Shocks, Breaks, and Gags
The following is an excerpt from this Atlantic Unbound interview with Ian Frazier.
Your writing career began at The New Yorker. How did you get started there?
When I was just graduating from college, in 1973, I didn't know what I wanted to do -- I was just going to go back to Ohio and kick back -- and I looked in The New Yorker and there was a profile of Jonathan Winters, my favorite comedian. I thought, If that's in The New Yorker, maybe I can write for them. That piece was by Bill Whitworth [later The Atlantic's editor]. He did many great profiles, and I admired them enormously. Everything else in The New Yorker was on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks or something, and I didn't know anything about that at twenty-two years old. I had been on The Lampoon at Harvard, and I'd written a lot of humor pieces for them, so I just sent a whole package of stuff down to William Shawn. Then I met with the personnel director, and he said that he thought there were too many people from Harvard there. That really cut me to the quick, because I felt like I was never even really present at Harvard; I felt like a complete outsider. I thought of myself as a Midwesterner. So I went to Chicago and worked for Oui, a spinoff of Playboy, writing captions. It was not the most glorious thing I ever did in my life. Oui published what they considered sophisticated, French-type pictorials that were just extremely cheesy. It was naked guys and women at some resort in Mexico -- very wild and sybaritic. It took all my creativity. It's one of those things you think anybody could do. But anybody can't do that; it's really hard. It was just completely wrong for me, and so I split after about six weeks. But when I came back to The New Yorker, which I did the next year, and said I had been working at Playboy, that kind of surprised them. At my first meeting with Mr. Shawn he said, "So what were you writing for this magazine?" And I said, "Oh, they mainly had me doing the S&M stuff, the leather, the whips." Which wasn't even true -- I don't know why I said it, I guess I was trying to shock him. He was this extremely polite guy and said, "Oh my God!" Then they gave me a job as a "Talk of the Town" reporter, and I was there for twenty years in various capacities. I resigned in 1995. It was a great place for a long time, but it became impossible for me to stay when Tina Brown was there.
Many of your humorous essays start with some quirky thing that you've read -- a magazine mention of satanism and university presidents turns into a commencement speech gone very wrong, for instance. In general, what sorts of things spark ideas, and how do you spin the ideas out into a piece?
I just like anything that's fun to play with. Some really ridiculous thing that somebody says, or a voice that's really exciting, a voice I had never really thought of before. In Coyote v. Acme I poke fun, for instance, at Bob Hope's voice. I have every book that Bob Hope ever "wrote" -- and his voice just really got under my skin. It's such a Cold War voice -- it's like the American winner, the winner of World War Two talks like this. I loved that voice, so it was fun to do. And that's a lot of what goes into a humor piece, finding a voice that I like. The problem is, I've never found a voice that I can sustain for longer than about 2,000 words without getting sick of it. That's why I admire something like Charles Portis's True Grit -- or Huckleberry Finn -- because it is a voice all the way through, but it doesn't get tiring.
Dorothy Parker once said about humor writers, "There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind. There must be a magnificent disregard for your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it." Do you agree with her assessment? How do you think about the reader as you're writing?
I don't have a disregard for my reader in humor pieces. What I like about humor pieces is that it's such a win or lose situation. You can't say, "Well it's a wonderful piece, but I didn't laugh." If you didn't laugh, it's not a humor piece. That kind of damning criticism is not really available to the reader of a short story. They can say, "I didn't get it, I thought it was pretentious." But they can't give you that one kick in the shins that ruins everything. I think it's great that there's a kind of writing that can be destroyed with a single sentence. I just think it's more fun to do.
Nobody will really pay you to do humor pieces at any length. In my case, I don't get that many ideas in a year, so I could never really support myself at it. It's extremely perishable; many, many humor pieces depend on references that are only of the moment. Most humor has that "you had to be there" quality. Publishers don't particularly like to do collections of humor pieces, unless you're a national columnist or someone who already has a following. It approaches being the least cost-effective thing to do with your time as a writer. But I'm addicted to doing it; I just keep trying. A friend of mine said, "to write something on a piece of paper and put it in a mailbox and to have it appear in a magazine, and to have a person you don't know read the magazine and laugh until he cries -- that's a great achievement." To me that's like getting the space probe to Mars and getting it to tell us exactly what's happening. It's a hard thing to do, and yet it can't look hard, it has to look like you just tossed it off. I love to do it, but I also like to do really long and serious and painful kinds of things.