With the imminent retirement of the great David Letterman nigh upon us Dangerous Minds pal Mike Sacks, author of And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers and Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Todays Top Comedy Writers, the two best books ever published on the creative process of writing comedy, has generously allowed us to publish his extended interview with Late Night‘s original head writer, Merrill Markoe.
It was the Emmy award-winning Markoe, arguably as much as Letterman himself, who set the silly, ironic, smart and absurd tone of the show. This in-depth exploration of what made Late Night such amazing and precedent-shattering television during her tenure is an absolute pleasure to read.
Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, Miami, and the San Francisco Bay area, Merrill Markoe spent her youth reading Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker, as well as watching W.C. Fields for his “bizarre word choices.” She attended Berkeley and, after receiving a Master’s in Arts in 1973, she tried teaching art at the University of Southern California for a year but found herself restless. Instead, she audited a few scriptwriting and filmmaking classes and, in 1977, landed a writing job for The New Laugh-In, sans Rowan and Martin. The show, to the surprise of nobody, was a disaster, even with (or because of) cast members such as Robin Williams and former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner. (Not familiar with him? Rent the 1972 documentary Marjoe—please.)
When TV proved frustrating, Markoe tried her luck on the stand-up circuit in Los Angeles, mostly at The Comedy Store and the Improv, where she became friends with such promising (if still unknown) comics as Andy Kaufman and David Letterman. After a few wildly successful appearances on The Tonight Show, Letterman was given his own daytime talk show on NBC in 1980, and he brought in Markoe (whom he’d been dating since 1978) as his head writer. The show didn’t last long, partly because Letterman and Markoe’s humor didn’t translate to an early-morning crowd, and partly because they nearly burned the studio down (more on that later). Within four months, the show was canceled.
But, in 1982, NBC gave Letterman another chance, and, more important, a better time slot. Late Night with David Letterman—which came on just after The Tonight Show, hosted by Letterman’s idol, Johnny Carson—was a perfect fit, and, thanks largely to Markoe’s indispensable collaboration, it became a unique and inimitable comic creation.
Six years later, in 1988, Markoe abruptly left the show. As she’s written on her website, she’d “plumbed the depths of [her] ability to invent off-beat, comedic ideas for acerbic witty white male hosts in suits.”
Markoe moved back west, to Los Angeles, where she had little problem finding work. She wrote for TV shows as diverse as Newhart (1988), Moonlighting (1989) and Sex and the City (1999), and appeared as a writer/reporter on HBO’s Not Necessarily the News (1990) and Michael Moore’s political-satire TV Nation (1994). She also discovered a writing life outside of TV, contributing comedic essays and columns for Esquire, Glamour, People, Rolling Stone, Time, U.S. News & World Report, as well as The New York Times and the Huffington Post. She probably made the biggest impact, however, with her humor books, which have included such critical and fan favorites as What the Dogs Have Taught Me (1992), How to Be Hap-Hap-Happy Like Me! (1994), Merrill Markoe’s Guide to Love (1997), It’s My F—-ing Birthday (2002), The Psycho Ex Game (2004), Walking in Circles Before Lying Down (2006), Nose Down, Eyes Up (2008), Cool, Calm & Contentious: Essays (2011).
Mike Sacks: You once described yourself as “one of those 1960s art-student types.” Were you in any way a radical?
Merrill Markoe: I was certainly against the war in Vietnam. And I attended a Black Panther rally once—by myself, I might add. I was one of the few white people there. What I was doing there I cannot exactly explain, except that I attended almost every event that was within walking distance at the time. But, me being me, I always left early. I left every important cultural event of the sixties and seventies early. Name any one. Altamont? I left before the killing. I felt compelled to attend these events, but I never really liked big, angry crowds, or drugs, or the smell of patchouli. By the way, everything smelled like patchouli back then! Even sweaty, knife-wielding bikers who drank Ripple.
One of the few events I did not attend was Woodstock. I wouldn’t have enjoyed being a part of that big, happy, muddy, mellow community. I probably would have been standing off on the sidelines somewhere, in my beloved paint-splattered clothes, complaining about the weather and the sound system, and making snide remarks about all the embarrassing free-form naked dancing. Talk about a place that probably reeked of patchouli. No question I would have definitely left early.
So it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that you felt like an outsider in the sixties?
I’m very consistent; I’ve felt like an outsider every single decade. Some of it is because I struggle to control my tendency toward contrarianism. If I know there is something I am supposed to be doing or saying or wearing, I feel compelled to resist—particularly with creative endeavors, like writing. If I see an obvious punch line or plotline driving toward me, I can’t help but make a sharp left turn into the unexpected. I don’t like to replicate what I’ve seen done before—I don’t like to give people what they expect. I think it’s my job to come up with a surprising angle or to add some personal twist.
You first met David Letterman when you were doing stand-up in Los Angeles in the late seventies. Would you say that one of his strengths as a stand-up, even at the beginning of his career, was the degree to which the audience felt a strong rapport with him—that they always felt they were in on the joke?
Yes, correct. He was always a crowd pleaser. Plus, he always had Johnny Carson in mind as his model. Dave always knew how to connect with an audience, even from the very beginning.
Both you and Letterman started in the trenches of showbiz. Can you tell me about the first TV show you worked on together?
Dave and I worked on a 1978 CBS variety show called Mary, starring Mary Tyler Moore and featuring Michael Keaton. I don’t know if it qualifies as the “trenches” of show business, but I do know it was canceled after three or four episodes, even though 60 Minutes was the lead-in and Mary Tyler Moore was America’s sweetheart. The show was an uncomfortable combination of old showbiz style variety, mixed with a miscalculated attempt to include some of that wacky, absurdist comic sensibility that the kids liked so much from that new program Saturday Night Live.
For example, the Mary show did a parody of the Village People song “Macho Man” that had Dave and Michael Keaton dressed in L.L.Bean catalog outfits, in a setting that was made to look like a scene from Deliverance. I forget where the comedy was supposed to be in all this. I do know the powers-that-be didn’t realize that “Macho Man” was a gay anthem. I also remember vividly that Dave was in real agony about this bit of levity.
What was the second TV show you both worked on?
Leave It to Dave. It was a 1978 pilot for Dave’s own talk show, which never actually made it to air.
From what I’ve read, this is a notorious show. The set resembled a pyramid, and Letterman sat on a throne.
Because this was at the very beginning of Dave’s talk show career, he was sort of afraid to assert his point of view. There were people he hired and put in charge who supposedly knew all about the right way to execute a talk show. Unfortunately, one of their goofy ideas was to have a pyramid-shape on the set that contained built-in benches covered with shag carpeting for Dave and his guests to sit on. No boring old-school desk and chairs for us! Better to look like the interviews were taking places at a “carpeteria” trade show at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.
The set was not even the worst idea that came down that particular pike. I remember that one of Dave’s managers wanted the guests to make their entrances by sliding down a chute and then landing on a sea of throw pillows. But even more vivid, is the memory of how little blood there was in Dave’s face when he was presenting the news to me. Somehow we succeeded in getting that idea shit-canned.
How did your next project, The David Letterman Show, come about? This morning show, a precursor to Late Night, was on NBC for only a short period in the summer and fall of 1980, but it became very influential with comedians and humor writers.
Around this time, Dave began appearing on The Tonight Show, and I was helping him come up with comedy material for those appearances.
Do you remember any of the jokes you wrote for him?
Here’s one: “The commercial for Alpo dog food boasts that Alpo is superior because it contains ‘All beef and not a speck of cereal.’ My dog spends his days going through the garbage and drinking out of the toilet. Something tells me he might not mind a speck of cereal.”
So Dave was getting a very good response from his Tonight Show appearances, and it didn’t take long for NBC to offer him his own morning talk show. Ninety minutes a day. Live. At 10:00 A.M. This prospect seemed less appealing to me than it did to Dave, but by now I was in over my head with regard to both of Freud’s two big areas: work and love. So, I just kept playing along.
Steve O’Donnell—a longtime writer for Letterman—once described the show’s staff as those who really liked television but also kind of hated television. Was this true for you?
Yes, absolutely. I was particularly sick of seeing everyone on television doing that bigger-than-life, fraudulent, full of shit television persona—which was mainly how the shows all worked then. I welcomed the idea of a host being caught having real reactions to odd situations.
A lot of the segments on the morning show later showed up on Late Night. Can you tell me how “Stupid Pet Tricks” began? Was it meant to be a one-time deal only?
One immediate task—when we were determining how to construct a daily format—was to create segments that could be repeated. Since there was a horizon of future shows spreading out in front of us that seemed to stretch into infinity, it seemed to call for free-form thinking. Dave and I had two dogs and we wanted to do something with animals besides just having the guy from the zoo bring on the pygmy marmosets. I remembered how in college my friends and I would be hanging around in the evenings, talking and drinking. One form of constant entertainment was to put socks on this one dog. Everyone I knew did some version of a silly thing like that with their pets, so we ran an ad to see if we could pull a segment together like that.
When it succeeded, we mutated that idea into “Stupid Human Tricks.” We also considered “Stupid Baby Tricks,” but pulled the plug because—based on what we were seeing in the other two categories—we were afraid it would encourage child endangerment.
Were you responsible for “Viewer Mail”?
More or less. When we started “Viewer Mail” on the morning show, originally the idea was meant as a kind of parody of something 60 Minutes was doing, where they’d show a mailbox and a magnified fragment of a letter. Their letters always commented on something of importance: “Regarding your piece on nuclear disarmament, I just wanted to say …”
I thought it would be funny to show the mail we were receiving, which was mostly pages full of scrawled non sequiturs from deranged people. By the time the show re-appeared at night, this had evolved into little sketches that played off the content.
Do any other particular moments stand out from the morning show?
It was pretty much nonstop bizarre particular moments. One highlight was when we decided to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of a couple from Long Island named Sam and Betty Kotinoff. We selected them from a group of people who wrote in and volunteered. Our plan was to show snippets of this big party throughout the regular broadcast, and we would check in with them to see how everything was going.
For music, we hired the Harve Mann Trio, a wedding band dressed in tuxes. We also hired a very flamboyant decorator and party planner to do the catering. He not only brought in ice sculptures, but he also staged a lovely finale, where synthetic rose petals would float down from the ceiling while all the revelers held sparklers and swayed in contented delight. So it came to pass that as Dave signed off, the rose petals floated down and met the sparklers and created a number of small fires. As the credits rolled, the show ended with the Kotinoff family stomping out flames, as stage hands rushed in with fire extinguishers. Wafting from behind the clouds of smoke was Harve Mann still singing his closing song, “Can’t Smile Without You.”
Dave and I were really mortified until we saw the tapes. Then we couldn’t stop laughing.
What did you hope to achieve with this morning show? Did you feel that it was time for a talk show that reflected your own sensibility?
Yeah, both Dave and I felt that way. But Dave had more respect and passion for the history of TV talk shows than I did. Besides his love for The Tonight Show, Dave’s favorite role model was always the old Steve Allen Westinghouse Show [1962-1964], which had elements of stunts, character pieces, and audience interaction. I liked some of Steve Allen’s work as well, such as when he would jump into a vat of Jell-O, or had himself covered with tea bags so he could be dunked up and down inside a giant aquarium by a crane to make an enormous container of tea.
But to be honest, I never much liked The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Dave used to say that Johnny Carson seemed like the hip uncle whom he wanted to please. But to me, that show was a place where they never booked any smart women. I couldn’t help but view it through the prism of my U.C. Berkeley Art School experiences, which boiled down to a simple “fuck that plastic showbiz shit.”
What smart women in particular were missing from The Tonight Show?
Any smart women, of any stripe. Writers, reporters, producers, filmmakers, artists, scientists, eccentrics. No comediennes ever appeared on that show besides Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller. Certainly none of the comediennes my own age appeared on the show.
On The Tonight Show, women were either amazingly glamorous actresses or they were booked to create cleavage-related humor and flirt with Johnny. I guess there must have been exceptions I am not remembering—the opera singer Beverly Sills, for example, or Carol Burnett.
But, as a whole, there never seemed to be any cerebrally oriented female content. I thought of it as one more example of the old showbiz sensibility that I was so sick of. Johnny reminded me of Hef in Playboy After Dark. Dave could look at Johnny and see a guy with whom he could joke and communicate. I would only see the kind of guy who would want no part of me and my kind.
Even though the morning show won two Emmy awards, it was still cancelled in October 1980. Why?
I remember a meeting where NBC executives showed me charts and graphs about what did and did not appeal to audiences when they tested the show. They said the audiences were okay with the idea of “Stupid Pet Tricks,” but that they would have preferred to see the segment re-made with trained animals. I said, “You mean, like a horse that can count?” And they looked at me solemnly and nodded “yes.” They also had research that made it clear that Late Night audiences did not want to hear live music.
To make things even more complex, Fred Silverman, then the head of NBC, had requested that we hire “a family” for the show, by which he meant regulars along the lines of a band singer, an astrologer, a beauty expert, a funny announcer, and an eleven-year-old fiddle player. Silverman’s role model was the old Arthur Godfrey variety show, which none of us had even seen. Silverman saw Dave as a young Arthur Godfrey. Dave did not see Dave that way at all.
We pretty much ignored Silverman’s edicts—at our own peril. Almost immediately, the show was cut from ninety minutes to sixty. After that, it was just a hop, skip and a jump to zero.
I remember fighting with executives about what women did and did not want to watch in the morning. I argued, “Don’t tell me about women! I’m the only woman here!” But, of course, I was so much weirder than the majority of women in the audience. I had no idea.
If NBC didn’t understand the morning show, why did they then give Letterman and you the opportunity to create Late Night, sixteen months later, in February 1982?
By then, it was a case of them having to line up an eventual replacement for Johnny Carson. And Johnny really liked Dave. Dave was a frequent guest host of that show and always a serious contender.
Were you surprised when Dave was passed over for The Tonight Show slot when Jay Leno took over in May 1992?
I guess so. I must confess that this was right after Dave and I broke up, so I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the dramatic arc of this particular opera. In fact, I was purposely doing everything in my power to be paying as little attention to it all as I possibly could.
You seemed to hit your stride so early with Late Night. I’m thinking in particular of the remotes, in which a camera would follow Dave as he wandered around New York.
Those remotes started on the morning show, so we had been doing those for a while. They came out of our mutual fascination with local news. I used to take the camera out into the hall and around the building and down the street and shoot things I thought were funny; like weirdly-worded signs, misspellings, puzzling front-window displays, disputable business claims. I did a lot of research for these excursions by reading the yellow pages.
One of the early remotes I remember very fondly was “Just Bulbs.”
The premise of the “Just Bulbs” remote was pretty much Dave acting as bratty interloper. We went into a store in Manhattan called Just Bulbs. Dave, very innocently, asked something like: “So, what all do you have here?” To which the woman working in the store replied, “Bulbs. We have every kind of light bulb you can imagine. Colored bulbs. Clear bulbs. Flickering bulbs. Every size and shape.” To which Dave, after nodding politely, responded, “Great. And what else do you have?” And it kept going like that until the woman started to get irritated. At which point, in the editing of the piece, we switched to the second segment that took place at a store called “Just Shades.” “So, what all do you have here?” “Just shades.” “Yes, but what else do you have?”
I still am not sure why that strikes me as so funny. But it still makes me laugh—asking really obvious questions and then pinning people to the wall with them. Maybe it’s my background. That was what it was like talking to my parents.
How much of these remotes were written versus improvised by Dave?
Before we hit the street, the premises were carefully constructed and equipped with a bunch of relevant questions that I felt predicted a pretty good outcome. A good premise required some idea of what you expected everyone to say. But Dave was free to add and subtract and ad-lib whatever he wanted. Then, in post-production, I would go through all the footage and create a script. Somehow it would eventually be arranged into a coherent whole. I was very scrupulous about never putting words in anyone’s mouth except for David’s, via voice-overs. Everyone else was free to respond honestly to whatever stupidity we were hurling their way.
There’s a story that after the initial success of Late Night the writers for Johnny Carson were told to come up with more “Lettermanly” material. If that’s true, it’s a major compliment.
I remember that phase, when Johnny was doing bits that looked like our show. It was weird and kind of sad. That style of humor didn’t fit him, and it didn’t look right on him. It was as if Tony Bennett or Barry Manilow suddenly decided to start recording rap songs. Or when Pat Boone was doing heavy metal.
When we began Late Night, Johnny had the right to approve Dave as keeper of the time slot after The Tonight Show. And with this privilege came a couple of basic rules that we inherited on day one. We were told, “There cannot be an announcer/sidekick who sits down to chat with the host.” Also, Dave was told not to do an opening joke monologue.
Johnny didn’t want Dave to do a joke monologue to open the show?
No. He thought the monologue was The Tonight Show’s distinctive signature.
Is this why Dave made his monologue shorter and called it his “opening remarks”? Was this in response to Johnny’s request?
How did Dave feel about this?
I think it was initially confusing for him. Dave was a stand-up comedian.
And what were your thoughts about this at the time, being less a fan of Johnny than Dave?
I thought, If they don’t want us to imitate The Tonight Show too closely, big deal. The Tonight Show consisted, as far as I could tell, of a few distinct elements that they repeated endlessly: the monologue, the guests sitting beside a desk, Johnny’s several repeatable characters, and a segment called “Stump the Band.” That left us with, oh, let’s see . . . about a million other things we could do.
There was a real explosive, subversive nature to those early Late Night shows, specifically with the frequent appearances by Andy Kaufman, comic book writer Harvey Pekar, and Chris Elliott.
That was the hoped-for idea. In the beginning, I used to make a lot of noise about booking a different kind of talk-show guest. And I made quite a lot of those delightful noises for a number of months, until I realized how hard it was to actually book a nightly show. Guests were always backing out. You had to find credible replacements right before air time. As Peter Lassally, the executive producer of The Tonight Show, once explained to me, “There comes a point in the week where Charo starts to look really good to you.” So I lightened up about it after that.
Chris Elliott, however, wasn’t exactly a subversive when we met him. He was about nineteen and giving tours of Rockefeller Plaza. Dave and I were both fans of his father, Bob Elliott [of Bob and Ray], and we liked Chris instantly. So Dave hired Chris with no idea of a job definition for him. Chris’s first task was to make and then post FREE FLU SHOT signs all around the 30 Rock building. I remember seeing one of these really sad little hand-printed signs Scotch-taped next to the elevator buttons.
As for Andy Kaufman, he was a big fan of the morning show and appeared on it quite a few times. He came back to my office early on and told me he liked what we were doing. I remember we once had a first grade class on the show to perform their Columbus Day pageant. Andy really loved that sort of thing.
How well did you know Andy Kaufman?
He was one of the first people I met when I moved to L.A. in 1977. I had seen him on Saturday Night Live and related to him in a big way, because his pieces seemed so art school–esque to me. So we hung out a little. He had started to do a weekly midnight talk show at the Improv in L.A., which he was calling “Midnight Snacks.” At that time, Andy was calling me his “writer,” which I found flattering, since I hadn’t yet managed to get myself hired for real as a writer anywhere else. But no matter what anyone tells you, no one really wrote for Andy Kaufman. He was a one-man band, his own force majeure. You could agree with him, maybe say something like, “You should fill the cup with Pepsi instead of Coke,” and possibly he would consider that. Or just as likely, you wouldn’t be able to tell if he’d even heard you.
My favorite element of Andy’s pretend talk show was the set itself. He had his desk mounted on a platform that placed him a good five feet above his guests. That was pure Andy, and it still strikes me as the most brilliant and completely hilarious vision of the talk show format I have ever seen.
Dave’s famous comment about Andy was, “When you look into his eyes, you get the feeling that someone else is driving.”
Someone else did seem to be driving. Dave was right. But that someone else was Andy—and Andy knew exactly how to do his comedy with that other guy. He was always in control. That’s why Dave really loved having Andy as a guest on his show. He knew Andy would only go so far and no further.
It seems that quite a few Late Night guests tried to imitate Andy’s bizarre behavior. I’m thinking in particular of the infamous Crispin Glover interview in July 1987, when the actor, on the show to promote his movie River’s Edge, wore a blond wig and platform shoes and performed a karate kick, nearly missing Dave’s head.
I seem to recall that Dave was a little concerned about getting kicked in the head. But as a rule, Dave didn’t mind any attendant brouhaha inflicted by guests as long as he thought the elements of chaos were being handled and controlled. That was why he loved having Andy as a guest. Andy’s little circus was always being controlled by Andy.
How picky were you and Dave with material? What was the acceptance rate for jokes? I’ve been told that it was very, very low.
Dave and I had a very intense collaboration that went on day and night when we lived together. But, in most cases, he only liked a portion of the jokes or ideas anyone suggested. Your odds were slightly better if Dave was in on the original thought. Don’t forget, Dave started out as the writer of his own material.
Were there any writing rules on Late Night? Anything that you wanted the writers to avoid, such as comedic clichés?
We wanted them to avoid every comedic cliché, unless the point of the piece was to showcase how something was a cliché. We didn’t like anything maudlin and we didn’t want anything with a sentimental core—unless we were trying to make fun of coy, manipulative sentiment. Otherwise, we were up for anything we thought was interesting and funny, and anything that had an original or authentic quality to it.
Dave and I both really liked words. That was actually the first bond I felt with him. Seriously, I remember admiring his choice of nouns. So when we hired writers, we looked for people who liked to use language very carefully.
Why weren’t there more women writers for Letterman over the years? There has only been a handful, including you.
I was also guilty of not hiring women in the few batches of writers I hired. But in my own defense, this was for a very particular reason: it was my task to hire writers who could replicate Dave’s voice. I was kind of hiring Dave replicates. We were a new show, and I didn’t feel like I had any margin for error. I needed to hire people who could write for Dave the way Dave would have written for himself if he’d had the time. I always felt like I had a gun to my head down there in the bunker. I also didn’t receive very many submissions from women. I was just as picky in hiring men, but their odds were better just based on numbers. I was looking for writing that was a very specific combination of cerebral and silly. The funny submissions I did get from women were often funny in ways that didn’t fit. I didn’t need writers who could create hilarious characters. Dave didn’t do characters. I needed a very specific attitude, use of language, and sensibility.
I had Dave’s voice all analyzed and figured out, because not only did I live with him, but I was preoccupied with creating a show that would please him. Nowadays we call that sort of thing “co-dependence.” But in those days I simply called it “being head writer.”
Did you have any idea at the time the influence Late Night was having on pop culture?
No. None whatsoever.
Really? No idea?
In the eighties, especially the mid-eighties, the show was a sensation. It was featured in practically every major magazine—from Rolling Stone to Time. Were you in the eye of the hurricane, so to speak?
Dave always felt we were on the verge of going down with the Titanic. He always felt that we were doomed because our ratings weren’t good enough. Sometimes I would argue that he was being hysterical and pessimistic, but I couldn’t win those arguments because I also kind of believed him. How did I know if he was right or wrong? He seemed very certain, and I had no idea.
If we were ever experiencing success, I definitely missed it.
Can you appreciate the show more now?
No. Although this interview is kind of making me sound interesting—even to myself.
Why did you leave Late Night in the late eighties?
How to phrase this for public consumption? My personal relationship with Dave was becoming unmanageable. So I had the uniquely unfortunate circumstance of having to back down from a position of power to a position of limited power, all in a misguided attempt at fixing the relationship. Thus, I went from being the head writer to other, lower-profile tasks, such as segment-producing all the remotes. There were such indistinct boundaries between the personal and the professional that none of it really worked out the way I meant for it to. My addled, little brain then imagined, Maybe if I don’t work on the show at all and just pursue other things, everything will be okay.
In interviews, you’ve described “reconnecting” with your writer’s voice after you left Late Night. How did you manage to reconnect? And how was it lost to begin with?
A good collaboration is a melding of sensibilities, and my voice was only lost in the same way that fans of Seinfeld probably couldn’t sort out what was Jerry Seinfeld’s voice and what was Larry David’s. It all became more clear when Curb Your Enthusiasm appeared, and you could see, “Oh, that’s Larry David’s.” In our case, this was Dave’s show, not mine. Dave had his name in the title of the show. He was entitled to be the final arbiter of what material got on.
But when I started writing essays and articles and I didn’t have to seek Dave’s counsel or endorsement, I could finally hear my own sensibility. Now there was no one to please but myself. That was a really delightful feeling. Next thing I knew, Viking asked if they could publish a collection of my magazine columns. That became my first book, What the Dogs Have Taught Me [Viking, 1992].
Since you left the show, you’ve written seven books, both fiction and nonfiction, and have contributed numerous articles to magazines and websites. Do you find writing for print as rewarding as writing for TV?
It’s less exciting, but I guess it is more rewarding artistically. A piece of writing on the page is entirely by you. An editor gives you notes designed to make it be as much about your style as it can be. That rarely happens in TV.
I should probably add that it’s about one-tenth as rewarding financially—at least for me. You can win an Emmy for a script that has your name on it and have only contributed a couple of lines. A friend of mine calls TV writing the “golden handcuffs.” You get hooked on the idea of making big money as a reasonable and worthy trade-off for lack of artistic control. So you stop worrying about whether you are meeting your own needs for self-expression and just focus on the size of your bank account.
Some of the experiences you write about in your books are down-right frightening. I’m thinking in particular of that chapter in Merrill Markoe’s Guide to Love, when you consulted a “love channeler” to help find and keep a boyfriend.
That was very spooky. I showed up at this love channeler’s apartment, and I knocked on the door, which opened to reveal a man sporting a Captain Kangaroo haircut and dressed in an ill-fitting Snoopy T-shirt. To make it more perfect, there was harp music playing on the stereo. “Music to Be Strangled By.”
When I see weird ads in the paper, or things where people make strange claims, I think, Bingo. Perfect! I can get some great comedy from this! But then I arrive at the place, all by myself, and no one even knows I went there, and I can hear that scary narrator inside my head intone, “It all started out as a prank…”
When I was a TV reporter for KCOP in Los Angeles, in the early nineties, I loved to cover weird events. I was the only reporter to attend the opening of a yogurt franchise Mickey Rooney was somehow associated with. Mickey was not amused by my questions. He turned hostile and started making fun of my stammer. And then he stared at me with the cold, dead eyes of a chicken and said, “Look, honey, don’t mess with me. I can get really nasty, and I don’t want to have to do that, because I love you too much.” I remember thinking, Whew! Okay, I’m definitely glad that you love me, because I’d hate to see how you’d be acting if you didn’t.
What sort of questions were you asking him?
“How did you get into the frozen-yogurt business?” “Is this an old Rooney-family recipe?” “Is this connected to Mickey Rooney’s Weenie World?”
Mickey Rooney’s Weenie World?
It was a chain of restaurants that Mickey once owned that specialized in Weenie Whirls, round hot dogs on a hamburger bun, with mustard in the central hole. I remember seeing one of the last ones on Long Island when I was out researching remotes for Dave’s show. I always planned a visit but never got around to it. Mainly, I was attracted to the term “Weenie World,” as any self-respecting person would be. How can you not love a place called Weenie World?
Awkward segue: Are you insulted when certain critics invoke the adage that women aren’t as funny as men?
It is very annoying. Especially since it is so patently untrue. I don’t understand what is wrong with these guys. I assume we are talking about Mr. Christopher Hitchens, whom I rather admire, and Mr. Jerry Lewis, the man who brought us my very favorite horrible movie, the exquisitely painful Hardly Working. It almost seems beneath me to argue this point. It would be kind of like saying, “People should not own slaves.” For the record, there are a lot of funny women around these days. A lot. Many.
I think a sense of humor is something that certain people take on as a protective adjustment to the difficulties of childhood. And when it seems to be working, it’s a hand that they keep playing. I can tell in just a couple of seconds if I am going to find someone funny. It has nothing to do with gender. It’s all attitude and the right kind of brain cells.
It may also be an intimidation factor. If a man can’t keep up with a woman who’s faster and more quick-witted and who has a higher “humor I.Q.,” he might lash out.
This is certainly true. Our culture as a whole is very ambivalent about funny women. But, then again, they do let us get driver’s licenses and learn to read and wear shorts, so I guess, relatively speaking, we shouldn’t really complain. I’m hopeful that the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler surge has turned the opposing army around once and for all.
What do you not find funny?
Comedy with a maudlin center is the opposite of funny. Anything that is meant to trigger both a laugh and bring a tear to the eye has departed the comedy arena for me. Like in a catalog I just received that sells a sign that reads: “Who needs Santa when you’ve got Grandma?!” Same goes for the apron that says, “Pinot Noir Envy.”
Any other comedy pet peeves?
Well, I hate puns. I never find them funny. To me, they are all about, “See what a clever boy or girl I am.” I can’t even make the edges of my mouth curl up a little when someone puns at me. I wind up glaring at them.
I also hate jokes that are made up ass-backward. Someone thinks of a clever piece of verbal gymnastics and then takes the long way around to justify it with a complex setup. The example that comes to mind is a joke that ends with the punch line like “carp-to-carp walleting.” Also, for the most part, I would rather not even read forwarded Internet jokes.
I hate stock improv-group characters that seem to be based not on observations about people but on other famous and beloved stock improv-group characters. Two that come to mind are the theoretical Sean-Penn-in-Fast-Times-at-Ridgemont-High surfer dude and the hair-tossing Valley Girl. If a prototype of these people ever existed, the people now perpetrating the offense never met them. There’s a certain kind of old-timey reverend character that is also in this category. And a certain kind of seventies lounge singer. How many of these can we pretend we find amusing?
This gripe includes hating anecdotes about any kind of stereotypes that don’t seem specific enough to have ever been real human beings. And my complaint cuts across all racial and gender lines. Real human beings don’t behave in big broad strokes. They behave with tiny, exacting, site-specific details. Your stupid McDonald’s employee should be different than mine.
I hate any clichés. Comedy clichés are as big an offense as Hallmark-card clichés, because in both cases they are trying to manipulate you into a response with something prepackaged. If you’re going to get a response from me, I want to hear an individual point of view. If you do an impression, I don’t want to see another version of the same film clip everyone else is using. I don’t want to see the same Jewish mother or black church lady. I want to see the one you know.
I hate plots that hinge on amazing coincidences or overheated misunderstandings. I don’t like to see life remade as too perfect or adorable.
I hate people who talk in buzzword cues they’ve heard other people use and now think amount to humor shorthand. The example that comes to mind is: “He gives good phone.”
I hate anyone who is wise beyond their years. I don’t mind precocious children if they come as a side order with W.C. Fields.
I don’t much like parody songs . . . the Weird Al genre. And I find the category even more offensive when they’re supposedly political. Like “Hark! The Harried Republicans Sing.” Hopefully, there is no such song. I don’t mind funny songs. Or political songs. But, such as with everything else I’ve mentioned, I want original thought.
And as a rule I hate tit jokes. I think every reasonably funny version of the average tit joke was wrapped up and put to bed about 1720. Same with double entendres. I’ve seen all the melon and hot dog confusion I need for one lifetime.
How about things that do work for you? Any advice for novice writers—technical tricks you’ve found helpful?
Where rewriting is concerned, I always think, The bologna rises to the top. When I am in the midst of writing, I tend to hear my words in a sort of sing-songy verse and chorus that’s almost musical. But once I put the work down for a while and then return to it, I have forgotten the melody I was using and I can read what I have written with the ears of a stranger. You need to find a way to get enough distance from yourself to effectively edit and rewrite your own work. And I do a lot of editing and re-writing. A lot.
Don’t be overly attached to every syllable and detail of your work. Your commitment is to making the whole thing work. So you have to allow yourself to throw out sections you may love if they block the flow or seem unnecessary. Tell yourself you can save them and use them elsewhere later. Even if you never do, lie to yourself if it makes it easier.
On a related topic, take a moment to imagine how you will feel when your work is published. Anything that you think will make you uncomfortable or ill at ease… get rid of it. Lose anything that makes you cringe, anything you think is questionable. If you are writing about someone you know in real life and are worried that you are being too mean or that maybe you will feel bad and regret it, change or get rid of it. But, at the risk of confusing you entirely, I have also found that sometimes the pieces I write which cause me the most pain and embarrassment are the pieces others like best. Sometimes it is by working through areas of personal discomfort that you stumble to where your own growth is taking place.
You have to allow your first draft to be really bad. Just throw a lot of things out there and get it on paper. The hardest part of the process is just getting a first full draft. The fun part, if any of it can be considered fun, is when you start to improve the piece through the editing and re-writing. That is definitely where the art is; knowing what to save, what to throw out, what to embellish.
In the end, nothing works except sitting down to write. And then, even sadder, actually writing. Robert Benchley wrote a funny piece called “How to Get Things Done” [Chips Off the Old Benchley, 1949]. In it, he explains his premise: “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” He describes putting up shelves, clipping magazines, sharpening pencils. You don’t get any writing done, but you get all this other work done. At the very least, it’s not a complete waste of time.
You have a very strong and distinct comedic voice. How does a young writer of humor find his or her own voice?
One easy way would be to sit down and write a bunch of material that includes the personal pronoun “I.” Even if you keep a journal, you are hearing your own voice.
Another way would be to begin to analyze why you like what you like. When you can isolate and put your finger on the mechanism you can try to duplicate it in an original way and then apply it.
Count on the fact that, yes, almost everything has been done before, but not necessarily informed with your perspective and details that will make it different.
You just used the word “mechanism.” What does that mean exactly?
Everything has an underlying structure, some kind of a formula, and leave it to me to analyze and identify it. I do that with everything I see or hear. I also do it with everything I read. Consequently, I drive very abstract people nuts.
You see a piece of written work as having structure—like, say, a blueprint or a machine would?
You don’t? I see an underlying structure in everything, everywhere on the planet—including random remarks, bad behavior, and this interview.
In that case, can you see a good way to end this interview?
Yes, but we’d have to start from the very beginning.
Below, John Stewart interviews Merrill Markoe in 2011 on The Daily Show: