David Lubar’s awesomely awkward hero Scott Hudson isn’t great at high school, but it’s hilarious to watch him try. In Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, he jumps into the great, sweaty, hormonal adventure that is freshman year—right before his life became infinitely more complicated by his mother’s unexpected pregnancy. Scott decides to write a survival guide for his unborn brother, filling him on on athletic embarrassments, English-class discoveries, and the mystery of girls who’ve been around forever, but have suddenly turned gorgeous. In Sophomores and Other Oxymorons, out this week, he’s embarking on his second year of high school when another piece of unexpected news from his parents sends him back to his journal. Scott figures he’s got sophomore year on lockdown, but soon learns (lucky for us) that he’s terribly, hilariously wrong. Here’s Lubar on the people that helped make him funny.
Out of the 12,427 books published for teens last year, only 196 were funny. (I made up that number, but this is Internet, where such things are allowed, expected, and even encouraged.) Out of the 34 books I’ve written in the past 20 years, I’d humbly claim 33 are funny. (The 34th can be excused, since it’s about death, murder, and revenge. We funny guys need to go totally dark once in a while to keep the universe in balance.) While my knack for humor can, in part, be credited to (or blamed on) the way my brain is wired, I suspect much of the credit belongs to the material I fed that brain when I was young and impressionable. Given that I recently read several enjoyable books that look behind the scenes of comedy, including the wonderful And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft, and that I am seriously addicted to Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, I thought it would be fun to share a list of my own early inspirations.
Jean Shepherd wasn’t famous for being a writer. He was famous for being a storyteller. He spun tales of his childhood, growing up in an Indiana mill town with a colorful array of friends and family. He told stories about fishing trips and marching bands, about bullies and heroes. I listened to him in the 1960s, on my transistor radio. If you feel you’ve never heard of him, or heard him, I’ll add that one of his best loved stories was about his desperate desire for a Red Rider BB Gun. Sound familiar? If you’ve watched A Christmas Story, you’ve seen many of his tales blended into a movie, and heard his voice as the narrator. Though he told the stories on the radio, he had to sit down and write them first. A master builder, he taught me a lot about storytelling, timing, and humor.
Rod Serling was a brilliant writer who created many of the most memorable teleplays in the early days of TV. He also created The Twilight Zone. His boldness in tackling the dark side of mankind, along with his amazing use of surprises and twist endings, influenced me especially in my passion for writing and reading short stories. As for the darkness found in much of his work, comedy and horror are twins, each relying on surprise at the terrible thing that happened and relief that it happened to someone else. (I guess you could say comedy and horror were separated at mirth, but that would be a pretty bad pun. So let’s pretend the thought never came to mind.)
Charles Addams was a cartoonist who specialized in very dark humor. His work inspired a TV show and several movies about the Addams Family (as well as a classic pinball machine). One of his most famous cartoons shows a snow-covered hill with a skier downhill from a tree. The ski tracks split at the tree, one going to the left, the other going to the right. The reader (or viewer) takes a moment to process the impossibility of this, and then gets the joke. Another of my favorites shows a woman ironing clothes in an apartment. Pants and shirts are hung all over the place. After a careful survey of the room, the reader notices that one of the pairs of pants has three legs. I learned subtlety from Charles Addams. You can leave out a lot of the joke, as long as there is enough for the reader to make the connections.
The staff of Mad Magazine, along with their regular outside contributors (aka, “the usual gang of idiots”), influenced me during all the years I was a loyal reader. They published a broad range of humor, from movie parodies to political and social satire, as well as things that were just fabulously silly. This was my first taste of edgy humor, and my introduction to the idea that you sometimes have to take risks when going for a laugh.
Ogden Nash wrote amazing poems. They’re referred to as light verse, but there’s nothing light about making people laugh with two short lines of poetry. I was a big fan of light verse as a kid, probably because someone gave me a copy of Humorous Poetry for Children (edited by William Cole). Even though I mostly write prose, good poetry helps any writer develop an ear for language, and good humorous poetry helps sharpen comic talents.
Carl Reiner is a comic genius who has been writing for TV and movies since the 1950s. His son Rob Reiner directed one of the best movies of all time, Stand by Me (based on a Stephen King story). Carl Reiner created The Dick van Dyke show, a TV series about Rob Petrie, a man who wrote jokes and sketches for a comedy program. The moment I saw this, I wanted to be Rob Petrie. I was enthralled with the idea that I could make a living writing jokes. I’m not sure whether to thank him or blame him for this.
Bennett Cerf, who founded Random House, is best known for the brave act of defying the censorship attempts of the government and publishing James Joyce’s banned novel, Ulysses, in the United States. (Like Carl Reiner, he has a son who has entertained you, but I’ll let you look up that connection. This piece is already long enough.) These are great achievements, but he did something more crucial to my development: he collected jokes. And he published them in enormous books. I read those books. I devoured them. Yes, I read entire collections of jokes. Despite the promises on the jackets, this did not make me popular at parties. But it definitely helped school me in the conventions of humor. A joke is, essentially, a story in its most distilled form. The best jokes, in the manner of Charles Addams cartoons, let the reader make the final connection.
Tom Paxton is a singer/songwriter who became popular in the 1960s and ’70s and is still going strong today. Like many folk singers of that era, he wrote protest songs. But unlike most activists, some of his songs were very funny. He wrote humorous songs on other topics, too, including one of my favorites, about fancy funerals. Check it out here when you’re dying for a laugh. As with light verse, humorous songs helped teach me to say things in a concise and powerful way, and to appreciate the rhythms of language and of humor.
James Thurber and Robert Benchley (two for the price of one!) wrote humorous essays. They were able to take everyday, ordinary frustrations and make light of them. (I guess they were the Seinfelds of their times.) They both had a keen eye for finding humor in all sorts of places. Robert Benchley hung out with Dorothy Parker, who is one of the funniest writers of all time. But I met her works later in life, so I’ll save her for when I do a list of later influences. I like to think the humor in my novels rises from the situations my characters find themselves in, and not just from a couple smart-mouthed people tossing jokes and insults at each other.
Wait, let’s make that last pair two for the price of two, which completes our list of ten. There are many more influences I could name. But I don’t want to keep you from moving on and seeking out a Jean Shepherd story, a Charles Addams cartoon, an Ogden Nash poem, or one of the other wonderful inspirations I’ve shared. Have fun. The laugh’s on me.