The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Friday, November 27, 2009
On the Write Track
This has been a pretty slow year for me business-wise. While I'd like to blame the economy, my own listlessness is the real problem. Maybe reading a few books about writing will give me the kick in the ass I so desperately need. Speaking of kicking...

And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft by Mike Sacks - I knew I'd like this book, but I didn't think I'd plow through its 337 pages so quickly. To my surprise, I even enjoyed the chapters about writers whose work I have never read or seen. I wish Sacks had spoken with more stand-up comedians and fewer TV writers, but that's just my personal preference. The six interludes of "Quick and Painless Advice for the Aspiring Humor Writer" are very useful; I only wish there were more. And Here's the Kicker has a misleading subtitle, however. Most of Sacks' questions cover what the writers have done rather than how they do it, so the focus isn't really on "their craft." Regardless, I'd recommend this book not only to humor writers but also to fans of comedy in general who like to hear "behind the scenes" stories. Note: See the book's Web site for excerpts and bonus interviews.

Some Writers Deserve to Starve! 31 Brutal Truths About the Publishing Industry by Elaura Niles - This humorous look at getting a book printed imparts many valuable lessons about dealing with agents, publishers, and fellow writers. Aspiring authors will learn a lot, and published authors will laugh or sigh in agreement with many of these "brutal truths." Niles includes many anecdotes from her own experiences and those of others. It's a quick read in an informal format, but the information is pretty good.

100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost - Like Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This, 100 Ways is a book that I purchased years ago when I changed careers. There are a hundred similar books out there, and getting a variety of perspectives about how to write well is a good thing -- as long as one doesn't spend more time reading about writing than actually doing it. Provost's book is as helpful as many others, although parts are quaintly outdated (don't type your final draft on onion skin paper!). Just the fact that it's still in print after 37 years is evidence of its value. Most of these tips are applicable to all writing; don't look here for genre-specific guidance. Also the format is convenient for reading in small chunks a few minutes at a time.

Current tally: 90 books finished, 83 books acquired

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Saturday, October 03, 2009
My Favorite Talk Show Host
My wife and I are big fans of Craig Ferguson. We've seen his stand-up show live, we've seen his stand-up DVD, we've seen most of his movies, and I've read his novel, Between the Bridge and the River. During his first year as host of The Late Late Show, I actually missed him on weekends. I've been waiting anxiously for several months since I heard he was putting out a memoir/autobiography, American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.

Any fan of Ferguson will no doubt enjoy this book. It nicely fills in the gaps in his background that he only alludes to on television. If you want to know more about his ex-wives or his years as a punk rock drummer, American on Purpose has the details. And unlike many comedians, he doesn't recycle material in his book. In fact, I was surprised that many of the amusing anecdotes he has told on his show were left out (for example, on TV he tells how he was bored in Winnipeg and shaved his entire body; in the book, he describes shooting a movie in Winnipeg without mentioning the shaving incident).

I read this book aloud to my wife, and (predictably) we both loved it. I wish it was 50-100 pages longer -- his recent years in Hollywood are practically a blur (surprisingly little about The Drew Carey Show considering how long he was on it), and I'd like to know more about The Late Late Show and his citizenship process. I also wish there was an index. One of the things I love about Ferguson is his ability to be simultaneously hilarious and human; that emotional element makes American on Purpose a great book. I laughed plenty, but I couldn't read it aloud without an occasional lump in my throat. The photos are a hoot, too.

Current tally: 76 books finished, 69 books acquired

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Black Comedy
Both of these books are funny, but like many books by comedians, they recycle a lot of material from their stand-up routines. If you like the performer, you'll like the book, but if you know the comedian's material well, you won't find much new here. On the other hand, if you don't like the comedian, it's unlikely that anything in these pages will change your opinion.

Rock This! by Chris Rock - My wife's favorite comedian is Chris Rock so when I saw this in the Borders bargain bin, I had to get it for her. It was a perfect gift because I knew I'd enjoy it as much as she would (although I bought it for her, I'm including it in my "acquired" count since I read it). It's hilarious, as one would expect, but to someone who has seen all of his HBO specials over the years, it sounds awfully familiar. Rock This! is even written in a stand-up-like format with lots of short paragraphs (i.e., pauses between lines).

Yeah, I Said It by Wanda Sykes - I haven't seen as much of Sykes' stand-up, but according to reviewers, this book reuses a lot of jokes, too. At least Yeah, I Said It is formatted more like a regular book. It helps to imagine Sykes' voice while reading (even if you haven't seen her comedy routines, you may have seen her acting on The New Adventures of Old Christine). Yeah, I Said It is occasionally political, so right-wingers will undoubtedly be offended.

Current tally: 75 books finished, 68 books acquired

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Sunday, February 24, 2008
Books by Comedians
Sometimes people who are funny on stage write lousy books. Without the benefit of timing, inflection, and other techniques, jokes can fall short. These three books, on the other hand, are solid literary forays from comedians:

All three books also serve as irreverent autobiographies, but naturally, anything in a humorous book should be taken with a grain of salt. If you like the character portrayed by Colbert or Larry, you'll like their books. If you like Carey and don't mind lewdness, you'll like his book, too. If you don't know any of these guys, take a chance on Colbert's book, which is all around the most entertaining and (relatively) least offensive.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007
I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America's Top Comics
Lately there has been a dreadful trend in comedy of filming tours and compiling DVDs of the between-show antics. I guess the premise is that comedians are funny all the time. But they aren't, and those "on the road" DVDs are an awful waste of time. As a wanna-be comedian (I can be funny, but I can't tell jokes worth a darn), I should appreciate such glimpses into the lives of touring comedians, lives that I, on some level, dream of living. But I don't because they just aren't funny (David Cross: Let America Laugh was so bad I ejected it halfway through, and I never do that).

I Killed, compiled by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff, is what those self-indulgent DVDs wish they could be. The book collects stories from dozens of comedians ranging from old-timers like Red Buttons to Jay Leno to Larry the Cable Guy. Because only a tale or two from each lifetime of travel are included, you get only the very best. There are some duds, but most of the stories are at least amusing and some are wet-your-pants hilarious. There is a bit of insider jargon, but it's easy enough to figure out. Because the stories are never more than a few pages long, I Killed is convenient for people who only get small chunks of time to read. Just make sure it's someplace where it's okay to chuckle.

I don't want to ruin any stories, so here is a short one in its entirety from a page titled "Not In New York Anymore"

* Joey Novick We were three New York comedians in the Deep South, and the directions given to us by the club were, "Go past the Italian restaurant." We drove back and forth for an hour till we realized the "Italian restaurant" was a Pizza Hut.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys stand-up comedy.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006
The Early Show with Craig Ferguson
Though Craig Ferguson is host of the Late Late Show on CBS, we'll be seeing him at the early show on May 26 at Zanies, a comedy club in St. Charles (too bad he isn't appearing at Zanies in Chicago -- not only would it be much easier to get to, but the city's smoking ban is now in effect).

Before my wife's work schedule changed, I used to watch Ferguson every night. I still think his monologue is easily the best on television, both in content and delivery. The way he takes one topic and runs with it for 12-14 minutes every night is amazing. When we got Netflix, his movies were among the first in our queue. Saving Grace and The Big Tease were both funny movies, even if they covered some familiar ground (a gay hairdresser isn't exactly a novel character). My wife likes him, too, and she keeps saying we need to see the Late Late Show live sometime. While I would like to, I've been to Los Angeles once, and I don't intend to ever return (see Death Cab For Cutie's "Why You'd Want to Live Here").

Needless to say, we're both looking forward to seeing him do stand-up, even though we'll have to postpone our trip to Colorado for a few days.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006
My Finger on the Pulse of America
No, really. At least this once. The Chicago Tribune had a teaser on its homepage:
The Unsexiest Man in the World is...
And I blurted out the correct answer! I didn't even have a second guess; it was like I just knew. I didn't even think enough people knew Gilbert Gottfried's name to vote for him, but who else could it be? Okay, maybe Michael Jackson, but he's not so much unsexy as nonsexy, just androgynously unappealing. The funny thing is, Gottfried isn't even seen much these days, just heard. It's interesting that aural unsexiness is enough to win the prize. I suppose it is an encouraging sign for our society, however, that people are not sexually aroused by the voice of a duck.

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Saturday, May 07, 2005
A Mitch Hedberg Moment
I was off my diet yesterday (more often than not lately, but that's a topic for another time). I forgot to eat breakfast at home, so I stopped for a box of Munchkins at Dunkin Donuts. They have fewer calories since they're smaller, right?

Anyway, the man at the counter (server? cashier? donut wrangler?) filled up my box (10 cinnamon powdered and 15 chocolate glazed, if you must know), rang up the total, took my cash, gave me change, and said, "Have a good day, sir." I wished him the same, but before I could turn around and walk out, he asked, "Would you like a receipt, sir?"

In his comedy routines, Mitch Hedberg used to say
I bought a donut and they gave me a receipt for the donut. I don't need a receipt for the donut - I'll just give you money and you give me the donut. End of transaction. We don't need to bring ink and paper into this. I can't imagine a scenario in which I would need to prove that I bought a donut. Some skeptical friend? "Don’t even act like I didn't buy a donut, I've got the documentation right here. Oh wait, it's back home in the file... under 'D', for donut."
I had to chuckle as I said, "No, thanks." The man is gone, but the laughs go on. Rest in peace, Mitch.


Monday, January 24, 2005
So Long, Johnny
Like almost everyone over the age of 25 or so, I was saddened to hear of Johnny Carson's death on Sunday. My parents watched him all the time; for all I knew, the other channels played "The Star-Spangled Banner" after the 10:00 news and went off the air. I grew up with Johnny. For a while, my bedtime was 10:30 when he came on. Sometimes I was allowed to stay up to see his monologue. When I got older, my bedtime shifted to 11:30 so I could watch the whole show. Johnny was a constant through my teenage years, and he retired as I graduated from college.

I still recite bits from his show. Just the other day I repeated one of my favorites, a spoof on the Ernest and Julio Gallo wine commercials. After "we will sell no wine before its time," they cut to Johnny dressed up as a bum with a brown paper bag in hand. "It's time!" he exclaimed, taking a swig from the sack.

I'll never forget when Julio Iglesias was on the Tonight Show, and Johnny came out dressed as Willie Nelson to sing the duet "To All The Girls I've Loved Before." That was especially appropriate considering that Johnny was married four times!

Another area where Johnny stood above other talk shows was in developing (and playing) recurring characters, like Carnac the Magnificent and Floyd R. Turbo (of whom I am reminded every time I see a hat with ear flaps). I also remember recurring gags like the Slawson Cutoff and the law firm of Dewey, Cheatham & Howe.

Johnny was such a great all-around entertainer, someone who could tell jokes, do interviews, and perform in sketches. Just look at how many people have failed with talk shows and remember that Johnny succeeded for 30 years. There will be many tributes this week, and the Tribune has an excellent obituary. A few years ago I bought my parents a "Johnny Carson Collection" video set. I wish I had my own to watch tonight.

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