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?”


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