Humor is real life with just a twist, enough exaggeration to draw out the absurdity of a situation without making it completely unrecognizable from human experience. ~John Hartnett
There’s a quote attributed to Mel Brooks on defining the difference between comedy and tragedy, that I always got a kick out of: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”
Angie: Awe Mel Brooks sure is something and someone to admire for sure. He’s actually one of my favorite comedians and screenwriters.
John, thank you for taking the time to allow us to get to know you a little better as it always makes things livelier when we as a community get to know the person behind the blog at BlogCatalog.
Being a former joke writer and the executive of your own publishing company. “Early Bird Publishing” that began back in 2003 where you wrote and designed your own greeting cards and sold them.
Though now have shifted your focus to writing and selling humorous books. So, how in in the world did you go from working in the restaurant business, then later construction and end up in the entertainment and publishing industries? How was it that you were introduced to that field?
John: I knew from an early age that I wanted to write comedy and was obsessed with stand up comedians like Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett, Woody Allen and Steven Wright, to name a few. But the entertainment field in particular, has a high barrier of entry so, like many people, I worked in whatever capacity I could in order to pay rent and on occasion, eat.
My formal introduction to the entertainment industry stemmed from volunteer work. When I moved to Los Angeles in the late 80’s, I met Michael Hitchcock, who was a member of the comedy improv group, The Groundlings and is now a very successful and gifted comedic actor and writer working in both television and film. Mike had started a big brother organization for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility for teenagers who were wards of the court. I began to volunteer as a big brother with Mike and subsequently met other people he recruited from the entertainment industry to also donate time to the program.
As a favor to one of my connections there, I volunteered again to handle a boom mike for a very low budget TV pilot that was being shot at a Western ghost town outside of LA and met a producer/director who brought me on to other paying positions for Showtime and FOX doing location work and writing and that’s how I got started.
I can’t say enough about the opportunities that present themselves through volunteer work and I recommend it to anyone looking to make connections or break into a particular industry.
Angie: How long have you been writing professionally?
John: While it hasn’t been 20+ years of constant output, I’ve been paid for my work since the late 80’s. Mostly with money, and once with a sack of collard greens, during a period when I was obsessed with “To Kill A Mockingbird” and Atticus Finch and had “1 sack, collard greens” written into a contract. Once I got married, my wife made me show her everything before I signed it.
Angie: Yeah, that was an awesome book and movie and lucky for you your wife’s a smart lady.
BTW – You have a lovely family.
Freud said that there is no such thing as a joke, that there is always truth behind it. We use humor as a method of disguising truth. Would you agree? Why or why not?
John: I don’t know much about Sigmund Freud but somebody told me that everything he ever wrote or said was strictly as a means to meet girls. In this particular case, however, I do believe there is such a thing as a joke but to Dr. Freud’s point, the only way it exists, or is funny, is if there is truth behind it. Otherwise what else can you relate to?
Angie: Have you ever written something you thought was so funny that you were sure it would make others pee their pants? And if so, where can we see it?
John: I’ve probably written pieces that were so long, people peed their pants but that’s not really what you’re asking, so I guess the answer is, no. Humor is so subjective; you never know how someone is going to react. I’ve shown people my work and watched them laugh out loud the whole way through and yet there will be others who read the same piece without expression and hand it back to me as if I had given them instructions on how to assemble a nightstand from Ikea. You never know how people are going to react when it comes to humor.
Angie: Have you written something that you feel is your best piece of work?
John: I don’t know that I have something I consider my best work; I truthfully feel my best work is always in front of me. I feel the same way about meals because who wants to know they’ve already eaten the best crab cake they’re ever going to get?
My greatest satisfaction comes from writing standalone, one-liners, the kind of material that Rodney Dangerfield, Steven Wright and Woody Allen did so well—not that I am putting myself in their class. I’m not always sure that an audience understands the amount of work that goes into a joke that is so well crafted, even someone who didn’t have a humorous bone in their body can repeat it and get a laugh.
Couple of jokes I wrote that I’m fond of (you can pick the ones you like, Angie):
~ I don’t know why people say you should follow your dreams. In almost every one of mine I’m being chased to the edge of a ravine by a pack of headhunters from New Guinea.
Angie: You too?
~ If I was on a jury where someone was being tried for murder and their defense was that they had sunscreen in their eyes at the time, I would vote to let them go because I’ve had sunscreen in my eyes and let me tell you, it’s no picnic.
~ Monopoly isn’t fun anymore. As soon as I start winning, people just walk away from their mortgages.
Angie: hahaha isn’t that the truth!
~ I purchased a Magic 8 Ball in Little Italy and every time I asked it a question it said, “I don’t know nothin’.”
Angie: I hate it when that happens.
~ I wonder, if Jesus were alive today, how many of the disciples would be texting during the Last Supper.
Angie: Can you imagine any one of them saying…”Hold that thought JC, I’m checking my Facebook.”
~ If I was going to murder someone, I would use a pumpkin because it’s hard not to laugh when you hear that word, especially in the context of a very grave situation, and that could come in handy at the trial.
~ I thought I would be one of those few people who didn’t need yoga but my doctor just told me I have to stop drinking WD-40.
~ According to a national survey, 4 out of 5 cardiologists agree that people who jog in place while waiting for a traffic light to change look silly.
Angie: I would have to agree!
~It was so hot today in NJ, three Jehovah’s Witnesses rang my bell and offered to convert to the religion of my choice if I would let them sit in front of my air conditioner for 15 minutes.
~Just launched my new line of “Big Screen TV Dinners” available at supermarkets everywhere. Don’t worry about asking for them by name. Just look for the handsomely packaged 52-inch box in the freezer section.
Angie: lol…. Well, I couldn’t pick just one of those jokes because I thought they were all pretty funny. I’m leaving them all up there so who’s ever reading this interview can enjoy them as much as I just did.
Is there a particular piece you’ve written that others say they like the best that has thrown you for a loop?
John: There’s a story in my book called “How Bananas Almost Destroyed My Marriage” and it seems to resonate very strongly with married people and couples who recognize and understand the difficulties associated with accepting certain habits, behaviors, beliefs, etc. that their partner holds dear and they believe is just loopy.
In this particular case, my wife has been storing overripe bananas in our freezer with the intention of making banana bread out of them and she’s never done it once in 21 years. It comes to a head, and this is based on a real incident, by the way, when my “shoeless” son opened the freezer door and a frozen banana fell out and smashed his toe and my daughter reached down to pick up the banana, stood up quickly and smashed her head on the open freezer door, resulting in both of them crying hysterically and staggering around my kitchen like Larry and Curley after Moe hit them both with a shovel.
Another story that seems to resonate is one about my relationship with my father, called “Father’s Day”.
One of my favorites pieces in the book is one that doesn’t seem to get as much attention but perhaps it’s because it deviates from the more autobiographical stories. I had read in the news a few years back that the city of London had put in a manned surveillance system to stop hooliganism and littering in certain areas of the city and had employed people to monitor the area and get on loud speakers so they could berate and embarrass people who were acting up or littering. So I wrote a piece that imagines what the first day on the job for two city employees charged with keeping the peace from 50 yards away might look like.
Angie: Do you believe that the timing of writing jokes or any kind of humor has to do with your audience attention span?
John: No doubt. I think you have to always be conscious of who you’re writing for and in what medium you’re writing in whether it’s print or online. For any humorous piece, regardless of medium, I will always try to get a joke in as quickly as I can as a means of hooking the reader.
With regard to the web and capturing attention, there is so much content out there I think it is very, very difficult to “grab” readers and I understand that from both the perspective of a creator and a consumer of content.
Angie: Some say that humor covers up inward depression or insecurity. Does either of those describe you?
John: Why? What have you heard? Yes, there have been times where insecurity and depression have been issues for me and I do think that humor is a great tool to have when placed in situations where you are uncomfortable or prefer not to talk about anything heavy, which at this particular time in my life, is generally more about how a coach isn’t playing someone’s kid enough or that the odds of me ever having dinner with Ann Margaret grow longer with each passing day. How’s that for covering up?
Angie: What or who makes you laugh the most and why?
John: Outside of my 11 year old daughter who is one of the funniest people I know, my biggest influences growing up and later in life are (in no particular order), Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Bob & Ray, Jean Shepard (on the radio and his books—not so much the movie, A Christmas Story), Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Rodney Dangerfield, Woody Allen, Garry Shandling, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Bob Newhart, everyone in SCTV (Second City Television) which includes Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, Martin Short, John Candy and Eugene Levy, Steven Wright and Christopher Guest (all of his movies).
I’m definitely drawn to humor that is more subtle than “in your face”, and prefer comedy that’s derived more from the intellectual aspects of being human than the physical aspects which seems to play a bigger role in television and films since there is very little that’s not considered “fair play” these days. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a snob about it and I’ve laughed out loud at things that I’ve seen in films like “Bridesmaids”, “The Hangover” or “SuperBad” but when it comes to movies in particular, I still appreciate a good story that’s character driven and smart and not completely dominated by scatological set pieces.
Angie: This might sound a bit silly but I once read that some comic writer’s keep a list of funny words that help them write their best work. Kind of a guarantee as a last resort in order to tickle people’s funny bones. Do you have such a list?
John: No, if that worked, I would hazard a guess that anybody who had the list would be able to make a decent living and still get 16 hours or so sleep a night. Probably be able to pick up the list on 14th Street in New York along with knock off Kate Spade purses.
Angie: If you weren’t writing humor, what would your second style of writing be and why?
John: I honestly don’t know that I’d want to write anything that didn’t have a good proportion of humor in it. I realize I’m projecting my own feelings here, but I think people are so overwhelmed with news and entertainment content that draws from the more negative aspects of human behavior, that there’s almost a psychic need for entertainment that’s a bit more positive, a bit less cruel and a lot more relatable when it comes to how humor is derived from everyday situations. My hope with my comedy site and my book is that I can reach an audience that feels the same way because my gut feeling is that they’re out there.
Angie: I also read that the two things you’re most proud of are your kids and being able to communicate with dolphins telepathically. What have the dolphins shared with you when you’re communicating with them?
John: I’ve never communicated with dolphins and you’ll never believe this but that was kind of a joke. That said, I’ve always had this feeling that dolphins are smarter than people and my hope is that one day, all of my tweets and FB posts on this topic will result in the election of one or two dolphins to Congress and the change will be so transformative and positive, people will stop me on the street and say, “God bless you. You were so right about dolphins being smarter than politicians.” Not really a stretch when you think about it.
Angie: No, not far stretch at all. I kind of figured it was a joke but was expecting your come back to be about some deep dark secret about Obama or something close to that effect. lol
About your book
“The Barber’s Conundrum and Other Stories.”
It was recently released this past Jan. 2013. I am sure you and your family are very proud. What’s that feel like to actually see your own book on the shelves? Can you describe to me the emotions you felt when you are inscribing a little something inside your books to one of your new fans?
John: For anyone who sets out to create something that challenges them or requires a great deal of time and effort and then completes it, there is a feeling of accomplishment that no one can take away from you, regardless of what others may ultimately think of your work. To have people pay for my book, to independently promote it to others and to let me know how much they enjoyed it, is very gratifying. As a collector of signed books, I particularly enjoy and appreciate the opportunity of signing my book for others and am grateful people even want me to do that in the first place. It is a bit surreal.
Angie: I can only image, but yes I am sure it’s an awesome feeling.
I know you recently had a book signing in New Orleans and it was during Mardi Gras?
Did that go ok?
Did you end up giving some of them away being it was carnival?
John: The book signing in New Orleans was very fun and yes, it was Mardis Gras and in terms of priorities, going to a book signing is mighty low on the list for most New Orleanais during that time of the year. Still, the turnout was good, I was able to meet some very nice people, see lots of my friends and family and have a lot of laughs in the process, which is a goal I take very seriously.
Angie: How did you feel when you recently saw your 1st book review posted and featured on GoodReads.com ?
Who noticed it first?
John: Getting a book review from someone you’ve never met was very encouraging and I’d love a couple hundred more! The reviews on Amazon have been very, very positive as well.
Angie: I’m sure it won’t be long before we all see a few hundred more. …BTW - One tiny little question before we move on……
Why did you leave out the aliens?
I mean, you’ve written 37 humorous essays on marriage, parenting, religion, entertainment, animals, business, popular culture and last and definitely least, politicians.
Why leave them out? :)
John: I did mention aliens in my press release in which I explained where the humor in the book was derived.
“Much of the humor is derived from real life situations, actual personal or quirky news events and is, for the most part, self deprecating, gentle in nature and not mean spirited, with the possible exception of my unwavering belief that the customer service industry has been taken over by people who formerly lived on other planets, or alternatively, weight bearing meteors or rocks.”
Angie: hahahah ….Do you have any other special projects in the making that you would like to share with us?
John: My attention has been focused primarily on promoting “The Barber’s Conundrum and Other Stories” and also writing for my comedy site,
“The Monkey Bellhop”.
Angie: What song would you say you relate to best when it comes to who you are and what you stand forJohn: There’s a Van Morrison song called “One Irish Rover” that has always resonated with me.
Besides being of Irish descent, the song helps me recall memories of a very good friend of mine, also of Irish descent, who was one of the most intelligent and wittiest people I know and who passed away in his early twenties. We both shared similar aspirations to be writers and work in entertainment so when I hear that particular song, it always triggers a “there but for the grace of God go I” moment, which helps me to keep life in perspective.
Angie: I can see that and it shows!
Thank you JOHN for taking time to answer my questions as we at BC are always intrigued and very grateful to meet the person behind the blog.
Wishing you much success!
I am the author of The Barbers Conundrum And Other Stories.