Twins 'n' Grins
One of the online-only features over at the Believer website is this conversation between comedy-writing twins Mark and Steve O'Donnell. Steve was the head writer at Late Night with David Letterman from 1983 to 1992. Mark's written many funny things, including Vertigo Park and Other Tall Tales and this essay, which was originally published in The New Yorker. Mark teaches comedy writing at Yale.
MARK: Well, what we share is a Midwestern sense both of dubiousness and good nature. That may be what leads to a lot of comedy writers' becoming comedy writers. Good nature and skepticism.
STEVE: I agree with that, and of course we have way much more in common than distinctions. But the fact that I had a couple micro-ounces on you meant that I was born first, the larger of the two babies, and have remained the larger of the two. Then there's the sociological element, the pecking order of the family, that you were the tail end of the line, I think you have a term for it—
MARK: Low man on the scrotum pole. Yes, and though people say, "Ooh, you're both comedy writers!" and even though I wrote for Saturday Night Live, I gravitated toward books and theater, and you toward TV, even though you write beautiful prose and draw really well.
STEVE: I still think the significant question is why two different paths were taken by two people with similar upbringings.
MARK: Yeah, but in our day-to-day life we're not so wildly different. When I visit friends and make jokes about their bric-a-brac, they say, That's just what Steve said.
STEVE: Yes, I acknowledge that, but why are we conducting this interview? What insights are we supposed to be offering here?
MARK: Well, we're talking about what it's like to be writers, as well as to be brothers.
STEVE: I don't think anyone cares about that.
MARK: I assume the people who read this are likely to be writers themselves. Well. I aspired from early on to write a novel, to be in the New Yorker, to be on Broadway, and at least in a fleeting way, I got all those things. Is there anything you’re burning to do that you haven't yet done?
STEVE: Hmm. To write any complete work, be it a book or play or movie, that is most purely oneself, with as few compromises and outside interferences as possible ...
MARK: You and Letterman were a good match. Those Top-Ten books were on the best-seller list—
STEVE: Well, they weren't technically books. Even the Times listed them under "Advice, Miscellaneous and How-To."
MARK: But they were continuously funny, and as comedy goes, they had a kind of poetry to them.
STEVE: Well, that's nice to say, and I appreciate your mentioning the "Top-Ten List" as my little asterisked entry in the record books of comedy, even though it was a perfectly ordinary idea that has certainly gotten its use and re-use and re-use—
MARK: You couldn't have dreamed of being a Letterman writer as a kid, but it was a perfect realization for your sensibility.
STEVE: I felt giddy and exalted when I got the job. Our high-school guidance counselors—who, we might as well say now, in semi-print, were scandalously incompetent—did have that one chestnut about "Find that thing you do well and go out and do it." I felt that with Letterman.