Ted Simons: Best-selling author and former ASU student and professor Laurie Notaro will discuss her approach to writing humor at an ASU Project Humanities forum that’s taking a serious look at what’s considered funny. I recently spoke with Laurie Notaro about the art of being a humorist. Good to see you again. Thank you so much for joining us.
Laurie Notaro: Thank you for having me, Ted. A pleasure.
Ted Simons: We'll talk after the show, but we have known each other for quite a while. I have been able to watch you develop from this person who told a lot of funny jokes and laughed out loud quite a bit to someone who really is --
Laurie Notaro: Fat.
Ted Simons: -- An arbiter of what's funny. You're speaking at this forum, the whole nine yards. Laurie Notaro, what is funny?
Laurie Notaro: I think funny encapsulates a lot, but in a nutshell I think it's tragedy and humiliation plus a day. Pretty much.
Ted Simons: Interesting.
Laurie Notaro: Sometimes it takes more than a day as I have learned in therapy. Sometimes it takes Ativan and a day, and a tragedy. Sometimes it works out that way. Because when you take Ativan, almost everything is funny.
Ted Simons: I see. Remember the old Dick Van Dyke Show? There was an episode Rob Petrie goes to his kid's class. He’s a comedy writer and they ask, “What’s funny?” And he can’t figure it out and he slips on a banana peel, and the kids all laughed. He said that was funny. It was unexpected. When you’re writing, can you transform that into the written word?
Laurie Notaro: Well, you know what happens pretty much, it's become a process -- I didn't realize I was doing this, my husband notified me, put on red alert, this is what -- I hate the word process, I hate it, but this is the way my brain works when I'm working on something. Something terrible will happen, for example we had homeless people living in our backyard, which generally speaking no one would find that too funny, but what I would end up doing is telling my mother that this happened, oh, the homeless guy built a bridge into the backyard. The homeless guy has his stuff in our bushes. He's now sleeping back there like a deer. This he was doing other unmentionable things in my backyard as well. I'll tell my mom, and then I’ll my sister or my friend, then I'm getting the rhythm down, developing the way that that story is going to roll, the way that it's going to go. I didn't realize I was doing that.
Ted Simons: So there is a rhythm and a timing involved.
Laurie Notaro: Oh, yeah.
Ted Simons: Does it lead up -- is it all setting up to -- I hate to use the word punch line, or the phrase punch line, is that what it’s leading up to?
Laurie Notaro: Absolutely. You have to have the conflict. There's got to be conflict in comedy. There can't be any -- nothing is funny without conflict. Then that’s just happy, and funny isn't happy.
Ted Simons: Homeless people in your backyard. You start writing. Are you thinking in terms of a payoff or is the payoff somewhere out there and I'll get to it when I get to it?
Sometimes it happens like that, yeah. That whole story didn't have an ending, it was just a guy sleeping in my backyard until we were cited by the city to clean up our bushes. When I went in there and found what he had in there and then it looked like there was a corpse back there and I had a dead hobo to deal with which is really not funny. That was it. When we realized it was mummified hobo stuff, not really a body. He wasn't dead. That was kind of happy.
Ted Simons: that's a good thing, that he wasn't dead.
Laurie Notaro: Right.
Ted Simons: When you're writing this down, do you laugh out loud?
Laurie Notaro: Not right away. Sometimes I will. I just make a jerk out of myself downstairs in the hall of fame at the Cronkite because someone I hate is on that wall and I'm not on that wall. I did something very immature. I'll laugh later. Right now I'm still mortified.
Ted Simons: When you're actually writing the column --
Laurie Notaro: Do I laugh? Yes. I do.
Ted Simons: Okay. So with that in mind are you writing for you or are you writing for someone else?
Laurie Notaro: Always me. Always me. Always, always, always. I learned this when I was working at the Republic and at State Press at ASU was I had some editors that would try to change punch lines and would try to change the rhythm. I thought, you know what? If I'm going to take flak for something that's going to fall flat it better be mine. My name is on it. It better be my work. So therefore when I sit down to write it has to make me laugh. If it doesn't make me laugh I throw it away.
Ted Simons: Are you ever surprised at things that you didn't think -- are you ever surprised that people will laugh or think something is funny that's not the punch line?
Laurie Notaro: Yes. Yes, yes. Sometimes there will be something that I did not think was like a throw-away like a B-joke. It wasn't the big punch. They will go crazy over that and maybe the big punch line will be lost on them.
Ted Simons: How often is your humor-- Say they got the punch line. They didn't like it. How often is your humor taken completely wrong?
Laurie Notaro: Many times just because it's so completely subjective. I think you and I have a similar sense of humor, but my mother and I do not have a similar sense of humor at all. When you promise someone that you're going to make them laugh and they don't, they have a tendency to get infuriated, angry, then they go to Amazon and write nasty comments about you.
Ted Simons: Yes, they do.
Laurie Notaro: If you make the promise, you spend $12.95 on this book, I'm going to make you laugh, and you don't, it's the wrath -- it's insane.
Ted Simons: How much does the wrath of the insane, how much are they on your shoulder going, that's not funny!
Laurie Notaro: I don't -- [laughter] It's not so much that's not funny, Laurie, that's completely tasteless. More like that. Just because I have few boundaries. Very few boundaries. I will write about anything.
Ted Simons: With that in mind, when is funny not funny?
Laurie Notaro: Oh. When you're sober. [laughter] Drinks always help. I think funny is not funny if you haven't developed it. You have to -- you have to set the staircase up for it. You have to really do a good back story so everybody understands where you're coming from, what your perspective is, so they get exactly what you're saying when you go to make that punch.
Ted Simons: Well, okay, let's from a different angle, same kind of question, is funny funny when it's also hurtful?
Laurie Notaro: Yeah. I'm afraid so. I'm afraid so. [laughter] Sometimes it's even funnier then. When I worked at The State Press there were times I would take jabs at a situation or a person in that situation and even the Republic I would. I figured, well, you did it. You did that. I'm just retelling the story. If you did something ridiculous I have every right to alert the public to that. However, some of those things were really funny. When I take jabs at my mother, that's very funny. It does hurt her feelings, though.
Ted Simons: How does she feel about that?
Laurie Notaro: She hates that part of me. [laughter] She told me this morning she was going to sue me. I said, that's fine but Dad will be a witness on my side, so knock yourself out.
Ted Simons: A column is coming from you the minute we hit the courtroom. [laughter] I always ask this about creative people. So I'm curious. I kind of know a little bit because we have gone back quite a bit. I remember your writing when it started and how it developed. It’s very impressive, and we're all very proud of you. When did you know that not just a writer, when did you know that, I'm funny and I'm good at this?
Laurie Notaro: I still don't know that. I still don't know that. You know, there are many, many people who don't think that I'm funny. I'm not sure when you finally have that realization that you're funny I'm not sure when David Sedaris did or Larry David had that realization. Maybe they don't care. Maybe it's what's insular to them. I'm kind of that way. Mainly if I think it's funny and my husband thinks it's funny then I'm kind of okay with that. But I don't think there was ever a time, especially when I was working at The State Press, I fell into that because I was the editor of the magazine. My humor columnist was in jail for being a drunk driver and missed his deadline so I had to come up with something really fast. I just kept doing that week after week.
Ted Simons: Is it easier now than it was then?
Laurie Notaro: I hope it's better.
Ted Simons: Is it easier?
Laurie Notaro: It's not so much fun that it's not that hard. I hate writing but it's more that I hate deadlines.
Ted Simons: You lived in Arizona for so long, you high tailed it up to Oregon where you're still living. Are people funnier Arizona or in Oregon?
Laurie Notaro: In Arizona. Hands down.
Ted Simons: How come?
Laurie Notaro: Hands down. I'm not sure if it's because the Republicans are more funny, but I think where I live now in Oregon is a very, very liberal place and I'm fine with that, I really am. But they are so liberal and so open minded that they're offended at everything I say. I have gotten almost booed off the stage for depicting an Italian accent yet those are my people. So I thought, wow! Okay, you can talk about anything else over there. You can talk about child prostitution, they laugh at that, they laugh at scatological stuff. They love it when girls are dating married men. But you make fun of an Italian whom they probably never met and the show is over.
Ted Simons: But Arizona is funnier?
Laurie Notaro: I think so.
Ted Simons: Well, it’s good to see you again, congratulations on all your success. Continued success. Thanks for joining us.
Laurie Notaro: Thank you, Ted.