Once again this week I'm running interviews back to back on Thursday and Friday. Next week I resume with just Fridays. Today I chat with the authors of a very funny and useful book called Comedy by the Numbers: The 169 Secrets of Humor and Popularity , which features input by Bob Odenkirk and is published by McSweeney's (although I am linking to the Amazon page because if you buy it from here I get a 2 cent kickback or something like that. I think all told I've made about $1.50 with this program so far.) These two guys, who both came up on the fabled comedy stages of Chicago, know their stuff, ha-ha wise, and were kind enough to share their insights with me today.
The Gary Rudoren and Eric Hoffman Interviews: Somewhere Under Twenty Questions
How did Comedy By the Numbers come to be made?
ERIC: Hi Claire, welcome to Gary's answer.
GARY: Well, I'll try to keep it brief, but basically we got lucky. It all started with an Annoyance show that we created with Mike Monterastelli ( I directed Eric & Mike). Eric and I made up a 6-page mini-CBTN pamphlet to promote the show (called "The Idiotic Death of Two Fools") at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. A few years later, through Eric's connection as a writer on Mr. Show, he showed the wordy pamphlet to Naomi Odenkirk who enthusiastically supported us moving forward into making it a book. She wanted to be involved editing and publishing it. Bob Odenkirk also got involved - again as a sounding board and supporter... they got Dave Eggers and McSweeney's on board and then it took about a year, but now here we are. I assume you didn't mean "how was it actually made?" because that's complicated. And involves machines and stuff.
What's it like working with McSweeney's? I see that the jokes begin on the copyright page (actually, even before that.) I've always wondered, when that happens, is it the authors' idea or the publishers come to you with "Hey, we have a funny idea..."
GARY: We saw this whole thing as a conversation with the reader. So our style, right from the git go was to deconstruct the elements of the book - if a page was blank we thought it would be fun to just say "we know this page is blank" - apparently you need to have some blank pages in books. McSweeneys was very receptive and it definitely fit in with their style. They were great to work with - respectful of our comedy, but through the process they also (rightfully) called us out on stuff that wasn't working.
ERIC: I think it's just a blessed union between a bunch of people who like making jokes on the copyright page.
If you were to condense the book down to its most helpful tips, which would be some of them?
GARY: This is like Sophie's Choice! The book is overflowing with tips on how to be funny - and then by association popular. Who doesn't want to be at least one of those things? Alright, here's one: it's important to read #63 -Jews And Their Idiosyncracies where you'll learn that, for comedic purposes, all Jews everywhere are exactly like Woody Allen.
ERIC: There's so many. Off the top of my head, if our book does nothing else, it alerts people to the existence of Edgar Kennedy, the King of the Slow Burn (#153). Best known for hassling Harpo in the movie "Duck Soup."
So tell us about the last name. How did Maureen Dowd come to write about it?
GARY: I assume you mean me.
ERIC: The world deserves to know Gary.
GARY: Well, about a year after we got married, my wife and I decided to do this weird thing where we melded parts of both of our names into a single family name. An odd, but egalitarian approach. My wife's a journalist, so she had a byline, I had kind of a name too with my theater and architecture work- it was a big move for both us, but we've embraced it. In January 2006, Gary Ruderman and Jodi Wilgoren became Gary & Jodi Rudoren. We had a generally positive reaction from most people and started getting e-mails from people who were thinking about it. Jodi is a writer for the NY Times (she's now an editor on the Metro desk, which is why we moved to NY in September) and she covered the 2004 election, following Dean until he imploded and then with Kerry til the election. She got to know Maureen a bit then. Not too long after we did it, Maureen was writing a column about the topic of name changes for some reason (it was mostly about a guy who changed his first name to Rachel to match his wife's I believe) and mentioned us and Mayor Villaraigosa of LA. Well, Maureen is famous, right, so her column got picked up all around the world. There are google searches where we show up in Chinese newspapers. At the time of the name change there was another writer in Chicago named Gary Ruderman. Afterwards I sent him an e-mail that said; "You win."
What do you miss most about Chicago?
ERIC: The celery salt on the hot dogs. It's unbelievable how much I miss it.
GARY: I'm lucky in that in NY they sell hot dogs every eight feet, so I've been able to adapt. Chicago is a great city. I originally came for a summer in 1987 and stayed 19 years. I miss a lot of friends, but I've kept in touch with many people. I'm originally from New York, and I'm a Jew, so the transition here hasn't been traumatic (clarification: that's because NY is lousy with Jews).
Do you think there is a Chicago brand of humor or it's more of just a stopping point for many comic-types?
GARY: I don't think you can simply label it, but because Chicago is so branded with improvisation and comic experimentation, Chicago is a great place to learn to be funny and survive the inevitable failures you need to learn from. It's pretty much a no bullshit city. And its the wellspring for so much comedy that's being done on the other coasts - so many people from Second City, I.O. and the Annoyance have moved out to NY and LA and established careers. The UCB, which started in Chicago, and now has theaters in NY and LA, has contributed mightily to the new generations of comedians.
Did you have any mixed feelings about leaving for New York?
GARY: I did... I do...but really I just feel lucky. I'm proud of careers I had established in Chicago, both in the theater and in architecture, so I've always felt lucky that I found several passions I was able to pursue. The move definitely helped propel finishing the book and other opportunities have opened up here. I'd love to go back some time and direct at The Annoyance or shoot a film in Chicago. Who knows? That's the fun part, not really knowing exactly what's going to happen next (hey, that's like improvisation!)
You taught writing at the Annoyance Theater. I took writing at Second City and while I don't want to make any assumptions I think I did okay but there were some people who I studied with who just didn't seem to have 'it.' How would you tell students that they had a good work ethic but just didn't have the knack for comedy writing, or you wouldn't?
GARY: Possibly the toughest part of teaching is giving criticism. But it's essential. But I try to be encouraging and honest. I firmly believe that the classroom can be the safest place in the world and I encourage students to let loose. Challenge them to find a unique voice in their writing. Not everyone in a class starts at the same level and being able to express their thoughts sometimes comes more naturally to some than others. I focus my writing class on character development and not about writing jokes. So maybe that takes some of the pressure off. Basically what I'm saying is; "yes, I will tell people they suck, of course."
Do most performers who do stage comedy have one goal they tend to share in common, like be on "Saturday Night Live" or get a sitcom, or is it pretty varied?
ERIC: I have no idea what those crazy people talk about. No, those are probably the Big Two for most comedy folk. And movies. But people definitely want it "all" these days. A TV show, books, films AND movies, a hit record, etc. Steve Martin has done all of that and more. He really set the standard for comedians, in so many ways. That's why we've included "How To Be Steve Martin" in our book. It's the first ever step-by-step breakdown of a career that will last a lifetime, AND how YOU can do it, too! It's shockingly easy.
GARY: I think every group has its share of sitting around wishing to get to the next level. "If only I could throw out the MAYOR'S garbage, that would be the best!"
How does one come to the conclusion that they'd be good at/enjoy directing?
GARY: It's tough. I think if you have a measure of success early on that helps. It also helps to be a megalomaniac. I'll relate it back to improv. As an improvisor, you are on stage - acting, writing, directing - this multi-tasking aspect is what I was attracted to. I learned a lot about directing through an improvisational development process from Mick Napier. Then I realized it could be a great way to tell stories that I thought were interesting and fun.
ERIC: Many times it's just a matter of having material that you're so in love with that you believe anyone else but you would fuck it up.
What's the most difficult part of creating a one-man show?
ERIC: Keeping it a one man show. When I was putting together my one man show ("The Story of the 3 Jaw Crusher") with Matt Walsh (the director), we quickly decided to make it "a one man show with 8 people." For me, interacting with other actors is tons easier than interacting with an audience. Also, keeping the show to a half hour length can be tricky for some. A half hour is the preferred length for almost any live performance. Leave 'em wanting more, eh, Gary?
GARY: I'll tell you the easiest thing - scheduling rehearsals. No big casts to coordinate. I created "So, I Killed A Few People" with the actor, David Summers, mostly in his basement apartment living room sitting in an easy chair. Over the years, I've tended to direct smaller scale shows with unique performers like David, Jim Carrane, Andy Eninger, Mark Sutton and others because I liked delving deeper into characters with them. It's difficult to create a full story with one character - beginning, middle, end - without just making it a bunch of bits. It's a great challenge though. And I'm only half-joking about the rehearsal thing - I had a pretty full schedule, so I didn't have a lot of open slots. The toughest part is actually just getting past the basically arrogant assumption that people would want to listen to one-person talk at them for 50 minutes.
What's the vibe like at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival? Camaraderie or is it more stressed out and competitive?
GARY: I've been there twice with two different shows and enjoyed it both times - the stress part is fun because there are just SO many shows, you're really just trying to herd Scottish cats and carve out your little niche. But it's a blast. The whole town goes nuts for all the festivals in August. No one goes to the Fringe to get rich, so you hope you're just making back your airfare and postcard printing fund. I tried to see as many other shows as I could and met a whole bunch of people who loved theater and were just there to experiment.
Do you have any tips for those working in the humor genre who are new to collaborating?
ERIC: Never write a screenplay with three people (3 writers in total). Not your first script, anyway. It's a good learning experience, but your script just may turn out to be a piece of shit-junk. Even if the three have complimentary senses of humor, there's still enough of a difference to make the script sound like it was written by three separate people. Obviously you don't want that. Two people is manageable.
A more positive tip: You don't have to do everything. I think the key to good collaboration is figuring out early what each others' strengths are. And then letting that person go and do what they do best, leaving you free to do what you do best. Jay Johnston (Sarah Silverman Program, Mr. Show) and I have worked on several scripts together. When we're writing something out, Jay is great at coming up with stuff off the top of his head. While I do my best when I'm at home staring at the computer screen.
GARY: I was going to say "pick collaborators you don't hate", but Eric's answer is really good.
What's one of the most recent things that made you laugh?
ERIC: The Garth Marenghi show. The Derek & Simon show. Sarah Silverman's show. The Morel Orel show. The Tim & Eric show. Basically, if you've got a show, I'm laughing. And Snuff Box, a great show with our buddy Rich Fulcher. Also the upcoming movie "The Brothers Solomon."
GARY: All of the above, good job Eric. I'm a big fan of The Office and 30 Rock too. Recently, I've been lucky that TJ & Dave, (Jagodowski & Pasquesi) who are two great improvisers, have been doing their show in NY the first weekend of every month, so I've gone out to see them a few times - they're incredible.
Name something that's considered a part of the humor canon (literary, film, stage, what have you) that you think is actually not that funny at all.
GARY: I've never met anyone that's ever watched "Two and a half Men" - the No. 1 rated sitcom.
How does it feel to be the 185th and 186th people interviewed for Zulkey.com?
GARY: Top this stuff, #187!