Oedipus and Hamlet Walk into a Bar

IQT_SMAConfImage taught a 90-minute workshop at the wonderful San Miguel Writers’ Conference and Literary Festival in 2013 and had a blast.

The title of the workshop was “Oedipus and Hamlet Walk into a Bar: Punch Up Your Writing with Humor.” More than 40 conference attendees were in my class.

They learned how to incorporate humor into their own writing, whether working on an essay, a novel, a memoir, or a response to an invitation to their ex-spouse’s next wedding (sarcasm can be quite effective).

We looked at a mix of humorous literary genres and styles, including parody, satire, black humor, comedy of manners, screwball, and sentimental. I shared examples from a range of writers, including Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Portis, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, T.C. Boyle, and David Sedaris.

QT_SilentFilm2And we did exercises to develop their use of literary devices such as hyperbole, irony, nonsense, inversion, puns, and wordplay.

I also covered valuable techniques employed by humorists and standup comics alike, including the rule of three, running gags, repetition, choosing funny words, specificity, surprise, and callbacks.

Mark Twain called humor “mankind’s greatest blessing.” In more recent times, Larry Gelbart said: “One doesn’t have a sense of humor. It has you.” To twist Joseph Conrad’s famous line, the workshop’s task, before all, was to make us see … humor.

We covered a lot of territory, not to mention humor, in ninety minutes. In this blog I plan to share some of what we discussed. I hope you’ll stick around.

Hasta Manzana!


It’s the Screens that Got Small


And that’s only because our big TV screen is a mere 42 inches, which is small by today’s home entertainment standards.

But nobody seems to mind.

We call it Guilty Pleasures Movie Night (also affectionately known as Check Your Brain at the Door Night). Once a month friends—anywhere from 10 to 30 of them—gather at our house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to visit and watch a movie together.

QT_oldmoviescreenPeople arrive at 6 pm, which gives us time to mingle, as well as nosh and drink and drain the bladder. By 7 pm, I start the movie. If the movie is one we’ve all seen before, such as “My Cousin Vinny,” we’ll have a brief multiple-choice quiz before we start. Otherwise, I might preface the film with a couple of minutes of trivia about the movie, lifted from the online vaults at IMDB.

My film selection requirements are simple. A chosen film must be at least five-years-old, neither a major award-winner nor too artsy, more of an upper than a downer, and mostly a film designed to entertain a diverse group of people. I must have already watched it at least once, and it’s a movie I want to not only watch again but also share with others.

The film that drew our second biggest attendance was “The Big Chill.” Twenty-five showed up that night and many of those sang along with the songs. I was not allowed to sing.

The biggest surprise hit was “Saint Ralph,” an indie movie from Canada that still ranks as one of my all-time favorite films. Everyone loved it.

Mostly, however, I show comedies and “comedy” in our house embraces many forms, from the wry (Cold Comfort Farm) to the witty (A New Leaf); the silly (Undercover Blues) to the dark (The Ref); the classic (Harold and Maude) to the contemporary (Kinky Boots)—and just about all points and films in-between. Our audience record so far is 32 for a showing of A New Leaf. Most had never seen the movie before and all enjoyed it; the movie has a witty script by Elaine May and wonderful acting by May, as well as by Walter Matthau. It’s hilarious.QT_bibliotecacartoon2

Do you hold a similar movie night at your house? If so, what movies have you shown? What is the one under-the-radar movie you love to encourage others to see? Mine is “Saint Ralph.”

Feel free to contact me if you want a complete list of my Guilty Pleasures movies, at least the ones we’ve shown so far.


Me, Myself and I Don’t Know


In my last post, I was talking about writing my first play. So this post is still all about me (sorry; I’m almost done).

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.

In the winter of 2001, I applied for and won a Walden Fellowship, which was awarded to three Oregon writers or artists each year. I accepted the fellowship, took an unpaid leave of absence from work, and spent six weeks during the spring of 2002 in a small cabin in the Southern Oregon woods on an organic farm.

The experience was liberating. For the first time in my life, my job, the entire point of my day, if you will, was to write whatever I wanted to write, eat when hungry, look for Bigfoot, and walk the dog. How cool was that?

After a few years of writing stage plays, 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. Maverick Films, at the time co-owned by Madonna, loved the 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 check cleared the bank.

I have since had two more full-length scripts optioned, as well as two short scripts, one of which was made into a dreadful movie.

Then Arlene and I moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and I wrote a book about our experiences as inept expats, a humorous memoir titled Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak, published by Fuze Publishing. It was voted the #2 book in San Miguel. I’ll talk more about my humorous memoir in future blogs.  Better still, don’t wait for me — go ahead and click the Buy My Book tab for details.

In my blog entries, in short (and I am), I plan to dangle the occasional modifier, split an infinitive or two, mix a batch of metaphors, and chat.

Vaya con nachos!

Freeing the Narcissist Within

Geodesic Dome

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, marketing director. 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 writers and artists, all of it in my spare time.

While at work, in addition to doing my regular job, I’d also be doing what’s known in the computer industry as “background processing,” working out story problems in the garage of my mind and jotting down notes 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 can easily fence.

For a few years, 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 lines like “What do you say we go up to my place and exchange bilabial fricatives?” did not exactly kill in biker bars.

On the other hand, the tobacco smoke nearly killed me.

One night a member of a successful improv group complained to me that she couldn’t write or tell jokes. In fact, she confessed to knowing only one joke and told it. She said: “I like my men like I like my ham—cured.”

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 my wife, Arlene, to read. She’s 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.


The Man Who Knew Diddly Squat


My name is Mark Saunders, and there’s a lot I can’t do. I can’t tune-up a car’s engine. I can’t cook, unless grilled cheese sandwiches count. I can’t run marathons. I can’t rewire a house or unclog a drain or put down floor tile or build a tree fort.

Or write software code.

I can’t sing. In fact, I had the early, sole distinction of being banished from the seventh grade choir in Holy Family Catholic School, Citrus Heights, California. Look it up.

I’m not allowed near the family bank account.

Both physics and technology baffle me. I can’t understand how a Boeing 747 weighing 900,000 pounds when fully-loaded can stay in the air. I once saw a poster of the insides of a computer; the intricate pattern of a motherboard made my head spin. I felt nauseous and had to sit down.

I currently live in the central highlands of Mexico, and I can barely speak Spanish. In short, if I starred in a Hitchcock movie it would be titled “The Man Who Knew Diddly Squat.”

A rotund Rod Steiger look-alike in a police uniform stares at Diddly. The cop chews on a toothpick. Spits it out. Hikes up his pants. Beat.

What do they call you down there?

They call me Mr. Squat.

What I can do, however, is talk about humor, because that’s the one link that’s connected me from childhood until now. And that’s what I plan to do in this blog, sharing everything from brief essays to tips on writing humor to samples of my gag cartoons to the occasional funny quote from someone else.

For instance, here’s one of my cartoons:

And I’ll share quotes like this:

“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?”
Warren Hutcherson

Stick around. We’ll have fun.