Ask The A.V. Club - June 27, 2008
I'm a big fan of your career-advice questions and I was wondering if you could help me as well, although my question is aimed a little more toward the Onion side of things.
I'd like to be a professional humor writer. I was wondering what the best way to get into the business was. I've been looking around for places to submit articles I've written, but it seems like there is a real dearth of places to submit humor pieces, and even less that actually pay.
Is it better to just publish as much as possible on any old website that'll take it, or should I try to hold out for something reputable and printed? Also, I know they aren't looking for writers at The Onion now, but what does the typical resume of an Onion writer look like?
Longtime Onion staffer Joe Garden steps over from the other side of the wall to tackle your question:
I would say that the best way would be to follow in my footsteps: Work a series of shitty jobs, drop out of college, and get very, very lucky. For a full, meandering account of how I got my job, click here. When you come back, I'll begin doling out my condescending advice.
Back? Good. Now, let me ask: Are you sure you want to do this?
First of all, are you funny? I mean, not just flip-your-eyelids-inside-out-at-the-bar funny, but able to come up with a good concept and execute it well? And when you get back from the vet after putting your cat of 12 years to sleep, can you write jokes between crying jags? Comedy doesn't wait for cat mourning.*
Second, being a comedy writer does not mean you automatically get to foist your vision of the world onto people. Instead, it's a ton of compromise. Get used to it. Somebody's got to write the double entendres for Two And A Half Men. Those people are probably very good writers and very pleasant people, but they need to get paid. Writing comedy is a very competitive business, so those plum dick-joke positions are few and far between.
"But," you may well be saying right now, "I'm not interested in the money. I just want to write."
Great! Then write a blog.
Now that's out of the way, here's more practical advice. In fact, a lot of it is going to be "No duh" advice.
I wasn't just being glib with my blog advice. If you want to write, write. Write jokes. Write sketches. Write short fiction. Write a novel. Just write to tinker around. Want to write a sketch? Shoot it on video, slap it on YouTube and seed it around to all your friends. If you want to try to write for a specific medium or outlet, learn the format. Nothing turns me off an Onion headline more than improper format, or a sentence tacked on the end because the joke needs to be explained. Also big turn-offs: jokey words, jokey concepts, jokey characters, jokey cultural references. (Douchebag Pirate Rapes Estelle Getty! Get it?!) And by jokey, I mean hacky.
Meet a bunch of people who are trying to write as well, or are in the comedy scene. By doing this, you can get advice, job leads, and a sounding board for your work. If someone critiques your work negatively, don't get defensive. Give it a little time, mull over what they're saying, and either learn from it, or set it aside.
Do you have an opportunity to write for something you hate? Take it. Everything you write looks better on a résumé, and every writing experience will help you learn a different structure.
Also, you will probably eventually want to get an agent** or manager. As someone who has neither, I can't help you there, but they are apparently very important.
So here's my summation of how to be a comedy writer. Print it out, fold it up, and put it in your wallet next to your 12-steps card:
1) Write your own stuff.
2) Don't be a dick***.
3) Don't say no to any opportunity.
Lastly, there are plenty of aspiring comedy writers and comedians. Give yourself a goal, work really hard for it, but if it doesn't pan out, don't let it ruin you personally. It's hard. If you've finally had enough, figure out something else you could be doing with your life so you're not a bitter, unemployed crank.
Oh, and I may be entirely wrong about everything. After all, I've had the same job for seven years. Good luck!
* Okay, it did wait. I got a brief extension on the article that was due the next day. But that was lucky.
** I actually have a literary agent, but that's another matter.
*** I have, on occasion, been a dick to people, but fairly infrequently, and I always regretted it in the end.
We Wanna Get High, So High
I've noticed an interesting dichotomy that you have with your message-boarding fans. While almost all of them seem to love marijuana and its various good times, The A.V. Club seems to be more on the fence about it than anything else you guys have opinions about. On the one hand, you seem to give pot a type of silent "It's fine by us" attitude with reviews of stoner films like Smiley Face and interviews with prominent potheads like Doug Benson. On the other hand, there's the occasional blog post, usually by Nathan Rabin, that puts in a dig or two toward stoners and their stupidness. So what's the deal? Were some or most of you guys once enjoyers of the weed and have since grown out of it, or are you guys not such big fans of probably the world's most casual illegal drug?
P.S. Sorry about writing that one question to you guys a year or two ago asking it you're all frustrated filmmakers. Didn't mean to ruffle any feathers.
Josh Modell says puff, puff, pass
Thanks for the question, and don't worry about that long-ago question asking if we're all frustrated filmmakers. We stopped crying months ago. To your question about pot, I think I speak for most of our generation (and probably you) when I say that we're not concerned about it at all, really, one way or the other. To satisfy my own curiosity, I took an extremely unscientific poll of A.V. Clubbers. This won't surprise you, but nobody here is virulently anti-marijuana. Or even vaguely anti-marijuana. Without getting too specific, I'll say that over 50 percent don't smoke any, but 100 percent don't give a shit if you want to smoke some.
But there's a second part to that question, which is not about marijuana itself, but marijuana culture and smokers. Stoners, like drunks, can be horribly fucking annoying to be around, especially if all they want to talk about is pot. (I smoked a fair amount in my early teens, but stopped when I realized that pot-smoking became the activity, instead of an accompaniment to another activity. Also, it mostly just made me sleepy.) There's an element to pot culture that's just intensely boring to anyone not involved in it: I wouldn't read High Times any more than I would Bass Fishing Quarterly, but I won't begrudge you your enjoyment of either.
That said, when stoners are funny, they're fucking funny—as are bass fishermen, I assume. I loved Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle not because it's about pot, but because it's funny about pot. I happened across this scene on YouTube not long ago, and it had me rolling (not rolling something to smoke, but rolling around laughing). But as I was watching it, I thought, "The person who wrote this scene was probably not high. It's too funny."
In sum, we don't hate stoners. Or pot. But we're happy to call something out when it's unfunny, or boring, or played—and lots of stoner comedy and stoner-rock is just that. Let me leave you with something Tasha e-mailed me as we were discussing this: "Enjoying pot doesn't necessarily imply enjoying the company and behavior of all other stoners, just like drinking socially doesn't mean you enjoy drunks yelling in your face or puking on your shoes. That stoners-are-stupid attitude may come as much from stoners wanting to disassociate themselves from annoying stoner stereotypes as from non-partakers being judgmental."
Puff the Careless Dragon
Who made this? I've seen this at least three times now, once as part of some weird psychology portion of a class I was taking. Could it just be an educational film? I hope not.
Donna Bowman is also sick, sick, sick:
There's a bunch of versions of the video you linked out on the web, but almost all of them appear to have lost their titles and credits. The reason is that people taped this animated short off of Liquid Television, the MTV anthology show from the early '90s, and that airing cut to the chase, eliminating the first and last 20 seconds or so. But Ian Lumsden at the Animation Blog recently identified the film. It's called "Snookles," and was made by animator Juliet Stroud in 1986 when she was a student at CalArts. A cute, Elmer-Fudd-voiced baby "dwagon" wants to whistle along with a joyful bluebird, but we all know what happens when dragons, um, breathe out. The humor is reminiscent of Marv Newland's 1969 classic "Bambi Meets Godzilla," but instead of the long buildup and quick release, Stroud gives us an extra bit of business—the dragon trying to hide the evidence by stuffing the incinerated bird back into the tree—that really sells the punchline.
Like many CalArts graduates, Stroud went on to work for Disney, doing animation or clean-up on many traditional cel-animation films, from The Little Mermaid through Treasure Planet. She appears to have made the jump to computer animation successfully, working on Home On The Range and Meet The Robinsons. Perhaps with the reopening of Disney's 2-D animation department under John Lasseter, she'll be back at the drafting table soon.
I couldn't find any conclusive evidence (like lesson plans or scholarly papers) of the short being used in psychology experiments, but there's plenty of anecdotal reports that teachers have used "Snookles" to demonstrate something or other. Or maybe they're just fans of bird immolation. Hope it didn't scar you for life, Aaron.
We're back again with questions we can't answer, but that maybe you can. Let us know at email@example.com.
I'm usually very good at remembering snatches from TV shows and movies, but there's a scene bouncing in my head, I don't know if it's real or just something I dreamt: It must have been either a scene from a TV show or a TV movie. A man had died, and rather than leave a traditional will, he left an old-fashioned computer bank (like from the '70s and '80s, all flashing lights and spinning reels of magnetic tape). The computer was hooked to a video screen, and a woman (his daughter, I think) would ask questions into a microphone. The reels would spin, the computer would beep, and the video screen would play a pre-recorded message by the deceased.
I think the story was that the dead man had been anticipating his murder, so he recorded as much as he could. The woman was trying to solve the murder, and by asking questions with the right keywords, she might get an answer. There may have also been a scene where the woman said a secret word, or damaged the machine in some way that allowed her access to a restricted portion of the dead man's recollections. What the hell movie/TV show was this?
When I was a couple years old (c. 1964), I was exposed to a broadcast involving a bunch of folks (teenagers?) trapped in an Old Dark House, being picked off one by one by some bulky mummy-type thing that dragged them off into hidden passages and the like. In the end, our hero is the only one to make it out of the creaky mansion alive, but is blocked from exiting the grounds by some ghoul-thing perched atop the gate gnawing on something. Not sure if it was some anthology TV show like Thriller or an actual movie, but in over 40 years of being a horror hound, I haven't the slightest clue what the damned thing was from. Although at this point, I'm more curious which of your pop-culture archeologists would be able to pull this one out than getting the answer itself. Thanks!
When I was about 8 years old, around 1976 or so, I remember seeing a "documentary" about a manned mission to another planet—maybe Mars. The documentary showed photographs of features on the planet and video footage of what I remember as something burrowing along under ground—proof-of-life sort of thing. I remember there was also an attempted interview with an astronaut or someone who came back from it and lost his mind. I think the angle the show took was of a covered-up space flight and evidence of life on another planet. Does this ring any bells? I have not seen reference to it anywhere, and no one I talk to can recall it—but it was on TV! I'd love to recall the name of this program and watch it again, if it is still available. Hope you can help,
As a kid, I vaguely remember seeing all sorts of random foreign cartoons on British TV in the late '80s. Most of these have faded from my mind in any sort of detail, but one sticks out, as it kinda upset me as a kid. It was set in space as far as I remember, and a little boy crashlanded on a planet which was made up of brambles, and his dad was trying to find him and rescue him. The kid went wandering around and made friends with a dog/aardvark-like creature who then got eaten in a cave protecting the boy from some monster. The kid was then completely alone, as his dad raced across the planet with his friend to look for him. I have no idea how it ended or even how it began. Any ideas out there?