Month: February 2016

PEN International Talk – 12

Ideas are everywhere. They’re free. And they’re often funny.

The task of a humorist is to make you see and laugh. But the truth is: there is no bibbidi-bobbidi-boo to writing humor, no secret handshake, decoder ring or chemical formula that works every time.

I was walking in downtown Portland, Oregon, on my way to meet a friend for lunch. Two men approached me from the other direction. It’s as if I had called central casting and asked them to send me two twenty-something males, very Portlandish, Mutt and Jeff-types (but not too Mutty or too Jeffy), both should be wearing ragged jeans and backpacks, leather vests and no shirts.  Chest hair optional. Because it’s Portland, both must have several piercings and tats, and they should be heavy smokers. As we passed each other, I overheard the short one, dramatically waving his cigarette in the air for emphasis, tell his tall friend: “That’s when I had my run-in with the Amish.”

I consider myself fortunate to be a writer. Unlike a mason, who must rely on bricks, or a carpenter, who can’t work without lumber, or even a chef who needs a storeroom full of meats, starches, and greens, I never run out of the raw material I need to tell stories. Someday I might even get lucky and have my own run-in with the Amish.

I’d like to close with my favorite quote about the power of creativity. It’s from a child’s letter to Dr. Seuss. In the letter, the child simply wrote: “Dr. Seuss, you have an imagination with a long tail.”

May your imagination be long, wide, and deep. Thank you and good night.

PEN International Talk – 11

Final Observation: Where do humorists get their ideas?


I wrote “The Job Fairy” after the company I worked for had suffered six layoffs in 13 months. The first one or two layoffs targeted low-performing employees or high-maintenance ones. However, beyond that it was difficult to figure out why the company kept certain employees and let others go. I concluded there must be a job fairy, a creature similar to a tooth fairy that made such decisions for senior management in the wee hours of the night. It made as much sense as their other management decisions.

I wrote “O. Henry’s Shoe” in response to a request for plays that either begin or end with a shoe.  “Oedipus and Hamlet Walk into a Bar” was the title I used for a workshop I gave on humor. I liked the title and wanted to reuse it. Once I realized both tragic male figures had mommy issues, I had my theme for a play about two rednecks, Ed and Ham, sipping on bottles of long-necks in a bar, while arguing about the ethics of dating older women.

I was interviewing a candidate for a job. When I walked into the conference room, along with two much younger co-workers, the job applicant looked at me and said, “Boy, am I glad to see you.” I asked why? He said, “You’re as old as I am.” That was the thread that led me to write “Half Alligator, Half Man,” which is about how one man responds to ageism in the workplace.

I was at a writers’ retreat on the Oregon coast with four other writers. At night, one of the playwrights read aloud to the group from Game Change, the book about the 2008 presidential campaign. She read the part where John McCain’s senior advisor asked a woefully unprepared Sarah Palin if she was worried about the campaign ahead. She told him she wasn’t worried because it was God’s will. I thought, hmm. Why not get rid of the middle man. The next day I started writing my short play “The Running Mate,” which is about what happens when a major political party’s candidate for the presidency picks the Supreme Being for the #2 spot on their ticket.

Vincent Van Gogh wrote letters to his brother, Theo. The letters were collected and edited and published by author Irving Stone, under the title of “Dear Theo.” Woody Allen used those letters and that book as an idea for his very funny parody “If the Impressionists had been Dentists.”

New Yorker writer Ian Frazier, author of several books, including Great Plains, On the Rez, and Travels in Siberia, wrote one of my all-time favorite parodies. It’s titled “Coyote v. Acme,” and it is the opening statement in a product liability lawsuit brought by Wile E. Coyote against Acme Corporation. No creature, real or imagined, in history ever had a stronger product liability case to pursue than the much aggrieved Mr. Coyote. Where did Frazier get his idea for this hilarious parody? By watching Saturday morning cartoons.

Here’s an excerpt from The Philadelphia, a play by David Ives, followed by what Ives said about its inspiration. There are two main characters, Mark and Al, along with a Waitress, and the action takes place in a New York City diner:

MARK: What is it? What’s happening to me?

AL: Don’t panic. You’re in a Philadelphia.

MARK: I’m in a what?

AL: You’re in a Philadelphia. That’s all.

MARK: But I’m in—

AL: Yes, physically you’re in New York. But metaphysically you’re in a Philadelphia.

MARK: I’ve never heard of this!

AL: You see, inside of what we know as reality there are these pockets, these black holes called Philadelphias. If you fall into one, you run up against exactly the kinda shit that’s been happening to you all day.

MARK: Why?

AL: Because in a Philadelphia, no matter what you ask for, you can’t get it. You ask for something, they’re not gonna have it. You want to do something, it ain’t gonna get done. You want to go somewhere, you can’t get there from here.

MARK: Good God. So this is very serious.

AL: Just remember, Marcus. This is a condition named for the town that invented the cheese steak. Something that nobody in his right mind would willingly ask for.

And here’s what David Ives said about his play:

“The Philadelphia was my affectionate revenge on the City of Brotherly Love after I’d spent many miserable months there… such as the morning when I tried to get a cheese omelette for breakfast:

Ives: I’ll have a cheese omelette, please.

Waitress: Sure, what kinda cheese you want?

Ives: What kind do you have?

Waitress: Any kinda cheese. You name it.

Ives: Okay. I’ll have Swiss.

Waitress: Sorry. We don’t have any Swiss.

Ives: Oh. Cheddar, then.

Waitress: No cheddar.

Ives: Monterey Jack?

Waitress: Just ran out.

Ives: Jarlsberg …?

Waitress: What’s that?”

PEN International Talk – 10

  1. Humorists enjoy making connections that might escape the notice of other people

Here’s Bill Bryson commenting on a common dining utensil in his Notes from a Small Island:

“… I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?”

The first sentence tips us off. But it’s the setup that works here, as well as the final description of “a pair of knitting needles” as a callback to chopsticks.

In a New Yorker cartoon, the setting is a sparse room where a bearded adult male in a hat stands at a table and makes furniture. A young boy watches. Chairs hang from a nearby wall. In the caption, the furniture maker says to the young boy: “No, lad, we aren’t movers. We’re just Shakers.”

In another New Yorker cartoon, a nervous job seeker sits across the desk from a hiring manager. It’s clear from the drawing the manager had just made a phone call. As he sets the phone down, he tells the job seeker in the caption: “Your references asked me to hold you here until the police arrive.”

Cartoonists, especially, like to twist clichés. For instance, in a drawing by Brian Savage, a man crawls in the desert under a hot sun. His clothes are in tatters, his face and body sunburned. He looks up and sees four people sitting at a table starring at him. They’re all dressed for hot weather and wear wide, shade-providing hats. One person smokes a pipe, another wears sunglasses. In the caption, the crawling man says, “Thank God. A panel of experts.” In a cartoon by B. Kliban, the setting is a highway flanked by smokestacks and ugly buildings. We see the back of a man in a tuxedo running down the highway. The caption? “Houdini escaping from New Jersey.”

Kliban made one of my favorite statements about cartoonists. He said,

“But the technologists have got their toys and they’re going to play with them.  Like, if cartoonists had all that money we sure as hell would use it.  There would be weird cartoon sculptures five hundred feet high, and free rubber chickens, regardless of a person’s religious belief.”

Then there’s this gem of association from comedian Warren Hutcherson:

In elementary school, in case of fire you have to line up quietly in a single file line from smallest to tallest. What is the logic? Do tall people burn slower?

And, finally, this food-related comment from David Sedaris:

“What’s the trick to remembering that a sandwich is masculine? What qualities does it share with anyone in possession of a penis? I tell myself that a sandwich is masculine because if left alone for a week or two, it will eventually grow a beard.”

This is what humorists do best: they make wild yet seemingly logical connections. Who knew a sandwich had gender? David Sedaris, that’s who.

PEN International Talk – 9

  1. Humorists have fun with language

Whether naming characters or naming their works, humorists delight in playing with words. From P. G. Wodehouse:

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

Charles Dickens was a master at naming characters: Anne Chickenstalker, Luke Honeythunder, Charity Pecksniff, Wackford Squeers, and Prince Turveydrop, to cite a small sample.

Humor writers often pick funny titles for their works, to set the proper tone. Three examples: If You Can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?!; My Ten Years in a Quandary and How They Grew; No Sex Please, We’re British.

David Ives created his own language in his whimsical play “The Universal Language,” in which a student shows up at the School of Unamunda to learn the next universal language, which, of course is named Unamunda (e.g., in the made-up language of Unamunda, “Velcro” means “Welcome”; “Harvardyu” means “How are you?”; the word for “English” is “Johncleese”; “How do you say” becomes “Howardjohnson” and so on).

I had fun with my chapter titles in Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak, including titles such as “How are Things in Doctor Mora?” and “Yes, We Have No Chihuahuas.” I named a chapter about the art scene in San Miguel, ahem, “Frida’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Paint.” So far my favorite chapter title in the sequel is a chapter about the dogs of San Miguel. I titled it “A Dingo Ate My Baby Ruth.”

I recall a magazine cartoon from many years ago. A standing hot dog with arms, legs, and a face is stranded on a patch of dirt with one coconut tree in the middle of an ocean. A bottle has just washed ashore with a message inside. In the caption, the hot dog reads the message, which says “Congratulations. You may already be a weiner.”

It is estimated that Shakespeare used over 3,000 puns in his plays.

PEN International Talk – 8

  1. Humorists know the best humor is character-driven

Bertie Wooster is pretending that he and Jeeves are chums (for the Communists at his table) – NOT master and servant. Bertie tries to get the kettle boiled for tea.

Bertie: “I don’t know what you’ve been doing to the cooker, Comrade Jeeves, but I don’t seem to be able to get the gas lit.”

Jeeves gets up and whispers to Bertie as he slinks by: “It’s electric, Sir.”

Plus, the funniest characters don’t realize they’re being funny. They are dead serious about what they do or say. Roy Blount Jr., again, talking about Charles Portis:

“His fiction is the funniest I know, but the last thing in the world his characters have in mind is putting themselves across as comical. They are taking on the world in earnest. … Lesser comic writers drag their characters onstage and shout, ‘Get a load of this guy!’ Portis’s characters just show up.”

PEN International Talk – 7

  1. Humorists know that a lot of humor comes out of pain

Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Likewise, Erma Bombeck offered this explanation: “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” Jerry Lewis, in talking about his movies, said “Comedy is a man in trouble.”

One of my favorite examples of the connection between pain and humor is from playwright Nicky Silver:

“Like most couples [referring to his parents] they certainly weren’t always happy, but somehow I saw the violence of their pain and their humor simultaneously. There is a moment in Raised in Captivity [one of his plays] that really exemplifies this. The play opens at Bernadette’s mother’s funeral, and she is distraught to the point of near-hysteria. At one point she wails ‘I never said goodbye! I never told her I loved her!’ Her husband tries to calm her. “Yes you did, I heard you.” “But I never meant it!!” Every night the audience would howl at this line. But to me it’s really slice-of-life stuff. I mean the character is simply being honest. Her pain is so oversized that it erupts in this grand explosion of sadness and rage all mixed up together. It feels theatrical to some people. It feels like home movies to me.”

Likewise Silver’s play “The Lyons,” which on Broadway starred Linda Lavin as Rita, whose husband, Ben, of many years is in a hospital bed dying. She sits nearby thumbing through interior design magazines looking for ideas for, as she puts it, “a new beginning.” Ben tells her he’s dying. She replies:

“Yes, I know. But try to be positive. My mother used to say, ‘Dying’s not so bad when you consider the alternative. Was that it? Was that what she said? Maybe it was the other way around.”

That’s Nicky Silver. I recall a Jules Feiffer cartoon set in a hospital. In the first panel a woman stands in a hallway outside of a hospital room; we can see a man is hooked up to machines inside the room. In subsequent panels, the woman paces, smokes, frets. She pleads with God. She tells God she knows she has not been a good person. But she’s willing to change her life and be a better person if he, God, will let her husband live. She promises to be good. She smokes, pauses, thinks. Finally, she looks at the ceiling and says: “If you have to take someone, take the doctor.”

PEN International Talk – 6

  1. Humorists like details

Specificity can be hilarious. Here’s a passage from Nora Ephron’s book “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman”:

Oh, the necks. There are chicken necks. There are turkey gobbler necks. There are elephant necks. There are necks with wattles and necks with creases that are on the verge of becoming wattles. There are scrawny necks and fat necks, loose necks, crepey necks, banded necks, wrinkled necks, stringy necks, saggy necks, flabby necks, mottled necks. There are necks that are an amazing combination of all of the above. According to my dermatologist, the neck starts to go at forty-three, and that’s that. You can put makeup on your face and concealer under your eyes and dye on your hair, you can shoot collagen and Botox and Restylane into your wrinkles and creases, but short of surgery, there’s not a damn thing you can do about a neck. The neck is a dead giveaway. Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.

I love this description by Michael Chabon in his novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, when introducing his main character, detective Meyer Landsman.

He has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket. It’s like there’s a film score playing behind him, heavy on the castanets.

Charles Portis is best known as the author of True Grit, which, I understand, he worked on while living in San Miguel. As much as I respect True Grit, the next passage is from my favorite Portis book, which is titled The Dog of the South. I bought a copy of this comic masterpiece after reading a back cover blurb by humorist Roy Blount, Jr. According to Blount: “Nobody should ever die without first reading this book.” I agree. The Dog of the South is a road story that covers Arkansas, Texas, Mexico (including San Miguel), and Central America, filled with delicious writing, quirky characters, and a broken down bus load of humor.

The narrator is Southerner Ray Midge, a slacker who studies military history, chasing after his wife, Norma, who had run off with her first husband, Guy Dupree. They took Ray’s Ford Torino and his credit card. Ray follows their journey south through the credit card receipts they leave behind. This is how Midge describes spending a night in Laredo:

“In Laredo I got a six-dollar motel room that had a lot of posted rules on the door and one rubber pillow on the bed and an oil-burning heater in the wall that had left many a salesman groggy. It was the kind of place I knew well. I always try to get a room in a cheap motel with no restaurant that is near a better motel where I can eat and drink. Norma never liked this practice. She was afraid we would be caught out in the better place and humiliated before some socialites we might have just met. The socialites would spot our room key, with a chunk of wood dangling from it like a carrot, or catch us in some gaffe, and stop talking to us. This Laredo room also had a tin shower stall and one paper bath mat.”

I think we can agree the possibility of bumping into socialites who are staying at a nearby motel in Laredo is priceless.

The next description I’d like to share is from the novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. The author describes the farm where Flora (“Robert Poste’s child”) goes to live after her parents die:

The farm-house was a long, low building, two-storied in parts. Other parts of it were three-storied. Edward the Sixth had originally owned it in the form of a shed in which he housed his swineherds, but he had grown tired of it, and had it rebuilt in Sussex clay. Then he pulled it down. Elizabeth had rebuilt it, with a good many chimneys in one way and another. The Charleses had let it alone; but William and Mary had pulled it down again, and George the First had rebuilt it. George the Second, however, burned it down. George the Third added another wing. George the Fourth pulled it down again.

PEN International Talk on Humor – 5

  1. Humorists use a variety of comic tools: exaggeration, understatement, misunderstanding, surprise, misdirection, foils, rule of three, repetition, callbacks, and so on

An example of exaggeration from H. L Mencken:

“Whoever it was who translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France.”

As a reporter working the city beat, James Thurber was criticized by the paper’s editor for being too wordy. In response, Thurber filed this understated yet, according to Thurber, complete story about a homicide:

“Dead. That’s what the man was when they found him.”

Thurber was already a New Yorker writer when the magazine started publishing his cartoons, drawings that Dorothy Parker said had the “semblance of unbaked cookies”.  One of the more polished New Yorker illustrators complained to editor Harold Ross saying, “How come you’re not using my cartoons but you’re publishing work by that fifth-rate cartoonist Thurber?” The editor rose to Thurber’s defense and said Thurber’s not fifth-rate, he’s third-rate.

An example from P.G. Wodehouse that I find uses both exaggeration and understatement:

“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”

From Henny Youngman to Stephen Wright, stand-up comics are masters of misdirection. Here are two misdirection examples by two other stand-up comics. First, Emo Phillips:

“I picked up a hitchhiker. You gotta when you hit them.”

And this example from Demitri Martin:

“I was asked to name all the presidents. I thought they already had names.”

I think it was also Demitri Martin who said, “The worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of Charades.”

One of my favorite examples of character foils is the Bertie Wooster-Jeeves relationship created by P.G. Wodehouse.

Bertie: Tell me, Jeeves, were you always like this, or did it come on suddenly?

Jeeves: Sir?

Bertie: The brain, the gray matter. Were you an outstandingly brilliant child?

Jeeves: My mother thought me intelligent, sir.

Bertie: Well, can’t go by that. My mother thought me intelligent.

Another example by P.G. Wodehouse, one that uses repetition, from My Man Jeeves:

“What ho!” I said.

“What ho!” said Motty.

“What ho! What ho!”

“What ho! What ho! What ho!”

After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

And an example that employs surprise and saves the best for last. It’s from the short story “The Champ” by T. C. Boyle. In the story, Angelo D. has reigned as the champion food eater for thirty-seven years. But he may have met his match in Kid Gullet. The excerpt comes toward the end of the 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 Angelo’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!”

PEN International Talk on Humor – 4

At this point in my talk, I started to get dry mouth and began to occasionally whistle when I pronounced the letter “s”. I couldn’t whistle to save my life as a kid, even though I tried. Now, as a much older man, apparently I can whistle while I work. In this next section, I discussed what it means to be a humorist.

E.B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” I am not going to analyze humor this evening — or cut up a frog. But I would like to share with you seven personal observations about writing humor.

  1. Humorists save their best sentence or words for last—the Dave Barry rule

In an interview with Francine Prose for the By the Book section of the New York Times, she cited what she considered a funny passage from a favorite book by a different author.

“After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections that have caused a 72-year-old man to have the face of a 9-year-old Filipino girl.”  

Here’s a short passage from the dark comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh. The play opens with a sequence about a dead cat; someone has killed Padraic’s cat named Wee Thomas. Padraic is an Irish Liberation Army enforcer. He loves that cat more than life itself, and someone is going to pay. Donny is Padraic’s father and Davey is a neighbor.

DONNY. Why else would I be upset? I don’t get upset over cats!

DAVEY. Not your Padraic?!

DONNY. Aye, my Padraic.

DAVEY. Oh Jesus Christ. Donny! Not your Padraic in the INLA?!

DONNY. Do I have another fecking Padraic?

DAVEY. Wee Thomas is his?

DONNY. And was his since he was five years old. His only friend for fifteen year. Brought him out to me when he started moving about the country bombing places and couldn’t look after him as decent as he thought needed. His only friend in the world, now.

DAVEY. Was he fond of him?

DONNY. Of course he was fond of him.

DAVEY. Oh he’ll be mad.

DONNY. He will be mad.

DAVEY. As if he wasn’t’ mad enough already. Padraic’s mad enough for seven people. Don’t they call him “Mad Padraic”?

DONNY. They do.

DAVEY. Isn’t it him the IRA wouldn’t let in because he was too mad?

DONNY. It was. And he never forgave them for it.

The topper in this exchange is Donny’s final words. In the exchange, the playwright saved the best for last.

From Lunatics, a wild romp of a road trip novel, by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel:

“There are precious few activities that grown men should do while naked. Showering. Swimming when no one else is around. Sex, whether someone else is around or not. And anything that takes place in front of blind people. Beyond that, all unclothed activities should be filed under the heading of “Dear Lord, If He Bends Over One More Time I’m Going To Hang Myself.”