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Reinhold Niebuhr once said, Humor is a prelude to faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer. To which any contemporary magazine editor might respond, Whatever, just keep it under 900 words. Among the esoteric knowledge that magazine editors have special access tomentally filed between Frank McCourts home phone number and the release date of Angelina Jolies next motion pictureis a deep understanding of the nature of humor. And the first noble truth is that written humorbe it spoof, satire, wit or wordplayis most funny when kept to a single page. Preferably the back page. Leaving room for an illustration, thats 900 words. Eight-fifty, really, but we can tighten it up in galleys.Over the years I have authored many short works of magazine humor. Nothing trailblazing, but all publishable. I am, in short, a hack. Recently (which is magazine-speak for long enough ago that if I told you the date you would probably flip quickly past this article in search of something more topical) I had an unsettling experience that perhaps all hacks go through in their careers. I realized that all these rules I had internalized had begun to work against me, so that what began as a charming idea ended up as a perfectly-crafted but thoroughly boring and unusable 900-word essay. Like Gollums ring, or whatever that parable was lifted from, the source of my power had become the engine of my destruction.My story begins with a catchy lede: a stuffy quote from the depths of Bartletts followed by a snide, slangy rejoinder. Thats a classic way to start a humor piece. Always preferable to a laid-back, punchline free anecdote. Which is how my story really begins.....
In September 1996, my mother and stepfather moved out of the brownstone where I grew up. Cleaning out my old room, I found a stack of Playbills from Broadway shows that I had seen as an adolescent in the early 1980s. Some of these were productions that had been popular at the time: Amadeus, Deathtrap, Penn & Teller. But many of them, I was reminded by the evidence at hand, had been less popular. Indeed, they had been spectacular disasters. Theres an amusing story in this somewhere, I thought to myself. Freelance journalists are always alert for story ideas that dont require too much research.As it happened, a friend of mine had around this time begun working for a certain mens magazine, which Ill call GQ. She had been encouraging me to pitch ideas for the magazines Enthusiasms section, in which writers wax whimsical about experiences they are enthusiastic for. Bullfighting, the perfect martini, sex with supermodelsthat sort of thing. I decided that I would be enthusiastic about Broadway flops.It was a good premise. In addition to fitting the publications existing rubric, it was similar to the theme of a book that had sold well a few years before. Derivative ideas are proven ideas. It was also, however, a false premise. I was not genuinely enthusiastic about Broadway flops, I simply happened to have seen a lot of them a dozen years ago. In other words, I could either write an unaffected, aimless story about something I found interesting or I could write a feigned but tightly focused story that I could sell for a dollar a word. It was not a tough choice.....
A word about choices. That first one was my own to make and I made it before I had even told anyone my idea. The next poor choice would also be my own as would most of the ones that followed. No editor ruined my work. I did it myself, through a series of small compromises and pre-emptive edits. On the other hand, had I not done so, the result would have been equally unpublishable. It would have been a decent read, perhaps, but it would not have been a one-page humor piece. And if it wasnt a one-page humor piece, the magazine world would simply have no frame of reference for it. Imagine showing up at an editors office with some exotic African ungulate, such as the Günthers dikdik, with its intriguingly pronounced proboscis. The editor may prod it curiously and it may even bring a smile to his face, but you couldnt very well ask him to squeeze it into the May issue.....
Not quite as impossible, but right difficult just the same, is selling a magazine article without a news peg a topical matter that readers already know and care about on which to hang the story you really want to tell. Fortunately, Broadway shows flop all the time. I simply had to pick one that seemed in danger, go see it before it closed, and be enthusiastic about it for one perfunctory paragraph at the beginning and a second one at the end. I could even expense the ticket.Reading the sections of the newspapers that I usually skip over, I learned that one new show was generating particularly bad buzz: Titanic, a musical about the famous maritime disaster. This was shortly before a film on the same subject had been released to great commercial success, so no one could have predicted yet that Titanicmania, so called, would sweep the Broadway version to profitability and even acclaim, which is what happened in between my pitching the story and having to write it. Employing a news peg that was not only an evident device but also now wholly inappropriate, the first paragraph of my first draft was a convoluted mess. The second two paragraphs, though, I still think are pretty good. And now we come to the real point of this story, which is to cannibalize the decent sections of the piece so that all that work will not have been a complete waste.
Psychologists say that children whose only form of parental attention is punishment learn to equate punishment with love and seek out abuse in their adult relationships. Something like this explains my enthusiasm for Broadway flops. As an adolescent in the early 1980s I was repeatedly and mercilessly exposed to the worst the Great White Way had to offer. I remember those days fondly. In what I now recognize as post-divorce maneuvering for the title of Most Exciting Parent, my father made Broadway shows a frequent treat. Needless to say, my father knew virtually nothing about Broadway except that it was expensive and that my mother never took me. Because he believed that "newer is better," we often saw shows that were still in previews. Some of them never made it out of previews. That was the fate of my favorite musical ever, "The Little Prince and the Aviator."
Needless to say, I dont even have a favorite musical ever, and if I did, I doubt it would be The Little Prince and the Aviator, which I barely remembered, but put that aside for now because as it happened my first draft somehow got lost in the GQ office and months went by before I had any contact with anyone there again. By which time my news peg was not only inappropriate and gimmicky, it was also no longer topical.Fortunately, a new peg presented itself in the form of Paul Simons The Capeman, an indisputable and widely reported flop. Because of its notoriety, it was even better than Titanic would have been. Except that my premise, by now unalterable, was that I love Broadway flops because they are so extravagantly tacky. And though the Capeman was the biggest flop in Broadway history, it turned out that there was nothing outrageous or bizarre about it. It was merely dull.Gritting my teeth, I opened my second draft with a few strained gags, hoping that it would be enough to keep people reading until they got to the whimsy.
That was the fate of my favorite musical ever, "The Little Prince and the Aviator." It was based on The Little Prince, the children's classic about a pilot who crashes in the desert and meets a boy from another planet. Adding three words to the title may have been a mistake, but that's nothing compared to the insanity of adding 23 song-and-dance routines--with lyrics like, "There is more to me than your eyes can see/Ha ha ha ha ha hee hee hee hee."Dad and I went shortly before the scheduled opening. The director and choreographer had been fired a few weeks earlier. The script was still changing daily. When asked if he was optimistic, the star, Michael York, had told the Daily News, "I'll be staying in a hotel, rather than lease an apartment."Then things began to go wrong. In one scene, as the aviator tinkered with his plane, the little prince proffered "a simulacrum of my heroic voyage to Earth." A miniature asteroid floated out of the wings, orbited across the stage...and got stuck on the wing of the airplane. The audience sat in pained silence while York climbed onto the plane, shoved the planetoid free, and grouchily ad-libbed, "Some simulacrum." What Dad and I wanted most out of Broadway was spectacle. Spectacle lured us to the $2.5 million production of "Frankenstein"--then the most expensive non-musical in history. There was an exploding laboratory! A burning cabin! Real lightning generated with 800,000 volts of electricity! There was scented fog! Unfortunately there was also a script. A script so hokey that the mad scientist actually shouted, "It's alive! IT'S ALIVE!" Not after opening night it wasn't.Dad joked that we were a jinx, but I began to resent his selections. Our next outing was a turning point."Rock 'N Roll! The First 5,000 Years" was a musical from the creators of Beatlemania: a two-hour medley of rock's greatest hits, performed by imitators and enhanced with multimedia montages of the moon landing, the Kennedy assassination and so on. (To justify the full title, there were also random images of ancient Greece and the Spanish Inquisition.) The show began with a musty recording of Frank Sinatra being rudely interrupted by a live rendition of "Tutti Frutti." From there it was on to "Rock Around the Clock" and so on in 30-second segments through Elvis, Dylan, James Brown and "Tubular Bells." You know, the classics. Wig changes carried the show into the present day, culminating in a remarkable simulacrum of the Go Gos. My 13-year-old mind read this teleologically, as proof that pop music in 1982 was at its apex. Only now do I understand it was all downhill from Sinatra.
Magazines like GQ love it when you suck up to Sinatra. Even without the word teleologically, which my editor removed repeatedly, this draft could not fairly be called tight or punchy, which are requirements of the genre. I had already cut some material, mostly quotes from lousy reviews these shows had gotten. Even as a hack, I knew it was wrong to milk other writers decade-old one-liners for my own humor piece. One-liners like: "The evening was rendered endurable by the astonishing special effects" (Brendan Gill on Frankenstein) and, "If I had to describe 'Rock 'N Roll! The First 5000 Years' in one word it would be 'nauseating'; if I had two words to do it in, I'd use 'nauseating' twice." (John Simon).With some reluctance I cut a strained joke involving Cats and Ed Asners back hair (my editor insisted, and rereading it, I see he was right) and compressed everything else into a version that was shorter but not sleeker, and that was better only in the sense that it could now fit on the page. The only section that improved in the third draft was the part about the last of my youthful excursions, Doonesbury: The Musical.
Then came Doonesbury: The Musical, a Frankenstein-style experiment in transplanting the brain of the sardonic comic-strip (I remember some cracking good Granada jokes) into the body of a toe-tapping revue. Towards the end of Doonesburys fifteen-week run, Garry Trudeau lost his briefcase in a cab and offered free tickets as a reward for its return. History does not record a return.
Thats pretty funny. And if it is an unacceptably abrupt ending, it is decidedly better to how the piece really concluded, with a lame attempt to rhapsodize about my (nonexistent) enthusiasm for Broadway flops, and, fulfilling the humor columns demand for symmetry, a pointless mention of The Capeman.As for how this story ends: with a deeply satisfying symmetry of course. GQ finally abandoned the piece and when three other publications also passed on it, including, to my acute embarrassment, a webzine, I finally buried it. I had learned a valuable lesson about the true spirit of humor.
Originally appeared in McSweeney's #2, Winter/Spring, 1999