Time for another edition of 5 Questions where I interview someone that I find interesting. This week we have Jackie Papandrew a syndicated humor columnist. I wanted to interview Jackie because I find having to write humor for a mainstream publication a daunting prospect and something I clearly couldn’t do. (What I can’t use the f word?) Also I am just interested in breaking down how people come up with their humor.
1) Jackie you are a syndicated humor columnist with a long history of copy writing. How did you get into writing humor? Who are some of your influences?
To tell you the truth, I started writing humorous pieces more as a form of self-therapy than anything else. I was going through a difficult time, and I decided to write down some of the funny things that had happened in our family as something to pass on to my children. I was already working as a technical writer and doing some freelance writing as well. When the stories made my family and friends laugh, I got up the nerve to send them out to some regional publications, and they were published. I started writing more humor essays and after about a year, I sent several samples out to newspapers, suggesting they take me on as a columnist. Most of the papers rejected me, but several did take me on, and by some miracle, after three years, I still have all the original ones plus a few more. My column is also published on about a half dozen websites, which is probably the only way it’s going to survive, given the state of newspapers today.
My influencers are all very recognizable names: Erma Bombeck, Dave Barry, Garrison Keillor. I think I’ve read every word written by those masters of the craft.
2) Obviously what you can write in a newspaper column versus what we write on here on this blog is night and day as far language, content, and length. I kind of look at it like comedians working on HBO versus the Tonight Show. At times do you ever feel restricted working in the newspaper medium as far as what you can and can’t write?
Yes, all the time, especially because most of the newspapers that publish my column are community papers with pretty conservative standards. It’s not like I write anything very risqué, but I have written things that my newspapers would not print. I wrote a piece about my husband’s, er, complaints about the frequency of certain marital activities. It came out of a fight we had where I got really mad at him because he wasn’t helping out as much around the house as much as I thought he should. He made some comment, and I grabbed a nearby bottle of Formula 409 spray and slammed it down on the counter in front of him and said “Formula 409 is foreplay, baby!” I wasn’t saying it as a joke, I was being sarcastic and I was definitely angry. But later, I ended up turning that comment and the episode into a Do and Don’t List for men. It has become one of my most popular online columns, and it ran in several magazines, but most of my newspapers wouldn’t print it.
(My husband kept a bottle of 409 on the nightstand in our bedroom for a while as a joke. I think that’s as close as he ever came to actually using it.)
3) Are there any topics that you find overused and inherently unfunny because of how often people use them as a crutch? (Personally I never need to hear another airline travel joke again.) Also what words, sounds, phrases, and topics do you just find naturally funny and drawn to?
I think mommy humor is becoming so ubiquitous that it’s losing the power it had when Erma Bombeck was doing it virtually alone. I still write quite a bit of mom humor myself, but I try to find some quirky angle to set it off from the rest in some way. I’m not sure how well I succeed at that, but I do think we’re in danger of having so much humor about raising kids that everybody just stops reading it. The man versus woman thing is also pretty well saturated, although people still find it funny. But I’ve heard and read enough humor about the differences between the genders to last a lifetime. It has to be something really unique to make me laugh now.
As you can probably tell from my writing, I love alliteration. When used properly (not that I always manage that myself), it’s naturally funny. The ‘K’ sound is supposed to be naturally funny and I think that holds true. I once interviewed the founder of the Spanx hosiery company (the men reading this may not know the name, but I’ll bet the women do), and she told me her college marketing classes taught her the value of the K sound in a company name, as well as the value of just a hint of something ‘naughty,‘ which is also one of the things that makes people laugh. So she named her new company Spanx, a brilliant move. Topics that are naturally funny are sex – of course – and the most basic living situations like family, marriage, even bodily processes, all the universal experiences that everyone on the planet can relate to.
4) One of my favorite targets is the Parade Magazine insert from the Sunday paper. The questions in the opening cover about celebrities (which I contend are made up but lets say people actually send them in) make me question the collective intelligence of the country. As a newspaper columnist that hears from a wide range of readers, what is the overall quality of the mail you receive and how often do you lose faith in humanity after reading it? Who should we fear more the anonymous blog commenter of new media or the crackpot that actually takes the time to write a letter to newspapers?
Most of the mail I get is from smart, perceptive people. I know this because they find me funny. I don’t usually lose faith in humanity after reading my mail. (Reading the daily headlines is a different story.) I get more fan mail than hate mail, but when I do get hate mail, it’s usually because someone takes everything I say way too seriously and doesn’t catch the tongue-in-cheek part. So I sometimes lose faith in people’s humor perception. More often, though, I act like a typical female and blame myself for not making it clear enough for everyone to get. I definitely fear the anonymous blogger more than the crackpot who still takes time to write letters to newspapers. That’s because when even the crackpots give up on newspapers, all the newspapers will disappear.
5) Do you find that you observe things differently being a writer specifically a humorist?
Definitely. I seem to notice things that “normal” people don’t and I seem to have a strange way of looking at things – an overly dramatic way, as my dad would tell you. It’s made me an oddball to my family and those generous people who consent to be my friends. But it comes in handy when writing humor.
You can check out Jackie at her website www.jackiepapandrew.com, she also has a book of her columns out in the next few months.