Month: January 2016

PEN International Talk on Humor – 3

I’m posting another piece from my PEN talk about writing humor. Why two posts on the same day? The easy answer is because it’s Sunday and there’s no football on TV. But I have more than ten of these excerpts to share and, consequently, feel a need to post them quickly; I don’t want my content to get backed up on the interstate. Without further delay, here’s the bio portion of my talk…

My background

Post-college my resume read like a good-grief of odd jobs: military journalist, medical librarian, college instructor, book packer, mill worker, business owner, technical writer, software documentation manager, marketing manager, director of marketing communications.  If I could have thrown in gold prospector and hobo, I would have been Jack London.  Between and during those jobs, I always worked on creative projects, mostly writing and cartooning and, like many creative types, all of it in my spare time.

While at work, in addition to my regular job, I’d be doing what’s known in the computer industry as “background processing,” working out story problems in the garage of my mind and jotting ideas down so I wouldn’t forget.  If I happened to get mugged coming home from work, the unlucky guy would get scraps of paper and Post-it Notes with bits of dialogue, plot points, and partly developed scenes on them. Not exactly stuff you could easily fence.

Back in my drawing days, more than 500 of my cartoons appeared in publications as diverse as The San Jose Mercury News, Writer’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post, and Twilight Zone Magazine. In addition to doing my own cartooning, for a brief period I wrote gags as a freelancer for the popular comic strip “Frank and Earnest.”

After hours, I even tried standup comedy to get over my shyness and really sucked at it—the standup part, not the shyness.  Comedy bits about attending the Hemlock Society’s Christmas Party (“Stay away from the punch”), and pickup lines such as, “What do you say we go up to my place and exchange bilabial fricatives?” did not exactly kill in biker bars.

One evening, after teaching gag-writing to a class of stand-up comics, a member of a successful Portland improv group, told me she couldn’t write or tell jokes. In fact, she confessed to knowing only one joke and she proceeded to tell it to me. “I like my men like I like my ham—cured,” she said.

I thought it sounded more like a cheesy pickup line than a joke, and used it as a jumping off point for my first play. When I was done writing it, I gave the play to Arlene to read. She is always my first and most honest critic.

“This play is about dating,” she said. “What the hell do you know about dating?”

Arlene was right, of course.

I continued writing plays, short plays befitting my height and attention span.  As a part-time writer trying to squeeze in my words before going to work in the morning, late at night, or over the weekend in hourly chunks, I felt as if I never had enough time to tackle anything more substantial. I’m a Boomer. My gratification meter was stuck on Instant.

After a few years of writing stage plays in my spare time, I started writing screenplays. My first film script landed me a literary manager in L.A. and was a hot product for about 15 seconds. An executive at Maverick Films, at the time owned by Guy Ritchie and Madonna, loved my script and took it into studios … all of which passed. My second script was optioned by a production company but no movie was made. At least their small check cleared a big bank. Against all odds and in spite of the definition of insanity, I continue to write screenplays. I came across a quote from graphic novelist and screenwriter Frank Miller that, based on what I can tell, nicely captures the screenwriting experience. He said, “Never be the screenwriter. In Hollywood the screenplay is a fire hydrant with 300 dogs lined up around the block.” And still I plod on, slouching toward obscurity.

My literary heroes include the humorists Mark Twain, Robert Benchley, and James Thurber, among many others.  And, if there are any Canadians here, Stephen Leacock, who, along with Benchley, pretty much invented the humorous essay as a literary form in the early 20th century.

Another favorite humorist of mine is Jean Shepherd. I suspect most people know about him from the movie A Christmas Story, which is based on several of his stories about growing up in northwest Indiana in the 1940s. Shepherd shared his early years in two coming-of-age books: Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: and Other Disasters and In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.  From reading Shepherd’s books, I learned useful storytelling techniques and employed them in my memoir, such as how to ease into and fill out a story, as well as how to drop-in pop culture references.

I could have done a lot worse picking a mentor. Jerry Seinfeld was a huge Jean Shepherd fan, as I later found out, and credited Shepherd with helping to form the famous Seinfeld comic perspective.

I believe if you can laugh or smile, you can make others laugh or smile with your writing. Humor is perspective, after all. It’s how you (and your characters) view the world.

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PEN International Talk on Humor – 2

At this point in my talk, I began to feel comfortable. In fact,  you could say I was on the verge of overcoming my lifelong horrible-terrible-painful shyness. But if you said that you would be wrong. I found myself whistling slightly between words, as if my dentures were slipping, which would have been very odd indeed since I don’t wear dentures and had not been in a boxing ring since college. Nonetheless, I soldiered on and continued with my talk… 

Another excerpt from “Dogs, Cats & Expats.” This passage comes in the middle of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nuns,” a chapter in which I reflect upon my green and salad days growing up Catholic, eventually how I quit going to church and what it means to now live in a very Catholic town, a mere two blocks from a bell-ringing church. I was taught Spanish by Latin American nuns in the lower grades and have the report card to prove it. The card lists 18 grades, including one for Spanish. I earned an “A” in that class. Go figure. The nuns graded us on everything from Arithmetic to Purity of Thought, although I believe they called that last category Deportment. I also took one year of high school Spanish, which means if my car breaks down in the middle of Mexico I can ask for directions to the nearest library. And I spent nine months while serving in the United States Navy on the island of Puerto Rico.  Yet I am still unable to master Spanish, other than deliver clipped greetings, pose simple questions, sometimes understand answers, and tell people my name—all in present tense, like a three-year-old.  

Here’s a short passage from…

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Nuns

… In spite of the occasional knuckle-wrapping, the worst form of punishment I suffered was whenever two nuns would take turns shaking me by my collar while rattling off Spanish to each other at the lethal rate of five-thousand words a minute. In such moments I knew I was a gonner.  I expected the hairy, smoldering claw of Satan to break through the cement floor, snag me around the legs, and pull me to the fire and brimstone fate I so justly deserved. I felt sad for my mother. She’d arrive at 3:30 that afternoon to pick me up and I wouldn’t be there.

The nuns were refined sugar compared to the parish priest, Father Mistretta. A tall, broad-shouldered Italian-American weaned on the streets of Brooklyn, Father Mistretta was, in a word, tough. His powerful voice could make grown men shake. His angry glare could shatter mighty souls into bits of nothingness. His use of language was colorful in the way that a longshoreman’s vocabulary had spunk. I believed Father Mistretta could put the fear of God in God.

High Mass, although rarely performed today, was the opera of my Catholic childhood. It involved costumes, pageantry, and loud singing and seemed to run forever without an intermission. The priest, decked out in his most elegant vestments, would parade around the inside of the church, swinging a brass incense burner as if he were trying to qualify for the hammer toss. With bowed head, assistants followed, carrying lighted candles. Someone played the organ, everybody sang.

In short, a High Mass was and is very theatrical. An important support role was assigned to a deacon, who would follow the priest, step by step, while holding something that looked like an umbrella over the priest’s head. The significance of the umbrella always baffled me since it rarely rained inside our church.

One Sunday high mass my own father played the role of deacon, dressed in a cassock and holding that umbrella thing, as he walked behind Father Mistretta, who chanted, sang, prayed, and swung incense with a vengeance. Unfortunately, my dad was much shorter than the tall priest and the umbrella kept banging into the back of Father Mistretta’s head. You could almost hear the sound effect of each collision. In my mind I was watching a reenactment of a cartoon from the pages of Mad Magazine. THWACK!  KREEEK! KA-THUNK! With each bump, the priest would grimace and look annoyed. At one point, Father Mistretta had had enough, stopped singing, turned and said to my dad loud enough for all to hear: “Watch what you’re doing!” My dad backed off and left a comfortable space between himself and Father Mistretta, making the umbrella more implied than applied.

But it is in the nature of the Catholic priest to forgive, as well as to seek charity. Within months, Father Mistretta asked, once again, for my father’s help. A new movie was showing at a local theater and Father Mistretta was excited to see it. The good father was a good New Yorker and, of course, did not drive, so he asked my good father to take him. I tagged along.

The film, according to what Father Mistretta had heard, was about a street-smart priest living in Brooklyn. A parishioner suggested it could be about Father Mistretta’s own early years, so off we went one evening to the Tower Theater, an art deco movie house on Main Street in nearby Roseville.

The movie opened with great promise. We watched as a man in his early thirties boxed in the ring, getting the better of his opponent. The film cut to the locker room where we watched the same man, now showered and dressed, put on his cleric’s collar. We followed the priest as he walked through his own slice of Brooklyn, clearly well known and respected. People greeted him as he passed by: “How ya doing, Fah-ther?”… “Morning, Fah-ther”… “Smack anybody today, Fah-ther?”

The priest paused on the street in front of his rectory, the church standing tall and holy next to it. After a beat, the priest opened the gate and entered. The camera moved in for a close-up of the sign in front: “Saint John’s Episcopal Church.”

As if sitting on a launched booster rocket, Father Mistretta shot out of his seat and shouted at the big screen, “He’s a damn Episcopalian.”  The disappointed priest stormed out of the theater, banging into knees and apologizing as he headed for the door. My father and I followed closely on his heels.

My PEN International Talk- Part 1

I was recently invited to be the guest speaker at the PEN San Miguel Winter 2016 lecture series. I was asked to talk about writing humor. Instead of reading pages from my published book or my plays, I created a set of lecture notes about humor, including two short excerpts from the sequel to my humorous memoir “Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak.” I will be posting the notes in my blog, beginning with the below post. As background, PEN’s noble mission is to promote literature and defend freedom of expression worldwide. The association has autonomous International PEN centers in over 100 countries, one of which is in San Miguel. PEN is the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization.

I remain humbled and honored by their invitation.

Nearly 200 people attended my talk, a frightening situation for a shy person to face. My wife, Arlene Krasner, introduced me. Here is the first passage from my talk:

Thank you, Arlene. Truth be told, Arlene is much funnier than I am. To find out, buy her food memoir “Kosher Sutra.”

I’d also like to thank Pat, Sharon, Lee, Lucina and others at PEN San Miguel for inviting me to talk this evening about humor, as well as welcome and thank all of you for being here tonight.

Recently the New York Times ran an article about American policemen going to the U.K. to be trained in how to defuse a tense situation with humor and not with guns. In response, someone wrote a letter to the editor. In the letter, this person told how several years ago he had attended a bachelor’s party in England. The party was held at a pub and it got out of hand and turned very noisy. Those celebrating were dressed in brightly colored Hawaiian shirts. At one point, they all went outside, screaming and waving pints of beer and wearing those wild, crazy, loud shirts. The police pulled up in a van marked “Disturbance Unit”. Those celebrating stopped and the street suddenly became quiet. A policeman rolled down his window and shouted to the men: “Hey, Lads. Good thing we’re not the Fashion Police, eh?”

So what can you expect this evening? I’ll start by reading two short excerpts from my sequel to Nobody Knows. The working title for the sequel is “Dogs, Cats & Expats.” After that I’ll talk briefly about my background as a humorist. I’ll close by sharing a few thoughts about writing humor, including representative examples of humor writing, collected snippets from fiction, non-fiction, plays, comedians, and cartoonists—and all by humorists I admire. The keyword for tonight is “light-hearted.”

From the preface to “Dogs, Cats & Expats”:

The Pre-Memoir Memoir

They say you always remember your first time. I have the distinct first memory of floating in my mother’s womb, kicking and waiting to be born. I recall emerging from her body to bright lights, getting slapped, screaming on arrival. I remember my crib had a swirling carnival of circus animals above it. I pooped a lot. I recall the first time I stood upright, teetered for a few steps, and then fell back on my butt. My parents applauded as if I had just flown solo across the Atlantic. My first words were a bunch of gibberish, a cross between “mama” and “caca-sissy-boom-boom.” My first birthday party was most noticeable for the number of adults in the room chain-smoking cigarettes. It was the early 1950s and the Marlboro Man was just as likely a doctor as a cowboy.

Of course, I remember no such events, at least not consciously. In fact, I can’t recall much of my life before the age of seven. I probably ate my fair share of paste and occasionally wet the bed, two accomplishments considered neither preconscious nor book-worthy.

Henry James encouraged writers to be one of those upon whom nothing is lost. Joseph Conrad piled on with his rule claiming the task of a writer is to make readers see. But what about those of us who set out to write a memoir yet are equipped with faulty or incomplete memories, writers with recollection skills that are less Sherlockian and closer to what popped out of Mrs. Malaprop’s mouth?

Watch any Godzilla movie and you’ll probably see someone looking away at the precise moment of debacle, unaware that the great monster of film lore is about to destroy another fine city. I am a kindred spirit to that unaware person, which makes writing a memoir especially challenging for me. I admire writers who can plunge the depths of their life like James Cameron in a submersible and bring up jewels. I splash around in the shallow end of the memory pool and call it a day.

Perhaps that’s because other writers are better armed to wrestle with their past. James Thurber, for example, claimed a near-photographic memory and, even late in life, said he could recall the birthdays of his fellow students from elementary school. I can’t recall what I had for breakfast this morning but I believe it involved whole-wheat toast.

Case in point, what I like to refer to as my “Uncle Teddy” episode.

I was eight and my sister was ten. Whenever we visited relatives in the San Francisco Bay Area, we always stopped by to see Great Aunt Selma, a feisty old woman who drank far too much whiskey, read The Police Gazette with the conviction of reading the Bible, and resided in a quaint fairy tale cottage, along a curved cobble-stoned path, behind a large house in Alameda.

At the time, Selma lived with Teddy, her third husband, a retired Merchant Seaman confined mostly to bed. It seemed all he did was sleep. But to me, Teddy wasn’t just an Old Salt collecting a Seaman’s pension—he was a pirate. And to re-enforce his pirate status, Teddy wore a patch over one eye.

Every visit ended the same. Before we could leave, Aunt Selma would ask us to “Come and see Uncle Teddy.” My parents would remain behind, while my sister and I cautiously followed the old woman, Hansel and Gretel-like, into the bedroom, a dark and smelly place.  Aunt Selma would turn on the brass light by the bed, rouse her husband awake, roughly shaking him by the shoulders, and, using both of her hands, pry open his one good eye. “Look who’s here to see you, Teddy,” she’d tell him. “Look who’s here to see you!” The groggy ex-sailor would mumble something and fall back to sleep.

After a brief pause, my great aunt would pull back the sheets and expose the decaying and bloated fish-white body of her husband. She’d turn to my sister and say, bitterly, as if warning her to stay away from all males, “See what I ended up with?”

Any writer with a better knack for detail and a mind capable of remembering things past would be able to describe the exact perfume Aunt Selma wore, by brand and fragrance, and would flash back to days gone by whenever catching a whiff of the same in streets or stores.  If I were better at my job I would instantly recall the color of the bedroom carpet and could devote an entire chapter to discussing its texture. I could make you, the reader, smell the thick stench that hovered in the closed-up room like a peat bog, see what long-forgotten TV show was flickering on the small black and white set topped with rabbit ears.

The truth is I can’t even tell you which eye Uncle Teddy covered with a patch. To this day, I don’t know for sure, but since Teddy wasn’t a spider I can guess one of two eyes and have a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.