A frog, a horse, and a smaller horse

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

β€” E. B. White

I just watched a great five minute video of Jerry Seinfeld explaining the process of writing a joke about Pop Tarts. It took him two years to write a bit that will likely only last ten minutes. He fussed over syllable count and rhythm like a musician. I couldn’t do Jerry’s laundry, but these are the same pains I take when I write jokes for Twitter.

Some jokes come together in a couple tries in one sitting, some take a long time and several revisions. One of the jokes I’m most proud of took me weeks of revising, cutting, copying, pasting, and reordering. Here it is:

I’d love to know what this guy in the next stall is paying that Foley artist. The man’s gallop is so good I can almost smell the horse.

β†’

Let’s have frog legs for dinner.

  • I’m in a bathroom stall, which is automatically funny.
  • There is some raucous activity happening in the stall next to me. Also funny. If you’re keeping score, that’s now a second bathroom stall, along with some loud bathroom noises.
  • The noises are so vivid I believe they are coming from a Foley artist. Foley artists use to work for radio shows making believable sound effects live on the air. That’s a pretty funny occupation by itself, but it’s made funnier because the only people left doing Foley work in the 21st century are employed by Garrison Keillor.
  • The Foley artist is doing his work in the stall with the other man, and since I’ve not said anything about this being a handicapped stall, you may believe it’s sufficiently cramped in there.
  • The Foley artist is there because he has been paid well to ply his trade while another man uses the bathroom. Why? Is it for the edification of the other patrons of local leaving houses? Is it for his own amusement? You get to decide! Isn’t this fun?

Now, we could have stopped the joke here and it would have been complete. But let’s continue.

  • The sound effect the Foley artist is performing is the distinct trip-o-let of a horse gallop, which is funny because there is clearly not actually a Foley artist in the stall next to me. There is just a single man alone in the misery of his body trying make sense of what must have been a dinner of curry and firecrackers.
  • Referencing the gallop sound, we make a broadly absurd situation funnier by adding specificity. Rear ends making noise are funny. Rear ends making the specific rhythmic pattern of a horse’s gallop are funnier still because rear ends are not known for their dexterity.

Now we get to it.

  • So completely has this illusion been created in the theatre of my mind, and by a Foley artist so gifted I might wonder what princely sum it would take to hire his services, that I believe a horse is running in place in the stall next to me, and that the usual men’s room smells are indeed the earthy musk of a fine equine specimen.

It took weeks to get this right, to boil these eight-odd multiple sentence bullets down into 140 characters with 5 to spare.

Why am I telling you this?

Because Twitter is my night club. There’s less smoke and I can kick people out at 9pm. And while comedians measure their work by laughs in the night club, we measure it by little golden stars on Twitter. That’s how we know you’re laughing.

That joke got 13 little golden stars, which is nothing comparatively, but I was pleased as I could be, because I worked hard for each one of them and several were from my other funny friends, whose work I respect.

The real real reason I’m telling you this is because yesterday I posted a tweet that got 22 little golden stars. What flights of humor did I perform? I posted a photo of a pumpkin in which I had carved a symbol from my daughters’ favorite cartoon. With the photo I said “All the days of my life led up to the moment I carved Rainbow Dash’s cutie mark into a pumpkin.” β†’

Rainbow Dash is the name of a character in the children’s program My Little Pony. A cutie mark is a butt tattoo on each pony that tells you at a glance what their power is. I was making a throw-away joke about how my entire life had been orchestrated so that I would live to be 35 years old and spend an hour carving a magical pony’s butt tattoo into a pumpkin for my children. Is that funny? Well, yeah, it is. But it’s not two-men-and-a-Foley-artist-walk-into-a-restroom-and-I-can-smell-the-horse funny.

And it wasn’t 22 little golden stars from my funny friends telling me they laughed. It was 22 little golden stars from a bunch of grown, male, childless fans of My Little Pony (Bronies), all of whom apparently receive keyword alerts when someone tweets about magical ponies with butt tattoos.

Well they can keep their little gift horse. I’m headed over to the second stall to get a look at that Clydesdale.

“I wrote a thing.”

An impromptu discussion broke out on Twitter a few days ago among some writers and myself regarding a bit of language that had been gnawing at me. It’s the trend of tweeting, “I wrote/made a thing: [link to thing].” I’ve done it, as have several writers and creators I respect, but there is a subtlety there that doesn’t sit well with me any more. It’s a cocktail of insecurity and self protection that is not helping any of us.

If you have used this phrase when sharing your work, take a beat and examine why. Then confidently share what you worked hard to make.

Commit.

I almost forgot

My mom recently sent me a bunch of my old stories from a blog site I used to frequent. There are several I’d forgotten about until she sent me the copies she’d made. Mom’s are great like that.

A lot of the stories are from my Florida days, and, boy, was that old stuff purple. It’s fun to look back and see the beginnings of my voice developing, but I’ve wrestled with how to treat them: keep them all in my personal archives, edit and rewrite, or post them as-is.

There are merits to each, I’m sure, but I know there are certain old stories I’ve repeatedly told over the years – the perennial stack – that change and tighten with each telling. So that’s how I’m going to proceed with these. I’m going to tell them better, but I’m also going to keep copies of them as they are, for posterity.

Rereading these old stories made me appreciate the benefits of keeping an unpublished daily journal to record the everyday stuff I don’t want to forget. For example, I didn’t want to forget that story about Jim and the boa constrictor, or the incident on the side of the road with the lunatic with a food beard, but I did forget about them. Due to the sweetness of my mom, though, I remembered them, and I also remembered I used to write things down.

I’ll drop them in here and there over the coming weeks. Meanwhile, I’m going to try to write something every day, because now I have four little ones, and though very often the chaos has me within an inch of my mind, there are a lot of tiny sweetnesses I want to hold on to. Think about joining me, not to have something to post, but to have something to remember later.

Reveling in brevity

Can’t and Won’t is Lydia Davis’ new book of very short stories. It was recommended to me yesterday when I posted the link to my story, Travel Journal, on Facebook. A dear friend of mine said it reminded him of the NPR story he heard about Lydia Davis. What I’ve read of her work so far is delightful.

From the NPR interview:

On the moment when she realized that she didn’t need to write long to write well

I can date that pretty precisely to the fall of 1973. So I was 26 years old and I had just been reading the short stories or the prose poems of Russell Edson. And for some reason, I was sparked by those. I thought, “These are fun to read, and provocative and interesting, and I’d like to try this.” So I set myself the challenge of writing two very short stories every day just to see what would happen.

I don’t get the impression she sat there wringing her hands saying, “I can’t try this, it’s that other guy’s thing.” You and I shouldn’t either.

On how she knows when to end a story

I think I have a sense right in the beginning of how big an idea it is and how much room it needs, and, almost more importantly, how long it would sustain anybody’s interest. And that’s sometimes been a problem with a story when it’s sort of offered me two ways that it could go, and I have to choose one or the other.

This is interesting to me because Travel Journal started out as something Davis may have considered complete. It sat in my Drafts app for months as:

Ralph bought a pair of fingernail clippers at a convenience store in every city he’d ever visited. He kept them in a low-lit China cabinet on little stands he made himself. None of them had ever been used.

I almost posted it like that, but I wanted to know more as I typed. What’s this guy’s problem? Where is the sweetness, is there room for it? Is he alone?

That wanting to know more felt a little like the idea of excavating the story. Merlin Mann writes about this in Clackity Noise (Merlin likes to get salty, so caveat church lady.).

And the length of a story doesn’t affect its (please in earnest forgive me for this sin against you) “stickiness.” From my friend, Daniel on Travel Journal:

I will also say, the beauty of these (including yours) very short stories is the details that you reflect on later. On my run today, it occurred to me that maybe Ralph literally always forgets the clippers and it’s become the sweet joke between the couple.

I feel emboldened to write more tiny stories, and I hope you do, too. It’s good for you, and it’s free.