Tag Archives: Comedy

Letting the comedy speak for itself

It’s not easy, to go by the many writers who can’t get it right, but it’s one of the most important talents in storytelling. Unless a book is a comedy book, one does not need to make an effort to be funny, nor to announce that something is supposed to be funny. The greater skill lies in letting the humor speak for itself. If the situation is comical, be assured the reader will appreciate the opportunity to make that observation herself.

I thought of this while having a cigar on my back patio, listening to children frolic in the pool at the neighbor’s to the southwest. Children having fun, without trashing your place or deafening you, is a situation I find most uplifting. As I did so, I read this passage from Tim Severin’s Tracking Marco Polo. Our travelers are in Afghanistan in 1964, having ridden from Venice:

“…Another point we had to tackle was that we still had no idea how the Marco Polo Route Project was going to get back to England. The University Year began in three weeks, and between us we mustered £40 and one very exhausted motorcycle.

“This unhappy machine was in a state of near-collapse. All the lights had long ago since been shattered; the front brake functioned only very feebly, while the rear brake did not work at all; the gear lever had been snapped off; both wheels, as well as the handlebars, were badly out of alignment, and the shock-absorbers were partially disintegrated. The once proud BSA had been thrashed into a foul mass of dust, dents, and miscellaneous pieces of grass rope holding it together. In order to change gear, the agile driver was forced to bend over and rummage around by his right foot for the sheered-off stub of the gear lever. To slow down, the passenger had to assist by dragging his feet in the dust, and at any speed the cracked steering arms exuded a fine spray of oil. The only consolation was that with the machine in such a decrepit condition there was no likelihood of it being stolen, for Stan was the only person who had the strength, experience and foolhardiness to coax the wreck into motion.”

See what Severin did? The bike is funny. All he had to do was describe the details, then cap it with the observation about its immunity to theft. One pictures the rider and passengers doing and enduring, and one likely laughs.

Here is another example, more recent, from The Energy Shift by Dr. Ritu Rao. Ritu has written one of the smartest and most accessible self-help books I have yet to read. As I edited it, I was ruthless in eradicating many situations where she tried to be funny, and told her rather bluntly that when she tried, it did not work. When she let the comedy of the situation speak for herself, it succeeded in fine form, as shown in this passage:

“Kevin came as a guest of another friend, didn’t know anything about me or my book, but stood first in line to get a copy and a picture. We eventually became friends.

“A couple of weeks later, while I was having a really crappy day, I received a message from Kevin. He said he was trying to eat better, and because of something he’d read in my book, he was able to skip eating donuts at work. He was super excited about it. He said he walked right by them, and called it a win.

“Some people in this world are saving lives in the jungle or making prosthetic limbs for the physically disabled. I helped someone skip a donut.

“As trivial as that was, his message made me smile.”

You see what she did there, I trust. In the process of illustrating a point, she presents the relative smallness of her achievement. Rather than belabor it further, she continues to describe the value of small, helpful decisions that make us feel good. This leads to getting her point across with comedy as a welcome side effect. This is what we get when we let the funny be itself.

Both of these are non-fiction examples, but the guidance applies to fiction as well. If you have set up an inherently funny person, scene, or situation, all you have to do is keep storytelling. The reader will find the humor. Too much belaboring reminds one of sitcoms that use laugh tracks, in my opinion a sure sign that the producers feel that the humor will not speak for itself. If it was that funny, they wouldn’t need to tell us to laugh.

You don’t need to tell the reader to laugh. Trust her to make that decision, and get on with your tale or exposition or whatever.

Advertisements

Bloggings will continue until morale improves

When you are a ‘lancer, you write for anyone who will fork over, presuming it doesn’t violate your basic life principles (hope you have some). When it’s slow, you have to get creative.

With that in mind, this winter I turned my pen to technical writing on contract. No, it is not la vie litteraire. I honestly don’t think much of said vie, with all its pretense, pomposity and poseurs (and frequently poseuses). It is my belief that there is no such thing as writer’s block; there are people who want to write, and they do that. There are people who don’t want to write, and they do not do that. Right now I want to write, and I am obviously doing it. Well, to be a ‘lancer, you have to ‘want to write’ because you’ll get paid, if for no other reason.

Which explains why I spent the morning assembling a document concerning specifications for cable plants. (No, you goof, you cannot grow them in your garden. Silly gardeners.) Would I prefer to be approached by a major publisher to write a balanced history of the United States, one that would thus piss off everyone with a political filter and earn me hate mail calling me a Commie pinko and a Fascist pig in the same day? Moot point, for I will not be so approached. In the meantime, should I be expanding the ways I can present my ‘lancing résumé? If I don’t, I evidently don’t want to write that badly.

So, I’m writing about cabling. There are some benefits to this besides the money. While my engineer boss is a very good writer as engineers go, it’s fun to be engaged because of the perception that I know more than him about my trade. I realized that when I had to explain to him some of the proofreading marks and issues with punctuation. Mine to present the knowledge, his (as owner of the firm) to say how he likes it and wants it done, and mine in turn to do as all good ‘lancers do: produce quality content to spec on time with a diligent work ethic and a positive attitude.

Here’s the interesting revelation from the process of application. He had quite a few applicants, most of them fresh out of college with liberal arts degrees. I did not expect my nearing-fifty age to be an advantage, but it was. He found his applicants not mature enough for what he wanted in his workplace, which was someone who would show up on time, work without texting every few minutes, observe the recognized protocols of workplace dress, demeanor and focus, and in the end, do as asked without making some excuse. As I was working on my first assignment on my first day, he took a call from one applicant that pretty much said it all. The guy was checking on the status of his application, which had not received a response because he had misspelled his own e-mail address on his résumé. Let’s see. I’m applying to work for an engineer. Should I assure that my presentation demonstrates some attention to detail? Why, yes. Yes, I should. If I cannot manage that, should I pretty much fold the tent and find a new line of work? One thinks so. In any case, my new boss was urbane and courteous to the caller, but within my hearing, advised him that the position was filled. I smiled to myself and kept picking apart the proofreading I had been assigned. I perforated that sucker.

It’s not full time, and it’s not as many hours as I’d like to get, but that’s ‘lancing. You saddle up, you find out what is asked of you, and you do.

It is better training for your own writing work than you might think. It’ll expand your knowledge (I’ve learned a lot about how telecomm cables are organized, and why). It’ll give you the happy glow of cashing checks.

Most of all, it will teach you to write whether you are in the mood or not, whether you have a headache or not, because it’s time you did some writing. That’s how this blog post came about. It was time to do a blog post. I did not grant myself the option to just go upstairs and read my S.M. Stirling book, which was my personal whim–at least, not until I finished this post. Enough people have shown that they will visit here regularly that it is incumbent on me to continue supplying content I think will please at least some of the readership. Do that, and unless you have no idea what people like, that readership expands. Decide that you are in a blah mood and don’t want to write, a little too often, they forget about you soon–as good ol’ Stroker Ace taught us. “Blow their doors off, Stroker.” Just listen to that banjo work.

When in doubt, remember that bloggings will continue until morale improves. This one improved mine, at any rate.

The Epinions days

Ho ho ho…it’s time for your early Christmas present. The article is just the wrapping paper.

My writing start came at a product review site called epinions.com. The concept was for actual consumers to provide consumer-helpfully written product reviews. Books, games, movies, lawn mowers, breast pumps, computers, cell phones–if you could buy it, you could probably get it added to the Eps database. When Eps first began, people could make real money there. By the time I got there, the gravy train was stuck at a siding. I believe the site began in 1999; I showed up in 2001 and was fairly active through 2003, tapering off thereafter. I’ve made about $433 from it over the years.

At first, I took the site seriously and attempted to write relatively serious reviews. It didn’t take long for me to realize that some of the most creative and witty minds I’d ever seen were also at Eps, and they were mostly not taking it seriously. In my halting way, I began to follow their various leads. I got some writing feedback, some positive and some negative. In hindsight, my work was mountainously egotistical, pretentious, sometimes facile, and often relied on cheap gimmicks rather than intellect, but I think it improved. I certainly got to see a lot of examples showing how to do it better.

Over time, the would-be comics of Epinions and their sympathizers coalesced into a rolling circus called the Fez Crew. Sordid-1, one of the funnier folks you’ll ever read, was the group’s founder and soul. My all-time favorite Epinions piece still remains his travel review of Arizona. He wrote a three-part review of his mercifully brief stint in the Maricopa County Jail. He did not recommend Arizona as a destination. For a couple of years there, we had a lot of fun. We did protests, writeoffs, even tribute pieces to members we learned were terminally ill. Some of us were one step from being ticketed or community blocked by the admins, and we were always afoul of the Eps cops. This group was heavily populated by stay-at-home moms (a fundamentally honorable profession practiced by more than one Fez Crew-woman) who took diaper pails, sippy cups, kiddy movies and such deadly seriously. They had private groups away from the site, which they reckoned were secret, where they kept hit lists of consumerly-unhelpful people and ganged up to try and rate their reviews negatively. We parodied them a lot, such as the time I reviewed Grand Theft Auto III as a homeschooling tool. But in the end–and only partly due to the Eps cops’ gang-rating–Eps ceased to be fun for most of us, and we went on to other things.

For a lot of Eps alumni (either Fez or simply friendly forces, admired for genuine writing talent), that meant careers writing for real money. Cornelia Read was one. David Abrams was another. Many of us eventually found one another on Facebook, though after we had all reconnected with the people we liked, we didn’t have that much to say to each other, so the Fez Crew on FB became moribund as a semi-informal grouping. Few of us still write at Eps, though most of us still write. Brett Nicholson will one day get a screenplay published. It wouldn’t be fair to call Markham Shaw Pyle an Eps alum–I understand that he was published before Eps began–but he wrote some of the more thoughtful reviews and commentary there. It turned out to be a pretty good literary practice field and weight room.

Something got me thinking of those days, this evening, contributed by frequent commentator OrionSlaveGirl. It seems that the spirit of Fez lives, as you can see in the Amazon reviews of this banana slicer. What you see here, good reader, is exactly the fun-loving Fez spirit we once had at Epinions. Enjoy. And happy holidays to you all, in whatever form and shape, and thank you for your many visits here this year.

The costs of marital compromise

This holiday season I find myself in a frame of mind to tell funny stories.

Deb and I got Fabius, a black Labrador retriever puppy, within a few months of buying the house. Most of you know that I wouldn’t willingly share my house with dogs if it were up to me. However, it’s not just up to me. Marriage means compromise or it means divorce. You can die on any hill you wish, but the problem with choosing a hill to die on is that you die there. One of life’s lessons is to learn which hills to live on rather than die.

I chose not to die on Doggy Hill. We got Fabius, who eventually grew into an 85-pound freight train of a dog with a tail like a police nightstick. If you wonder why the name, it is for Q. Fabius Maximus Verrocosus Cunctator (“Delayer”), Dictator of Rome. When we first got Fabius, he would not come on his leash at all, and I had to drag him until he got the idea: he delayed us a lot. Also, Fabius Maximus was a noble and brave Roman general who gave his all for his country, and would have given his life had it been needed. If we had to have a dog, I wanted him to see himself as Deb’s protector unto the grave.

Fabius has given us that, but he’s also given us a few other gifts he can have back. This story covers one such gift.

For whatever reason, in his middle years, Fabius was a puker. You’d find a large decoration of dog vomitus somewhere in the house, which was real bad for the carpet when his food contained kibbles colored red. Most of the time, this was Deb’s problem (that was our agreement: it’s her dog, she will handle the bulk of the care and cleanup). One night, it became my problem.

I tend to go to bed later than Deb, who insists that the dog must be permitted to sleep in our bedroom. She doesn’t mind the smell, which to me is worse than the Sunnyside feedlots. This means that when I come to bed, I’m making my way in the dark, my sense of smell overwhelmed by dog smell. I focus mostly on trying not to stick the square corner of a bedpost top into my thigh, which is very painful when you just want to lie down and go to sleep. I also react badly to sudden pains out of nowhere, simply because of a bad startle that’s been with me since my teens. Friends know not to come up behind me, for example.

So one night, I was groggy and ready to go to sleep. At that time, I did not happen to wear clothing to bed. I came into the bedroom, disrobed, and strode toward my side of the bed in the pitch darkness. All I cared about was avoiding a thigh injury. My bare foot splooshed into something cold, mushy and wet alongside the foot of the bed.

Before I could register my shock and disgust, I slipped in what felt like a square yard of dog vomit. I can’t even figure out where Fabius stored all that. The WHAM of my backside hitting the puddle coincided with the beginning of a yelled curse. I felt vomit splatter as I landed right in the middle of the stuff. Poor me, but poor Deb: awakened from deep sleep by bellowed husbandly profanity and a house-shaking impact, for I’m not a welterweight.

Of course, if she did not insist on having a dog, and did not insist that it be allowed to sleep in our bedroom, this would not have occurred. And in other fantasy worlds, if people would use their turn signals before changing lanes, a lot of accidents would not occur. We do not inhabit a fantasy world.

Deb jumped out of bed to assess the damage. There wasn’t any, except for painful bruising of my tranquility, buttocks and ego, and of course the need to get up and cleanse the carpet and surroundings of splattered dog ralph. I was not at my best husbandly composure and civility. In between vulgarities, I ordered her to clean up the offending substance and exile the dog to the kennel while I took a shower. I credit her for realizing that this was not the time for her to snarl “Don’t talk that way to me!” She kenneled Fabius and proceeded to deal with the present he had left.

I get a heavy adrenaline surge when startled, so I didn’t get to sleep easily. I didn’t laugh about it for several days. But I did learn that marital compromise does come with costs. The more important lesson was to step carefully going into the bedroom in the future.

Gods, but that was disgusting. Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

======

Postscript: just last night, marital compromise came full circle after all these years. I was indisposed, to put it delicately, atop the starship USS Sanitize. I heard a feminine yell of great, sudden dismay from the living room, penetrating walls and door. This is not a good moment, because while one will get up and rush to assistance if one must, one devoutly hopes the situation can safely wait for one to finish in an orderly manner.

“Are you all right, dear?” I yelled. No answer. Oh, damn. Louder: “Dear! Are you all right?”

From the vicinity of the hallway: “Yes. Leo just threw up all over me! He was just sitting there, and then he puked!”

That’s even worse than about three years ago, when she was on the floor sorting Christmas ornaments, and the insufferable little creature defaecated on the carpet–right next to her.

Now I’m worried it’ll be my turn soon.

My telemarketer FAIL

This needs some backdrop. I am of the following beliefs/persuasions:

  • Non-Christian, and disinterested in reconsidering that.
  • Committed to leaving people alone about that, if they leave me alone. I thus consider all active proselytizing very offensive and annoying, one of the worst social misbehaviors there is.
  • Some businesses and jobs are not legitimate employment, and that practice of a bad job liberates me from social obligations of courtesy and honesty when it intrudes on my life. I’m not moved by ‘they’re just doing their jobs.’ So are drug mules. If your job is to bother people who did not ask to be bothered, that’s a bad job.

So not only do telemarketers annoy me, they are fair game within the confines of law, just as are missionaries who dare bother me on my property. It does not follow that I am always necessarily dishonest or mean to either. It simply means that, within the confines of the law, I may be so if I choose, and I feel I’ve done nothing wrong. They always had the choice not to bother me. I wasn’t bothering them.

The only enjoyment I can get from a telemarketing effort, therefore, is a sense that I made it less worthwhile for the telemarketing company and its employees. To some extent, whether I do that through comedy, annoyance or venting depends upon the conduct. Obviously-read scripts offend me. Scripts that imply insults to my intelligence offend me. Illegitimate questions offend me, and since the querent has no right to ask me anything about my whole life, all telemarketing questions are illegitimate, especially if the individual has not even asked whether s/he may start asking them.

I’ve handled it various ways over the years. I actually got a robocall operation to leave my cell phone alone when, after about eight hangup calls from them, I called back and strongly implied that I had the power and will to traverse the electronic medium and cause grave physical infirmity. (That’s illegal, and not normal for me, but I was pretty tired of what amounted to crank calls. Oh, and it worked.) With males, I have been known to attempt a sultry tone hinting at seduction. I often take charge and say “I’m asking the questions here. How did you get my number?” I’ve pretended to have comprehension disabilities, or to speak little English. I give stupid answers, or make up a bunch of baloney. If I’m feeling lazy, I just say I’ll go get the person they want, pretend to call someone to the phone, lay it down and just not return. A minute wasted, some other person somewhere spared a call, the company’s money wasted, my little good deed for the day.

One time, some twenty years ago, I decided that I had the perfect screw-you planned out. I would preach. I was raised around a lot of that, for my father loved the 700 Club and religion was rammed down my throat by emotional and physical abuse all through my teens, until I (predictably) threw up. I know how to imitate a televangelist. So, next time the phone rang, and it was someone telemarketing me, I had all tubes loaded with canister. This was going to be my most successful, obnoxious telemarketing response ever. This would be for the ages.

“Good evening, sir, I’m Susan with Suchandsuch Co. Who is the main decis–”

“You know, I’m going to give you something better than a sale today,” I blared in my outside voice. “I’m going to give you the truth of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! It says in the Bible…” I went on. And on. And on. I pontificated for minutes; no hangup, no interruption. I turned up the heat: “…because the alternative is the fires of Hell, and there is a real Hell, and it’s even worse than you imagine…” I quoted John 3:16 and offered interpretation. I began to wonder why she hadn’t just hung up, or butted in to bring the conversation around to what she wanted to sell, or responded in any way. I did this for about five minutes, getting a little curious, but starting to run out of wind.

When I began to slacken, she finally spoke up. “Wow, this is so wonderful. I also am born again, and it’s so great to meet someone who believes as I do and isn’t ashamed of the Gospel. Sir, this has been the best call of my day, and thank you so much for sharing your faith with me. I’m at work though, and I have to get going on other calls now, but God bless you, and have a wonderful evening. Good night!”

*click*

I never did find out what she wanted to sell me. I stood there, blown-out, dumfounded, struck silent, my whole plan having backfired about as back as a plan can fire. It was like the South Carolinians had tried to fire on Fort Sumter, but due to incompetent artillery direction, had shelled downtown Charleston instead.

Then I did the only thing that a sense of justice or humor would allow. I laughed until I was incoherent, red-faced and gasping for breath. In fact I’m tearing up laughing just thinking about it.

I haven’t pulled the preaching stunt since.

My computer sales brain spasm

Back in the years of the XT, AT and early 386 clones, I used to sell computers. Sales had its moments. I was never a big star in sales, but I did it well enough that when I left after two years, it was of my own choosing. Remember the Microsoft/IBM wars? I was a foot soldier in the trenches of those, five miles from the M$ campus. One of these days I’ll write about just how tremendously out of touch IBM was with dealers and clients. For now, I’m going to make fun of myself instead.

One of my best clients was an underwriting firm south of Seattle, run by two brothers named Doug and Dick Rodruck. Great guys, steady customers, the sort of people a commissioned salesperson could make a living by helping. I looked forward to all their calls.

The sales floor could be chaotic at times, with people needing help on the floor, calls announced for you while you were helping them, stressed-out receptionists desperately seeking someone to help the biggest salesman’s clients (with zero hope of profit or appreciation from him), and warehouse staff moving forty boxes in for storage wherever space could be found. One could lose one’s focus. Sometimes real badly.

Of course, I knew most of my customers by voice. When I wasn’t going in six different directions, I picked up on who I was talking to. At the same time, I had a lot of customers, very loyal ones, amazed that I could ‘remember’ what they bought a year and a half back. (I wrote it all on rolodex cards. I cheated.) So when I heard the page “Dick is on line 1 for Jonathan,” I didn’t think. I took the call and said hello.

“Hello, Jonathan, it’s Dick. [Here followed a bunch of specifications for new hardware they wanted to buy.]” I listened and started working up pricing, but after a time it occurred to me: I do not know who this is. I can’t place him. Well, I’ll eventually pinpoint him.

Which I did. Unfortunately, that was before I learned in life that not everything on one’s mind needs to be blurted out at random, especially stuff like evidence that you had no idea who was on the phone. I watched my mother do it all growing up, so in addition to the blurt genetics, I had an unhelpful example. I was still learning how to shut the hell up rather than spit out my latest revelation.

Thus, when Dick finished describing whatever computer need he was describing, and asked me a question, it was blurtin’ time: “Oh. Dick Rodruck! You’ll have to excuse me. There are a lot of Dicks out there.”

A very awkward silence. I realized what I’d just said.

Now what? The silence was mine to break. Or, at least, it had better be me.

“I do hope and trust you realize, Dick, that in no way did I intend that the way it came out. I apologize profusely.”

How you can know that Dick Rodruck was such a great guy? He forgave me. He said not to worry about it, and continued with the substance of the discussion. The bullet of a ruined relationship whistled past me.

Joke of the day

This was back before the USSR gave way to the Russian Federation.  Every year, the Soviets had a massive military parade past Red Square.  The Politburo stood and watched as tanks, armored cars, armored personnel carriers, soldiers, missile platforms, and so on rolled past, displaying Soviet might.

One year, an important US public figure was visiting Moscow at that time.  It was normal and customary for the Soviets to honor him by inviting him to stand with the Politburo and watch the parade.  Of course, he was assigned a KGB colonel fluent in English as a handler and escort.  They got along quite well.

So on the appointed day, the American stood with his Soviet hosts to watch the armaments flow by.  T-80 main battle tanks, BMP-2 armored personnel carriers.  Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers.  ZSU mobile flak guns, and surface-to-air missiles on trucks.  SCUDs on bigger vehicles.  Paratroopers in blue berets; marines in striped shirts.  At the tail end of the parade, oddly, were a few thousand civilians in nondescript Eastern bloc business dress, if one may call it that.  They didn’t march in formation, but sort of milled along.  A good percentage were female.

The American turned to his handler.  “Bogdan Ivanovich, I understand the function of the tanks.  I understand the tracks, the artillery, the missiles.  I understand the paratroopers and the marines.  But please tell me, if isn’t a state secret:  who are those people at the end, and what is their role in the military?”

The colonel drew himself up with that pride and dignity only a Russian can display when speaking of Russia.  “Those?” he replied, a bit intimidatingly.  “Those are middle managers of Soviet economy.  You have no idea damage they could cause you!”