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Episode XXXIX: "I should send Jazz Boy to my mom and see what she thinks"
In this installment, I speak with Blythe Roberson. Topics include getting into comedy writing, the different between The New Yorker and ClickHole, her process, people not realizing Onion headlines are jokes, Schumer, Franzen, feminism & more.
Today I’m talking with Blythe Roberson, a writer and comedian. Blythe has contributed to The New Yorker, The Onion, ClickHole, McSweeney’s, The Hairpin, Splitsider, Above Average, HuffPo Comedy & more. Let’s start easy—how did you get into “comedic writing”?
So I went to Harvard with the idea that I was going to be president one day, but then I got there and everyone else was much more intense than I was and I was just like, one of these people is going to be president one day. I decided I'd do something more fun and less competitive—comedy writing.
Although at Harvard comedy writing is actually super competitive so that pretty much failed.
And so you decided nothing was worth doing. But then...
And then I crawled into a hole in the ground and that’s where I am today, avoiding conflict.
The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Onion, ClickHole. Each has a very distinct voice, and it would be nearly impossible to imagine a given piece up to the standards of more than one (perhaps the first two share ground, and the last two as well, but still). When you begin writing, can I assume you have one specific publication in mind? Do you find this tailoring of your own voice somewhat limiting? Do you find the constraint stimulates creativity? Both?
The process of actually submitting is very different for the first two and last two. For The Onion and ClickHole, I don't want to give too much away because I think a big part of those sites is how the editorial side is shrouded in mystery, but essentially I'm one of a roster of contributors for each site and we pitch a set number of jokes every week. So I literally just sit down and try to think of ClickHole or Onion jokes.
For The New Yorker and McSweeney's, it's more of like, I'll write a prose piece to read at a show or something, and then see if either place will take it. I actually have no idea what McSweeney's voice is so I get stuff rejected all the time. With The New Yorker it's a little easier to tell—like, I was sitting on my floor complaining to my roommate (who is a consultant) about how this guy I was hooking up with told me he started dating some other girl, and I was like "ugh I should just hire you to be a consultant on my love life." And even as I said it I was like, wow that's a New Yorker idea. And it ended up being my first Daily Shouts piece!
How would you describe the "Shouts and Murmurs voice" with, like, less than ten words?
Funny stuff happening to people who could conceivably live in NYC. That’s 11, so sue me.
You said that McSweeney's is harder to nail down, which it is—kind of like The New Yorker's weirder cousin who you wouldn't want to be alone with for too long. Let's give it a go either way: eleven words to describe the McSweeney's voice.
Language of one thing mashed up with another thing—maybe? That’s 11!
Okay, I'll take it.
You’ve made some hilarious videos (I’m especially a fan of “Actual Dialogues from an English Language Textbook”). The difference in the type of game/hook/conceit (whatever you want to call it) of a sketch video and that of a written piece is substantial. Do you feel like the ideation of each comes from a different part of you? Is there a certain aspect of your humor that tends to work better in print than through pixel, or vice-versa?
Ooh good question! I can’t believe you watched Actual ESL dialogues. I think...a lot of ideas I have just randomly while talking or reading or bugging my friends by doing bits instead of actually like, paying attention to them. And it's pretty easy to know if those are prose piece ideas vs. sketch ideas vs. movie ideas or something.
For prose pieces it's a lot more formulaic for sure, like "here are all the jokes I can make about a phone, here are all the funny things about Greek tragedies," I write all that into a doc and then just move the pieces around. I think for sketch/video stuff, since I'm very much not a disciplined sketch writer anyway, it's looser and can have way more one off weird shit and be less joke dense.
And then there’s stuff like Actual ESL Dialogues where we are literally just reading from a Vietnamese / English textbook. No writing involved.
Part of the fun of sites like The Onion and ClickHole is that the humor is not all-inclusive. In fact, there are people who share the articles of each unaware that it’s a joke. In my mind—and this is a gross generality—the smaller the audience who will get a given joke, the funnier it is to those who get it. People are funniest with friends they know best, and jokes tend to fall flat when they try to hit a large swath of the population (one reason why politicians will never be funny). Do you agree with any of what I’ve just said? How have you learned to find the sweet spot of inclusion, if such a concept exists?
Ooh! Hmm hmm. So many thoughts on this one.
Let's hear them.
So as to the phenomenon of people not realizing that some Onion headlines are jokes, I'll defer to something that Will Tracy and Seth Reiss (the old EIC and head writer) used to say in interviews which is that, these are supposed to be jokes and they are trying to make people laugh, they're not trying to trick someone. When people "fall for it", I think it says more about the world or at least that person's worldview, than the actual joke itself.
Classic example is the Abortionplex headline, like it says a lot about abortion opponents that they think that kind of thing would be plausible.
I think ClickHole on the other hand, is a REALLY REALLY funny voice which is so aggressively weird and different from what anyone else is doing—like after the "are you a big jazz boy or little jazz boy" thing came out, one of my roommates was like—there is someone writing a thesis about this right now. Like that level of weird. And I think it doesn't play to everyone but the people it hits, it hits even harder for that.
And again I don't want to take more credit than is due to me, I have nothing to do with those classic ClickHole pieces, that's all the staff writers in Chicago.
I think the jazz boy piece is exemplar of a sort of absurdity that actually would hit a lot of people; absurdity, because it doesn't cling to any one world view, has that power. (Feel free to disagree.) One of the ways I find ClickHole is hitting a small target, is when they're satirizing a certain type of article you find a) annoying, and b) frequently shared in earnest by people on your feed. It almost feels like relief—finally, someone else finds this sort of thing as terrible as I do.
Hmm interesting thought about Jazz Boy! My thought with absurdity is it either really hits you or you just like, think it's so stupid and boring and I think it's harder to like, intellectualize why. Like my thought is that if I sent Jazz Boy to my mom she would just be like...Ok? She wouldn't hate it she would just be like, why are you asking me to spend my time on this. But yeah, when they're satirizing those specific article types, that definitely is more like, well if you're familiar with this it's great and if not just ignore this article. I should send Jazz Boy to my mom to see what she thinks.
Haha. Yes I agree re: Jazz Boy and mothers. But at the same time I see people who are our age just reveling in the absurdity of it; without it really "hitting" they might appreciate the "kookiness" of it, and like it in the sort of communal way we sometimes choose to find something funny. Thoughts?
Yeah, it definitely seems now that our generation is like "THIS IS OUR HUMOR." Like everyone is talking about their fake sons, which is very eerie because like, I knew these ClickHole boys as just boys before the site launched, and now everyone on twitter is talking like my friend Adam. What once just Adam would joke about is now what everyone in our demo jokes about. The internet is very weird and scary in that way!
Agreed. And speaking of change. The “work” that satire does in a culture has been a “hot topic” recently, mostly in light of the Charlie Hebdo attack. There’s another side to satire that’s not so overt, or political. Amy Schumer could be the country’s current premier comedian, and her work is objectively satire (with her main target being underlying sexism). To ask a very hazy question very bluntly: do you think Schumer makes a real difference in the culture’s perception of women?
Oh yeah for sure, I think it's a huge coup to have people laughing at and talking about sketches that are explicitly feminist. There's this Oscar Wilde quote that is like, "if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh otherwise they will kill you."
That's a great quote.
Right?! I'm almost 80% certain it’s real. I think also though, even though people are like "omg feminist sketch comedy", I think that your ideas just come out of what you're living, and so if you're a woman those are just your lived experiences, ya know? Like, I deal with sexist bullshit all the time and it's just on my mind in the same way as the book I'm reading is on my mind. So it's feminist just in that, Amy Schumer is a woman speaking about her experiences! Like that quote like, "what would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open" by some woman named Muriel or something.
One last thought on this is I got drinks with a guy recently who told me he didn’t like Amy Schumer because she was too feminist.
Did the date end at that second, or did you at least let him finish talking about his glory days on the JV football team?
I sat through 9 more hours of football talk. Because, again, I hate conflict.
Oh that's good. From a guy's angle, I can tell you that nothing gets my goose more than a girl who will just sit and listen for a full work day's worth of time.
Do you think then, that Schumer's popularity is partly owed to the fact we've just recently arrived in a time when that POV can even be digested?
Hmm well, she's clearly really fucking hilarious no matter what. I think everything is connected and the zeitgeisty-ness of feminism definitely contributes to the fact that those sketches exist and are popular. Which hopefully that will open more to people other than white, well-off women soon too! It's crazy to think that so much of comedy through history was just white guys. Because they are not funny and have nothing to say! They ran out like 50 years ago. My good friend Lily who is also a comedy writer has a theory that that’s why white male comedians are always writing about "topics".
I love it. It's funny to think that Schumer's unique talents might be used from a different POV at a different time period. It's always weird to look at a talented comedian from decades ago, and you can tell their jokes were cutting edge then, but now they seem a bit soft, or at least, their jokes have been appropriated, and it just doesn't feel as fresh as it once did. Are you worried when you're 60 you won't understand what the hell kids are joking about, and that what you find funny will just appear staid and useless?
Well I'm a female Sagittarius so my like "peak age" is supposed to be when I'm 60, which I really believe to be true. So I think I'm going to be this fabulous elder statesman of comedy who like, is really funny and revered and like, gets what the kids are talking about for sure. I think part of older people not getting younger peoples comedy is the tendency to get more conservative as you get older but I'm definitely not going that route. I'm like, radicalized.
But who knows——maybe I'll end up hating teens for no reason, that could be fun too.
How have you felt your own sense of humor change since your college days?
I think I got way more comfortable making jokes about myself and not just topics!
Escaped your white manhood, in other words.
OMG Andrew! This is a thing I feel very strongly about which is that, everyone should say literally all the time.
OK BUT WAIT. In college I was trying to get on the Harvard Lampoon, which at the time was basically all white guys, and they’re very big on like "pulling comedy from the void" and had such a specific voice that yeah is just not personal at all. So trying to write for them taught me to write jokes but not like, about anything funny you know? So now I just try to write about shit I actually care about and that other people care about too.
What do you care about?
In terms of what I write about, pretty much feminism, dating, literature, National Treasure and hating Jonathan Franzen. Social justice.
Franzen could be too easy of a target, no?
Yeah so the thing about Franzen is that everyone hates him and I know it's like "overdone" to hate him, but I know in my heart of hearts that I hate him too and I'm not going to let outside influence dissuade me from making jokes about him.
I get it, but I also feel like he's the inverse of bacon. Like I don't want to hear about how much you love bacon because it's obvious. I'm not telling you not to hate him (or anyone), but...
Yeah I feel like I'm a little bacon-head in the sea of bacon fans and I'm just like, trying to be in my own little orb where I feel okay about my bacon feelings and try to be okay with this weird cultural thing happening alongside it.
Well, I don't think there's a better note to stop on than that. We're nearly out of time. Any last thing you'd want someone to know about the world of satire, or the world of Blythe Roberson?
I want me and satire to remain mysterious.
Thanks for your time Blythe, and your words.
Thank you! This was fun.