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September 17, 2013

Host: Ted Simons

Author Laurie Notaro

  |   Video
  • Best-selling author and former Arizona State University professor Laurie Notaro will demonstrate how to incorporate humor into literature and writing as part of ASU’s Project Humanities “Humor….Seriously” event. Notaro will discuss her approach to writing humor.
  • Laurie Notarto - Former Professor, Arizona State University and Author
Category: The Arts   |   Keywords: literature, writing, humor,

View Transcript
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.

Phoenix Mayor Stanton

  |   Video
  • Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton will talk about issues regarding the city in his monthly appearance on Arizona Horizon, including his recent trip to China to meet with leaders of 1,600 leading global companies.
  • Greg Stanton - Mayor, Phoenix
Category: Government   |   Keywords: phoenix, update,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The issues of pension fairness in general and pension spiking particular are both front and center at Phoenix city hall. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton joins to us discuss those and other city concerns. Good to see you again.

Greg Stanton: Good to see you. Happy to be here.

Ted Simons: Let’s define terms. What is pension spiking?

Greg Stanton: That's exactly what we have an ad hoc committee doing. This is a very complicated issue. Nobody likes the idea of pension spiking but getting to a legal definition, what within our compensation is spiking, what isn't spiking. A lot of policies have been in place for two decades or more. So we're going to go back and relook at some of our policies, what is fair moving forward. How can we be most transparent? We did pass pension reform last March. It's going to save the city a lot of money. We eliminated some pension spiking through union contracts. We're in litigation over that now. When that case comes to a decision we'll have more of the contours of what we can do and can't do. A lot of it has to do with what you can do moving forward for new employees prospectively versus retrospectively. Usually when you do anything retrospectively the plaintiffs have been successful in that litigation. We don't know what's going to happen in ours, but that's ongoing right now. We're making some recommendations moving forward making sure we're following the law and also what's the right thing to do.

Ted Simons: In general terms, unused sick and vacation time counted towards your pension payout. The idea is it inflates your end-of-career compensation. A general definition of pension spiking.

Greg Stanton: Your pension is determined by an average of your last three years. Anything that would sort of artificially inflate those last few years is what we're looking at. My goal and I think the goal of the majority of the council is not to drive down compensation in the city. We want to make sure we are compensating our employees. We have outstanding employees in the city of Phoenix, very talented people. There's a reason why we have maintained a Triple-A credit rating, even through the economic downturn. We are a well-run city; we’re not a perfect city, but we are a well-run city. The goal is not to drive down compensation. The goal is to be as transparent and fair as possible. Some of the practices again have been in place for multiple decades. I think most people including myself have said, look, we need to change those policies so it's more transparent so the public knows what the pension is based upon.

Ted Simons: Taking information from the Arizona Republic, they’ve done a lot of reporting on this, they are leading the charge on this, “spiking is allowed for some workers, not others.” True?

Greg Stanton: Sure. Just like I would say that there have been different pay scales for different workers. We have five different labor groups that we negotiate contracts with in the city. We don't have a uniform contract. We contract individually with those various organizations. We vote on it by council. Just like, by the way, we voted on the city manager's contract by - vote for the current city manager's contract. We voted to kinds of keep the current policies in place. I think myself and others have said when we hire a new city manager and we're among all the other issues we're dealing with, we’re in the process of hiring a new city manager we said we're going to eliminate pension spiking in any future city manager contract because leadership starts at the top. To an extent there have been differences in that system, and part of this ad hoc committee is to come to uniform definitions as to what is pension spiking so that as we adopt the policy we can be fair to everyone across the board.

Ted Simons: The fairness issue comes up again. The idea of the city council fighting the rank-and-file from pension spiking, there are reports that executive upper level management the fight isn't quite so strong against them and their pension spiking. Is that fair?

Greg Stanton: As it results -- the issue of the city manager, some of the things we discovered recently regarding the city manager's contract-- I think that is a fair criticism. Exactly why we said immediately that for the new city manager contract we're going to make sure we eliminate any pension spiking. The whole point of the current ad hoc committee, they have one month to make their recommendations, is to make the system as fair and transparent across the board. Let me reiterate. We have outstanding employees in the city of Phoenix. We have to make sure we compensate them fairly so we can attract and retain the very best people. We are an important entity in this organization. We don’t want to pay people such a low amount that we don’t attract high-quality people, but we want to do it in the most fair, transparent way. That's the reason why we're going through this important process of eliminating pension spiking. If you were to say you've treated this group one way, this group differently, this is exactly why we're going through the ad hoc process. The committee right now chaired by vice-mayor Bill Gates, a fair, even-handed, really intelligent member of my council leading this committee. We're going to lay the foundation for uniform recommendation on pension spiking and that’s the whole reason why we’re doing this.

Ted Simons: So it has happened. You and others say it’s not necessarily fair as it exists. Time to change. Still and all, how does the city manager wind up with I think the Republican worked it out to over $2,000 per year pension and then the next day takes a job somewhere else. I mean, I understand the changes. Sounds like they were needed. How did it get to that point to begin with? Was anyone not watching that particular store?

Greg Stanton: Well, here's the deal. We want to make sure that our city manager – by the way, just like we want to make sure for our employees up and down the line are paid a competitive compensation package. So we knew it was controversial when we gave a salary increase to our city manager but if you look at other city managers for cities our size we're still at the relatively low end of that scale. At the end of the day, the city manager, you pay your city manager what he or she is worth. You want to have a compensation system that allows you to be competitive in case your city manager leaves or retires so you have a pay scale that is fair. We want to be a most competitive city so people want to stay. I wish Mr. Cavazos nothing but the best in his next position. I want to hire a city manager as we’re going through the process now that stays well beyond my two terms as mayor and probably well beyond the terms of the existing council members. You want to get someone that will stay for the long haul. You can only do that if you have a great system under which to operate and a competitive compensation system.

Ted Simons: And yet, one more point, It can be argued that you got the guy the raise, the humongous raise in tough times and through criticism. Only one negative vote there on city council.

Greg Stanton: It was 8-1.

Ted Simons: You got him the raise, he's gone anyway. That doesn't necessarily guarantee -- again, arguing from the other store, it doesn't guarantee they are going to stick around.

Greg Stanton: Let me tell you something right now. The police chief could resign tomorrow and leave for another job. The head of our public works department, head of our parks department. You want to make sure you have an overall competitive compensation system. You don't want to pay too much or too little. You want a competitive compensation system, and you want to have a work environment they want to stay in. We're running a very important organization in this very large, important organization, but we don’t have a system where you have tell people you have to stay forever. You have the ability to leave. Mr. Cavazos, I wish him nothing but the best in the next position. As mayor, I'm looking forward to the next city manager as well as how to lead the city forward so we can be one of the leading economic cities in the world. That's what I'm going to continue to focus on as mayor.

Ted Simons: How is that process going?

Greg Stanton: For the city manager search or -- the city council made a decision the assistant city manager, an outstanding professional, will be the acting city manager. In the meantime we're going to do a national search. It's important that a city of our size and importance in this country do a national search for our city manager. We want to make sure we get the best and brightest people. We also give full and fair opportunity for our most talented people within our organization that they have the opportunity to compete with that job. We have top talent within the city we think can compete nationally but it would be inappropriate not to engage our national search. We're just beginning that national search process. We should check in regularly. I can give you updates on the process.

Ted Simons: fair enough. Last question on pension spiking. How much is it impacting the retirement systems? If it's a 42% increase from three years ago, what's the obligation there, we have one council member saying we're heading to becoming the next Detroit if we don't change things around. What’s going on?

Greg Stanton: Phoenix is a very well managed city. We're the only big city of the top ten, only big city with a Triple-A credit rating.

Ted Simons: Are we going to keep it?

Greg Stanton: We have gone through a recent evaluation of transit dollars and were recently reevaluated by Moody's who gave us a Triple-A once again. We're not perfect. We face challenges like every other big city, but people who engage in hyperbole to make a political point, that's inappropriate. We needed to ensure our employees paid more into the pension system. That's why we put pension reform on the ballot. Guess what. Despite the opposition of the council member you're referencing it passed with an 80% vote of the people which is going to put hundreds of millions of additional dollars into the pension system. The whole point was to make sure that we did all we can to support the pension system and keep it there for the long run. It was a more fair system. If we decided to keep the city employees in a pension system it was important they pay more into that system to receive that pension. That's exactly what pension reform was all about. It's exactly why we did it and the voters overwhelmingly supported the reforms we made to our pension system.

Ted Simons: We'll find out what that council member committee does shortly.

Greg Stanton: In one month. Next time I'm back.

Ted Simons: Some say one month ties long but that will have to do, correct?

Greg Stanton: Actually to make the tough decisions both from deciding what the right thing to do as well as the legal constraints in which we operate, one month was appropriate.

Ted Simons: We have to talk about your trip to China. What was that all about?

Greg Stanton: I was lucky enough to be invited to the World Economic Forum, a meeting in Dalian, China. Dalian is kind of a resort city in China, near the North Korean border, a very small city of 6 million people, which would make it about the third-biggest city in the United States of America. It was a very exclusive group. I was able to have meetings with CEOs of some of the major Fortune 500 multi-national corporations including many that have operations here in Phoenix. I had a chance to talk to the key decision makers within those organizations make the case as to why additional investment in Phoenix is important. I did also have a chance to serve on a panel discussion of urban leaders around the world including leaders from Beijing and Shanghai and Tokyo. I was bragging about how Phoenix is the fifth or sixth biggest city in the United States of America with 1.5 million people. The urban planner from Beijing said that would barely put you in the top 100 in China. A humbling realization that on population we have a long way to go. Our economic relationship with China and the Asian world is critically important moving forward and Phoenix has to create an international identity so people know the value of investment in our city.

Ted Simons: good enough. We got about seconds left. Do you think -- going back to pension spiking, do you think the message is getting through and the confidence is there among citizens that this will be handled correctly? Right now it sounds like a big old mess.

Greg Stanton: Well, look, people suggested that pension reform would never occur. We did pension reform. Yes, we're hearing from the public as we should. More importantly we're trying to figure out the right thing to do. My leadership style is always going to be to move forward with what I believe is the right thing for the future of our city and let the political chips fall where they may. Again, we have outstanding employees at the city. The idea is not to drive down compensation but have a more fair, transparent system. We're going to get there. Check with me in a month.

Ted Simons: All right, we will do that. Mayor, good to see you.

Greg Stanton: Thank you.