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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