What's remarkable about your style is how off-the-cuff and spontaneous it seems. Do you have a very structured approach to writing a column, or just start riffing and then hope it comes to a point at the end?
Definitely the latter. Two things are at the heart of the way I write. One is that I'm very insecure. I really don't believe that I can rely on any reader to stick around and be amused. I have to grab 'em really early and keep amusing them. There has to be some kind of humor payoff constantly, or I'll lose them. With everything I write, that's what I'm thinking as I'm writing it.
The other thing is that I write very slowly—painfully slowly—and while yes, I really want it to look spontaneous and random, generally I'll spend a lot of time just on the first joke, till it seems right, and then I'll think, OK, what would be a good one to go after that. At that point I'm really not thinking about how it's going to end or how it's going to be structured—only about what the next joke will be. And then the next joke after that. There are exceptions, for instance if you're writing a screenplay or something you have more of an idea of what the structure will be, but most topics I don't. It's just a question of what's the next joke going to be. And I won't go on until I have it.
I hear about people who really rip through the first draft—but I don't know how you would do that with humor. What do you do? I'm gonna put a joke here, and I'm gonna put another one here—but what is the joke? That's the whole thing: the joke. There's no point for me, really, beyond the joke. I'm happy that your reaction was as you described it because that's what I want it to look like.
I found an interesting interview with you where you talked about your process. The main takeaway was that you work very hard at what you do, and I wondered, "Is he working hard to make it look easy?"
Well, I think all humor writers do that, I mean, the ones who are good. I take a lot of time to produce very few words, but then I don't know of very many people who can think of a whole series of jokes on any given topic right off the top of their heads—that would be any good. It's kind of like the illusion of the standup comic where he goes on this long riff and it's spectacular and it's hilarious and you're dying, but then you realize later, oh, he didn't just think all that stuff up—he got every one of those laughs by trying different versions of the same joke on many different audiences and then figuring out how they go together best, and then adding to them bit by bit as he thinks of other lines that work well.
I'm sure you saw The Aristocrats...
I actually never saw it. The only way I could see it is if I took my wife, and when I told my wife what the joke was, she refused to go.
Well, just lie. Tell your wife you're going to a strip poker game or something. Whatever it takes to get out of the house and see it.
You're actually the third or fourth person who's authoritatively told me that I have to see that film. It's interesting. I wrote for the Oscars this year, as I did in 2003, which meant that I spent a few days sitting in a room in LA with Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin and a bunch of really good humor writers—comedy writers. And to watch them dissect a joke, talk about how to set up a specific line, and how best to deliver it, it was fascinating to me, how precise it is—and then you realize what we're actually talking about, which is farting or something.
Not that we're talking about Alec Baldwin here, but it's interesting what a great comic actor he's turned out to be.
He gives a lot of thought to it. Nobody thinks about jokes as much as Steve Martin, who is one of the most analytical people I've ever met. Self-critical, able to completely disassociate himself from his persona, his ego and everything else. That's why he wants the material to be perfect. But Baldwin is much more from the gut, but he's really, really smart, and he will suddenly go on this incredibly serious analytical riff about a joke. It's interesting to see. Kind of intimidating. I'm always used to being Mr. Humor—not in that world.
I wanted to ask you about one of the pieces in the book, "Elephant and the Dandelion." It's an examination of Darwinian imperatives, the vast differences between the two sexes, and the unlikelihood of any of it ever working out. I love the way it argues the point. How much of an outline had you worked out before you began?
Here's what I started with: I went to a spinning class with my wife and listened to the women talk about men, i.e. how men are inadequate, unacceptable. "This would be a good essay—um, you know, to write about," I thought. That was it.
Then a couple days later I started writing. I really didn't know where I was going to go, just that I knew that in a chapter I wrote primarily for women I wanted to talk about why we do what we do, why men are the way they are. Because women find it so fascinating. Men are not as fascinated with women. At all.
Except for their gazombas. As you point out.
Yeah, but that's not a really complicated issue.
I've been in some pretty long arguments about breasts, I have to admit.
You've talked elsewhere about the particular peril of humor writing, how when you call it humor writing you are demanding a particular reaction from a reader. And if you don't get that—
—you've failed. Yeah, I think that's true with humor in general, whether it's humor writing or standup comedy or sitcoms or whatever. It's more high-tension than most kinds of art because you can't really hide. You can't say, well, they didn't get it—they didn't understand what I was doing. In the humor business, a person has every right to say, "I didn't think that was funny." You can't argue with him—"Yes you did!" Sometimes it's obvious that the person is stupid—that was a joke, and you didn't get it. More often than not, though, when it doesn't work, it's because it wasn't good, and it's really obvious that it wasn't good.
And that distinguishes it from other kinds of art, and other kinds writing. If it's bad political writing or bad sports writing, it still fundamentally works as political or sports writing.
People don't even care if it's bad sports writing most of the time because they don't think of it as trying to do anything in particular. They want to know what happened in the game, here's what happened in the game. They're not even noticing the writing, whether it's good or bad or whatever. But with humor you can't do that. Being funny is the whole point of it. That can't be ignored.
On the subject of maturity, then—you've got this wonderful, comic everyman persona. I've always heard it as an inner 14 year-old voice, the one that most of have—us guys, at least. It's the lobe of our brain that looks out at the world and wonders what would actually happen if a cow exploded or if you set fire to a pair of hairspray-soaked men's underpants by running a Rollerblade Barbie across them. The big differences being that you act that out for us—you go and do it. When did you become that? Did you develop that persona over time, or simply let it come out?
That was always what I liked to do—I was the class clown, up for doing stupid stuff because it was amusing to do it. But when I started in the newspaper business I didn't think there would be an opening for that kind of voice. When I started in the newspaper business in the early 70s, the humor columnists that were big—writers like Art Buchwald, Russell Baker and Erma Bombeck—were very good, but they were also very grown up. Buchwald wrote about Washington, Bombeck wrote about being a mom, Baker wrote about all kinds of things, but from an urbane, sophisticated perspective—they were all clearly adults.
The thing that made me different—not that I was trying to be different, just funny—was that I wasn't writing from an adult perspective. I was writing as a wiseass baby-boomer—we were actually young then, so it meant something. I was the guy who had been in rock bands and smoked pot in college. It just seemed natural when I started doing a humor column to do some performance thing—setting fire to underpants with a Barbie, what have you—because that's what I'd be doing in my house anyway. I think that's one of the reasons my column became successful. It didn't feel like other humor columns of the time.
I was much more likely to mock the medium of newspaper journalism. I actually had a job as a reporter at a small-town newspaper, so I was really well aware of the conventions of small-town journalism and the tendency to write as if you're the authority on everything. I enjoyed being able to write as an authority who was completely wrong, highly inaccurate. Here's this guy saying that Abraham Lincoln invented the lightbulb. And that would really piss off some of the readers—it was in the newspaper! It was supposed to be serious! Readers would fire off angry letters to the editor and print them. I can't say I was speaking for my whole generation, but that was who I was, and I wasn't taking journalism that seriously.
This was starting to happen everywhere—National Lampoon was doing a really different kind of humor magazine and Saturday Night Live was doing a really different kind of television comedy.
And Steve Martin was coming out, and Monty Python was lampooning the medium of TV itself over in England—
Right! Something wackier, edgier. Not as conventionally funny. Now these things are all like, old. But it was very new then, really out of the box.
Two questions in one: Who has been an influence on you? I read that Robert Benchley was important to you. And another question on top of that, who do you like that does what you do these days?
Discovering Benchley was like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ohhh, man! That this guy, who was a grownup, writing in what I considered to be ancient times—the 20s and 30s—could have been so silly, and not only have gotten away with it but been loved for it? It was so wildly entertaining to me, so subversive. It was exactly the kind of humor I wanted to write. I knew it as soon as I read it.
I also loved P.G. Wodehouse. Different kind of humor, but I loved the easiness of his writing. It was not so much the jokes, although his plots were amazing, building for many many pages before essentially the punch line comes; it was the skill of his prose, how effortless it sounded. And then of course I read Mad Magazine, I read The National Lampoon, that stuff...
These days? People ask me where are today's young newspaper columnists? I tell them, well, there are no more newspapers. And even if there were, young people don't read them. But there are a lot of really good writers. They just tend to go where the money is, where the market is, and more and more that's television and movies. So more and more, the stuff I like is written for TV. I love The Office, I think that's a really well-written, very funny show. Parks and Recreation, South Park, Family Guy—there's a lot of good, edgy humor on those shows. I watch a lot of that stuff, and I'm continually amazed—I don't know how they do it, week after week after week.
A lot of your humor is about death—it's about Burmese pythons and sharks, things that could potentially kill you or eat you or shoot you, or are doing so as you write. Do you think humor is a way to deal with the anxieties created by a dangerous world or is it really an alternate way of framing the world?
What a stupid question.
You're totally right, I'm sorry, never mind.
It's definitely a coping mechanism. I don't have any doubt about that. The truth is, if you're a conscious human being, you are conscious more and more of two things.
First, you're going to die.
Second, while you're alive, bad things are going to happen to you and people around you, and there's nothing you can do about it.
And I don't think we're good at that. We pretend, day to day, that it's not the case, that it's a rational world and we can control it, and we can stay healthy and happy, and our loved ones will be around us. The truth is, none of that's going to happen. You will die, and the end, even if you live a long life, is not going to be pleasant.
I formed a theory a long time ago that there are two reactions to that. One: religion. You create an afterlife. Now I think it's a good idea, it makes people calmer. And then there's humor. At its basis humor is a very strange, nervous reaction to, you know, death. To me that's the only explanation of why so much of what makes people laugh really hard is scary. There are so many death jokes, so many movies where the humor situation is based on great danger—just a slight twist and it would be a horror movie. So to me that's how we're coping with it. We see right through our own narrative that everything's OK, and the way we handle the resulting anxiety is to make jokes about it.
That's an not original insight on my part. But the longer I live, the more I'm convinced that that's why we have a sense of humor and dogs don't.
I don't know why we have music, though. That's another issue.
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