wrong about his readership and we could go back to using the big nose look. We didn’t. The below example was one of the few in the series to use the big nose style. I’ll share more cartoons from The New Epicureans in future blog posts.


Kill the Parody

A parody can also be an illustration. The wonderful Italian animated film Allegro Non Troppo is a parody of Disney’s Fantasia. Chuck Jones took on Richard Wagner’s operas with his iconic Merrie Melodies cartoon short “What’s Opera, Doc?” (aka “Kill the Wabbit”).

Here are three cartoons from a parody I did of those obnoxious “101 Uses” books. In this case, the cartoons were part of a collection I called “101 Uses for a Used Condom.”















I’m Just Paranoid about Parody

And now on to what I consider to be a near-flawless parody. It’s by Ian Frazier, and it appeared in the The New Yorker Magazine on 26 February 1990. Context: The piece is from the plaintiff’s opening statement in a product liability case brought by Wile E. Coyote against Acme Corporation:

We come now to the Acme Spring-Powered Shoes. The remains of a pair of these purchased by Mr. Coyote on June 23rd are Plaintiff’s Exhibit D. …

To increase the shoes’ thrusting power still further, Mr. Coyote affixed them by their bottoms to the side of a large boulder. Adjacent to the boulder was a path which Mr. Coyote’s prey was known to frequent. Mr. Coyote put his hind feet in the wood-and-metal sandals QT_IanFrazierand crouched in readiness, his right forepaw holding firmly to the lanyard release. Within a short time, Mr. Coyote’s prey did indeed appear on the path coming toward him. Unsuspecting, the prey stopped near Mr. Coyote, well within range of the springs at full extension. Mr. Coyote gauged the distance with care and proceeded to pull the lanyard release. At this point, Defendant’s product should have thrust Mr. Coyote forward and away from the boulder. Instead, for reasons yet unknown, the Acme Spring-Powered Shoes thrust the boulder away from Mr. Coyote. As the intended prey looked on unharmed, Mr. Coyote hung suspended in the air. Then the twin springs recoiled, bringing Mr. Coyote to a violent feet-first collision with the boulder, the full weight of his head and forequarters falling upon his lower extremities. The force of this impact then caused the springs to rebound, where upon Mr. Coyote was thrust skyward. A second recoil and collision followed. The boulder, meanwhile, which was roughly ovoid in shape, had begun to bounce down a hillside, the coiling and recoiling of the springs adding to its velocity. At each bounce, Mr. Coyote came into contact with the boulder, or the boulder came into contact with Mr. Coyote, or both came into contact with the ground. As the grade was a long one, this process continued for some time. The sequence of collisions resulted in systemic physical damage to Mr. Coyote, viz., flattening of the cranium, sideways displacement of the tongue, reduction of length of legs and upper body, and compression of vertebrae from base of tail to head. Repetition of blows along a vertical axis produced a series of regular horizontal folds in Mr. Coyote’s body tissues, a rare and painful condition which caused Mr. Coyote to expand upward and contract downward alternately as he walked, and to emit an off-key, accordion-like wheezing with every step. The distracting and embarrassing nature of this symptom has been a major impediment to Mr. Coyote’s pursuit of a normal social life.

Let’s face it, no creature, real or imagined, on the face of this planet ever had a better product liability case to pursue than Wile E. Coyote. The original reference is from any number of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons (created by the legendary animator Chuck Jones). The excerpt is from Frazier’s parody of a plaintiff’s opening statement. I think it is over-the-top hilarious. The entire piece is available in Ian Frazier’s book, Coyote v. Acme, originally published in June 1996.

More recently, Frazier published his first novel, “The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days.”  Marketing copy for the book describes the cursing mommy character as existing somewhere between Phyllis Diller and Sylvia Plath.




I’ll See Your Parody and Raise You

Another parody from the deck of humor I’d like to share. It’s from “The Champ,” a short story by T. C. Boyle. Context: Angelo D. has reigned as the champion food eater for thirty-seven years. But he may have met his match in Kid Gullet. This parody combines sports and home life. The excerpt comes toward the end of the short story.

It was the Champ’s round all the way: sweet potato pie with butterscotch syrup and pralines. For the first time the Kid let up—toward the end of the round he dropped his fork and took a mandatory eight count. But he came back strong in the thirteenth with a savage combination of Texas wieners and sauce diable. The Champ staggered, went down once, twice, flung himself at the water pitcher while the Kid gorged like a machine, wiener after wiener, blithely lapping the hot sauce from his fingers and knuckles with an epicurean relish. Then QT_BoyleShortStoriesAngelo’s head fell to the table, his huge whiskered jowl mired in a pool of béchamel and butter. The fans sprang to their feet, feinting left and right, snapping their jaws and yabbering for the kill. The Champ’s eyes fluttered open, the ref counted over him.

It was then that it happened. His vision blurring, Angelo gazed out into the crowd and focused suddenly on the stooped and wizened figure of an old woman in a black bonnet.

Angelo lifted his head. “Ma?” he said. “Eat, Angelo, eat!” she called, her voice a whisper in the apocalyptic thunder of the crowd. “Clean your plate!

One more excerpt from a short story by T. C. Boyle. This one is titled “Top of the Food Chain” and I consider it a smart blend of parody and satire. Context: An executive from a chemical company testifies before the United States Senate about the unforeseen effects of spraying DDT in Borneo.

You’re right there, Senator, yes—that’s exactly what happened.

You see, the cats had a field day with these feeble geckos—you can imagine, if any of you have ever owned a cat, the kind of joy these animals must have experienced to see their nemesis, this ultra-quick lizard, and it’s just barely creeping across the floor like a bug.  Well, to make a long story short, the cats ate up every dead and dying gecko in the country, from snout to tail, and then the cats began to die … which to my mind would have been nor great loss if it wasn’t for the rats. Suddenly there were rats everywhere—you couldn’t drive down the street without running over half-a-dozen of them at a time. They fouled the grain supplies, fell in the wells and died, bit infants as they slept in their cradles. But that wasn’t the worst, not by a long shot. No, things really went down the tube after that. Within the month we were getting scattered reports of bubonic plague, and of course we tracked them all down and made sure the people got a round of treatment with antibiotics, but still we lost a few and the rats kept coming….

That’s Parody for the Course

In this post, I’d like to analyze the market implications of an emerging global economy, and how to invest your money wisely in these uncertain times using only a Ouija board. But that was too boring. Instead, I’m going to talk about parody and give a couple of examples.

Parody is a humorous, satirical, or burlesque imitation of a person, event, or serious work of literature designed to ridicule in nonsensical fashion or to criticize by clever duplication. The term is also used for a comic imitation of a serious poem, similar to a cartoon caricature of a person’s face. 

Here’s another way of looking at it. “Parody” is from the Greek paroidia, meaning “burlesque poem or song.” At least that’s according to eNotes Guide to Literary Terms.

“If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists,” by Woody Allen, is one of my favorite parodies. Context: Vincent van Gogh corresponded with his brother, Theo. That correspondence was eventually published and became known as the “Dear Theo” letters. Woody Allen wrote a parody of those letters based on a classic what-if setup. What “If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists?”

One brief passage:

Dear Theo,

Once again I am in need of funds. I know what a burden I must be to you, but who can I turn to? I need money for materials! I am working almost exclusively with dental floss now, improvising as I go along, and the results are exciting. God! I have not even a penny left for Novocaine! Today I pulled a tooth and had to anesthetize the patient by reading him some Dreiser. Help.


And later:

Dear Theo,

Gauguin and I had another fight and he has left for Tahiti! He was in the midst of an extraction when I disturbed him. He had his knee on QT_WithoutFeathersMr. Nat Feldman’s chest with the pliers around the man’s upper right molar. There was the usual struggle and I had the misfortune to enter and ask Gauguin if he had seen my felt hat. Distracted, Gauguin lost his grip on the tooth and Feldman took advantage of the lapse to bolt from the chair and race out of the office. Gauguin flew into a frenzy! He held my head under the X-ray machine for ten straight minutes and for several hours after I could not blink my eyes in unison. Now I am lonely.


There are many parodies available, from the wild and wacky Bored of the Rings by Harvard Lampoon to the more subtle yet still hilarious Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Another parody by another Gibbons is The Baloney Code. Written by my friend David Gibbons, a very funny writer, the book was published under the name of Davis Sweet. More recently, Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies became a best-seller.  More parodies in my next blog post.