“Farts and Dwarfs–Does That Answer Your Question?” A Q&A with the Authors of Comedy By The Numbers
Set to take it’s rightful spot on your bookshelf, next to your Strunk & Whites and Funk & Wagnalls’s, comes the indispensable new reference guide to be penned by two authors, Hoffman & Rudoren’s COMEDY BY THE NUMBERSÂ©. Published by McSweeney’s, this book catalogs almost 170 universal archetypes of Comedy. Each numbered entry includes examples, often illustrated, demonstrating appropriate usage so that you may check your own comedic usages. The book is sure to become an essential manual for homemakers, script puncher-uppers, eccentric know-it-alls of all ages and many others. Rather than “review” the book which would require actually “reading” said book, I conducted a hard-hitting Q&A with the authors. The frequently hilarious results are “cut and pasted” below.
If you wish to skip the Q&A portion and go straight to purchase the book, you may do so by clicking here.
Hello Gary, hello Eric.
Eric: Hello Victor, Hello Gary.
Gary: Hello Victor… Eric.
First of all guys, congratulations on the book. It is funny, but then how could it not be since it is a book on comedy! It is impressively over 200 pages and has hardly any misspelled words. Well done!
G: Thanks for all the exclamation points in your comment. We also try to use them in the book to convey our excitement about comedy!
E: Thank you for the kind, correctly spelled, words. By the way, my favorite comedy number is #153 – The Slow Burn. My favorite funny name is “Crackersnatch Pancyfancer.” Brown is the funniest color. The greatest overall comedian is Sid Caesar. The funniest movie is either Duck Soup, Dr. Strangelove, or Grandma’s Boy.
G: I think you’ve read into the question a little too much Eric, wait til later and see if he asks us if we have any favorite things we masturbate to.
Describe, if you will, your book to our readers. I could summarize it, but, hell, you guys wrote the damn thing.
E: Gary will knock this one out of the park.
G: Actually, a summary doesn’t even do it justice. We recommend buying two books to fully understand what we’re trying to say. We’ve got a lot of comedy secrets including a nearly comprehensive list of characters, bits, shtick, etc., for you to use to become funny and/or popular – two things that our research showed a lot of people would like to be.
E: Good “job.”
I see Eric’s name is first on the all pages, so I’m going to assume he did most of the work here.
E: Gary said this would happen. We’re listed alphabetically. But yes, I did most of the work.
G: Yes, he did most of the work…much like Abbott was really the funny one.
Do you write in tandem? Does one of you sit at the typewriter while the other paces the room and dictates? Take us behind the scenes of your process.
G: We’re bi-coastal, Victor. Although we started on this when we were both working at The Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, Eric moved to LA for fame and fortune, so we had to continue via the magic of the inter-web. We were able to trade comedy writing through the air – Eric in LA and me in Chicago and then NY. I flew out to LA a few times for us to lock ourselves in a room and knock heads, but otherwise we did a lot of back n’ forth via e-mail and also some snail mail. We split up different parts of the book, but in the end, we think the book reads as if one demented soul wrote it – mission accomplished!
E: Is drinking booze considered writing? I hope so, otherwise I feel bad for taking that author credit. I dedicate that answer to the memory of Foster Brooks.
All jokes aside, your catalog of the archetypes of comedy is pretty thorough. There’s almost an academic quality to your list that is impressive. Did you do any formal research or is this just the result of the two of you bouncing ideas off each other?
G: Our lives have been formal research. We’ve put in a lot of time in the business, but I won’t say how long in case there are any ageists who read this site. We’ve grown up on a steady diet of comedy. Plus I’m Jewish so it’s literally in my blood. Little known Hebraic fact: the bris ceremony, performed on a Jewish boy, plus or minus 8 days after birth, is when they cut out the “unfunny” part of your body and feed to the dogs. A copy of my Certificate of Ritual Circumcision is included in the book, as I’m sure you know.
E: Gary and I had performed most of these numbers, and yes, that includes the “Two or More People Trying To Get Through a Door at the Same Time” routine and “Slow-motion Fighting.” Although I have yet to perform an actual “Inadvertent Hitler Moustache” routine*. That would be great. They’re very rare, but you feel like a powerful god while doing it. Other numbers were just things we’d notice in movies or whatever. It was exhilarating to see a bit you’d forgotten about in something and realize, “that HAS to be a number!!” We made an initial list, which included all the basics, like “The Spit Take” and “Funny Foreigners.” Then we started adding all the little pieces of comedy minutiae, like “The Mirror Routine” and “Sound of Record Scratching to a Halt.” We still didn’t get everything. We could fill five more books.
*Wherein a substance (paint, cream from a doughnut, etc.) is accidentally adhered to a subject’s upper lip in the shape of a Hitler moustache OR their moustache is purposely trimmed down to resemble Hitler’s moustache by a mischievous barber or someone posing as a barber, thus making the subject look like a fool (and Hitler).
But why a book–in 2007? Seems a little “analog” to still be writing books. I mean, did you guys ever think of doing “The Numbers” as a series of short comedy clips that you could post on YouTube? Then you could make them downloadable on iTunes. Seems like that’s where the action is these days.
E: I say this here for all to hear: “the robots will never win.”
G:You’ve got a great point there, Victor. Amazingly enough we’ve decided to stick with the non-riches that come with book publishing instead of the overwhelming wealth those YouTubers are raking in. That snarky comment aside… we’ve seen the “writing on our walkmen” and will be getting some funny, short videos out soon – happy now?
E: A series of shorts IS in the works. However, under advisement from our lawyers, were I to say any more I would legally be considered “a dick.”
As I was reading it, I was reminded of how much I enjoy sans-serif fonts and wondered why more books aren’t typeset similarly as yours. The Arial family font in which the Numbers are set is real easy on the eyes.
E: That’s the magic of McSweeney’s. I believe the great Eli Horowitz made the decision on the font. On some of the stuff we used Andale Mono. An “all caps” Andale Mono has that dry, military look that I like.
G: I’d like to echo Eric in praising Eli’s eye for comedic fonts. Actually when we were interviewing publishers to see who we would let publish our book, McSweeneys came in with a kick ass powerpoint presentation highlighted by their market research on the preferred book font selection for our demo.
Your “Webster” everyman head that appears throughout the book is disturbingly funny to me. Probably more funny than he actually is, which is weird. He seems to get funnier as the book goes on. (If you made T-shirts with “#143 The Double Take” Websters figure, I’d be first in line to buy one. [ e.g., If I knew what time and where they were starting to sell these shirts, any line would form behind me, as I would arrive early, such would be my interest.])
I am curious: Did you go through many sketches and iterations of Webster before arriving at the final version where you both said “That’s it! That’s the one!”
E: The first drawing of Webster is the one we still use. He was created back in Chicago for an early pamphlet version of the book and based on the Webster’s Dictionary illustrations. Hence, his name. We wanted a very stilted look to the artwork. Years later, we decided to keep the original Webster for the book instead of redrawing him. Those dead eyes, you couldn’t improve on that. Plus, drawing is just a pain in the sandwich.
G: Victor, I’m sensing by your detailed questions about videos and t-shirts that you would like to get in on the marketing moolah for CBTN. We’ll have to talk after this talk, but you might be JUST THE RIGHT motivated individual we’ve been looking for to hawk the planned for coffee mugs, page-a-day-calendars, bumper stickers, screen savers, hip hop oversized hoodies, sippy cups, etc. that will have the CBTN logo. Highlighted, of course, by the great Walter Mitty-like “Webster” character Eric created. (For those readers who have NO IDEA who “Walter Mitty” is, stop watching those YouTube videos of cats masturbating and get a book for god’s sake..)
Comedy books with short segments are out there today, but some of them, while still funny, seem to veer into pointless esoterica, lacking the timelessness and universality yours has. The Schott’s Miscellany books or John Hodgeman’s book come to mind. So I think it is harder for a book like yours to be funny (which it is) because you can’t simply go off into absurdist tangents; you are, to a certain extent tethered to the comedic archetypes you are cataloging and expounding upon. It’s like you are playing “What’s Your Line?” with props but the props are these comedy elements, if that makes sense.
G: I love when you make sense.
Do you see Comedy as cyclical or part of a continuum? Do things that were funny in the past remain funny today or do elements drift in and out of the funny cultural lexicon over time? Your book seems to prove that what is funny stays funny, but then again, there is “no going back” to an extent. Meaning, once something is done, then, subsequent times it has to be done in a slightly new way. Unless you are going for a repetition joke (#149-151).
G: Nice use of “continuum.” Comedy is one of the great institutions that has survived every catastrophe known to man (insert Pauly Shore Joke here). I think it will always change as it survives – comedy is the cockroach of the artistic world, there, I said it. But it takes new people to find truly original viewpoints. We’re trying to satirize those people who think you CAN learn to be funny just by reading a list from a book. Part of the joke of our book is that there really is no absolute formula for comedy because there’s nothing, NOTHING, more personal than what makes you laugh. A good piece of comedy is like an obscenity – you can’t quite describe why it affects you, but you know it’s funny when you hear it. (Or see it, or taste it or, well, use any of your senses really).
E: Anything that you see today can be traced back, so in a way comedy never really changes. Please let the people know I’m smoking a Sherlock Holmes pipe while saying that. But yes, people will always be doing old bits. They just add their own personality to it, or “make it their own.”
One of the ironies of your book is that by presenting tried and true archetypes of comedy in this catalog format, you get to laugh at them anew, even a double laugh: 1) the laugh of recognition of the archetypal comedic example (“Ha ha, that’s so familiar!”); and 2) the comedy of the item itself (“Look at that funny picture/one liner”)
E: Thank you. Yeah, the list of numbers alone is pretty funny to us. It was sometimes difficult to make the text live up to the title.
G: I know that there’s no question there, but it’s a heck of a comment. We hope this book is seen as a funny version of a book on funny. You’ll learn a little something, but hopefully you’ll laugh while you’re doing it. We likey irony.
As I was reading your book, I was thinking about how if many of your comedy numbers were simply put to use on their own without some level of irony or post-modernism, then they are not as funny today. You wind up with a Wayans/Farrelly Brothers movie or something along those lines if you play farts and boobs without some twist. This is also maybe seen the differences between Monty Python and Benny Hill. Both are funny, both know boobs=comedy, but Python is going to put “quotes” around their use of boobs to wink at the viewer maybe a bit more than Benny Hill. Does that make sense? I’m not entirely sure there’s a question in there.
E: If performed correctly, anything can be funny. No matter how old the bit is. The reason why so many people hate fart jokes is because they’re misused almost 100% of the time. A lot of folks would say, “How can you misuse a fart? It’s a simple fart noise. Come on, Hoffman.” But believe me, it’s easy to fuck up. The sound effects are usually all wrong. They’re not explosive enough. There’s a wetness missing. They all get them from the same sound effects library and they just sound dead to me. The best fart noises are made with your mouth, I think. You get the attitude behind the fart, as well as the funny noise. And sometimes just one fart will do. Completely out of nowhere. That’s funny. Nobody does that. Ahh, the old days.
G: We’re pretty sure that somewhere there’s a hack comedy writer sitting around thinking; “How can I make this scene funny?” and then just figuring; “Well, I’ll just throw a dwarf doctor in there and we’ll get the cancer laugh we want.” First off, they like to be called “Little People” – we’re very clear on that in the book – and (b) it’s wrong to think you can just throw a little person into a scene and all the “non-little people” audience members will laugh at it because of their own misplaced fears. I think I was just a little too wordy there. Sorry.
E: Farts and Dwarfs, does that answer your question?
Since Losanjealous is a Los Angeles site, I should ask you here if you have any takes, pro- or anti-L.A. or have handy any amusing anecdotes related to our fine city that you can share. I am guessing with his connections to UCBT and Mr. Show, that Eric has spent a fair amount of time here?
E: Los Angeles is fun. Whatever your interest, there’s a store or a club to support it. I love it, although I don’t look like your typical Angeleno. I’m very pale. Red hair, you see. I have to put sun tan lotion on my roof.
G:I’m sorry to say I don’t live in LA (but I “love it!” – thanks Randy Newman!). My only real connection to Hollywood, other than a lot of funny friends who are here, are my “people” who control the industry. Seriously, the book got it’s running start because Eric showed some of it to Naomi & Bob Odenkirk while he was working on Mr. Show in LA and they’ve been our great supporters through this whole process. So we “owe” you, Los Angeles! I was in Chicago for 19 years and now I live in NY. Hey, I was thinking of possibly doing a routine about the differences between living in NY and what I know of living in LA. I haven’t seen anything like that done comedically. I’ll keep you posted.
Finally, any parting words for the children of Losanjealous.com?
E: Yes. A Mirror Routine is a good birthday gift for a fellow comedian.
G:Hi Kids! Tell your stepmommy or daddy to buy you our book at www.mcsweeneys.net… we won’t regret it!
Purchase your own copy of COMEDY BY THE NUMBERSÂ©.
Comedy Stalkers: Eric Hoffman appears with Bob Odenkirk at Skylight Books on May 24.